WASHINGTON -- The United States Senate agreed by unanimous consent on Tuesday morning to divert federal funds from party conventions towards pediatric research.
The Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, the pet project of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), now heads to President Barack Obama's desk for his signature. And while the White House has not yet commented on the legislation (and did not do so for this article), it seems unlikely that the president would do anything other than sign his name and celebrate the roughly $12.6 million a year that is now available for the National Institutes of Health.
The bill's passage marks a rare bit of political accord in Washington, D.C. But it also obscures the difficult, sometimes acrimonious, terrain that the legislation had to traverse. And for defenders of the NIH, the political landscape was already complicated: While the medical research community is certainly glad to receive any additional funding, some are concerned that the modest gains under the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act will stall efforts to reverse entirely the budget cuts of the past year.
These concerns date back to last fall's government shut down and the ensuing political fallout.
Just days into the shutdown the press coverage had turned against congressional Republicans. Among the reports on shuttered government functions was a story about how a lack of funding had forced the NIH to reject cancer victims hoping for clinical treatments.
Cantor moved quickly to stem the damage. He and members of the Republican Doctors Caucus, all donning lab coats, held a press conference in which they urged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to pass a specific funding bill to reopen the NIH while leaving much of the rest of the government closed.
"I ask the president himself to stop this nonsense," said Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.). "Let us help people. Let us help children. Please."
Reid refused to budge. But Republicans had shifted the dynamics somewhat, putting him a bit more on the defensive. The Senate Majority Leader was later asked, "If you can help one child who has cancer, why wouldn't you do it?"
"Why would we want to do that?" he answered. "I have 1,100 people at Nellis Air Force base that are sitting home. They have a few problems of their own."
Reid's point was that shutdown victims were everywhere and that it made little sense to address the problem in piecemeal fashion -- but a "gaffe" was born, and his comments were portrayed as insensitive to child cancer victims.
The shutdown ended a few weeks later, and government funding was restored across the board. Cantor began heavily pushing the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, which ends "the entitlement of any major or minor political party to a payment from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund for a presidential nominating convention" and transfers "each account maintained for such purpose for the national committee of a party to a 10-Year Pediatric Research Initiative Fund."
In mid-December, Cantor's office posted a video on its website that featured Miller, who had died of brain cancer on Oct. 10, 2013, and criticized Reid for his remark during the shutdown.
Reid's office was enraged. Cantor, after all, had endorsed budgets that cut $1.6 billion from the NIH. Now he was attacking Reid over a bill that restored $12.5 million and pitting him against a child cancer victim in the process.
Congressional Democrats dug in. In the House, dual objections were made to the bill. The first was that it wouldn't actually appropriate money to the NIH. Instead, it would be an "unfounded authorization," since the revenue stream was dependent on not funding something else. The second objection was that it would open the door to even more corporate influence over the political parties. After all, with no public funds available for conventions, who else would help foot the bill?
But there were conservative gripes, too. Members wanted the money being diverted from the conventions to go toward deficit reduction.
Cantor deputized Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) to help get the bill through the chamber. On Dec. 11, 2013, it passed by a 295-103 vote.
In the Senate, top Democrats worried that if they passed a measure to fund pediatric research, it would remove any incentive to restore the 5 percent ($1.6 billion) budget cut the NIH had suffered from sequestration.
But Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) lobbied colleagues to get on board. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the appropriations committee, alleviated concerns that the money would not reach the NIH. And Reid, putting aside his anger with the video, threw his support behind the measure with the understanding that he and others would push for more funding.
"It is so very, very important that we not claim victory for the NIH because of this," he said Tuesday morning. "It's a small victory, and I accept that. I think it's extremely important that we understand that the NIH is billions of dollars short of being able to maintain the pace they've had in years past."
The resulting unanimous consent agreement to pass the exact version of the House bill is a big victory for Cantor, and more importantly, for pediatric research. The Virginia Republican, whose allegiance to the NIH has been damaged by his party's budget cuts, scored a victory for the agency. The rarity of getting such a bill through a divided Congress was not lost on him or others.
"So often everyone is focused on what Congress cannot accomplish that we overlook the good that can be done when both parties work together," Cantor said in a statement. "One courageous young girl, Gabriella Miller, inspired bipartisan action to help research, treat, and cure pediatric diseases and disorders."
UPDATE: 4:00 p.m. -- Not everyone was content with the bill's passage. The campaign finance reform community, in particular, was left fuming.
Democracy 21, one such good government group, urged the president to veto the measure, arguing that it removes a pillar from the presidential public financing system. In a statement, the group's president, Fred Wertheimer, took sharp jabs at Senate Democrats for not putting up a fight:
Not one single Democratic Senator was willing to say no to the unanimous consent request to pass today's legislation to repeal part of the presidential financing system.
Not one Democratic Senator was willing to say the Senate should not consider this "fig-leaf" legislation to repeal a portion of the campaign finance laws, while the Senate is being blocked from acting on any campaign finance reform measures -- and in particular disclosure legislation essential to providing voters with campaign finance information they have a right to know.
The failure of Senate Democrats to challenge Senator McConnell on the legislation passed today while McConnell blocks all campaign finance reform bills raises serious questions about just how committed Senate Democrats are to addressing the nation's campaign finance problems.