House approves needle exchange program

By Andrew Taylor

WASHINGTON (AP) -

The House voted Friday to lift a ban on using taxpayer dollars for needle exchange programs for intravenous drug users intended to prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases.

The vote to lift a longstanding ban on federal aid for such programs - in place since 1988 - came after a brief but passionate debate on an amendment by Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., to keep the ban in place. His amendment failed by a 211-218 vote.

Souder said HIV is spread chiefly through sexual activities and that needle exchange programs don't have a proven record of success.

Souder "providing needles acts as a way for drug users to sustain and support their intravenous drug use and does not address the primary illness of the drug addiction."

But Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., said the scientific evidence is indisputable and that needle exchange programs put addicts into contact with social services agencies, opening the door for them to seek treatment.

"Needle exchange is not about promoting drug use," said moderate Democrat Alan Mollohan of West Virginia. "It is in fact about preventing disease."

The vote came as the House approved, by 264-153, a massive spending bill for health, labor and education programs for the upcoming budget year, cementing big spending increases for a wide swath of social programs.

The measure funds a bevy of programs popular with lawmakers in both parties, such as health research, heating subsidies for the poor, aid to school districts and Pell Grants for low-income college students.

The $730.5 billion measure combines $163.4 billion in discretionary spending - the amount over which the panel has direct control - with $567 billion for federal benefit programs. Those mainly are Medicare and Medicaid.

The measure would provide an $11 billion, or 7 percent, increase for these discretionary programs, including a big increase to help the Social Security Administration reduce its backlog in disability claims. But Title I grants to local school districts and aid for special education is essentially frozen at current levels, though the programs got lots of money in February's economic stimulus bill.

Republicans protested that funding for special education would not receive an increase from 2009 levels and were blocked from being able to offer an amendment to add $1 billion to the $12.6 billion provided in the bill.

But Democrats noted that special education received $12 billion in February's economic stimulus bill.

"We poured money into that program," said Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.

The bill also drops funding popular with Republicans for abstinence-only sex education. Critics have labeled the program ineffective. The measure would provide $114 million for a new teenage pregnancy prevention initiative.

The measure also provides a $6 billion, 10 percent increase to the Department of Education and gives the National Institutes of Health a 3 percent increase of almost $1 billion.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., author of the health and education measure, said it would also provide $2.2 billion for community health centers to provide health care to 17 million people, many of whom lack health insurance.

The measure also provides for a $200 increase so the maximum Pell Grant would rise to $5,550.

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