Harkin resists pressure to spend more on science and education

Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa), a liberal Democrat charged with moving the largest domestic spending bill through the upper chamber, is pushing back on centrists who want funding increases for science research and higher-education loans, saying both programs got boosted in this year’s $787 billion stimulus.

Harkin is holding the line on proposed 2010 spending levels for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Pell Grants, in the face of pressure from Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) to raise them both.

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The Senate’s proposed 2010 spending levels for the NIH and Pell Grants are roughly 1 percent higher than spending for those programs this fiscal year. The House labor, health and human services and education spending bill calls for a nearly 3 percent increase to those programs.

Harkin, a senior appropriator who crafted the Senate version of the bill, said they shouldn’t get much more money in their annual budget next year because of the $787 billion stimulus, which included a one-time infusion of $10 billion for the NIH and nearly $100 billion for education.

“So instead of providing even more increases to programs that did very well in the recovery act, this bill instead emphasizes several other important programs,” said Harkin, a longtime supporter of NIH and federal higher-education funding, in a statement.

Senate appropriators said that the stimulus funding isn’t enough for the NIH and loan programs, which have received small funding increases in recent years.

Specter said that the stimulus funding and the NIH’s proposed 2010 budget should be considered separately, since the stimulus boost was targeted to create jobs over a two-year period.

He derided the 1.4 percent funding increase for the NIH in the Senate bill.

“That figure is scandalous,” Specter told The Hill.

Specter, a cancer survivor, said that NIH funding had basically remained flat since 2005. When considering inflation, funding has decreased by $5.2 billion in real dollars, Specter said.

The NIH annual budget was slightly less than $29 billion in fiscal 2005 and 2006. For 2010, the House has proposed a $31.3 billion NIH budget and the Senate is calling for a $30.8 billion budget.

Collins said that the lack of spending increases raises concerns for disease research.

“I’m concerned in particular about the funding for diabetes, which accounts for nearly one out of four Medicare dollars, and also for Alzheimer’s, where we see a potential epidemic given the aging of the population,” Collins said.

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Collins said she strongly supports more money for Pell Grants and said she was concerned that another higher-education program, the TRIO program for support and outreach to low-income college students, won’t get any increase at all under the Senate funding bill.

The tussle between appropriators shows the difficult decisions they’ll face as the stimulus winds down after next year. Advocates of programs will fight to maintain spending initially boosted by the stimulus. Lawmakers from both parties have already come out in support of extending other parts of the stimulus that expire this year. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) has proposed a bill extending the higher level of unemployment benefits in the stimulus by a year, and Reps. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio) and Richard Neal (D-Mass.) have called for prolonging a stimulus tax credit for first-time homebuyers.

Harkin, known as a liberal, finds himself in the company of one of the chamber’s most fiscally conservative Republicans, who also wants to rein in spending, albeit for different reasons.

“We want to strongly support NIH, but we want to do it in a responsible way,” said Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), a senior GOP appropriator. “We know they can use more dollars, but $10 billion [from the stimulus] is a lot of money to absorb. There’s no way you can maintain what the stimulus did in a number of areas.”