WASHINGTON -- Two of the Senate’s more outspoken members, one on the Republican side of the aisle the other on the Democratic side, are teaming up to build support for federal investment in scientific research.
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) announced on Monday the formation of a Senate caucus on the National Institutes of Health, billing it as an “opportunity for senators to educate their colleagues about the importance of NIH.”
The goal, ultimately, won’t be educational. In a dear colleague letter, the duo pledged to find “a bipartisan strategy” for restoring the NIH's purchasing power, which has fallen dramatically amid stagnant budgets and spending cuts over the past decade.
Doing so will take political dexterity. Lawmakers of virtually all ideological stripes have pledged their support for the NIH, which is the biggest federal backer of biomedical research. But there is no indication that the two parties have an agreement on how to pay for increased funding. Absent some sort of deal, the NIH’s funding will take another hit this fall when sequestration cuts return.
NIH Director Francis Collins, who will join the two senators when they announce the caucus in the Senate on Tuesday, has calculated that the NIH will lose $19 billion over the next 10 years if sequestration cuts return. That, he told The Huffington Post in an interview a few months back, would result in "an enormous loss of capability to carry out medical research."
Durbin previously said he won’t support a government funding bill this fall if sequestration cuts aren’t relieved. President Barack Obama, likewise, said he won’t sign such legislation. With those hurdles ahead, the pressure is on lawmakers to find a deal similar to what they passed a year and a half ago, when both domestic spending and military spending were increased by the same amount and offset with cuts elsewhere.
The NIH could end up being the logical item around which Republicans craft that deal. Several Republicans have said recently that they would support spending money on the NIH without offsetting it with cuts elsewhere, including former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). The decision by Graham to start an NIH caucus with Durbin, just before Graham is likely to announce a presidential bid, suggests that there is some more momentum around this concept.
Absent this strategy, there are other vehicles by which NIH funding can be increased. That includes Durbin’s American Innovation Act, which would implement a 5 percent increase in the annual budget of five federal agencies that fund science research. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also proposed a bill to create a proverbial swearing jar for big pharmaceutical companies. Under that idea, each time those companies settle a suit brought by the federal government, they would pay into a fund for NIH research.
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