Key Senate panel breaks ground with bipartisan spending bill

Key Senate panel breaks ground with bipartisan spending bill
© Hill file photo
A key Senate panel on Tuesday advanced its first bipartisan health spending bill since 2009, averting partisan disputes that have typically doomed its appropriations process from the start.
 
The $162 billion bill was approved Tuesday by the Senate Appropriation Committee's labor, health and human services subcommittee and now heads to the full committee on Thursday.
 
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The health and labor spending bill is among the toughest for congressional appropriators each year. But for 2017, the measure avoids contentious partisan issues that had the potential to become landmines for the legislation this year.
 
The bill includes a substantial funding boost to federal research, precision medicine and anti-opioid programs. It grants or exceeds many of the funding requests from President Obama, while steering clear of a fight on ObamaCare.
 
The spending bill is the result of bipartisan negotiations between subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and ranking member Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

“We’re both pleased to have the first bipartisan bill from this subcommittee in seven years,” Blunt said Tuesday. He added that his subcommittee had about $270 million less to work with this year, which he called "a problem to work around."

The agreement between Blunt and Murray paves the way for the first Senate floor vote on the labor and health spending bill in years. The bill will now head to the full Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
 
Blunt told reporters after the markup that he decided early not to pick partisan fights with Senate Democrats in the hopes of advancing the bill. Instead, he said the pair focused on three bipartisan policy areas: research funding, opioid programs and year-round Pell grants.
 
He acknowledged that other Senate Republicans could push for their own amendments — to strip ObamaCare funding from the bill, for example — during the full appropriations committee or on the floor.    
 
"They very well might and could," Blunt told reporters after the markup. "Our goal is to get a bill that's fully debatable and fully amendable to the Senate floor."
 
Murray said during the hearing that she hopes the legislation will avoid "poison pill" riders even as it heads to the floor. 
 
“Importantly, it doesn’t include a single policy rider," Murray declared during the hearing. “This is an important step forward in the process."
 
The spending bill provides boosts to policy areas that have become major bipartisan priorities this year — combating opioid use and speeding up medical developments.
 
The National Institutes of Health alone would receive a funding boost of about $2 billion. It would grow the agency’s total budget to about $34 billion — its highest level in recent memory. 

The budget for the Department of Health and Human Services's opioid abuse programs would grow about 93 percent compared to last year and nearly 500 percent from 2 years ago.

"It's hard to find a government agency that can spend more than that in an effective way," Blunt said.