Early Actions by the 112th Congress
A prolonged struggle to set government spending levels has highlighted ideological and pragmatic differences within the 112th Congress. The new Congress inherited a budget impasse from the last Congress, which was unable to pass legislation to allocate funds for government operations for the full 2011 fiscal year (FY). Instead, before adjourning, the 111th Congress enacted a series of continuing resolutions to maintain most government agencies, including NIH, at FY 2010 appropriations levels. The last of these stopgap funding measures, Public Law 111-322, which was passed on December 21, provided funds through March 4 and ceded appropriations responsibility for the remainder of FY 2011 to the 112th Congress.
The new Congress, with a narrowed Democratic majority in the Senate and a new Republican majority in the House, is divided on budget management strategies and the role of government in American life. In line with Republican priorities, the House introduced a long-term continuing resolution (HR 1) to fund the government through the remaining 7 months of the fiscal year. Floor debate began on February 15 with an unusual open rule that allowed members to offer amendments within specified limits. After sorting through hundreds of amendments, voting on 153, and adopting 67, the House voted mostly along party lines to pass HR 1 in the early hours of February 19. The bill contains more than $60 billion in cuts from FY 2010 spending levels, including a $1.6 billion reduction for NIH, and includes several provisions that block funding associated with the implementation of health care reform.
Senate Democrats have joined their colleagues in the House in opposing the deep spending cuts described in HR 1, and President Obama has also expressed opposition to the bill. On March 4 Senate appropriators proposed an alternative version of the bill that features approximately $6.5 billion in cuts. The Senate version would freeze funding for many government agencies, including NIH, at 2010 levels.
Both the House and Senate versions of the year-long continuing resolution could significantly constrain NIH’s ability to support new research. The proposed reductions in the House version span all NIH Institutes and Centers, and are based on projected total funding and projected funding for non-competing research project grants. At the same time, the bill would require NIH to fund a minimum of 9,000 new competing research project grants and would place a $400,000 cap on the average annual cost for competing research project grants.
The Senate version maintains funding at FY 2010 levels and does not impose requirements about numbers of grants or funding levels. However, the rising costs of biomedical research and commitments to research projects already underway could reduce the level of support available for new grantees in FY 2011, although less dramatically than the House version would.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced his intention to hold test votes on both versions of the continuing resolution this week. Neither version is expected to pass; the maneuver is designed to demonstrate the necessity for bipartisan compromise.
Lawmakers now have less than 2 weeks to find some common ground and reach an agreement about FY 2011 appropriations. The Congress imposed a new deadline by quickly passing a 2-week continuing resolution just as the last one was set to expire. This latest stopgap measure (H J Res 44; PL 112–4), which was signed by President Obama on March 2, contained $4 billion in spending cuts palatable to both parties. Many government agencies, including NIH, will continue operating at FY 2010 levels until this continuing resolution expires on March 18 or until an agreement for either a long-term solution or another stopgap reprieve can be reached.