Inside (The Beltway) Scoop
Created by host on 10/24/2013 12:01:00 AM

By Jennifer Zeitzer

Government Re-Opens; Fiscal Fights Shift to Budget Conference Committee; FASEB Continues Advocacy Efforts

More than two weeks after it began, the first government shutdown in 17 years ended when Congress finally reached an agreement to provide temporary funding for federal agencies. As has happened repeatedly in the fiscal crises of the past few years, lawmakers addressed a series of short-term deadlines but failed to resolve broader budgetary issues, guaranteeing that the fight to sustain the investment in research is far from over.

The legislation (HR 2775) to re-open the government passed the Senate by a vote of 81-18 on October 16 and was approved on a 285-144 House vote a few hours later. President Obama signed the bill into law the next day. HR 2775 funds all agencies through mid-January 2014 at the fiscal year (FY) 2013 post-sequestration rate (approximately $986 billion) and suspends the debt limit until early February, allowing the government to continue borrowing money to pay the nation’s bills.

A formal budget conference committee was also established to resolve the impasse between the House and Senate regarding the overall spending level for FY 2014 and produce a budget blueprint by the second week in December. The committee may also develop a plan to replace the next round of sequestration cuts with other savings. Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) will lead the committee.


On October 17, Senator Murray and Representative Ryan had breakfast with ranking members of the Senate and House Budget Committees Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) to establish a framework for the conference committee’s deliberations. No budget figures were discussed at the meeting and the leaders did not announce a date for the next round of talks. The conference committee is facing the critical decision of which top-line spending figure to use as the basis of the negotiations: $986 billion (the spending level through January); $967 billion (the cap mandated in the Budget Control Act  and H Con Res 25, the House Budget Resolution); or $1.058 trillion (the level in S Con Res 8, the Senate Budget Resolution). Press reports following the breakfast indicated that Senator Murray and Representative Ryan agreed to attempt to produce a plan to eliminate the sequestration cuts in 2014.
Several other senators have also acknowledged that there is broad interest in replacing sequestration with other savings. Congressional leaders moved quickly to appoint the other members of the new budget conference committee, including strong champions for research funding such as Representatives Van Hollen and Lowey and Senators Baldwin, Warner, and Nelson.
If the conference committee reaches agreement on the final top-line spending level, it will set the stage for the Appropriations Committees to finish work on the FY 2014 spending bills. However, Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) is worried about the constricted timeframe and said that agencies may have to settle for a year-long “continuing resolution” (CR) rather than an omnibus funding bill. Both Mikulski and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) have indicated they would prefer an omnibus over a long term CR.   
With the federal government re-opened, the Senate adjourned until October 28 while the House was in session for a few days this week to deal with other legislation that had been put on the back burner. While Congress took a break from the fiscal fighting, federal agencies tackled the backlog of work generated by the shutdown.
Although the agreement reached by Congress ended the shutdown, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the other science agencies still do not have a final FY 2014 budget. The conference committee provides an opportunity to fight for the funding increases the appropriators recommended this summer for NIH and NSF. There will be tremendous pressure to restrain spending. With more members of Congress speaking out against sequestration and the possibility that the conference committee will agree to an alternative plan to reduce the deficit, it is critical that the research community continue to make the case that the cuts are having an extremely harmful impact.

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) encourages everyone to share its recent e-action alert (see related story in this newsletter) and urges scientists to speak up on local talk radio shows (see FASEB’s talk radio guide). In addition, FASEB is running print and online ads in newspapers in specific congressional districts urging the public to contact their members of Congress in support of research funding. A forthcoming report (co-sponsored by FASEB) from the Non-Defense Discretionary (NDD) United Coalition will provide new data about the effect of the budget cuts on public health agencies, including NIH.