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After 2-year battle, House passes COMPETES Act on mostly party-line vote

Everything had already been said, repeatedly. And so a controversial bill that would set policy for three major U.S. science agencies passed today after a debate on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that changed nobody’s mind. The vote was 217 to 205.

The America COMPETES Act (H.R. 1806) has been the subject of a 2-year battle between Republican lawmakers in the House and the research community (see previous coverage, below). It would take research at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE) in dangerous directions, say Democrats who sarcastically dubbed the bill the America Concedes Act or the America Can’t Compete Act. It authorizes a shift in spending away from the geosciences and climate science, two areas that Republicans feel the Obama administration has indulged. It would tighten the strings on NSF’s grantsmaking process in ways that Republicans say are simply meant to serve the national interest but that most scientists consider too restrictive. It also cuts authorized spending levels at the National Institute of Standards and Technology far below what the White House has requested.

“This bill does absolutely nothing” to preserve U.S. research excellence, said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), the top Democrat on the House science panel that drafted the bill, her voice almost breaking in anger as she kicked off the 3-hour debate. The chair of that committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), rejected those and other accusations by Democrats. “Real priorities require making real choices,” he asserted, “and H.R. 1806 proves we can set priorities and still invest more in innovation.”

The vote marks the first time the full House has approved the legislation; previous iterations had failed to make it this far. Twenty-three Republicans opposed the bill, presumably because it didn’t tighten the federal spending belt sufficiently. No Democrats voted in favor of the measure.

Before today’s final vote, legislators made several small tweaks. One would increase authorized funding levels for an NSF program to help states that receive limited NSF funding and its venerable graduate research fellowships, while another endorses the need for training workshops for science and math teachers and their students and for attracting more female scientists into a program to train potential entrepreneurs. Another amendment would create a NSF program to foster science and engineering at colleges and universities with large numbers of Hispanic students. NSF officials would prefer to serve this population by extending existing programs for underrepresented minority students.

A half-dozen Democrat amendments were defeated, mostly along party lines. But one caused a break in the otherwise solid GOP ranks: Twenty-five Republicans voted with Democrats to lift a ban on DOE continuing to spend more to produce commercial biofuels for the Department of Defense.

The bill now moves to the Senate. Although the Senate has not drafted a counterpart, a bipartisan group of seven senators today introduced a bill focused on a subset relating to DOE research programs.

The White House has already issued a threat to veto the House bill. On Monday it said that the bill “undermines key investments in science, technology, and innovation and imposes unnecessary and damaging requirements.”

Here is some of ScienceInsider’s previous coverage of what has become an epic science policy battle: