WASHINGTON -- The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate says he won't support a government funding bill this fall if it does not include relief from spending cuts brought about by sequestration.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he is deeply concerned about the effect such a bill would have, particularly on biomedical research. Should lawmakers bring back sequestration this fall -- a scenario that would happen if they simply extended current law because the partial sequestration relief in effect now is set to end in October -- it would have to happen without his vote.
"I couldn’t [vote for it]. I couldn’t. I’ve seen it, I lived through it. It was supposed to be a threat so awful it never happened. And yet we stumbled into it and stuck with it," said Durbin. "You don’t hear too many people saying I’m going to fight sequestration because non-defense is going to get cut too much. It is worth a fight at that point."
In pledging to vote against any bill that brings back sequestration, Durbin joins a growing number of lawmakers drawing lines in the sand when it comes to the next big appropriations battle. A week and a half ago, President Barack Obama said he would not sign a government funding bill that includes those sequestration cuts.
Together, these statements have dramatically raised the stakes for negotiations over the summer and into the fall. The government will run out of money by the end of September. If lawmakers fall back on passing a resolution to continue current law -- and, thus, bring back sequestration -- the president would be left with the choice of sticking to his principles or seeing the government shut down.
Durbin's declaration suggests that such a bill wouldn't make it that far. With unity in the Senate, Democrats could force Republicans to the negotiating table.
One top concern, particularly for Durbin, is the effect sequestration could have on the National Institutes of Health -- the biggest federal funder of biomedical research.
"I fear for the future of biomedical research because we’ll discourage people from going into the field," said Durbin. "Then there's just this whole world of opportunity that will be lost. You know, it just strikes me as so obvious that this not only saves money, it alleviates human suffering."
There is no estimate for how many grants would be lost at the NIH if sequestration returns. Officials would have to wait to see what appropriators do. But in an interview with The Huffington Post, NIH Director Francis Collins said his team has calculated that it would lose $19 billion over the next 10 years if nothing is done to alleviate sequestration.
"What really matters to us is that we get beyond this 12-year gradual slide [in funding] which has put us now at the most difficult point in history as far as our ability to fund the grants that come into us and get us back on a trajectory that will make America once again the leader in this effort, which we are at serious risk of losing," said Collins.
The good news, added Collins, is that there appears to be bipartisan appetite to change current law. At a recent joint event of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and Stand Up To Cancer, several congressional Republicans said they wanted to see the NIH's budget increased. One self-avowed conservative said he wouldn't even care if that increase was offset.
That same day, however, House Republicans submitted a budget that included steep domestic spending cuts -- below even the caps established by sequestration. And while Republicans on the Budget Committee didn't specify at what level NIH funding should be set under those guidelines, it would likely have to shrink.
According to an analysis put together for HuffPost by the Obama administration's Office of Management and Budget, it is anticipated that the NIH would suffer a 1.5 percent reduction in spending under the Republican budget passed by the House last week, assuming that the cuts were spread evenly among non-defense discretionary funds. Adjusting for cost growth, that total would result in an estimated 135 fewer competitive grants awarded in the next fiscal year, the OMB analysis concluded.
Durbin expressed optimism that enough Republican lawmakers would be willing to philosophically break with the budget they just passed in order to raise federal investments in this area. He has introduced the American Innovation Act, a bill to provide an annual budget increase of 5 percent to five federal agencies that fund science research. He also expressed some openness to the idea of making funding for the NIH mandatory, as opposed to discretionary. And he didn't rule out a proposal from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that would create a proverbial swear jar for big pharmaceutical companies, in which they would pay into a fund for NIH research each time they broke the law and settled suits brought by the federal government.
"She’s talked to me about it," he said. "And PhARMA has talked to me about it. And I’ve said I don’t know how much predictability there is in that kind of sourcing as to how much they’re going to be penalized each year. But I’ve said to her that I’m open to suggestions. I’m really agnostic on sources here. And I’ve said to PhARMA, 'You don’t like that idea then give me a better one.'"
A more likely resolution, however, will come in the form of a bipartisan bill that only partially relieves sequestration -- a replica of the deal cut by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in 2013, which remains in effect until October. Ryan, last week, said he'd be open to something similar again. And some of the more hawkish Republican senators have said they'd be willing to give in on issues like raising revenue if it meant saving defense spending from the sequester.
Told that his ultimatum that non-defense spending get relief made him a liberal equivalent of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Durbin replied, "I'm honored to be compared."
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