Thursday: FDA passes today, student loans look doubtful

The Senate approved a handful of amendments by unanimous consent on Wednesday (see below), and will hold about a dozen votes before coming to the final bill. The legislation, S. 3187, is generally non-controversial, and would reauthorize and extend a user-fee program that drug and medical device industry groups support as a way of speeding up the FDA approval process.

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Once the bill is passed, the Senate will turn to a much more contentious bill, S. 2343, the Stop Student Loan Interest Rate Hike Act. The Democratic bill extends low interest rates on new, federally backed student loans for another year, and pays for it by subjecting more high-earners' income to the payroll tax.

As part of a deal announced Wednesday, Republicans won the right to have a vote on their alternative plan, which would terminate a preventive health fund created in 2010.

But approval of both the GOP alternative and the Democratic bill will need 60 votes to pass. Because each party seems to genuinely hate the other's bill, the votes might well be a setup for partisan finger-pointing once both fail, which will at least give the parties something to talk about over the long Memorial Day weekend.

The Senate should also approve a 60-day extension of the National Flood Insurance Program at some point today. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday that he would agree to tackle a longer-term reform bill once the Senate returns from its Memorial Day week off.

Also up today, a likely vote on a bill to extend the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) for 60 days, also part of Wednesday's announcement.

In a unanimous-consent vote Wednesday, the Senate approved H.R. 4097, the John F. Kennedy Center Reauthorization Act, and the following six amendments to the FDA bill, from:

• Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), to ensure that adequate information is disseminated to healthcare providers and payers about the potential benefits and risks of medical products on all patient populations, particularly underrepresented sub-populations, including racial subgroups;

• Cardin, to require the commissioner of Food and Drugs to report to Congress on issues with respect to small businesses;

• Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), to provide employee protections for the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service Act;

• Grassley, to provide deadlines for the issuance of certain regulations and to require a GAO report on the implementation of the clinical trial registration and reporting requirements under the Public Health Service Act;

• Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), to reclassify the pain reliever hydrocodone under the Controlled Substances Act; and

• Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), to make effective the proposed rule of the Food and Drug Administration relating to sunscreen drug products.