Washington Under pressure to undo what they had done in secret, congressional Republicans agreed Friday to eliminate special-interest provisions in last year's homeland security bill, including language that would have protected pharmaceutical companies from lawsuits stemming from certain vaccines.
Under the agreement, drug manufacturers such as Eli Lilly no longer will enjoy limited liability for mercury-based vaccines that are the target of lawsuits by parents of autistic children.
The agreement also will permit more colleges and universities to apply for homeland-security research grants, broadening criteria that had appeared to benefit only Texas A&M University.
Top Republicans also agreed to restore language pushed by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., to prohibit homeland-security contracts with American companies that have moved offshore to avoid U.S. taxes.
Discovery of these special provisions caused an uproar that almost sank the homeland security bill in November. Democrats and moderate Republicans threatened to vote against the bill if they weren't removed.
Republican leaders salvaged the bill as the final vote was under way, promising Republican Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine that the offending language would be removed by this session of Congress.
"The 11th hour addition of these special-interest provisions in the homeland security bill was both egregious and unacceptable," Snowe said Friday. Collins called the agreement "a victory for fairness."
The changes will be incorporated into a broad-based spending bill that's wending its way through Congress.
Bobbie Livi of Lawrence, mother of an autistic son, was among a group of parents who this week went to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers to excise the provision.
Livi said she was "cautiously" optimistic about Friday's agreement to remove the provision.
"I'm pleased that apparently they've moved rather quickly to do something -- as they should have -- but I would really have to see the details of it before I would celebrate."
Livi said she hadn't expected Congress to act on the issue.
"I am surprised," she said. "Given the way the talk was a week ago it didn't seem this would be happening and then within a couple of days it's completely turned around. I think they want the issue to go away quickly.
"It shows what the power of the people and the power of the press can do when there's an injustice," Livi said. "Our voices do make a difference."