Inside (the Beltway) Scoop
Created by on 09/26/2013

By Jennifer Zeitzer
Health Reform Complicates Passage of the Continuing Resolution; Federal Agencies Prepare for A Government Shutdown; FASEB Urges Congress to Continue the Federal Helium Reserve
The fight this fall over fiscal matters turned into a debate on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as a subset of the House Republican caucus launched an effort to use any means necessary to stop implementation of the health reform law. As a result, this has complicated the congressional leadership’s plans to pass a “continuing resolution” (CR) to keep the federal government operating beyond the end of fiscal year (FY) 2013.
On September 10, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) released a draft of a CR to fund agencies through December 15, 2013, while lawmakers finish work on the FY 2014 spending bills. The CR (H J Res 59) continued funding at $986.2 billion, slightly below the current post-sequestration rate. In a press release announcing the introduction of the CR, Chairman Rogers said, “Our country desperately needs a long-term budget solution that ends the draconian cuts put into place by sequestration, and that provides for a responsible, sustainable, and attainable federal budget.” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) had planned to attach a non-binding resolution to the CR removing funding for the ACA, but a group of conservatives signaled their opposition to that strategy when it became clear that the Senate would not agree to the ACA provision. Facing a defeat of the CR, the House leadership abruptly cancelled a vote planned for September 11 and began working on an alternative plan.
Last Friday, the House passed a revised version of the CR (H J Res 59), that included a provision to permanently end all funding for the ACA, in addition to language (from HR 807, the “Full Faith and Credit Act”) allowing the U.S. Treasury Department to continue making payments to Social Security beneficiaries if/when the debt limit is reached. The White House made the President’s position on the CR clear in a Statement of Administration Policy, noting that Obama would veto H J Res 59 if it arrived on his desk with a provision to de-fund the ACA.
Senate debate on the CR began on Monday and it passed by a vote of 55-44 earlier today. Before the vote, the Senate amended the CR to change the expiration date to November 15 to encourage lawmakers to negotiate on an omnibus appropriations bill with higher funding levels and limit how long the post-sequester $986.2 billion spending level is in effect. This plan was embraced by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD). “My goal would be in December that we are voting on an omnibus and that we are voting to cancel [the] sequester for two years,” she told reporters. “Am I willing to compromise? Yes. Am I willing to capitulate? Not very likely.”
Senate passage of the CR without the ACA language now shifts the attention to the House. On September 26, Speaker Boehner announced that the House is expected to make changes to the Senate-approved CR, including adding a one-year delay of ACA implementation. Any amendments made by the House would send the CR back to the Senate for another vote.
Because it can take several days to move a bill through the Senate, and given that Democrats are unlikely to agree to any delays in ACA implementation, a government shut-down on October 1 is nearly inevitable. However, rumors are circulating that the House Republican leadership will offer a one-week CR in lieu of H J Res 59. It is not clear if there are enough votes in either the House or Senate for such a short-term funding agreement. During the shut-down of the government in 1995 and 1996, some federal agencies (including the Defense Department) had already received their budgets and were thus unaffected. However, Congress has not passed any of the FY 2014 appropriations bills, which means that all agencies will feel the impact of a government shut-down this time around.
While agencies prepared for a shutdown, the four congressional leaders (Speaker John Boehner; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV; and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY) met to discuss the next fiscal battle – raising the debt ceiling. The 45-minute meeting was described as “productive;” however, the leaders emerged without a plan and no further discussions have been scheduled. There are already signs that the debt ceiling fight could be worse than the debate on the CR. Yesterday, the House Republican leadership met with their caucus to share the details of a proposed bill to raise the debt ceiling for one year. The plan also reportedly included a number of provisions designed to appeal to House conservatives including approval of the Keystone oil pipeline, reform of the tax code, changes in entitlement programs, and repeal of a series of federal environmental regulations. House Republican leaders had been hoping to hold a vote on the debt ceiling bill over the weekend but cancelled their plans after facing opposition from members of their own party who indicated they want to see how the CR turns out before dealing with the debt ceiling. In addition, other House conservatives also expressed concern that the leadership’s debt ceiling bill did not include any additional spending cuts.
With Congress expected to finish the FY 2014 budget and more sequestration cuts ahead, it is imperative that the research community speak up. Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) President Margaret “Kenny” Offermann, MD, PhD, was on Capitol Hill on September 11 and 18 to deliver copies of FASEB’s newest factsheet showing the loss of capacity at NIH over the last few years (see related story). Teresa Woodruff, PhD, President of The Endocrine Society published a letter in The New York Times explaining the impact of the budget cuts on NIH-funded research. More efforts are needed to ensure that the voices of researchers are heard on Capitol Hill.
In a related matter, the Federal Helium Reserve narrowly avoided being terminated after Congress passed a bill (H Res 354) to continue operating the reserve. Without congressional action, the Helium Reserve would have shut down on October 1, disrupting the supply of helium to biomedical research labs and healthcare facilities. Earlier this week, FASEB sent a letter to Congress supporting reauthorization of the Federal Helium Reserve.