The ASA credits advocates' pressure on Barton for this development, and the organization's statement goes on to say:
"While negotiations are still underway, ASA is hopeful that they will yield a compromise that can be passed during the lame-duck session. ASA is working with Chairman Barton's office and other leaders in the autism community to ensure that a comprehensive, strong and effective bill is enacted."
This is potentially big news. The run-up to the November 7 midterm elections included protests and other efforts to pressure Barton, who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. In recent months Barton was blocking the Combating Autism Act, a bill already passed by the Senate which would provide about $900 million for autism research and services over the next five years. (For more background on this issue, click here.) Last week, the Houston Chronicle covered protests and pressure on Barton by parents and others such as syndicated radio host Don Imus. (See "Stalled Autism Bill Shows Funding Rift" for the newspaper story and more about parents' protests here.)
It appeared right up until the midterm elections that Barton was holding fast to blocking the bill, including posting a statement on his website arguing that what's needed more than an autism bill are reforms at the National Institutes of Health, the nation's umbrella medical research organization.
Who knows what may have moved Barton to seek a meeting with autism advocates now? Maybe it was the pressure and protests. Maybe it was the midterm elections that produced a new Democratic House and Senate starting in January. Barton (who himself won re-election with 70 percent of the vote) is said to be among those Republicans preparing to run for the post of House Minority Leader in the new Congress. Maybe moving this bill now, while he's jockeying for votes among House Republicans, helps his candidacy. Whatever the reason, passing the Combating Autism Act now, before the next Congress convenes, would be a big deal.
It's big because people with autism need to get these research efforts and services under way now. Because it took almost two years of effort by advocates and lawmakers to get this far. And it's important to act now because it's unclear what would happen in the next Congress. Though the Democrats have identified health care and medical research as priorities, they will also face pressure to show that they can be responsible budget builders. Who knows what might get left behind as the nation's bills for the Iraq war, among other things, get tallied.
Election footnote for autism parents: The Senate co-sponsor of the Combating Autism Act, Republican Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, lost his seat to Democrat Bob Casey Jr.