Specter, a Fulcrum of the Stimulus Bill, Pulls Off a Coup for Health Money
The New York Times
Published: February 13, 2009
WASHINGTON — For years, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has been the National Institutes of Health’s most ardent champion on Capitol Hill. Having survived two bouts with cancer, open-heart surgery and even a faulty diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease, he has long insisted that research that results in medical cures is the best service that government can provide.
Senator Arlen Specter of
But even lobbyists are stunned by the coup Mr. Specter pulled off this week. In return for providing one of only three Republican votes in the Senate for the Obama administration’s $787 billion economic stimulus package, he was able to secure a 34 percent increase in the health agency’s budget — to $39 billion from $29 billion.
After money intended for highways, schools
and states, it is the largest of chunk of financing in the
budget and is almost three times the $3.5 billion first approved
by the House. Nearly $2 billion is intended for building and
equipment projects at the N.I.H. campus in
The health institutes currently issue 45,000 such grants at an average cost of $360,000 a year. And although most grants are financed for four to five years, administrators said they would give priority to projects that could be completed in two years.
House Republican leaders argued that the health institutes, flooded with cash, would pay for unworthy projects that would create few jobs. But the institutes finance only about 40 percent of grants deemed meritorious, so advocates say that there is a huge backlog of beaker-ready projects.
How Mr. Specter managed his coup is a story of tough bargaining that began in a legislative backroom and took an important turn at a presidential Super Bowl party.
After biding his time for many years, Mr. Specter pounced on Jan. 27, offering the $10 billion budget increase as an amendment to the stimulus bill at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The committee’s chairman, Senator
Daniel K. Inouye of
“Dick came to me and said, ‘Don’t offer it now because I don’t want to have to vote against it,’ ” Mr. Specter said.
Picking up the story, Mr. Durbin said in an interview that he promised that he and others would support the amendment on the Senate floor.
Mr. Durbin said later that he almost had
occasion to regret that promise. When the majority leader,
Harry Reid of
“I flunked Politics 101; I never asked him that,” Mr. Durbin said in the interview. “I gave away $10 billion but never got his commitment.”
Democrats began to press Mr. Specter, saying he would get the $10 billion increase only if he promised to vote for the eventual bill. Mr. Specter pushed back, saying he was concerned about the size of the bill and its mix of tax credits and spending.
“I really do not make deals,” he said. And
while he had promised Mr. Durbin nothing, the
More hard bargaining was ahead. Mr. Specter’s support was in doubt until the very end. And once he voted for the bill, Mr. Durbin said that he made sure that the additional $10 billion for the N.I.H. was protected in conference negotiations with the House.
Pat White, vice president for federal relations at the Association of American Universities, said that the past week had been one of most important in the health institute’s recent history, and that the credit went largely to Mr. Specter.
“He turned his support of N.I.H. into the fulcrum of the entire stimulus negotiations,” Mr. White said.
Thursday was Mr. Specter’s 79th birthday. As is his custom, he was dressed nattily — a light gray suit, pink tie and blue dress shirt — and true to form, he swore off eating cake. He has eliminated sugar and white bread from his diet because he fears that they encourage cancer’s growth. (He briefly gave up martinis last year, but was relieved when a blood test showed no improvement.)
Cancer could be cured, Mr. Specter said, if the government spent $335 billion for the research — a total he said he was “working on” getting. But for now, he said, future budget discussions for N.I.H. will begin at $40 billion, not $30 billion — more fodder for complaints from House Republicans. And if the Republicans win back control of the Senate, he promised that that number would go considerably higher.
“I think it’s scandalous that we haven’t done more to cure cancer,” Mr. Specter said.