Senate Committee Proposes Boost for NIH

Biomedical researchers can chalk up another big advance on Capitol Hill: The Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday approved a bill that would raise the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget by almost $2 billion, to $15.6 billion, a massive increase of 14.7%. This is much more than Congress has offered other research agencies, and $800 million more than the NIH increase proposed by the White House. But the bill faces a few roadblocks.

Written by the Labor, Health and Human Services subcommittee chaired by Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), it would channel more money into jobs and education programs than was allocated to the subcommittee by budget chiefs. The bill gets around this problem by deferring costs and recalculating accounts in ways that leave even seasoned congressional hands befuddled. One academic lobbyist who attended the bill's markup yesterday says that Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), chair of the budget committee, seemed ready to go along with a "rescoring" process that would make available about one-third of the money needed to float the bill. But it's not clear how Specter and the subcommittee's top Democrat, Tom Harkin (IA), will find the remainder.

Political roadblocks also stand in the way of NIH funding in the House. The House has not yet acted on an NIH funding bill, drafted by a subcommittee chaired by Representative John Porter (R-IL), that would give NIH a $1.2 billion increase (9.1%). The reason: The bill would also end funding for popular summer jobs and home heat subsidy programs; even moderate Republicans have refused to support these cuts, and President Clinton has said he would veto the bill.

These problems must be solved before the House and Senate can agree on a final bill, and there are only a few weeks left before the fiscal year begins on 1 October. Already, Republicans are talking about the need to pass "one or two" stopgap funding resolutions to keep the government afloat as they wheel and deal.