A “No Good Options” Moment Faces NIH Budget Makers in Senate

bill-lab-googlesUnder the hood with Senate
appropriators, researchers should
be prepared for sudden moves.
Sometimes you actually have to feel sorry for members of Congress. In many ways, the job of a member of Congress is all about making choices—which bills to sponsor, which issues to champion, and which bills to vote for. Sometimes there are no good choices.

The members of the Senate Appropriations Committee faced such a “no good choices” moment on Thursday (July 11). The Committee was voting on the FY14 Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services, and Education appropriations bill that includes funding for the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). The bill, as written by long-time NIH champion Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), already included a $1.6 billion, 5.4%, increase for the NIH budget.

During the Thursday hearing, known as a markup on Capitol Hill because it is a chance to “mark up” the bill with amendments, could-be champion Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) offered an amendment that would add an additional $1.4 billion to the NIH budget. The only problem is that the money would be cut from funding for the Affordable Care Act, which is commonly known everywhere these days as ObamaCare.

For Republicans on the Committee, the amendment was a grand slam. Voting for the amendment would allow them to provide a significant increase to the NIH, one of the federal agencies they like, at the expense of a federal program they could not dislike more.

On the other hand, the Committee Democrats were faced with one of those “no good options” moments that every politician dreads. Democrats love to express their support for the NIH. (They don’t always walk the talk, however.) But they also are very fond of the Affordable Care Act. The problem they faced, however, was a political one. Because of the often vitriolic opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the implications it has for President Obama’s legacy, there is a great deal of political pressure on Democrats to vote against any change to the healthcare law. For Democrats, the political pressure to preserve the Affordable Care Act was greater than their desire to rescue the NIH from the shackles of sequestration.

In the end, both Democrats and Republicans were effusive in their support for the NIH and the need to provide it with more funding. Then the 16 Democrats on the Committee voted against the amendment and the 14 Republicans voted for it.

About the Author:

Kevin M. Wilson serves as Director of Public Policy and Media Relations for The American Society for Cell Biology. He's worked as the Legislative Director for U.S. Congressman Robert Weygand (D-RI) and as a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). He has a BA in Politics and American Government from the Catholic University of America. Email: kwilson@ascb.org

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