Yesterday, the Senate Subcommittee on Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations approved a FY14 spending bill that includes $30.955 billion for the National Institutes of Health. The figure would put the NIH budget 1% above its pre-sequester (FY12) level. The allocation includes $40 million that President Obama requested for the BRAIN initiative. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research is provided $409.9 million in the bill, which would represent level funding with FY13 -if not for the 5% reduction this year due to the sequester. Despite this encouraging step, NIH and most of the other discretionary items in the federal budget will be under considerable threat during the remainder of the FY14 appropriations process. The Senate Subcommittee on Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations was able to provide NIH and other line-items a boost largely because it is operating with considerably higher top-line budget number, as compared with its House counterpart. The Senate Appropriations Chair, Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), advanced top-line budget numbers for the various appropriations subcommittees/bills that assume a replacement to sequestration will be adopted. To say that is a big assumption would be a considerable understatement. Republicans in the Senate have pledged to block floor consideration of any of the FY14 appropriations bills, as they violate current spending caps that sequestration is helping to achieve.
Over on the House side of the Hill, the appropriations bills are being drafted in accordance with the overall spending cap that accounts for sequestration. In an effort to boost defense spending in FY14, deeper cuts have been proposed for many of the other appropriations bills. The House cap for the FY14 Labor-HHS-Education spending bill was cut by 18% on top of reductions already taken in March. As a result, it is expected that if a bill is released, it will contain significant cuts for agencies like NIH.
With the House and the Senate on very different tracks in the FY14 appropriations process, it’s anybody’s guess as to how the process concludes. In AADR Governement Affairs Department meetings on Capitol Hill, staffers to influential appropriators have conveyed a lack of clarity as to an endgame for the FY14 process. At this point, it is clear that a temporary funding bill (known as a continuing resolution) will be needed to keep the government open on October 1st, and around the same time an increase in the nation’s debt limit will need to be approved in order for current obligations to continue to be met. The convergence creates an opportunity for a large budget deal, which some refer to as a Grand Bargain, or continued piecemeal measures to avoid crises.