Powerful Republican lawmakers reject Trump’s plan to cut medical research funding

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., says Congress isn’t likely to go along with President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to medical research. Blunt serves on a key committee that sets funding levels for the National Institutes of Health.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., says Congress isn’t likely to go along with President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to medical research. Blunt serves on a key committee that sets funding levels for the National Institutes of Health. AP

President Donald Trump’s plan to slash federal funding for medical research will go nowhere, thanks to opposition from powerful Republican lawmakers.

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, who chair key committees that set funding levels for the National Institutes of Health, will push instead for Congress to increase the institutes’ annual $32 billion budget, they told McClatchy.

The two veteran GOP lawmakers hope to convince the White House to join their efforts to boost NIH spending by at least $20 billion over 10 years. The total annual budget for NIH by the end of that period would then be about $50 billion.

If they succeed, it would represent a complete reversal of Trump’s position last month, when he asked for nearly $6 billion in cuts to the NIH’s fiscal 2018 budget, a 19 percent decrease. Trump also recommended an additional $1.2 billion cut in NIH research grants in fiscal 2017 to help offset spending he’s requested for defense and his promised border wall.

“That proposal will not be well received in the Congress,” Blunt said. “I just don’t think you want to argue that we’re doing X — almost no matter what X is — as opposed to cancer research or Alzheimer’s research.”

“We can give you other places to cut,” Cole said.

The White House Office of Management and Budget vigorously defended the proposed cuts.

“Fighting disease and helping patients is a central function of NIH,” OMB spokesman John Czwartacki said in a statement. “We need to ensure that every tax dollar is spent to achieve those goals and not wasted on unnecessary administrative costs that don’t advance us closer to eradicating illnesses and improving the lives of Americans.”

Two years ago, Blunt and Cole ensured that a major spending bill passed by Congress grew the NIH’s fiscal 2016 budget by $2 billion, or 6.5 percent, after 12 years of flat funding. Institutions in Blunt’s home state of Missouri received $509 million in NIH grants that fiscal year. Research projects in Cole’s district got $8.8 million.

Blunt touted the legislative achievement during his hard-fought re-election campaign in Missouri last year as evidence of his ability to overcome partisan gridlock in a bitterly divided Congress.

This year, Blunt said, he and Cole are in agreement with the panels’ top Democrats — Rep. Nita Lowey of New York and Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state — in support of another $2 billion increase in NIH funding, with a goal of adding at least $20 billion to the institutes’ budget over a decade.

Blunt told McClatchy he’d reached out to Chief of Staff Reince Priebus after Trump’s budget was released last month. “There have been meetings” with the White House about NIH in recent weeks, Blunt said, and the president and his staff have been responsive.

“I know the administration over the last couple of weeks has spent more time looking at what is happening at NIH and asking questions about what they do and why they do what they do,” Blunt said. “I’ve encouraged that, and I think that will produce a good result.”

In addition to Priebus and other top-level White House staff, Cole said, he and Blunt have spoken with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

“Look, they’re smart people,” Cole said. “They’re having to produce a budget without people in the official positions – they want to increase defense and they’re right about that – so it was a little slapdash. And that’s OK. . . . It’s not like Roy Blunt and I are dangerous liberals.”

At a House of Representatives hearing last week, Price defended the administration’s proposed cuts to NIH as a way of making the agency more efficient by eliminating overhead costs and waste.

Price told lawmakers that 30 percent of the grant money distributed from NIH is used for indirect expenses, “which, as you know,” he said, “means that money goes for something other than the research that’s being done.”

Price, a physician, said he supported medical research but the administration’s goal was to “get a larger return for the investment (of) the American taxpayer in this area which is vitally important.”

Other Republicans who serve on crucial committees that dole out taxpayer dollars to federal agencies say they staunchly oppose the president’s proposal to cut NIH funds.

Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas told researchers in the audience at a Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot event in Washington on Monday that Congress is committed to the NIH.

“We’re moving in opposite directions (from the White House) when it comes to funding for medical research,” Yoder later said in an interview.

The University of Kansas Cancer Center in Yoder’s district receives roughly $40 million in NIH funding annually. Researchers at the cancer center are studying how tumor cells interact with adjacent cells and are working on developing new chemotherapy agents.

Roughly 600,000 Americans die from cancer every year, the congressman said, “and if there were 600,000 deaths from terrorism, there would be unlimited public support for investment in our defenses.”

Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said reducing money for medical research “makes no sense.”

Moran promoted NIH funding at a town hall in Dodge City this past weekend. He said NIH grant money was important for small or rural states because the program ensured that funding for medical research was spread nationwide instead of being concentrated in coastal cities.

More than 200 research projects in Kansas received more than $91 million worth of NIH grants in fiscal 2016.

Still, despite Blunt and Cole’s determination to seal a bipartisan deal that would raise spending on the NIH this year, Democrats caution there won’t be a final agreement until it’s clear no so-called poison pill provisions will be attached and contingent on any other issues that need to be negotiated at the full committee level.

“I am hopeful we can reach a final deal,” Murray said in a statement, “and I am certainly glad to see Republicans and Democrats rejecting President Trump’s proposed budget, which is nothing less than an attack on workers and families and would devastate critical investments in medical research that have strong bipartisan support.”

Andy Marso of The Kansas City Star contributed to this report from Kansas City, Mo.

Lowry reports for The Kansas City Star.