Congressional adoption of important AIDS legislation is in jeopardy because of behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the Senate. A conference committee, to sort out differences between House and Senate versions of the legislation, has not been able to meet because of the failure of the Senate to appoint its conferees. Senate action has been blocked with the decision of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to withhold his approval of the resolution requiring unanimous consent.
The importance of the legislation attracted strong support for the bills, with a vote of 87 to 4 in the Senate and 367 to 13 in the House. The need for broader federal action was made clear in the final report of the Presidential Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic issued last June by its chairman, Adm. James D. Watkins.
But there remains a minority that would like to see nothing done or very little done. And their power is enhanced by the limited amount of time left as Congress presses for adjournment in the next week. Even if a floor vote circumvents the refusal of unanimous consent, there would remain the threat of a filibuster in the Senate.
Neither bill includes the particular priority cited by the Presidential Commission, a federal prohibition of discrimination against those with AIDS and those who test positive with HIV, the AIDS-causing virus. That is an omission that calls for prompt remedy in the next session of Congress. But there are important elements in the two bills that have passed. Each has its particular merits. A compromise conference measure, bringing together the best of both bills, is clearly in the public interest.
Among the most important elements that should be included are broadened research, education, counseling and testing, with appropriate protections for the confidential handling of test results, and new regulations to facilitate disclosure of test results to persons at risk. A demonstration program in providing community-based and home health care is part of the Senate bill and deserves inclusion in the conference bill. Both bills also reflect wisdom on the part of large majorities of the members of Congress who rejected extreme proposals that would have wasted resources and handicapped the on-going public-health programs.
The Senate leadership must now demonstrate its sense of priorities, resisting moves to use the adjournment pressure to kill this legislation. This is an opportunity to take some useful steps ahead in the struggle to control AIDS. Delay can only raise the risks of the pandemic.