There are many miles (and, more literally, possibly several months) to go before the federal budgeting process for the 2009 fiscal year is complete, and therefore much could change. But based on the initial signs, the latest of which came Tuesday when a Senate appropriations subcommittee drafted a spending bill for education, health and labor programs, the National Institutes of Health appears to be in line for the sort of hefty increase that biomedical research advocates have been begging for. Most student aid programs, however, would receive no new funds.
Under the legislation approved Tuesday by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies -- about which the panel released relatively few details -- the maximum Pell Grant would increase to $4,310, up $69 over the $4,261 amount that is in place this year and the same amount proposed by President Bush. (With the additional $490 per grant in federal mandatory funds that provided last year as part of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, the actual maximum grant for 2009 would rise to $4,800.) That is $100 less than the parallel House subcommittee recommended in its version of the education and health spending bill, which was approved last week.
Like the House panel, the Senate spending subcommittee would ward off President Bush's proposed cuts in a host of student aid and federal job training programs, but would provide little or no additional funds. Aides to the Senate panel said that its legislation would provide $10 million more to the TRIO programs for low-income students than the $828 million they are receiving this year, and $5 million more each for the Gear Up program ($303 million in 2008, a proposed $308 million in 2009) and Perkins Loan cancellations (up to $70.7 million in 2009).
Those numbers are sure to disappoint college lobbyists who care first and foremost about student financial aid. But research university officials and other advocates for scientific research were heartened by the Senate panel's embrace of a major boost for NIH, and the promise of its leaders to push for an even more significant increase before the federal budgeting process is complete.
The Senate bill would increase funds for the NIH to $30.254 billion, up from $28.9 billion in 2008. "This would allow us to keep up with the biomedical inflation rate for the first time in six years," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the subcommittee's chairman. The failure to fund the biomedical research agency in the years since Congress completed its effort to double the institutes' budget in 2003, has resulted in the United States "losing some of our most promising young researchers" to other countries or to other scientific fields, Harkin said.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the subcommittee's senior Republican, had harsh words for the government's "abandonment," as he called it, of the NIH and of biomedical research in recent years, and he suggested that he and Harkin were discussing possible "alternative" ways to finance the agency, although he declined to be specific.
The full committees in both chambers of Congress will meet Thursday to consider their versions of the health, education and labor bills, and leaders of both panels -- Harkin in the Senate and Rep. Dave Obey of Wisconsin in the House -- have vowed to get their bills to the full chambers this summer.
But the political dynamics, given that this is both an election year and the last of a lame-duck presidency, make that prospect very uncertain, and leave the fate of the legislation very much in doubt. President Bush has vowed -- as he did last year, leading Democrats in Congress to back down -- to veto any appropriations measures that exceed the spending limits he laid out in his budget plan in February.
The labor/health/education bills approved by both chambers blow past the president's limits by many billions of dollars, and the key questions will be whether President Bush will follow through on his veto threats and/or whether Democratic leaders in Congress will decide to wait out the president, delaying passage of expensive spending bills until after the election, with the hope that a new administration will view additional spending more favorably.