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Senate bill would ease budget pain for some agencies

Posted on behalf of Beth Mole. 

Update 3/21/2013: The House approved the Senate spending bill, unaltered, in a 318-to-109 vote. The legislation now awaits final approval from President Obama when he returns from his trip to the Middle East this weekend.

The Senate passed a 2013 spending plan today that would ease the blow of mandatory budget cuts to some US science funding agencies — but only slightly.

The bipartisan bill includes modest funding increases for the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that would offset some effects of sequestration, the across-the-board 5.1% spending cuts that began on 1 March. The US$984-billion Senate  package now moves to the House of Representatives, which on 6 March approved its own spending plan of roughly the same amount. The two chambers would need to reach agreement on 2013 funding by 27 March, when the current continuing budget resolution is set to expire, to avert a government shutdown.

“This is an enormous victory, that we are sending this to the House,” said Senate appropriations committee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (Democrat, Maryland), who co-authored the bill with her panel’s ranking Republican, Richard Shelby of Alabama.

Both the House and Senate spending plans would continue to run large chunks of the government under a continuing resolution, essentially a holdover of the 2012 budget that is subject to sequestration. Those cuts would reduce overall government spending to about $982 billion in 2013, down from $1.043 trillion in 2012. But the Senate bill would fund more agencies through regular full-year budgets, giving them more freedom to begin or end programmes or move money between agency accounts. The legislation also includes extra cash for some agencies.

The NSF, which received $7 billion in 2012, faces a $209-million cut this year from sequestration. The agency would have been left with just $6.79 billion for 2013. But the Senate bill would boost that budget by about $90 million, to $6.88 billion, once sequestration’s 5.1% bite is factored in.

Senators approved an amendment to the bill, proposed by Tom Coburn (Republican, Oklahoma), that would require the NSF’s director to certify that any political-science projects funded are “vital to national security or the economic interests of the country”.

The FDA would receive about $2.38 billion in 2013 — less than the $2.5 billion in government funding lawmakers awarded the agency in 2012, but $80 million more than it was on track to get this year.  (The agency’s total budget last year, $3.8 billion, includes about $1.3 billion in fees collected from users, such as pharmaceutical companies.)

The NIH, which received $30.7 billion in 2012 and lost $1.553 billion this year to the sequester, would receive an extra $67 million from the Senate bill.

Many science groups say that the proposed boosts would not do enough to negate the effects of sequestration. “We applaud this bipartisan gesture, but sequestration continues to cast a shadow on advancing science and innovation,” Mary Woolley, president and chief executive of Research!America, told Nature in a statement.

That’s especially true for NASA. The Senate bill would cut the space agency’s funding from $17.7 billion in 2012 to $17.5 billion this year, a figure that would drop to $16.65 billion once sequestration is taken into account.

Samuel Rankin, director of the American Mathematical Society’s Washington DC office, also lamented the impact of those across-the-board budget cuts. Despite the modest increases that some agencies may receive, he says, “we’re basically standing still or going backwards”.

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