Created by on 10/01/2010


Although lawmakers deferred action on most major legislative issues until November, the Senate passed a long-stalled bill increasing financial assistance to small businesses, clearing that measure for President Obama’s signature. Both chambers also completed action on a “continuing resolution” (CR) to keep federal agencies operating until the FY 2011 appropriations bills are completed. The CR (HR 3081) provides funding for government programs, including research supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, at FY 2010 (e.g. current) levels through December 3, 2010. It passed the Senate by a vote of 69 -30, with 19 Republicans voting “yes” and Senator Russ Feingold (WI) as the only Democrat who voted against the measure. The House approved the CR 228 - 194. During Senate debate on the bill, lawmakers defeated (39 -60) an amendment from Jim DeMint (R-SC) to extend the CR until February 4, 2011. In addition, the Senate rejected (48 – 51) an amendment authored by John Thune (R-SD) to reduce discretionary funding levels in the bill by five percent. Signaling that the fight over FY 2011 spending levels will resurface when Congress begins work on assembling an omnibus appropriations bill later this year, Democratic Senators Evan Bayh (IN), Michael Bennett (CO), Russ Feingold (WI), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Blanche Lincoln (AR), Claire McCaskill (MO), Mark Udall (CO), and Jim Webb (VA) voted for the Thune amendment.


To ensure passage of the CR, appropriators rejected requests for additional money for programs and agencies, as well as provisions related to policy issues (including a proposal drafted by FASEB that would ensure federal funding for stem cell research could continue while the legal case is appealed). Last month FASEB also issued an action alert that generated more than 4,000 emails to members of Congress to urge them to approve legislation that will continue federal support for hESC research. Although lawmakers did not take action on the stem cell matter before leaving town, they may have to confront this issue again after the mid-term elections depending on what the appeals court decides with regard to the original lawsuit challenging the government’s ability to fund hESC research (see “Appeals Court Rules That Embryonic Stem Cell Research Can Continue” above). Given the uncertainty surrounding the legal outcome, FASEB will issue another alert asking scientists to contact their Senators and Representatives in support of passing legislation on stem cell research during the “lame-duck” session.


In addition, Congress also passed a bill (S 3839) to continue the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs that expired on September 30th. SBIR and STTR fund research conducted by small businesses by “setting aside” 2.5 percent of the annual budgets of 11 federal agencies (including NIH, NSF, the USDA, and the Department of Energy). S 3839 will provide another short-term extension for both programs, through January 31, 2011, and does not increase the current set-aside level. FASEB opposes a bill pending in the Senate that would raise the amount of funding each agency would be required to devote to SBIR and STTR projects.


Unfortunately, a combination of lack of time and political disputes stalled progress on President Obama’s nominee for a key position in the administration’s budget agency. Despite nearly unanimous votes of support in both the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and Budget Committees on September 21st and 23rd respectively, the full Senate was not given the opportunity to confirm Jacob Lew as Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-NV) attempt to consider Lew’s nomination by unanimous consent (an expedited procedure requiring the support of all 100 Senators) was blocked by Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Bernard Sanders (I-VT). Senator Landrieu issued apress release stating that she will oppose the nomination until the Administration’s moratorium on deepwater oil and gas drilling is lifted or significantly modified. In a letter to Senator Reid, Landrieu noted that “Although Mr. Lew clearly possesses the expertise necessary to serve as one of the President's most important economic advisors, I found that he lacked sufficient concern for the host of economic challenges confronting the Gulf Coast.” Concern about future cuts to Social Security and insufficient responses to questions on trade policy, deregulation of banks, and other issues are the reasons Senator Sanders does not support Mr. Lew to be budget director. A vote on the nomination is another item that Congress could address later this fall.


Both the House and Senate are scheduled to return to Washington on November 15th. However, Congress’s presence in the Capitol will be brief due to the planned Thanksgiving break November 22nd – 26th. The legislative agenda for the week of November 15th has not yet been announced, although Majority Leader Reid indicated the Senate could vote on bills concerning new food safety regulations, enforcement of equal pay laws or incentives for natural gas and electric vehicles. A press release from Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) hinted that extending the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts will be the first order of business the House addresses when members come back to work. How long the “lame-duck” session will last is anyone’s guess. Reid previously announced that after recessing for Thanksgiving, the Senate will reconvene on November 29th for an unspecified period of time. On September 30th, Hoyer’s office notified House members that they would be in session from November 29th to December 3rd, a schedule verified by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) who told reporters, “Our CR goes to December 3. It would be my hope that we would be finished with our work by then.” Given the amount of unfinished business lawmakers must still address before the end of the year, it seems very likely that final adjournment of the 111th Congress will not come until late December.