A House of Representatives committee overwhelmingly approved a bill Wednesday that would extend the National Institutes of Health's authority to operate for three years -- but not after rejecting along party lines several Democratic attempts to increase the legislation's commitment to providing funds for the biomedical research agency.
As passed 42 to 1 by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the reauthorization bill, as it is called in Washington parlance, would call for Congress to increase spending on the NIH by as much as 5 percent a year beginning in the 2007 fiscal year, which starts in October. (Authorizing bills like this one set ceilings for spending but don't actually provide any money; those decisions are made by appropriations committees in the House and Senate, and at this point, both of those panels have proposed little or no increase in funds for the NIH for 2007.)
The bill passed by the energy committee, which groups such as the Association of American Universities and the Association of American Medical Colleges have endorsed, would also create a pool of funds, called a "common fund," designed to finance interdisciplinary research projects that involve at least two of the NIH's institutes or research centers. The legislation would require Congress to put 50 percent of any increased funds into the common fund during the life of the reauthorization bill.
Democrats proposed several amendments during Wednesday's longer-than-expected drafting session for the reauthorization bill. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) proposed a measure that would have encouraged Congress to increase the NIH's budget by up to 5 percent over and above the rate of "medical research inflation," which has been running in the 3-4 percent range. That would be the only way to ensure that the nation's hugely important biomedical research priorities get a "real 5 percent" increase in funding, Markey said.
But the proposal lost along party lines, as did another Markey amendment that would have ensured that the NIH's institutes and research centers received at least an inflationary increase before funds were diverted to the proposed new "common fund."
The most emotional debate of drafting session revolved around an amendment by two California Democrats, Rep. Henry A. Waxman and Rep. Lois Capps, that would have incorporated elements of a breast cancer research bill into the NIH reauthorization legislation.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), the committee's chairman, rebuffed the effort, saying that he had strived in crafting the legislation to avoid making any disease-specific mandates or directions to Congress. In an emotional exchange, Barton felt obliged to invoke a relative's death from breast cancer to show that he and other Republicans support research on breast cancer, and other members of his party accused Democrats of putting them in an untenable situation by trying to politicize the issue.
Democrats pressed Barton to commit to taking up the legislation on breast cancer separately, but he said he could not ensure that, either, given what he described as a long line of other organizations supporting specific diseases seeking similar treatment.
The measure passed by the Energy and Commerce Committee could hit the House floor as soon as next week, but its prospects for making it into law seem rather dim, given how little time the Senate would have to consider and pass a comparable measure before Congress adjourns for the year. Jennifer Poulakidas, vice president of Congressional affairs for the National Association of State University and Land-Grant Colleges, said college officials remain hopeful that the measure can somehow get through that gauntlet.