Congress may save medical research from Trump cuts, sparing a bright spot in Cleveland's economy

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President Donald Trump wanted a big cut to the National Institutes of Health. Congress isn't going along with it.

WASHINGTON -- Congress is working to save funding for medical research, a source of jobs and innovation in Northeast Ohio, from deep cuts President Donald Trump sought earlier this year.

While Trump's requested cuts were considered unlikely to be adopted fully by Congress, research groups sounded alarms anyway, saying the new president's first budget could undermine advances in cancer research and other work at places such as Case Western Reserve University, University Hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic.

The National Institutes of Health, an umbrella agency in the government that oversees numerous medical-research grants, awarded $734.2 million to Ohio universities and research centers in 2016, and $654.7 million so far this year, with the Cleveland area getting the state's biggest share.

Senate and House spending committees so far are ignoring many of the cuts on the president's wish list -- a list Trump aides had said was necessary to gain control over federal spending. Trump's budget documents, released in May, said research centers could save significantly just by reducing their overhead. 

Research groups scoffed. And lawmakers listened.

What the Trump budget cuts might have meant

Last Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved spending $36.1 billion for the National Institutes of Health, or $2 billion more than this year's allotment. That includes a $169 million hike for the National Cancer Institute.

This followed a $35.2 billion recommendation in July for NIH from the House Appropriations Committee, a $1.1 billion increase.

Both of these are starkly different from Trump's requested 21 percent cut for NIH.

Neither the House nor Senate bills are final. Traditionally, leaders in both chambers present the committee recommendations to their full memberships for a vote, and then House-Senate negotiators resolve the differences and present final figures for a last vote.

But Congress, unable to resolve so many viewpoints on spending and debt, may give up on the regular order of approvals. Instead, both chambers could pass a series of continuing resolutions through fiscal 2018 that keep next year's spending levels exactly where they are now, said Joshua Stewart, spokesman for Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Toledo Democrat and a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

If so, two points are important:

  • Current government spending levels are essentially the same as they were in 2016, Stewart said, although NIH got a $2 billion hike this year.
  • NIH's 2016 budget already had a boost -- but it was the first substantial one in a decade, according to United for Medical Research, a coalition of research institutions and health advocates. Researchers complained that funding until then was stagnant.

If current spending largely holds steady, this would be good news not only for researchers but also for advocates fearing reductions in a number of other federal programs, including education and public broadcasting. Separately, House budgeters have ignored Trump's request to eliminate further spending on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a long-term cleanup effort that has received up to $300 million a year.

Lawmakers want to keep cleaning up the Great Lakes, ignoring Trump's request for a cut

Fiscal conservatives say lawmakers are merely delaying inevitable pain by continuing to spend while refusing to pay heed to the long-term debt.

On the other side, a group called Research America says if it wasn't for budget caps approved by Congress amid fiscal concerns in 2011 and 2013, research spending would already be higher. The budget caps stifle medical progress as it is, Research America says.

Senate Democrats agree but say the current bill represents a bipartisan compomise. And groups including the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network praised the Senate appropriators for their work to boost 2018 research spending. The Senate committee vote Thursday was 29-2, with Republicans James Lankford of Oklahoma and Steve Daines of Montana voting no. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and Rob Portman, a Republican, are not on the committee.

"Increased federal research investment is essential to developing promising new diagnostic tests, treatments and therapies," the network said in a statement. The recommended $2 billion NIH increase "demonstrates the strong bipartisan commitment to continued scientific development against a disease that will claim the lives of more than 600,000 Americans this year."

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