publication date: Jan. 26, 2018

Shutdown ends, fifth CR likely before Congress votes on FY18 omnibus

By Matthew Bin Han Ong

After a three-day shutdown, the Senate voted 81-18 on Jan. 22 to pass a three-week continuing resolution to keep the federal government funded through Feb. 8.

The federal government shut down at midnight Jan. 20, after the Senate balked at a House stopgap CR that did not include a provision to allow children of undocumented residents to stay in the country.

The shutdown precipitated a weekend of partisan finger-pointing, which lasted until Democrats accepted a promise from Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to use the stopgap bill to discuss the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that affects children brought to the U.S. by parents who had immigrated here illegally.

The House passed the CR with 266-159 votes, and President Donald Trump signed the bill Monday night, ending the shutdown and putting hundreds of thousands of furloughed civil servants back to work Tuesday morning, many of them in the Washington, D.C. region.

“I am pleased we’ve moved past this unfortunate and unnecessary government shutdown,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) said in a statement. “We must use the next few weeks to reach a budget agreement and begin to address other national priorities. My committee is more than ready to get to work to finalize the 2018 appropriations bills.”

The short-term funding bill—the fourth CR in fiscal 2018—includes a six-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and delays a number of tax increases in the Affordable Care Act. It also keeps funding levels flat for federal agencies, including NIH and NCI, and delays the implementation of the medical device tax for two years.

“We are pleased to see Congress prioritizing access to quality, affordable and comprehensive health care coverage to nearly 9 million lower income children, many whom have been affected by cancer,” Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, said in a statement. “The CHIP is an integral part of the safety-net for lower-income children and their families who depend on care through the program.”

A prolonged shutdown would damage both parties politically, with mid-term elections only nine months away.

The stopgap measure avoided a complete déjà vu of the 2013 shutdown—a debacle that paralyzed the federal government for 16 days and resulted in a profound loss of momentum at NIH (The Cancer Letter, Oct. 18, 2013).

NIH has a lot at stake. The research institution is poised to receive its third-in-a-row $2 billion raise. If assurances from Congressional leaders are to be believed, the support for the measure to continue to boost NIH funding remains strong and bipartisan (The Cancer Letter, Jan. 19).

The agreement to re-open the government through Feb. 8 does not address the ongoing dispute over the Budget Control Act spending caps—a core issue that has prevented Congress from approving a final FY18 budget for the federal government.

“We sincerely hope that there won’t be any additional government shutdowns before Congress is able to reach a long-term bipartisan funding agreement, and we also hope that this most recent CR, which will expire on Feb. 8, will be the last one that’s necessary before the FY 2018 appropriations process is finalized,” said Jon Retzlaff,  chief policy officer for the American Association for Cancer Research. “However, the agreements that were made by congressional leaders to reopen the government on Monday will likely require additional CRs because of the fact that any potential deal on new spending limits will likely have to await a deal on immigration, specifically the efforts and focus by Democrats to protect the many young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children from losing the protection of an Obama-era program shielding them from deportation beginning in March.

“In the meantime, AACR leaders will continue to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill, specifically to urge House and Senate leaders to come together to finalize a multi-year, bipartisan budget agreement that raises the budget caps on the non-defense discretionary spending accounts that are currently in place for FY 2018 (that were imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011),” Retzlaff said to The Cancer Letter. “In fact, 96 distinguished AACR leaders, including the current and past presidents, as well as many other fellows of the AACR Academy, recently signed on to a letter with such a message and shared it with Congressional leaders.

“We are confident that an agreement to raise the budget caps will result in a $2 billion funding increase, to $36.1 billion, for the NIH in FY 2018, which is what was approved last year by the Senate Appropriations Committee.”

Congressional leaders must still reach an agreement to increase the spending caps, which would allow the Appropriations Committees to develop an omnibus package that includes funding for all agencies and programs, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology said in a statement.

“It will take between three weeks to a month for appropriators to negotiate the omnibus bill. Another CR will be needed to continue government operations beyond February 8,” FASEB officials said. “FASEB is optimistic that Congress will finalize an agreement on the budget caps soon.”

If stakeholders continue to push for a budget deal that raises the caps, a deal will be struck, said Mary Woolley, president of Research!America.

“The most likely scenario is that higher spending levels will be incorporated into an omnibus bill that is signed into law before the next CR expires,” Woolley said in a statement. “It was not so long ago that fighting for higher caps was considered ambitious at best, a fool’s errand at worst. Now policymakers on both sides of the aisle are treating it as unfinished business.”

If Republican and Democratic leaders fail to come to an agreement, sequestration would set in and cuts to military and civilian programs would be made across the board.

“This is the fourth CR passed by Congress since FY 2017 ended on September 31, 2017, which makes it difficult for the NIH, as well as the institutions and scientists it supports, to effectively plan for critical research projects in the years ahead,” the American Society for Clinical Oncology said in a statement. “ASCO continues to urge Congress to pass a full FY 2018 funding bill that includes a $2 billion increase to the NIH to continue our momentum against cancer.”

Copyright (c) 2018 The Cancer Letter Inc.