Biomedical Budget Riding High in Congress

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Biomedical research was singled out for remarkably high growth yesterday in the first 1999 spending proposal introduced by a Republican leader in Congress. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) would get a stunning 11% increase if Congress were to approve a draft resolution unveiled on 17 March by Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), the fiscally conservative chair of the Budget Committee. This is more than the 8.4% rise proposed by President Clinton, but less than the 5-year doubling rate of 15% championed by some on Capitol Hill.

Domenici's resolution is just the starting point for debate, and agency budgets face a tortuous route through many committees before they are finalized this fall. Michael Stephens, a former House staffer who represents the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, says biomedical groups view the proposal as "another step forward" toward the goal of doubling NIH's funding. He added, however, that some were disappointed that it "was not as aggressive as they would like." Tomorrow, Domenici's proposal is expected to be debated by the budget committee; it could go to the Senate for a floor vote before Congress leaves for spring break on 2 April. The House isn't likely to take up the budget, congressional aides say, until late April.

Domenici's "mark," as the draft resolution is called, holds most federal programs--except transportation--to low growth over the next 5 years, possibly to provide flexibility for tax reduction bills. For example, it assumes that the budget category known as function 250--including NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy--will increase less than 2% next year, then decline by 7% through 2003. However, NSF funding would grow within that category. Domenici's staff issued an announcement saying he supports "strong funding for basic research programs ... especially those within the NSF and the Department of Energy."