US Capitol at night

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Extended budget freeze makes room for NIH, NASA, Census programs

A new agreement to extend the current spending freeze on all U.S. agencies makes an exception for several research-related projects.

Late last night congressional leaders released details of the next continuing resolution (CR), a stopgap measure needed to keep the government open until lawmakers agree on a final 2017 budget. The CR would hold federal agencies to 2016 spending levels until the end of April, which is halfway through the 2017 fiscal year. Normally, such a CR would prevent agencies from increasing spending on any activities or launching an initiative. But legislators made room in the new CR for a handful of programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Census Bureau, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and NASA.

The CR grants NIH $352 million as a down payment on projects included in the 21st Century Cures Act, legislation to accelerate drug development that the Senate is expected to pass later today. That bill authorizes $1.4 billion over 10 years for a Precision Medicine Initiative, $1.8 billion for Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot, and $1.6 billion for the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative.

The provisions affecting the other agencies are designed to avoid squeezing ongoing government activities that require additional spending this year. The Census Bureau is ramping up for its decennial census in 2020, and the CR allows it to continue testing new approaches that could shave $5 billion off the cost of the next census. NASA gets to continue building a new rocket and astronaut capsule that will allow the country to again send humans to the space station, the moon, and even Mars. And NOAA gets the okay to continue building a series of polar-orbiting weather satellites, the first of which is scheduled to go up in late 2017.

The current CR expires on Friday, so Congress must act quickly to avoid a government shutdown. The House of Representatives is expected to pass the CR extension before adjourning tomorrow, and most observers expect the Senate to go along, if somewhat more reluctantly.