Cantor touts health bill in hospital visit

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor brought three of his Republican colleagues to a children’s hospital in Washington on Tuesday to speak positively about something that conservatives have spent years denouncing: federal spending.

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After a tour of the Children’s National Medical Center, Cantor touted House legislation that would redirect $130 million in federal money from the public financing of presidential campaigns to the National Institutes of Health.

“We believe in medical research and discovery, and we believe that pediatric medical research is and should be a national priority,” Cantor said. Joining him at the event were Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), Renee Elmers (R-N.C.) and Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), all co-sponsors of the bill.

The proposal, known as the Kids First Research Act, is part of Cantor’s “Making Life Work” agenda that he laid out earlier this year in a rebranding effort for Republicans. 

The backing of federal support for medical research is not so much a reversal for the Virginia Republican as it is a bid to get away from a singular GOP focus on spending cuts.

“In times of fiscal stress especially, we are called upon in Congress to set priorities,” Cantor said in describing the bill. “It’s also the right thing to do because research in this country of ours has proven to be a tremendous boon to our economy.”

Yet in defending the proposal against critics who say the elimination of presidential campaign funds should go only to deficit reduction, Cantor echoed the arguments that President Obama and other top Democrats have made in favor of government spending for research. 

The funding, he said, would promote economic growth and help reduce the deficit in the long term.

“Ultimately, we all know that the driver of our debt and deficit are the unfunded liabilities connected with the entitlement programs,” Cantor said at a press conference. 

“There’s been a lot of disagreement about how to address that. This money can actually be translated into addressing that through cures. If you cure disease, you no longer have to spend dollars towards treating the symptoms ... of those diseases.”

A Cantor aide emphasized that the legislation would not authorize new spending and that Cantor and many conservatives have long supported prioritizing medical research and innovation in federal spending, particularly in healthcare.

Cantor and the other lawmakers posed for pictures with children at the hospital along with Darryl Tapp, the recently-signed defensive end for the Washington Redskins who spoke in support of the proposal.

The Kids First Research Act has more than 100 co-sponsors, including a handful of Democrats, but Cantor said there was no timetable for bringing it to the floor for a vote. He said backers of the bill were trying to build the broadest support possible for the legislation.

The Republican leadership may be taking a more cautious approach with the bill after another proposal in the Making Life Work agenda, the Helping Sick Americans Act, was pulled from the floor in April shortly before a scheduled vote because of conservative opposition. 

With a slimmer majority in the 113th Congress, Republicans have struggled to pass major legislation without broad Democratic backing, the most recent example being the surprise failure of the farm bill last week.

The Democratic leadership is likely to oppose the measure, arguing that the sequestration spending cuts that Republicans have already allowed to take effect and built into their budget are larger than the money the bill proposes to restore to the NIH.

The sequester was a concern that doctors at Children’s National raised when they gave Cantor and the other lawmakers their tour of research facilities on Tuesday.

“We’re really losing a whole generation of scientists because of a lack of funding,” the executive vice president and chief physician of the hospital, Dr. Mark Batshaw, told Cantor. He said because of the sequester’s impact on NIH, junior researchers were having a much more difficult time accessing grant money.

Children’s National receives about $40 million annually from NIH, out of a total NIH budget of $30 billion. About 7 percent of the NIH budget goes to pediatric research, the doctors said.

Cantor asked Batshaw how the federal research funding compares to money available from private grants. Batshaw replied that the $30 billion from NIH outstrips all private donations combined. “It’s extraordinarily important for the health of the country,” he said.