Congress Declares War on Autism

Dec. 7, 2006 — -- In its final hours of business, the Congress criticized as "do nothing" has done something big about autism. The Senate and House unanimously passed the Combating Autism Act, wide-sweeping legislation that authorizes nearly a billion dollars toward autism research over the next five years.

The bill, favored by bipartisan majorities on both sides of Capitol Hill, had been held up by a single member of the House, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas.

Barton fought the early versions of the bill because he opposed directing federal funding toward specific priorities, particularly $45 million in the original version of the bill that could be used only to investigate the possible role environmental factors might play in causing autism.

A statement from Barton's office said the final bill is "consistent with chairman Barton's view that scientists should determine research priorities, not politicians."

The final bill, which drew support from nearly every major autism group across the country, includes environmental factors in a list of research options that the federal government might pursue.

Jon Shestack, co-founder of Cure Autism Now, said in a statement, "This bill is a federal declaration of war on the epidemic of autism."

But the road to legislative success was a long one for autism activists.

Though it was co-sponsored by 48 members of the Senate and a majority of the Republican-controlled House, the bill's prospects looked dim as Barton persisted, holding up the bill since August, when it first passed the Senate unanimously. The bill and Barton were featured in a segment on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" on Sunday, Oct. 8.

Actress Patricia Heaton, representing the autism activist group Cure Autism Now, called out Barton by name on "This Week," welling up and demanding, "We need to get politics out of the way here because there are people's lives at stake. And it's heartbreaking. And yet, I see these parents, and they are so strong ... they are fighting for their kids, really fighting for their kids. And that's why I'm here to really beg Joe Barton to pass this bill, because it has the support of everyone else. And I think he needs to do the right thing."

Radio personality Don Imus also took Barton to task, repeatedly calling out the congressman for his opposition to the bill, and citing the Heaton interview on his daily program.

Cure Autism Now supported the compromise version of the autism legislation that passed this week and issued a letter signed by 10 other autism activist groups. In the letter, the agencies thanked Barton and his staff for "their diligent efforts to reach a mutually agreed position within our community."

The letter went on to say, "Chairman Barton is fully aware that the autism community would have preferred House action on the [original] version of this bill. While there will be many battles ahead to be won in this war, the autism community applauds all its congressional champions who have made this historic moment possible."

And so, as the 110th Congress concludes its often-embattled tenure, a last-minute compromise led to a historic agreement and this bill is on its way to President Bush's desk for his signature.

The entire "Voices" segment and an extended interview with actress Patricia Heaton can be viewed at "This Week's" Web page.