The U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday unanimously passed (419-0) a measure aimed at curbing the threat of bioterrorism by attempting to keep biological toxins from falling into the wrong hands. Lawmakers say they hope the legislation which awaits Senate action will help prevent the kind of anthrax exposures that have killed three people this month.
The Bioterrorism Act of 2001 creates criminal penalties for the unsafe or illegal possession of biological toxins, such as anthrax, including life in prison if the toxin is used to kill someone.
The legislation also calls on federal agencies to develop new standards for the possession, use and transfer of biological agents or toxins.
Republican Congressman Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, says the recent series of anthrax cases in the United States underscores the urgency of the legislation. "I imagine it would come as a shock to most Americans to learn that even in the midst of the evolving and unprecedented series of anthrax attacks, there are currently no federal laws or regulations governing who may possess such deadly federal agents, and under what conditions they may possess them and for what purpose," said Mr. Tauzin. "For example, under current law anyone including convicted felons, or foreign nationals from terrorist-sponsoring states can lawfully possess anthrax or other dangerous bacteria or viruses."
Federal authorities are investigating the anthrax inhalation deaths of two postal workers in Washington and a tabloid newspaper photo editor in Florida.
Sponsors of the bioterrorism bill say their legislation had been in the works long before the recent anthrax exposures.
In other action, the House passed by voice vote a measure authorizing the Treasury Department to issue war bonds for use in helping the country recover from the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington as well as fight the war against terrorism.
The Senate passed a similar measure as part of a larger spending bill. A joint conference committee will have to resolve differences in the two versions before a final bill is sent to President Bush for his signature.