February 14, 2009
Specter, a Fulcrum of the
Stimulus Bill, Pulls Off a Coup for Health Money
By GARDINER HARRIS
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.
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 Bethesda,
Md., as well as at universities across the country. But most of the money will go to pay for as many as 15,000 additional grants submitted by scientists at universities across the country.
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. ...