Created by on 10/24/2011 12:00:00 AM

With just four weeks until the November 18th expiration of the “continuing resolution” (CR) that is currently keeping federal agencies operating, members of the congressional leadership and the Appropriations Committees have not yet agreed on a strategy to complete work on the fiscal year 2012 appropriations bills. For the moment, the House and Senate seem content to take different paths toward finalizing next year’s budget, amid the realization that another temporary funding agreement will need to be enacted before the situation is resolved.
Hoping to avoid having to develop a single “omnibus” piece of legislation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) agreed on a plan to bundle the spending measures into smaller packages of two or three “minibus” bills. The leadership’s strategy received bipartisan approval from many of their Senate colleagues who prefer the “minibus” approach because they feel it will allow for more input from individual members, as well as greater scrutiny of each bill. Debate on the first “minibus”—which includes the Agriculture, Commerce/Justice/Science, and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development bills—began on the Senate floor on October 18th. Several amendments were offered but none that affected the funding levels for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative or the National Science Foundation. Unfortunately the Senate adjourned for a scheduled recess before taking a final vote on the “minibus.” They are expected to finish the bill when they return to Washington on November 1st. Although it is not clear which bills will be included in the next “minibus,” rumors are circulating that the funding measure for the Department of Energy Office of Science is a likely candidate. The bill funding the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is almost certain to be wrapped into the package that is considered last if the Senate continues to pursue their “minibus” strategy.
While the Senate moved forward on their first “minibus,” House leaders and appropriators continued to publicly oppose the idea of pursuing an “omnibus” bill. In private however, they conceded that an “omnibus” is their only option given the legislative calendar. In addition, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and other Republican leaders are said to be worried about the number of demands they will face from members of the Tea Party if they have to take votes on several “minibus” bills. 
Not only do they need to agree on a strategy for finishing the appropriations bills, the House and Senate must also reconcile the differences between the individual spending totals for each subcommittee. The Senate Appropriations Committee passed bills that complied with the $1.04 trillion total spending limit included in the Budget Control Act (BCA); the House used a lower funding figure.
As congressional leaders continue working on completing the unfinished 2012 appropriations bills, efforts are underway in Washington and across the country to preserve the one billion increase for NIH that was proposed by House Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Denny Rehberg (R-MT). On October 11th, FASEB sent a letter to the Chairman thanking him for his efforts to increase the NIH budget and his willingness to make funding for medical research a national priority. In addition, nearly 13,000 emails have been sent to members of Congress in response to an e-action alert issued by FASEB.
Meanwhile, the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction has been holding private meetings over the last few weeks, although few details are available about what has been discussed behind closed doors. The group’s next public hearing is on October 26th and will feature testimony from Congressional Budget Office Director Dr. Doug Elmendorf, who will discuss security and non-security discretionary spending. In related news, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees sent letters to the JCDR this month urging the members not to reduce discretionary spending any further, noting that this area of the budget absorbed drastic cuts in the final 2011 spending bills as well as through the caps enacted in the BCA. The House Appropriations Committee Democrats’ letter went even further stating, that if the JCDR fails to issue recommendations, the mandatory across-the-board cuts that would go into effect in 2013 would reduce the NIH budget by nearly eight percent, decreasing by 2,500 to 2,700 the number of research grants issued by the agency. Under the same scenario, the NSF budget would be cut by $530 million. The JCDR has until November 23, 2011 to draft a report summarizing their proposals to reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.5 trillion over ten years.