Created by on 09/17/2010

Members of Congress returned to Washington on September 13th facing a long list of legislative items needing attention and a short window of opportunity in which to address them. The number of issues that are resolved will depend largely on a combination of efficient use of floor time in both chambers and the willingness of Senate Republicans to cooperate with the majority party. Given that both parties are increasingly focused on the mid-term elections in November, political considerations are likely to trump policy decisions over the next few weeks. Extending the expiring tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003, passing the annual defense authorization bill, renewing operating authority at the Federal Aviation Administration, approving legislation to improve food safety, reaching consensus on a bill to increase lending to small-businesses, and potentially voting on a measure to ensure continued funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research are among the issues that lawmakers could address prior to adjourning in early October to return to the campaign trail.

How and if Congress decides to address the stem cell issue could depend on a number of factors, including the legislative schedule, the outcome of the pending legal appeals (see “NIH Resumes Funding For Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research”), and concerns about forcing a vote on the politically difficult matter prior to the mid-term elections. Although Representative Diana DeGette (D-CO) has secured 16 additional co-sponsors for the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act of 2009 (HR 4808), the bill she introduced last year with Representative Mike Castle (R-DE) that would essentially codify the policy established by the Obama Executive Order, the House leadership has thus far not commented on whether it will be considered. On a related note, Senators Arlen Specter (D-PA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced the Stem Cell Research Advancement Act of 2010 (S 3766), which includes language similar to the DeGette-Castle legislation and was referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. In addition to providing for federal funding of hESC research, the Specter measure requires the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the National Institutes of Health to maintain guidelines on embryonic stem cell research, review them every three years, and update the language as the science advances. The bill does not allow federal funds to be used to derive stem cell lines.

In remarks on the Senate floor, Senator Specter noted that although the Dickey-Wicker amendment precludes the use of federal funding to derive stem cells from embryos, it “has always been interpreted as allowing federal funds for research that utilizes human embryonic stem cells as long as no federal funds were used for their derivation.” Furthermore, Specter also referenced the legal opinion issued by DHHS in 1999 that “federally funded research that utilizes human pluripotent stem cells would not be prohibited by the HHS appropriations law prohibiting human embryo research, because such stem cells are not human embryos.” Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) also spoke briefly in support of Senator Specter’s efforts to continue federal funding for hESC research. Meanwhile, the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee held a September 16th hearing (see “Senate Committee Explores Advances in Embryonic and Adult Stem Cell Research”) to review the scientific advancements that have resulted from the current investment in stem cell research.

Despite the DeGette-Specter effort to advance embryonic stem cell legislation, a September 9th federal Court of Appeals decision temporarily allowing federal funding to continue pending the ongoing legal appeal could slow down the momentum for lawmakers to take immediate action. Due to the uncertainty on Capitol Hill, FASEB issued an action alert asking scientists to contact their members of Congress to urge them to approve legislation that will continue federal support for hESC research. To date, 4,000 emails have been sent to Senators and Representatives as a result of the FASEB call-to-action.

In addition to the issues noted above, lawmakers will also need to adopt a “continuing resolution” (CR) by October 1st to keep federal agencies operating until the fiscal year (FY) 2011 appropriations bills are completed. The CR is expected to initially run through Thanksgiving, with a strong likelihood that an extension will be needed to give appropriators additional time to finish work on an “omnibus” package containing the remaining unfinished spending bills. It is not yet clear if Congress will be able to pass an “omnibus” before the end of the year. Some political observers believe that if control of either the House or the Senate switches as a result of the November elections, the in-coming Republican majority would delay final consideration of the funding measures until early 2011 so that they can be altered to reflect their spending priorities. Reinforcement of that possibility came in the form of a September 13th letter from the Republican leadership of the House Appropriations, Budget and Ways and Means Committees urging the Democrats on those panels to reduce spending in the bills to FY 2008 levels. “The spending cuts would be enacted now to avert the possibility of Congress using a lame-duck session to pass a bloated spending bill for next year after the November elections, and would include commonsense exceptions for programs affecting our seniors, veterans, and national security,” wrote Jerry Lewis (CA), Paul Ryan (WI), and Dave Camp (MI). Last week, House Minority Leader John Boehner (OH) indicated his support for a similar cost-cutting effort. Democrats on the Appropriations Committee rejected the Republican proposal, noting that it would require reductions of $102 billion (22 percent) in funding for non-defense discretionary programs (including medical research).

Remaining legislative issues not resolved this month could be addressed in a “lame duck” session later this fall. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) informed his colleagues in early August that the Senate will be in session November 15th – 19th, take a break for Thanksgiving between November 22nd – 26th, and return to the Capitol on November 29th for an unspecified period of time. The House leadership still has not released a schedule beyond the previously established October 8th target adjournment date, and it is not clear if that chamber will meet after the mid-term elections take place. What voters decide on November 2nd may ultimately determine the fate of legislation still pending in the 111th Congress.