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Budget deal raises hopes for U.S. research agencies

A new budget deal between the White House and congressional leaders means U.S. research agencies could receive increases on the order of the 4% to 5% that Democrats have already proposed for next year.

Yesterday’s agreement, which must be approved by both chambers of Congress, governs spending for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. Under the existing law aimed at reducing the federal deficit, Congress would have had to reduce total discretionary spending in 2020 by $125 billion, or roughly 10%. But the agreement removes that requirement and thus avoids dreaded mandatory across-the-board cuts, called sequestration, that would have been imposed if no such reductions were made.

“A budget framework for the next 2 years that moves us past the threat of future sequestration is a win for American science,” the Science Coalition, a Washington, D.C.–based lobbying group representing dozens of U.S. research universities, wrote in a statement. “We urge Congress to appropriate the necessary funding to demonstrate America’s commitment to this endeavor.”

The new spending level for civilian agencies, which fund all nonmilitary research, is only a bit less than the amount Democrats used earlier this year in allocating money for each of the 12 appropriations bills in the House of Representatives. (The full House has since passed nine of the bills.) However, none of those bills has been taken up by the Senate, whose Republican leaders decided to wait until an overall budget deal was struck before crafting individual bills.

That has now happened. The new agreement could add weight to the spending choices by the House and force the Senate to play catch-up. And that’s good news for almost every federal research agency.

President Donald Trump had asked Congress to impose deep cuts in 2020 to many of those agencies. But House appropriators uniformly reversed that pattern in their spending bills. For example, they have approved a $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health rather than a $5 billion cut, and a $565 million boost rather than a $1 billion reduction for the National Science Foundation. Similarly, science programs at the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology are in line for increases of 4.3% and 5.6%, respectively, rather than the double-digit cuts that were part of Trump’s budget request.

The new agreement allows legislators to boost defense spending by $22 billion, to $738 billion, and civilian spending by $27 billion, to $632 billion. (The House had raised the spending cap by $34 billion for its appropriations panels.) That near parity between civilian and defense increases is designed to appeal to both progressive Democrats, who wanted more funds for domestic programs, and conservative Republicans, who had sought even higher military spending with cuts in domestic programs as an offset.

The House is expected to vote on the budget agreement this week before it goes on a 6-week summer recess, meaning Democratic leaders will need to rally support quickly. The Senate is scheduled to be in session next week, giving Republican leaders a bit more time if they need it.