Senate chairman: Cures bill is next priority

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The Senate Health Committee will be turning its attention to a medical innovation bill now that it has completed the overhaul of No Child Left Behind, Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderMcConnell: Cures bill a 'top priority' in lame-duck Lawmakers pledge push for cures bill in lame-duck Overnight Regulation: Lawsuits pile up against Obama overtime rule MORE (R-Tenn.) said.

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“No. 1, what we want to turn our attention to next is what we call our innovation bill,” Alexander said on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.”

The innovation bill is the Senate’s version of a measure that has already passed the House, called 21st Century Cures. The idea behind both bills is to speed up the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process for new drugs and boost funding for research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

The 21st Century Cures bill passed the House on a bipartisan vote in July, but since then the momentum has slowed.

Alexander had previously said that the committee would finish its work on the bill by the end of the year, but the panel has not released a bill, much less advanced it to the full Senate. 

Still, Alexander noted the bipartisan support for the idea behind the measure and said the panel is moving forward. 

One of the major points of contention has been deciding whether the funding increase for the NIH will be in the form of mandatory spending, meaning that it is guaranteed over a number of years and not subject to the annual appropriations process. Sen. Patty MurrayPatty MurrayElection-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Congress approves .1B in Zika funds Lawmakers pledge push for cures bill in lame-duck MORE (Wash.), the panel’s top Democrat, has made her support for the bill contingent on mandatory NIH funding. 

Alexander reiterated on C-SPAN that he is willing to have mandatory funding but acknowledged that not all Republicans are. He also said he wants the NIH funds to be offset by cutting other mandatory spending, which could cause Democrats to balk. 

“I’m willing to consider [mandatory funding] under some circumstances,” Alexander said, if it “replaces other mandatory funding.”

“Not all my Republican colleagues are, but I’m willing to do it,” he said. “And I’m willing to do it because this is such an exciting time in science. We’re coming up with so many things to help people, and we’ve got a person like Francis Collins, who’s a genius heading the National Institutes of Health, we ought to take advantage of that. 

“It affects every American, so I’m willing to do something that I normally wouldn’t do, and that’s going to be one of the toughest parts of the innovation bill that we have to decide next year."