Bipartisan Movement: 25 Democrats Break With Leadership and Vote to Fund NIH

By Terence P. Jeffrey | October 3, 2013 | 11:01am EDT

Rep. Ami Bera (D.-Calif.), a medical doctor, was on of 25 House Democrats who voted with House Republicans to fund NIH. He is shown here with former President Bill Clinton. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

( - Twenty-five House Democrats broke ranks with their party leadership last night to join with House Republicans in a 254-171 vote to pass a bill funding the National Institutes of Health through fiscal 2014.

Many Democratic members had joined with Republicans in saying the bill was necessary to make sure that NIH cancer trials and clinical trials for other ailments—seeking to cure patients whose diseases had not responded to other treatments--went forward.

However, some of the Democrats who cited the necessity of funding the NIH so that the trials could go forward nonetheless voted against the bill to fund the NIH.

“The Tea Party shutdown will deny 200 patients a week—30 of them kids—treatment at the largest research hospital in the world, the National Institutes of Health,” said Rep. Brian Higgins (D.-N.Y.).  “These are often last chance cancer treatments that offer the only hope for kids who are stuck with cancer.”

Not long after making these remarks, Higgins voted against funding the NIH.

“Every 36 minutes a child is diagnosed with cancer in the U.S.,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said on the House floor. “That’s enough children to fill a classroom each day, which adds up to almost 15,000 new cases of childhood cancer each year.

“Children under the age of 21 are diagnosed with cancer every year; approximately one quarter of them will not survive the disease,” said Lee.

“Today, more than 90% of 13,500 children and adolescents diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States are cured because of the work of researchers like those working at NIH,” said Lee. “Research is needed to help these young cancer survivors’ live full and productive lives.”

Lee quoted Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network saying that “every week the government is shut down, the NIH Clinical Center will have to turn away cancer patients who are eligible to start potentially lifesaving clinical trials.”

After giving this speech, Lee voted against funding the NIH.

Rep. Ami Bera (D.-Calif.), who is a medical doctor, also expressed his belief that the NIH should be funded in the interest of saving lives.

“As a doctor, do you know what’s happening to the NIH? Do you know that they have to turn patients away—patients who have no place else to go?” Bera said in a speech on the House floor.

“This is their last-ditch effort to get in there. That isn’t what we do in America,” said Bera. “Mr. Speaker, you’re the one person who can bring this legislation to the floor—and do it.”

“Mr. Speaker, the American public is watching you,” said Bera.

Unlike Higgins and Lee, Bera ended up voting in favor of the bill to fund the NIH.

Over in the Senate, several leading Democrats argued that not funding NIH would be harmful to people being treated in NIH programs. But they did not support enacting the House legislation to fund NIH.

“I have said it before, but it bears repeating,” said Sen. Richard Durbin (D.-Ill.), the Senate Majority Whip. “Two hundred people were turned away from the National Institutes of Health this week who wanted to enter clinical trials because of a serious life-threatening illness, including 30 children—cancer patients coming to the NIH with their parents for one last hopeful move to save their lives.”

It is Durbin’s job to count votes for the Senate Democratic majority and try to keep members in toe with the party line.

“I remind everyone, when I am talking about NIH I am not just talking about Bethesda, Maryland,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D.-Iowa). “I am talking about all over this country. NIH funds research and clinical trials in every State in this country. As of yesterday, the NIH began turning away people from its clinical research center. Each week of a shutdown, NIH estimates it will close its doors to 200 new patients who need help.”

“Two hundred patients will be denied care this week at NIH as a result of the shutdown,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D.-Md.). “Who knows for one of those individuals whether it is a question of life or death? That is what is involved.”

“The House is sending us bills which on first blush seem attractive,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D.-Md.). “I mean, who doesn’t support our National Guard? Who doesn’t want to fund NIH? I certainly do. NIH is located in my State. I am so proud of the men and women who work there.”

However, Mikulski indicated she would not vote to fund the NIH unless House Republicans agreed to fund every other program in the federal government also.

“I hope that wiser heads will now prevail so we can get a path forward to reopen all of government, not just cherry-picked items—many of which are absolutely desirable—and open the entire Federal Government.”

“I know that the House wants to send something over to reopen NIH. Of course,” said Mikulski. “That’s what I just said.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he does not support the House legislation to fund NIH.

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