The top Democrat in the U.S. Senate has blocked a House of Representatives plan to restore current funding levels for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through 15 December, saying House Republicans shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose which federal agencies they’d like to reopen.
“We are also not going to choose between veterans [and] cancer research," said Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), the Senate majority leader, before using a procedural move this afternoon to essentially kill the House NIH measure.
Nearly three-quarters of NIH’s staff are now off the job as a result of the U.S. government shutdown that began on 1 October. It has also stopped processing grant applications and accepting new patients at its clinical research center in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C.
Yesterday, the specter of children with cancer being turned away from NIH’s door became a political talking point for both sides in the shutdown battle, with Democrats and Republicans accusing the other of ignoring the plight of the sick. In response, the Republican leaders of the House of Representatives offered a series of bills that would temporarily reopen NIH and several other popular agencies, including the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution. Senate Democrats, however, rejected that approach, saying Republicans should pass a bill restoring funding for the entire government, not just bits and pieces.
The rhetorical dueling became fierce during last night’s House debate on the NIH bill, which passed 254 to 171, largely on party lines.
“I rise in opposition to this cynical and, quite frankly, offensive NIH funding bill,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). “[W]hile medical research is vitally important, it is also only one of the many vitally important things our government does. We also help to feed women and children who are living on the edge, and 9 million have been cut off from nutritional support. We also keep track of the spread of infectious diseases, and the Centers for Disease Control has been forced to halt those activities. … Where is the funding for all of these other important activities?”
“I strongly support the NIH,” said Representative Fred Upton (R-MI). “We have folks waiting in the queue to participate in lifesaving clinical trials. They have every right to be furious with this body, but we can fix that by passing this bill so that they don't have to wait. Come on. Let's put policy over politics and do this, not for us but for them.”
“The House floor is starting to feel like a new episode of The Hunger Games,” said Representative George Miller (D-CA). “Every day, the Republican leadership tries to find a new way to pit one desperate group of Americans against another. Today, because of the shutdown, Republicans are pitting kids with cancer against kids who are hungry. … I don't buy their newfound concern about NIH funding, and the American people aren't buying it either.”
“There is no defensible argument against this legislation,” said Representative Renee Ellmers (R-NC). “The government shutdown is preventing new patients from entering clinical trials. For those patients, it is a matter of life and death; it is not a matter of politics.”
Once the House bill reached the Senate, however, it was put in procedural limbo by Democrats, who are pushing the House to pass legislation that would temporarily extend current funding levels for the entire government while lawmakers negotiate a longer-term solution.