Heritage Action urges lawmakers to oppose medical cures bill

Heritage Action urges lawmakers to oppose medical cures bill
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The conservative group Heritage Action on Tuesday announced a key vote against a bipartisan medical cures bill headed for a floor vote this week. 

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The move from Heritage Action, which is influential with conservatives, is a sign that the bill could face at least some opposition, after having passed out of committee on a rare 51-0 vote in May. 

Still, the bill is cosponsored by 230 members, more than a majority of the House, and leaders have been aiming for as many as 350 votes this week to send a strong signal to the Senate to speed up its work. The bill won support from some conservatives in the unanimous committee vote in May. 

Noelle Clemente, a spokeswoman for Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), called Heritage Action's move "surprisingly short-sighted."

Heritage Action objects to the bill, the 21st Century Cures Act, skirting budget caps put in place in 2011 by boosting funding for the National Institutes of Health through mandatory spending that is not subject to those limits or the normal appropriations process. 

The bill provides $8.75 billion over five years in mandatory new funding for medical research at NIH. The funding is fully offset, and was reduced from $10 billion originally amid wrangling over the offsets. 

But Heritage Action calls the offsets “woefully insufficient,” noting that the majority of the money comes from selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. “The SPR is not a piggy bank for lawmakers to use to offset their desire for immediate spending increases,” Heritage says. 

A new score of the bill from the Congressional Budget Office shows that it will reduce the deficit by $524 million over ten years. 

House leaders have been touting the bill as fiscally responsible. Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerBoehner won't say whether he'd back Biden over Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Trump seizes House impeachment vote to rally GOP Amash's critics miss the fact that partisanship is the enemy of compromise MORE (R-Ohio) issued a statement earlier on Tuesday noting that the bill fully offsets its spending and is projected by the CBO to reduce the deficit by more than $500 million. 

“The bill not only paves the way for a new era of medical innovation, it does so by drawing on several conservative reforms that are good for taxpayers, and good for our economy,” the speaker’s statement said. 

Upton, who is leading the push for the legislation, has also sought to allay fiscal conservatives' concerns. 

The committee issued a statement on Monday pointing out that the appropriations committee will still get to allocate the money to specific priorities each year, even though it is mandatory. It also points out the funds expire after five years. 

Still, House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) has raised concerns about the new mandatory spending in the bill, though he has not been very vocal in public. 

The bill won support in committee from conservatives like Rep. Bill FloresWilliam (Bill) Hose FloresOvernight Energy: GOP lawmaker parodies Green New Deal in new bill | House Republicans accuse Dems of ramming through climate bill | Park Service chief grilled over shutdown House Republicans accuse Dems of ramming through climate bill Seven Republicans vote against naming post office after ex-Rep. Louise Slaughter MORE (R-Texas), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.). 

"While the Heritage Foundation has long been looked to for innovative policies and creative thinking, the Heritage Action alert takes a surprisingly short-sighted view of our plan to achieve meaningful reform in a fiscally responsible way," Clemente, the Energy and Commerce Republican spokeswoman, said in a statement.

"We continue to look forward to a strong House vote in favor of this bill to reduce the deficit, tackle the long-term costs of incurable disease, and improve people’s lives."

The measure has also drawn some objections from the left, amid concerns that its push to streamline the FDA’s approval of new drugs goes too far in lowering safety standards.

The advocacy group Public Citizen has warned about provisions such as one allowing the approval of medical devices based on medical journal articles, rather than more rigorous clinical trials. The group also warns about a provision it says would weaken transparency requirements by exempting payments from drug companies to doctors if they are for “medical education” purposes. 

Supporters have pushed back on safety concerns. 

“Sometimes I feel like there are those out there who say that any change we make to the way FDA approves drugs and medical devices inherently will mean that the byproduct is not safe, and that’s not true,” Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.), the committee’s top Democrat, said at a press conference last month. 

Mainly, though, the bill has won support from health advocacy groups excited about its increase in NIH funding. 

This story was updated at 4:46 p.m.