WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans said on Tuesday that they’re open to boosting federal funding for cancer research, as the Obama administration proposed the day before. But they aren’t willing to simply rubberstamp the $755 million that the White House is asking for in the next fiscal year.
Perhaps with that in mind, the administration’s lobbying push is already underway. Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, who chairs the panel that oversees medical research spending, told STAT that he would meet later this week with aides to Vice President Joe Biden to discuss increasing cancer research funding. President Barack Obama placed Biden in charge of the cancer task force he created last week.
Obama also broached the subject in a Tuesday meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a White House aide told STAT.
In addition, Biden spoke on the phone Monday with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, who tweeted about the exchange on Tuesday, according to an aide to the vice president.
Based on interviews with key House members, it appears the administration’s request to fund its so-called National Cancer Moonshot will succeed or fail based on the usual variables in any spending debate: offsets and discretionary versus mandatory spending.
“We’re all in favor of increasing funding for cancer research,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia. “The problem that the administration has is that they always want to add funding on, they never want to decrease funding somewhere else. That’s what needs to happen.”
There is recent precedent for compromise, though: Congress increased funding for the National Institutes of Health by $2 billion in the government spending bill that Obama signed in December, including a $264 million boost for the National Cancer Institute — the biggest increase in more than a decade.
Cole said that the full spectrum of the Republican conference could likely support some kind of new funding for cancer research, but the proposal’s viability would depend on the details.
He has already identified one potential hiccup: The White House wants to make the cancer research money mandatory spending, meaning that it would not be subject to Congress’s appropriations process. Cole said he would prefer that the funding be discretionary, so it would go through that process.
“It’s an area hopefully we can work on,” Cole said, adding that he hadn’t yet seen the specifics of the administration’s proposal. “It says mandatory, and that’s going to be very tough to do … It’s tough because that money ought to be going to deficit reduction.”
“It’s a worthy expenditure,” he continued. “You’ve got to wonder how much it’s political in this year, but again, what I’m interested in is can we steadily increase the funding for science and biomedical research across the board?”
Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, who heads the subcommittee in charge of medical research spending in the upper chamber, raised the same issue.
“I think a lot of what they’re asking for is in mandatory funding,” he said, noting he was still waiting on specifics. “But I hope we can continue to do more health care research.”
Biden’s involvement could make a difference, Cole said. The vice president personally lobbied Blunt on the December spending bill that included an increase for NIH and NCI.
“It’s very helpful, it’s very helpful,” Cole said. “The guy knows how this place works.”
The House also signaled significant support for boosting medical research funding in the 21st Century Cures bill, which included a $2 billion annual increase for NIH and which passed the lower chamber with 344 votes in July.
The bill hasn’t gone anywhere in the Senate, where leaders have said that they will instead take a piecemeal approach to medical innovation legislation — which could imperil bipartisan support for the general package of policies. But House Energy and Commerce committee members, including Upton and Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, who chairs the health subcommittee, see the administration’s moonshot as a chance to build momentum for the Cures bill.
The administration’s proposal “is consistent with that,” Pitts said.
Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who chairs the health committee drafting the medical innovation bills, appeared open to the administration’s request, saying that he hoped the funding could be rolled into the package that his committee is working on.
“I’m looking forward to working with Vice President Biden, (Health and Human Services) Secretary Burwell, and the president on cancer research,” Alexander told STAT. “What we need to do is Senator (Patty) Murray and I need to work together to get our biomedical bill out of our committee in a bipartisan way. It should include the cancer proposal by the president. It should include the Precision Medicine Initiative that the president wants.”