Inside (the Beltway) Scoop – Jennifer Zeitzer
Created by on 5/16/2013 12:00:00 AM

Senate Appropriators Pledge to Continue Federal Investment in Biomedical Research; House Appropriations Committee Begins Working on FY 2014 Spending Bills

As expected, members of Congress turned their attention toward the fiscal year (FY) 2014 budget after returning to Capitol Hill earlier this month, following a brief recess. On May 15, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director, Dr. Francis Collins, appeared before the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services (LHHS) Appropriations Committee to testify in support of the Obama Administration’s FY 2014 funding request for biomedical research. Dr. Collins’ testimony highlighted advances in cancer and stem cell research, discussed the new BRAIN Initiative, and featured a personal anecdote from a former student who is worried about her ability to obtain future research funding. The senators who participated in the hearing expressed bipartisan support for NIH throughout the two-hour session and pledged to do what they could to increase funding for the agency in FY 2014.

Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) used his opening statement to discuss the impact of sequestration on NIH, stating that he would do everything possible to restore the agency’s budget to the pre-sequestration level, but warned that he would not boost NIH funding at the expense of other public health programs. Chairman Harkin also reminded his colleagues that continuing sequestration in FY 2014, and making bigger cuts in non-defense discretionary spending to pay for increases in defense programs, will make it impossible to provide strong funding for NIH.

Ranking Member Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) expressed deep concern over how the funding cuts for research were affecting younger scientists and added that “this is not a time to waiver on our commitment to NIH.” Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) stated emphatically that she would do all she could to cancel the sequester for this year and Richard Shelby (R-AL) indicated that he would work with Senator Mikulski to try to find a way to increase funding for NIH.

During multiple rounds of questioning following Dr. Collins’ testimony, senators asked for updates on the latest advances in research related to Alzheimer’s, Cystic Fibrosis, cardiovascular disease, Lupus, Autism, and efforts to develop a universal flu vaccine.. Senator Moran mentioned a personal concern about barriers to participation in clinical trials, especially for people in rural areas, and requested ideas about what he could do to help his constituents take part in research studies. Senator Shelby urged NIH to work with the subcommittee to develop better criteria for the states that participate in the Institutional Development Award program, noting that the existing standards are outdated. A webcast of the hearing is available on the Senate Appropriations Committee website.

In related news, House Appropriations Committee Chair Hal Rogers (R-KY) decided to move forward with consideration of the FY 2014 spending bills, beginning with the politically popular Military Construction/Veterans Affairs (VA) measure that was approved by the Subcommittee on May 15. The bill provides $585.6 million for the VA Medical and Prosthetic Research program; $2.9 million (0.5 percent) above the FY 2013 enacted level. A summary of the legislation and a webcast of the mark-up are available on the House Appropriations Committee website. The full Appropriations Committee is likely to vote on the bill next week. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) confirmed that the FY 2014 appropriations process will continue as the spending bills are debated on the House floor this summer.

Although the initial consideration of the Military Construction/VA bill went smoothly, the appropriations process faces a difficult path ahead due to the House and Senate’s lingering dispute over the total spending level for FY 2014 – a difference of more than $90 billion. Chairman Rogers is following the House budget plan (H Con Res 25), which established the FY 2014 discretionary spending level at $966 billion and shifted funding so that non-defense discretionary accounts will absorb all of the spending cuts mandated by the second year of sequestration. Committee Chair Mikulski indicated that she is committed to writing spending bills at the $1.058 trillion level agreed to in the Budget Control Act, and as requested in President Barack Obama’s FY 2014 budget proposal. Senate Appropriations Committee consideration of the FY 2014 funding bills is expected to begin in early June.