Created by on 11/05/2010

With both Democrats and Republicans focused on the outcome of the mid-term elections on November 2nd, Capitol Hill has been a virtual ghost town for the last several weeks and the outlook for what could be accomplished in the “lame duck” session seems even less certain than it did a month ago. Prior to adjourning at the end of September, Congressional leaders identified a long list of legislative issues that could be addressed before the end of the year, including passage of an omnibus package combining the unfinished fiscal year (FY) 2011 appropriations bills. However, Republican demands for reduced federal spending, coupled with the short window of time lawmakers are expected to be in session, suggests that there could very well be additional delays in completing the FY 2011 budget. Although no specific decisions have been made, at least two different scenarios have emerged. One possibility is that, when legislators return to Washington in mid-November, they could enact a “continuing resolution” (CR) through February 2011 and defer final votes on the appropriations bills until the next Congress. A second option would be to pass a year-long CR to fund federal agencies through September 30, 2011.
Regardless of which path lawmakers choose, there is still no resolution to the fundamental question of what the overall funding level for FY 2011 will be. Congress failed to pass a Budget Resolution earlier this year, and only a few of the individual spending bills were approved by either the full House or Senate. Given the public’s concern about the deficit and lawmakers’ lack of agreement on a spending limit, funding levels for agencies and programs could be reduced below the recommendations approved by the Appropriations Committees this summer. For instance, there is strong speculation that Congress will decide to fund everything at FY 2010 levels. In addition, last month House Republicans released their “Pledge to America” which proposed to lower non-defense discretionary spending to FY 2008 levels.
Assuming lawmakers agree to move forward on an omnibus bill, the final decisions about how individual agencies will be affected by freezing overall funding at FY 2010 levels or reducing them to 2008 amounts will be left up to the appropriators. Regardless of the level of support among members of Congress, the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would almost certainly be affected by any attempt to hold down spending. The most immediate threat to the agency is the possible loss of the billion dollar increase that was approved by the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee in July. To shore up support for the NIH increase, FASEB recently signed on to two letters organized by the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research and the Coalition for Health Funding. Both communications urge the Congressional leadership to finalize the FY 2011 appropriations bills without delay, preserve the billion dollar increase for NIH, and were signed by several hundred organizations from the medical research community, as well as patient advocacy groups. FASEB will engage in additional advocacy once members of Congress return for the “lame duck” session.
Even though the 111th Congress has not concluded its business, both Democrats and Republicans are making plans to organize for next year. Press reports indicate that Senate Democrats are expected to hold internal elections for leadership positions on November 16th, assuming that the results of all races have been determined by that date. Current Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) will likely continue in this role if he wins re-election on November 2nd. Should he lose, Senators Richard Durbin (IL) and Charles Schumer (NY) are considered to be the leading candidates to replace Reid.
Senate Republicans have also identified November 16th as the date to choose their new leaders. Mitch McConnell (KY), who currently holds the Minority Leader job, is expected to continue in that role if the Democrats retain control of the Senate. Should Republicans win enough seats to recapture the Senate, McConnell has been mentioned as a possible Majority Leader. Other activities scheduled in November include freshman orientation for new House members from the 14th to the 20th and House Democratic leadership elections on the 18th.