"The HIll" GOP lawmakers: Spare NIH from cuts

GOP lawmakers: Spare NIH from cuts

By Ian Swanson 


A group of Republican lawmakers has asked appropriators to avoid making deep cuts to the budget of the National Institutes of Health.

The request that NIH be spared highlights the difficult choices facing the GOP as it moves from writing a budget to wringing out cuts from 13 different appropriations measures.

Casting a vote to reduce the nation’s deficit is easy. Cutting programs that are seeking a cure for cancer is more difficult.

“It’s very tough,” said Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), one of 12 Republicans pressing for NIH funding to be kept up. 

NIH took a $321 million cut in the 2011 budget process, and health advocates believe it could face a much bigger reduction as lawmakers seek $18 billion in cuts to a spending measure for the departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and Education.

“They’ll have trouble getting the cuts anywhere else,” Atul Grover, chief advocacy officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges, told The Hill this week.

The cuts will feel more severe at NIH after the agency benefited from the 2009 stimulus bill. Those remaining funds will run out at the end of the year.

Given the 40 percent cuts being proposed to discretionary domestic spending programs, Bilbray said a call to keep NIH funding stable or to even increase it means other programs must take bigger hits. 

Faced with a choice between NIH and public broadcasting, Bilbray said, “I’m sorry Big Bird. I’m going with NIH.”

Republicans are already starting to feel the heat as budget talks wade into specifics.

The GOP moved its first two spending measures through committee on Tuesday, chopping funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and firefighter training and assistance grants, among other things.

Democrats accused the GOP of cutting disaster aid. Republicans said they were cutting grants that communities get before a disaster, and that FEMA had done a poor job of prioritizing funds.

The fight over Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget and its proposed reforms of Medicare is the main event, but Democrats are looking to pounce on Republican cuts to other programs as the appropriations process unfolds.

Republicans supporting the NIH say it represents the nation’s best hope for “finding cures, improving treatment and gaining a better understanding of the diseases and conditions that affect millions of Americans.”

“We urge you to consider the wide-ranging, positive effects of investment in research on health and the economy. We appreciate your consideration of our request,” Bilbray and 11 other Republicans wrote to Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), the chairman of the subcommittee that handled NIH’s budget.

Besides Bilbfray, the letter was signed by Reps. Dave Reichert (Wash.), Jim Gerlach (Pa.), Todd Platts (Pa.), Tom Petri (Wis.), Steve Stivers (Ohio), Aaron Schock (Ill.), Judy Biggert (Ill.), Bill Johnson (Ohio), Pete King (N.Y.), Elton Gallegly (Calif.) and Nan Hayworth (N.Y.), along with Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly (Va.). 

The NIH also has friends in the Senate. It was set to take a $1.6 billion cut in funding for 2011 before Senate negotiators winnowed that down to $320 million.

Winning further reprieves won’t be easy, given the deficit-cutting mood in Washington. Prominent supporters of the NIH such as Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) are no longer in Congress. And with the rise of the Tea Party, Sen. 

Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and other GOP backers must worry about being seen as soft on fiscal issues.

“I want to thank you, as members of the Senate, for sparing NIH from deeper cuts in the final fiscal year 2011 continuing resolution,” NIH Director Francis Collins said in testimony earlier this month.