Senate Panel Approves Lean Spending Bill for Higher Education and Research

A U.S. Senate panel voted on Thursday to approve a bill that would cut spending on the National Institutes of Health by $190-million in the 2012 fiscal year while maintaining a maximum Pell Grant award of $5,550.

To pay for the Pell program, the bill would end the interest subsidy on undergraduate student loans during the six-month grace period after a student graduates. Other student-aid programs — including Federal Work-Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants — would receive the same level of support as they did in 2011.

The 2012 fiscal year begins on October 1.

In an opening statement, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that finances education and biomedical research, said preserving the maximum Pell Grant would "help ensure that our young people have the quality education they need to get good jobs and compete in a global economy."

But Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the panel, said the bill failed to address the "underlying problems" with the Pell program, which has doubled in size over the past three years.

"We cannot continue to throw money at a problem in the hopes that it will go away," he said. "This so-called fix will not put the program on the path to long-term stability, and it will increase students’ long-term borrowing costs."

Congress has been chipping away at borrower benefits since July, when lawmakers voted to end the in-school interest subsidy on federal loans to graduate students and eliminate the interest-rate reduction for on-time loan repayment for all borrowers as part of an effort to close a multibillion-dollar shortfall in the Pell program. College lobbyists fear that the in-school subsidy for undergraduate students will be the next to go.

On the research side, the bill would abolish the National Center for Research Resources while providing $20-million for a new program to speed the translation of basic research into treatments and cures. That program, dubbed the "Cures Acceleration Network," would make grants to biotechnology companies, colleges, and patient-advocacy groups, and facilitate the Food and Drug Administration’s reviews of the treatments that result.

A summary of the measure approved by the subcommittee is available on the Senate’s Web site.

The full Appropriations Committee will consider the bill on Wednesday. It’s unclear, though, if the measure will make it to the floor of the Senate. Appropriators in the U.S. House of Representatives have already indicated that they won’t take up their version of the bill, so it’s unlikely that Congress will pass a stand-alone spending measure for education and research. Instead, lawmakers are expected to pass one or more "continuing resolutions" financing the programs at 2011 levels and eventually wrap them into an "omnibus" spending bill later this year.


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