WASHINGTON -- The politics behind the government shutdown reached a new level of absurdity on Thursday as a group of conservative House Republicans -- the same ones refusing to fund the government unless Obamacare is delayed or defunded -- pleaded with Democrats to pass a bill only funding services for children with cancer.
Dressed in lab coats, members of the Republican Doctors Caucus made the case that pediatric cancer research trials at the National Institutes of Health deserve to be funded, even if the rest of the government is not.
"There are times that the private sector cannot be reasonably expected to do the research and development needed because the issue, the syndrome, the disease, might be so rare that it is economically prohibitive," said Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), whose son suffers from Angelman Syndrome, a rare neurogenetic disorder.
"I ask the president himself to stop this nonsense," said Rokita. "Let us help people. Let us help children. Please."
Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), a former nurse, choked up as she described the tears of parents learning that their children have cancer. She said it's up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to help those families by passing the GOP bill.
"Don't take hope away from those families. Don't take hope away from those moms," Ellmers said. "Let's give hope back to those families. I'll tell you, Sen. Reid, you will not sleep until that happens."
House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) also joined the group. She talked about how she has a son with Down syndrome.
"I've learned so much about the cutting-edge research and the potential, the breakthroughs that we're on the verge of discovering," McMorris Rodgers said. "Let's keep that going."
Of course, House Republicans could also agree to just fund the government and end the shutdown today, which would allow those clinical trials to resume, along with everything else. If House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) put a "clean" funding bill on the floor, with no strings attached, there are already enough Republicans willing to join Democrats to pass it. From there, the bill would sail through the Senate and get signed into law by President Barack Obama, ending the shutdown. But so far, under pressure from tea party conservatives to keep pushing for Obamacare-related concessions, Boehner has given no indication he's prepared to do that.
A Senate Democratic leadership aide said the Republicans' NIH bill isn't likely to even get a vote. Instead, Democrats continue to insist that House Republicans just vote to fund the government entirely and end the shutdown. About 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed this week as Congress dukes it out.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who spoke at Thursday's press conference, dismissed the idea of passing a clean funding bill. He said any bill to fund the government should include a provision to end the "special treatment" of lawmakers and their staff who receive federal subsidies under Obamacare.
The reality, though, is that neither are receiving special treatment. Most large employers provide contributions toward their employees' health care, so Hill staffers are being treated no differently.
For all their talk that NIH funding should be restored in this case, House Republicans have done a terrible job funding the agency in recent years.
In 2010, Cantor himself proposed a $1.3 billion cut to NIH. The 2011 House Republican budget also sought to cut $1.6 billion from the agency. In House Republicans' 2013 budget proposal put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), cuts to the agency's budget approached 20 percent.
Still, when asked Thursday about the bill to restore funding to the NIH, Cantor said he's "been insistent on making as a priority funding for the NIH, and specifically funding for pediatric medical research."
"When you have somebody young and have a whole life that potentially could be ahead of that child, I don't think there are many things, as a priority for us, as human beings with this federal government, to put an emphasis on and fund," Cantor said.