Senate Plan Portends Budget Battles

Spending bill for 2016 would lift NIH funding by $2 billion, but divert Pell money and block Obama regulatory efforts in higher education.

June 24, 2015

A U.S. Senate subcommittee on Tuesday passed a spending bill for health, labor and education programs that would increase funds for biomedical research and boost the maximum Pell Grant -- but slash spending on workforce training and AmeriCorps and block the Obama administration from implementing regulations relating to gainful employment for vocational programs and its college rating system.

Like a parallel bill approved last week by a House of Representatives panel, the 2016 spending bill backed by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies would raise the maximum Pell Grant to $5,915 in the fiscal year that begins in October, up from the current $5,775.

But it would also take a big bite ($300 million) out of the surplus funds that the Congressional Budget Office estimates will be available for the program, shuffling that money for other purposes while potentially leaving the Pell program short in future years. The House bill would snag $370 million in Pell funds.

The appropriations subcommittee released no text or budget table for the legislation, so the details that are available are from news releases, representing what Republican and Democratic leaders on the panel chose to emphasize.

Senate Democrats said that the legislation would cut $29 million from the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant Program and $40 million from the Federal Work Study Program. Those programs would be held at their current 2015 levels by the House legislation.

Like the House bill, the Senate measure would prohibit the Education Department from using any newly appropriated funds for new or pending regulations that, in its words, expand "the federal government’s role in higher education, until Congress has an opportunity to weigh in through the authorization process, as appropriate." The bill would block the department from acting to implement the proposed college rating system, define gainful employment, establish requirements for state authorization of higher education programs, define the credit hour and change how teacher education programs are regulated.

The Senate Democrats' news release also said the legislation would freeze funds for the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights "at a time when its workload is rapidly increasing -- particularly in the area of campus sexual violence. OCR currently receives about 10,000 complaints per year, up from roughly 6,900 in 2010," the release said, while its budget is below its 2012 level.

Senate Democrats said the bill would cut funding for workforce training programs, but no details were available. They also said the legislation would cut spending on the AmeriCorps national service program by about 20 percent.

The measure would increase spending for the National Institutes of Health to $32 billion, up sharply from the $30.1 billion the biomedical research agency is receiving this year and "the largest increase the NIH has received" since 2003, when an effort to double its funding ended.

The bill would provide "increases to every institute and center to continue investments in innovative research that will advance fundamental knowledge and speed the development of new therapies, diagnostics and preventive measures to improve the health of all Americans," Senate Republicans said in their announcement about the measure.


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