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Senators John "Jay" Rockefeller (left) and John Thune at a commerce committee hearing last year.

Senators John "Jay" Rockefeller (left) and John Thune at a commerce committee hearing last year.

Office of Senator John "Jay" Rockefeller

Republicans open the door to compromise on Senate COMPETES bill

Don’t hold your breath. But there’s a glimmer of hope for bipartisan agreement in the U.S. Senate on legislation affecting programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and federal efforts to improve science and math education.

Last week, Senator John “Jay” Rockefeller (D–WV), chair of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, introduced the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2014. It’s meant to be a counterweight to a measure approved in May by the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives that has been sharply criticized by the academic research community for impinging on NSF’s ability to fund the best research across all disciplines. In contrast, Rockefeller’s bill, co-sponsored by five fellow Democrats, has opened to rave reviews from scientific and higher education organizations.

The Association of American Universities this week applauded the bill’s “vision for revitalizing the nation’s research and innovation enterprise.” The 62-member advocacy group said it was pleased the legislation calls for “robust but sustainable funding increases for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institute of Standards and Technology” (NIST) and that it “recognizes the past success and continuing importance of the NSF’s merit review process.”

The original COMPETES Act, passed in 2007, endorsed major budget increases for NSF, NIST, and research programs at the Department of Energy as well as bolstered federal efforts to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. A 2010 extension expired last year.

The new House legislation, called the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science, and Technology Act of 2014, has been a bitterly partisan battleground for the past year. The House science committee’s Republican majority has rejected all but a handful of minor changes proposed by Democrats on the panel.

In contrast, the initial reaction from the top Republican on the Senate panel, Senator John Thune (R–SD), suggests there’s a greater chance for compromise in the upper chamber. “While the current legislation was drafted by the majority, Senator Thune is committed to working with Chairman Rockefeller to identify areas of consensus,” says Rachel Millard, communications director for Thune and for the panel’s Republicans. “Senator Thune does not have plans to push for an alternative, as he remains hopeful that negotiations with the Chairman may yield a joint product."

Although all the co-sponsors of the COMPETES Act are Democrats, that was also the case in 2010; yet the Senate eventually approved the reauthorization by unanimous consent. And Millard said Republicans hope history will repeat itself: “COMPETES has been a bipartisan ‎issue in the past, and we hope a bipartisan package will also move this Congress.”

That seems unlikely. Congress won’t return from recess until 8 September, and plans to be in session for only 2 weeks next month before leaving Washington until after the November elections.

But while the Senate floor schedule is very tight, a Democratic committee aide said that the science panel could take up the bill “as early as next month.” That would be the first real test of whether Thune and Rockefeller have been able to find any common ground.