WASHINGTON — Congress easily approved a federal spending bill Friday with the biggest funding increase for the National Institutes of Health in 12 years — the final hurdle that had to be cleared before the long-awaited funding boost could become law.
President Barack Obama signed the massive spending bill into law Friday afternoon, after a day in which Congress moved with unusual speed to approve the legislation that will keep the federal government funded through Oct. 1.
The Senate cleared the bill on vote of 65 to 33, just hours after the $1.1 trillion bill passed the House. It also approved a package of tax breaks that includes a two-year pause in Obamacare’s medical device tax, giving device manufacturers a temporary break from the unpopular tax that many would like to eliminate permanently. The House passed that bill on Thursday.
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The House passage of the spending bill was always considered the most difficult step, since it needed a combination of Republican and Democratic votes — due to deep ideological concerns on both sides over other issues. It was uncertain as recently as Thursday that there would be enough votes.
By Friday, though, it wasn’t a problem. The legislation passed the House on a vote of 316 to 113, with a nearly even split of Republican and Democratic support. Ninety-five Republicans and 18 Democrats voted against it.
The bill gives NIH a $2 billion increase, including a $350 million increase dedicated to Alzheimer’s research, and it contains $200 million for the Precision Medicine Initiative and an $85 million increase for the BRAIN Initiative. It also includes a $303 million increase for programs to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In a statement, NIH director Francis Collins called the funding bill “the most encouraging budget outcome in 12 years.”
“This increase comes at just the right time to take advantage of remarkable opportunities to improve human health, powered by dramatic advances in scientific knowledge and technological innovation,” Collins said.
Here’s how the package breaks down:
Medical device tax: The tax bill would put Obamacare’s medical device tax on hold for two years, as part of a broader package of tax breaks. The change would give medical device makers temporary relief from the 2.3 percent tax on the sales price of medical devices that has been in place since January 2013.
It’s not the full repeal that medical device manufacturers have been requesting for years, but it’s a small victory for the opponents of the tax — including most Republicans and some Democrats who represent states with strong medical device industries, like Minnesota and Massachusetts.
Research tax credit: The tax bill would also make the research and development tax credit permanent, a change that Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the tax-writing Finance Committee, called “a booster shot for the innovation economy in America.”
Until now, Congress has only managed to keep the tax credit alive through a series of temporary extensions. The credit, which helps companies with increases in research expenses, is expected to cost the federal government $113 billion over 10 years.
Gun violence research: House Democrats had made the end of the restrictions on gun violence research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a top priority, but the final spending package leaves the restrictions in place. “Too many times, the Republicans say we can’t make a decision on this because we don’t have the data,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at a press conference last week. “Well, let’s get the data. Lift the ban.”
According to a history compiled by the American Psychological Association, the ban stemmed from a 1993 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study, which was funded by the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention, found that keeping a gun in one’s home led to an increased risk of homicide by a family member or close acquaintance.
The National Rifle Association launched a public-relations campaign in response to the study, seeking to have the injury-prevention subagency completely eliminated. That didn’t happen, but in 1996 then-Representative Jay Dickey, an Arkansas Republican, had an amendment inserted into a government spending bill that barred CDC funding from being used for research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” The spending bill also redirected funding that had previously been used for firearm research.
The provision has been kept in government spending bills ever since. While it isn’t an explicit prohibition on gun violence studies, it has in effect prevented any government funding from being used for any such research. Dickey said in a letter this month that he “regrets” his role in restricting CDC studies and argued that Congress should “slowly but methodically fund such research.”
E-cigarettes: The legislation dropped a provision to rein in an upcoming Food and Drug Administration regulation on e-cigarettes by limiting its premarket reviews, which are supposed to prove that potentially risky products are safe. The proposal, included in an earlier version of the bill, would have prevented the agency from requiring premarket reviews of any e-cigarettes that are already being sold in stores.
The provision was part of the House version of the bill, and was added after Republicans complained that the premarket review process is lengthy and bad for businesses. But it comes at a time when the public is convinced that e-cigarettes are bad for people’s health, a view that is driving strong support across party lines for new government regulations.
Genetically engineered salmon: The bill orders the FDA not to allow genetically engineered salmon to be sold until it develops guidelines for labeling it so consumers know what it is.