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Research advocates watch, warily, as Congress tries to finish its budget outline

Congress returns to work today after a 2-week recess, and a top priority for House of Representatives and Senate Republican leaders is reconciling their versions of a largely symbolic but politically sensitive budget plan.

Many research advocates are watching the machinations closely.

In general, science boosters loathe the spending blueprints approved last month by the House and Senate. That’s because they would, if implemented, squeeze federal funding for civilian research over the long term. But they are also hoping any final plan—if lawmakers can agree on one—will retain some language they like, including provisions that promote a funding boost for biomedical research and call on officials to respond to the threat of climate change.

The budget plan—technically known as a budget resolution—is intended to be Congress’s overall spending blueprint for the coming decade, starting with the 2016 fiscal year that begins 1 October. The two bodies are supposed to agree on a final version by 15 April. But the resolution is nonbinding, and there is no penalty for failing to meet the deadline. Indeed, Congress has essentially skipped writing a budget resolution in recent years, as partisan gridlock took hold.

After Republicans took over leadership of both the House and Senate in the 2014 elections, however, they made returning to “regular order” a priority—and that meant trying to produce a budget for the first time since 2010. Besides setting target spending levels for the relatively more powerful appropriations committees, the resolution serves as a parade banner that lawmakers can use to highlight their spending and policy priorities for the public and to draw contrasts with political opponents.

This year, both of those goals were on full display as Republicans and Democrats skirmished over the resolutions and offered amendments aimed at forcing lawmakers to take votes that might later show up in election campaign ads. In the end, the Republican majorities in the House and Senate succeeded in pushing through bills (H. Con. Res. 27 andS. Con. Res 11) designed to highlight their commitment to a strong national defense, curbing federal nondefense spending, and slashing deficits over the next decade.

Both bills, for example, technically adhere to strict caps on 2016 discretionary spending that were established by a 2011 law called the Budget Control Act (BCA). But they find ways to push up defense spending while limiting nondefense spending to roughly $493 billion in 2016. In addition, both bills call for future cuts to nondefense spending, in the years after 2017, to levels even lower than those envisioned by the BCA. “If enacted, these reductions would undoubtedly have ripple effects on science agency budgets,” noted Matt Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider), in an18 March blog post.

Luckily, Hourihan notes, such threats are often hollow. Budget resolution plans for “future years don’t matter all that much,” he writes, because appropriators can ignore them—in this case, putting off any real pain while claiming credit for being tough on spending. Such a strategy “lets the budget resolutions do their job as political documents, without requiring the difficult votes to actually enact them,” Hourihan writes.

A climate vote-a-rama

Spending and defense hawks weren’t the only one trying to use the budget resolutions to their political advantage—advocates for science funding, action on climate change, and a host of other research-related issues made a push, too.

In the Senate, for instance, lawmakers offered more than 40 amendments during a marathon, 15-hour voting session on the budget resolution (dubbed a vote-a-rama by Washington insiders). Many of the votes held on 26 and 27 March featured hot-button issues such as gay marriage, Obamacare, and minimum-wage rates. One way to view these votes,Bloomberg Government’s Brian Failer wrote in a 22 March preview to the vote-a-rama is “as a dare—one party forcing the other to go on record.”

In that spirit, Senators reprised earlier battles over climate science. Several amendments from senators concerned about climate change failed. But lawmakers approved, 53 to 47, Senator Michael Bennet's (D–CO) amendment asking the government to respond to the "economic and national security threats posed by human-induced climate change."

Opponents to government action on climate change also got in on the action. An amendment from Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO) that would bar a carbon tax passed on a 58 to 42 vote, with all Republicans and four coal- and oil-state Democrats voting in favor.

A push for NIH

Also making some noise were biomedical research advocates. Senator Jerry Moran (R–KS) successfully offered an amendment that would allow Congress to steer more funding to disease research—if the extra spending doesn’t add to the deficit. These so-called deficit- or spending-neutral reserve funds have become a popular way for lawmakers to show support for a cause—without immediately having to find new money. Overall, the House and Senate resolutions contain nearly 200 such funding statements, according to analysts.

But Moran’s deficit-neutral provision includes a phrase that pleased advocates, calling for “increasing funding to account for inflation.” In essence, that is code for restoring the billions of dollars in buying power that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has lost since 2003 as a result of the rising costs of biomedical research.

NIH advocates were particularly were happy to see Moran’s move draw heavily bipartisan support. “Whatever else happens, to have these Senate leaders speaking up and supporting NIH means a great deal and we hope it will further strengthen arguments for restoring NIH funding as the FY16 budget and appropriations process continues,” says Pat White of ACT for NIH, a Washington, D.C.–based advocacy group.

The House version of the budget resolution also contains a long policy statement describing the importance of funding U.S. biomedical research, but it does not mention an increase in funding. NIH supporters see that as weaker and are hoping the Senate wording prevails in any final resolution.

Tough negotiations

It’s not clear, however, that House and Senate Republicans will be able to agree on a final product. The two head negotiators—Senator Mike Enzi (R–WY) and Representative Tom Price (R–GA), the leaders of the Senate and House budget panels respectively—have said they want to meet the 15 April deadline.

But the two bills have key differences that could prove insurmountable, including how they pay for the extra defense spending, deal with efforts to overturn Obamacare, fund politically sensitive health programs, and deal with nondefense cuts. One option, many Congress watchers say, is for negotiators to simply strip the budget plan of all of its controversial details and for both bodies to pass a simplified version that mostly sets the overall spending target—$1.12 trillion—and a few other bottom-line numbers. That would tell the 12 spending bills that fund the government learn exactly how much money they have to play with, so they can start writing specific budget plans.

That is where the process has largely stalled in recent years, however, with or without a budget resolution. One reason: Appropriators often find they have too little money to satisfy all parties, so decline to produce a bill they know is doomed to failure. When that happens, lawmakers tend to end up combining most of the bills in massive spending measures rushed to passage late in the game—often with spending levels that bear little relation to those included in any budget resolution.

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