• David is a Deputy News Editor specializing in coverage of science policy, energy and the environment.

Congress Gives NIH a Raise

28 September 1999 6:00 pm

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Biomedical research funding appears to be headed for another boom year. After months of delays that made science lobbyists anxious, congressional spending committees have approved hefty increases for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A Senate subcommittee today approved a $2 billion, or 13% boost, while last week a House panel gave the green light to a $1.1 billion raise for the $15.6 billion agency. It may take at least another month, however, for Congress and the White House to agree on the exact size of NIH's raise, as Republicans and Democrats engage in last-minute negotiations.

Biomedical lobbyists have been struggling since early this year to repeat last year's record-setting $2 billion increase for NIH (Science, 23 October 1998, p. 598). Their campaign had a setback in February, when President Bill Clinton requested only 2.1% more, some $320 million, in his budget proposal to Congress. The outlook dimmed further in recent weeks after Republican leaders shifted nearly $20 billion from the massive appropriations bill that funds NIH and a host of politically sensitive education and welfare programs to other spending measures.

The borrowing allowed congressional leaders to claim that they were adhering to strict spending caps, but left Representative John Porter (R-IL) and Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA)--who lead the House and Senate subcommittees responsible for approving the Labor-Health and Human Services (HHS) spending bill that includes NIH's budget--with the nearly impossible task of recouping the funds with offsetting cuts elsewhere. But by finding budgetary gimmicks--such as borrowing money from the 2001 budget--the lawmakers could boost NIH funding without forcing Congress to admit it was breaking the spending caps.

Some fiscal conservatives have chafed at the additional spending, and the White House has threatened to veto the House bill because it would cancel a program to hire 100,000 new precollege teachers and cut welfare programs. Indeed, Congressional staffers are pessimistic that either bill will reach a final vote. Instead, they say, Congress and the White House are likely later this year to combine into a single massive package the Labor-HHS bill and at least six of the 13 other appropriations bills needed to run the government.

Still, "the omens are very good for biomedical scientists," says an aide to one House Democrat, who predicts that "the final number will probably be at or near the Senate's mark."

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