New Tactic on Stem Cell Studies

Approving spending bill for NIH and education programs, Senate panel aims to expand the research through a date change.
June 22, 2007

The Senate Appropriations Committee overwhelmingly approved a 2008 spending bill Thursday that, as expected, would increase funds for the National Institutes of Health by $1 billion but keep most higher education programs at their 2007 levels. But the committee's action Thursday may be most noteworthy because of two tactical policy proposals made by committee members.

Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), respectively the chairman and senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, included in the legislation that their colleagues on the full committee approved Thursday a provision that would have expanded the number of "lines" of embryonic stem cells scientists could study using federal funds through some legislative sleight of hand.

A day after President Bush vetoed broad legislation that would have significantly expanded such research, Harkin and Specter proposed allowing researchers to study all stem cell lines that had already been derived as of June 15, 2007, instead of August 9, 2001, the date set in President Bush's original executive order restricting the promising but controversial research.

Harkin called the date set by the president "arbitrary," set because that was the date on which Bush gave a speech on the subject, and noted that the change would expand the number of stem cell lines available by researchers by almost 400, up from the current 21, only some of which are of significant value.

Committee members overwhelmingly approved the bill by a vote of 26-3, but several Republicans said they would oppose the stem cell provision on the Senate floor. "Moving the date is the easy way out" of a contentious public policy debate that is dividing the country, said Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho.

The other policy-related provision that was tucked into the bill, put there at the urging of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), would block Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and her department from using any funds to carry out proposed regulations on higher education accreditation, which many college and accrediting officials oppose. The House version of the Education Department spending bill included a “limitation” that similarly would prevent the department from carrying out any forthcoming accreditation rules.

A staff member for the Appropriations Committee said the perceived need for the provision might have eased Wednesday when Spellings sent a letter to members of the Senate education committee saying that she did not plan to issue accreditation regulations "at this time." But the Spellings letter did not specifically say that she would not issue new rules until after Congress has addressed accreditation in new legislation to extend the Higher Education Act, as lawmakers requested this month.

The core of the Senate appropriations bill -- setting spending levels for the 2008 fiscal year for health, education and labor programs -- was unchanged from the measure approved Tuesday by the subcommittee that Harkin and Specter lead. Describing the legislation Thursday, both men said they had hoped to have more funds available to spend on education programs and particularly on the National Institutes of Health, which would see its budget increase to $29.9 billion from this year's $28.9 billion.

"We've made allocations as best we can," said Specter. "I wish we had more the for the National Institutes of Health," to help it continue to make "remarkable advances" on a range of diseases and other health problems. "A billion-dollar increase barely keeps up with the cost of living."

Specter on Thursday also sought to reassure advocates for graduate medical education that although the Senate bill would provide more than $100 million less for such programs than the parallel House bill would, senators were committed to ensuring that Congress's final product would end up closer to the House bill's $309 million total. "You ought not to be worried about [the $200 million] figure" in the Senate bill, he said.

College officials are hopeful, too, that the Senate's generally lower figures on most student aid and other higher education programs will give way to the House's significantly higher ones when lawmakers from the two chambers sit down to work out compromise legislation later in the summer.

The Senate panel proposed leaving the maximum Pell Grant award at $4,310, a level Congress set in its catchall spending bill for the 2007 fiscal year -- far less than the $4,600 President Bush requested in February for his 2008 budget plan and than the $4,700 the House proposed in its 2008 spending bill.

But the committee members did so on the assumption that they will ultimately be able to increase the maximum grant to at least the amount Bush sought, through the forthcoming “budget reconciliation” legislation (drafted this week by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee). Using the budget reconciliation tactic, Senate Democrats intend to slash subsidies to student loan providers -- under fire from members of Congress and because of several investigations into student lending practices -- and redirect the proceeds to increase grant and other funds for students.

At the same drafting session on Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved another spending bill that would increase funds for the National Endowment for Humanities to $146.3 million in 2008, up from the $141 million it is receiving this year. That is far less than the $160 million that the House Appropriations Committee would provide in legislation it approved this month.

Also on Thursday, Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.), the senior Republican on the Senate HELP Committee, urged Senate Democrats to take up the budget reconciliation measure together with legislation to renew the Higher Education Act, because to do otherwise would leave many important policy changes undone. "We cannot just make cuts to in the student lending markets,” Enzi said. “We need to pass the necessary reforms of the Higher Education Act reauthorization bill to ensure that these changes benefit students.... This is the first major overhaul of the Higher Education Act since 1998, and we must have ample time for a meaningful debate on these two bills when they come to the floor of the Senate,” Enzi said.


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