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As Congress resumed negotiations on the federal budget this week, higher education advocates are once again pressing lawmakers to end automatic spending cuts, which they’ve said are devastating to scientific research.  

Representatives from both chambers and political parties gathered on Wednesday for the first formal budget talks since Congress reached an agreement earlier this month to reopen the government after a 16-day shutdown and to temporarily raise the nation’s borrowing authority.  

One of the biggest sticking points in the negotiations is over what to do with the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration. Earlier this year, those cuts reduced federal spending on research by more than $1 billion. With fewer research grants available, universities have had to scale back research activities and in some cases lay off researchers and close laboratories.

The stopgap legislation that is currently funding the government left in place the sequester cuts that took effect earlier this year, but that funding measure expires on January 15 -- the same day that another round of budget reductions are slated to kick in unless Congress acts to stop them.

The members of the panel have a self-imposed December 13 deadline to reach an agreement, but unlike previous such high-stakes negotiations, there would be no penalty for missing that deadline. The committee, co-chaired by Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington, is tasked with resolving the $91 billion gap between the budgets proposed by the two chambers. It is also supposed to discuss longer-term deficit reduction, but leaders from both parties on Wednesday dialed back expectations that the committee will achieve any type of “grand bargain” in the next month and a half. 

Funding for research or individual higher education or student aid programs likely won’t be a factor in the negotiations, but the top-line funding level that the two chambers finalize -- assuming they are able to come to an agreement at all -- will be significant, advocates for education funding said.

“The biggest issue for higher education groups right now is to make sure that the overall non-defense, discretionary pool is not damaged further,” said Jonathan Fansmith, associate director of government relations at the American Council on Education. “There is no more room for further cuts there.”

The House-passed Republican budget would cap discretionary spending at $967 billion -- below the current spending level carried forward into this year, $986 billion. That budget would also lessen the burden on defense programs by shifting most of the cuts to other areas of the budget, which include education and research. The Senate, meanwhile, has proposed removing the sequestration cuts for the rest of the current fiscal year and setting a top-line level of discretionary spending at $1.058 trillion. A Senate committee, working within that level, has proposed boosting funding for the National Institutes of Health and raising the maximum Pell Grant award.

Its counterparts on the House side, working within the House’s budget framework, would have nearly 25 percent less funding to divide among the agencies within the health, labor and education section of the budget. The House Appropriations Committee did not release how it would have divided up those cuts.

The current budget fights, however, will be over aggregate spending levels.

“That top-line number is the most important thing to us right now,” said Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella lobbying group for education groups. “By the time anyone is down to lobbying on Pell Grants or TRIO or anything else at the program level, you’ve already lost the whole battle because the battle is over the overall pot of money.”

Under the most likely worst-case scenario, Packer said, Congress would continue funding the government at the current level, which includes the sequester cuts from earlier this year. In that situation, defense programs would bear the brunt of the second round of sequester cuts slated for January 15, leaving about the same amount of money for higher education and research funding as this past fiscal year.

“Even if there is not an additional dollar cut for next year, I think the impact will be greater, because a lot of places, such as a college dealing with less research funding, were able to do one-time things -- deferring maintenance, cutting back on travel, leaving positions open.” He said. “But you can’t continue doing those one-time things.”

Engaging on Broader Issues

As the budget process has grown more unpredictable over the past several years, lobbyists who advocate for higher education programs and research funding are increasingly finding themselves engaging with members of Congress on larger-scale fiscal issues beyond their narrow interests.

 “It’s hard to advocate in business-as-usual terms because business is certainly not operating on usual terms,” Fansmith said. “The difficulty is that you’re looking at a high-level negotiation, above the level of detail of the programs we advocate for, but we want to be involved in the bigger picture as well.”

One recent case in point is the Association of American Universities, which represents the interests of the nation’s leading research universities. The group’s president, Hunter Rawlings, appeared earlier this month alongside former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and business leaders at a news conference organized by the anti-deficit “Fix the Debt” campaign.

Rawlings used his appearance there to push the group’s Innovation Deficit campaign -- a joint venture with the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities that calls on lawmakers to boost federal investment in research and higher education to maintain global competitiveness.

In an interview, Rawlings said his participation in the “Fix the Debt” event was, in part, a realistic recognition that research funding, in the long term, cannot be sustained without solving some of the larger-scale fiscal problems the nation faces.

Aside from pressing for an end the sequester cuts, Rawlings said the AAU has also been lobbying for Congress to address mandatory spending, such as Social Security and Medicare.

“We realize that means that so-called entitlement programs are then under scrutiny, but we think there are ways to do that that don’t hurt vulnerable Americans,” he said. “This is not a new message, but something we’ve been saying for the past several years. It’s unrealistic to say we can protect research funding without addressing mandatory spending programs.”

But even as Rawlings and other higher education advocates aim to broaden their message, the budget negotiations starting this week are unlikely to yield any major solutions to long-term fiscal problems. Instead, the immediate focus, lobbyists said, is on reversing the sequester.

“If you don’t get rid of sequester cuts now, it’s likely you won’t get rid of them for the next year or so, since next year is an election year,” said Packer, the CEF president. “The next six weeks or so is our best chance.”

“This next six weeks are a high priority for advocacy,” Rawlings added. “After that, we’ll be either further stuck in the mud or we’ll begin to climb out.” 

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