Inside (the Beltway) Scoop

By | March 24, 2016

Congress to Begin Work on Fiscal Year 2017 Spending Bills in April; Senate Committee Continues To Make Progress on Medical Innovation Legislation

Capitol Hill will be quiet for the next two weeks as members of Congress observe spring break ahead of what is expected to be a busy period of legislative activity over the next few months. Senators will be back in Washington on April 4 followed by Representatives on April 12. When lawmakers return, they will turn their attention to the fiscal year (FY) 2017 spending bills in the hope of completing action on them by mid-July.

The House Appropriations Committee got a slight head start this week, considering the measure that funds the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical and Prosthetic Research Program. A draft bill providing $663.3 million for VA research was approved by the Military Construction-VA Subcommittee on March 23. This funding represents a 5.1 percent increase ($32.6 million) over the FY 2016 enacted level and is slightly less than the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s recommendation.

The full House Appropriations Committee is expected to consider the Military Construction-VA bill following the recess. House appropriators are also likely to receive their 302(b) allocations (subcommittee spending limits) around the same time, providing the first look at how the $1.07 trillion in total discretionary funding will be divided among various agencies and programs.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Appropriations Committee is planning to move forward on the spending bills as well. Several of the Senate subcommittee chairmen said they will reject attempts to add controversial policy statements to appropriations legislation because they recognize that Democrats and President Obama will oppose them, complicating efforts to pass all 12 of the bills. Although the Senate’s appropriations schedule has not been announced, the subcommittees were told they will get their 302(b) allocations around April 15.

In good news for research advocates, Senate Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) told reporters he wants to provide another $1 or $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in FY 2017. He noted, “If we want to establish a pattern for health research funding, the second year is the place where that has to start.” However, Blunt made it clear that the size of the increase for NIH will depend on the subcommittee’s 302(b) allocation.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee also discussed NIH funding. During a March 9 meeting, the HELP Committee considered  bills related to their ongoing medical innovation agenda. Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) called for a compromise on the President’s proposal to provide mandatory funding for NIH as a way to increase the agency’s budget. The Chairman said he could support an effort to use mandatory funds for specific, time-limited projects like the Precision Medicine Initiative. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and other Democrats on the HELP Committee expressed their concerns about expanding NIH and FDA’s authority without providing additional budgetary resources.

Following the discussion of mandatory funding for NIH, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asked for and then withdrew a request for a vote on her new bill, the National Biomedical Research Act (S 2624). The legislation would establish a $5 billion per year mandatory fund for NIH and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In related news, last week Senators Alexander and Murray introduced the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health Workforce Authorities Modernization Act (S 2700). The bill relaxes regulatory restrictions on federal employee travel to scientific meetings, includes provisions to make it easier for NIH and the FDA to recruit top scientists, and exempts NIH research that relies on voluntary data collection from the Paperwork Reduction Act. It will be considered by the HELP Committee on April 6.