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Breakthrough in budget negotiations could raise spending for science

Top lawmakers in Congress today announced a budget agreement that could produce substantial spending increases for research at key U.S. science agenciesand avoid a partial government shutdown on Friday. But the deal must still clear a few hurdles before it is finalized.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–KY) and Senator Chuck Schumer (NY), the Senate’s top Democrat, said the two partiesand the White Househave agreed to smash through caps on military and domestic spending imposed by a 2011 law designed to reduce the nation’s long-term debt. (The caps apply only to so-called discretionary spending, which accounts for about one-third of annual federal outlays, but not to so-called mandatory programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, that account for about two-thirds of annual spending.)

Under the deal, federal discretionary spending this year and next will total roughly $300 billion more than allowed by the caps.

In the 2018 fiscal year that began this past October, the Pentagon would get an additional $80 billion, and domestic spending—which is the source of most research funding—would get an additional $63 billion.

In 2019, military spending would increase by $85 billion, while domestic funding would rise by $68 billion.

Although it is too early to say exactly how that additional domestic cash, if approved, will be allocated, some science agencies appear to be in line to benefit. Lawmakers in the Senate, for example, have proposed giving the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a $2 billion increase in 2018, $1 billion more than a raise proposed by the House of Representatives. The new deal tags $2 billion over 2 years for NIH on top of about $500 million it would receive in 2018 from the 21st Century Cures Act. The agreement would make an NIH increase somewhere between the House and Senate levels much more likely, if Congress can finally complete work on the 2018 spending package. (So far, the government has been funded by a series of so-called continuing resolutions that have essentially frozen agency spending at 2017 levels.)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) could also benefit. The House, for example, has proposed keeping NSF’s research budget flat in 2018, at about $6 billion. But Representative John Culberson (R–TX), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees NSF’s budget, has said he would move to give it additional funding if Congress raised the caps.

Such moves would delight the research community, which for years has joined with a wide range of groups—including military and public health advocates—in calling for Congress to break the caps. The spending limits, they argue, will do little to rein in the national debt because they don’t apply to mandatory spending—but are doing real damage to the nation’s security and ability to fund innovative science.

Two years ago, such arguments helped persuade Congress to reach a similar deal to break the caps. But before federally funded researchers can celebrate today’s deal, it must be approved by the Senate and House and signed by President Donald Trump. The Senate appears ready to approve it. And the White House has signaled support for the agreement, which will be attached to a continuing resolution extending government funding through late March, giving lawmakers a few more weeks to finalize 2018 spending.

But in the House, some Democrats are unhappy that the pact does not include protections for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, and some conservative Republicans oppose the additional spending.

Despite those concerns, House Republican leaders have said that they believe they can corral the necessary votes to approve the deal.

But the clock is ticking: The current bill funding the government expires at midnight Thursday, and the government will have to begin shutting down Friday if no agreement is reached.