PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA—Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), fresh off earning the distinction of being one of just three Republicans to vote for the Obama Administration’s economic stimulus plan and savoring a successful effort to keep $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health in the bill, is making the rounds of his home state this week. Yesterday and today, he held two town halls, taking questions this morning from a mostly friendly audience of AARP members. Choosing to endorse the stimulus package was “very tough,” he said, leaving the stage to wander among the audience and forcing the cameras to follow.
The House had allocated just $3.5 billion for NIH, so Specter's move was a masterstroke for biomedical research lobbyists. Did he insist that the NIH money stay in the bill in exchange for his vote? Absolutely not, he said. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid proposed such a trade, he told the audience, “I said, ‘No deal, Harry.’ ” As for worries that NIH, with a new influx of funds to spend quickly if the bill becomes law, will suffer through another boom-and-bust cycle like it’s in now, Specter didn’t appear too worried. “It all depends whether I become chairman” of the appropriations subcommittee, which allocates funding and which he’s in line to lead, he said seriously, emphasizing his many years of support for NIH. “You have to have activists who are willing to fight.”