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Cantor Balancing Research Priorities, Fiscal Concerns

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is calling for medical research to gain precedence over some other issues, as Congress tries to balance competing priorities with limited dollars.

The Virginia Republican has been highlighting the research issue, which remains largely free of the bitter politics surrounding the health care law, along with other policies designed to move the House GOP beyond fiscal concerns.

But Cantor also must reconcile his research funding goals with other key conservative priorities: cutting spending and limiting the size of government. And he is likely to face criticism from Democrats about GOP budget policies along the way.

In an interview, Cantor said his interest in medical research partly comes from watching his father suffer for more than a decade from a rare neurological disorder known as multiple system atrophy or Shy-Drager syndrome.

“They don’t have a lot of answers to it,” Cantor said of the disorder. “And he’s at the point where he’s very incapacitated, can’t walk, can’t talk, and has been that way for years.”

Cantor’s connection also extends to his wife, who found out in the same week that her father and her mother both had cancer. Her mother survived but her father did not. Finding cures to diseases would help preserve the quality of life for many Americans, Cantor said, and save on health care costs.

“Disease, unfortunately, is equal opportunity, if you can use that word,” he said. “I do think that as a priority, as a country that believes in innovation, you know, curing disease certainly is something that we should be about.”

To do that, he wants to shift more money to medical research. He discussed the idea in a February speech at the American Enterprise Institute and is expected to bring legislation to the House floor this month.

The bill (HR 2019), sponsored by Republicans Gregg Harper of Mississippi and Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Democrat Peter Welch of Vermont, would end taxpayer financing for presidential campaigns and conventions and authorize $13 million annually for pediatric research for 10 years. The measure would send a message to constituents and, if enacted, it would establish a policy that reflects lawmakers’ “commitment to cures and discovery,” Cantor said.

“What the bill does is simply says that federal dollars spent on political conventions is not nearly a priority for us and that, in fact, pediatric medical research is and should be a priority,” he said.

But while support for such research is nearly universal, House Democrats have voted against ending the Presidential Election Campaign Fund in the past, so it’s unclear how many will sign on to Cantor’s approach. The White House opposed legislation to terminate the fund in early 2011, arguing that “it is critical that the nation’s presidential election public financing system be fixed rather than dismantled.”

The Sequester’s Impact

Democrats in both chambers can be expected to continue to focus on the effect of the sequester on research at the National Institutes of Health, however, and to call for those cuts to be canceled.

At a Senate hearing last month, NIH Director Francis S. Collins testified that the sequester “has already dealt a devastating blow to NIH and to the entire biomedical research enterprise.”

In fiscal 2013, he said, the agency is funding 700 fewer new and competing research project grants than in the previous fiscal year.

Cantor noted that he is aware of the effect of reduced spending on the NIH because of the sequester.

“It cuts off, perhaps, the continued flow of new, young scientists to come into the field so that we can see the product of their work and innovation,” he said.

But he maintained that the House has “always taken the position that the sequester is not the right way to go about the cuts and reduction in spending.” He blamed the White House for the across-the-board cuts remaining in effect and noted that his chamber passed legislation multiple times “to replace the sequester with properly placed reductions in spending in the mandatory area.”

“We believe much more mileage, if you will, is gained by approaching that side of the ledger than you do with the discretionary side,” he said.

Meanwhile, the White House says Congress allowed the sequester to take effect and the administration has called for lawmakers to replace the across-the-board reductions promptly.

Cantor said the House has always maintained NIH funding as a priority. But Democrats have criticized the potential effect of recent House GOP spending allocations. They have called for a markup of the fiscal 2014 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill to explain how an approved funding level cut for that measure would be made.

“Republicans are trying to cut more money from core priorities like medical research, support for our schools, job training, financial aid for college students — and the list goes on and on,” Connecticut’s Rosa DeLauro said in a statement last month. DeLauro is the top Democrat on the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee. “They may say this is unfortunate, but necessary. That is simply not true.”

Federal Role

Although securing funding is especially challenging in an atmosphere of fiscal restraint, medical research has continued to attract support from both sides of the aisle. For example, Cantor praised President Barack Obama’s budget proposal for a new brain research effort but said in a statement that it should be financed by rerouting political and social science research money.

The No. 2 House Republican has also made time in his schedule for activities related to medical research. Last month, Cantor toured the NIH with a bipartisan group of nine other House lawmakers. He also held a luncheon at the Library of Congress for Virginia-based groups that advocate for patients with a variety of diseases and disorders.

“I want to work with those groups in prioritizing not only medical research, scientific research but also creating the climate for innovation,” Cantor said, highlighting the importance of the approval process for new drugs and therapies.

Cantor thinks “there is an appropriate role and a necessary role for the federal government to ensure funding for basic medical research,” as he stated in his speech at the AEI. And he has visited research facilities over the past few years to figure out the federal role compared to the private sector.

“As a person who strongly believes in the Jeffersonian model of limited government, as an individual who represents James Madison’s seat, I’m strongly held to those principles of limited government spelled out in our constitution,” he said.

Cantor noted that the Constitution specifically references discovery, innovation and science in the language about Congress’ power to regulate intellectual property. His goal, he said, has been to understand the issue so conservatives can stand for innovation and research “that can help solve some of life’s most challenging problems.”

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