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Blog: Can NIH inspire cure for budget woes?

In Washington, the National Institutes of Health is special. But is it super special?

That is, will the research agency's unique bipartisan appeal inside the Beltway produce both an agreement to avoid looming cuts to the agency under a deficit-reduction law and show the way to broader deficit deal? At least one member of Congress who sits on an influential committee thinks it can.

Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said Thursday that bipartisan efforts under way to avoid cuts to the relatively tiny NIH budget could “build the foundation” for an agreement replacing many of the $1.2 trillion in across-the-board cuts required by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Providers are among the multitude watching discussions to replace the so-called sequester, as it requires Medicare to cut $11.1 billion from their reimbursements next year.

“If there is any place where Democrats and Republicans ought to be able to work together, if there is any issue that is nonpartisan, it is this one,” Bilbray told reporters after addressing a coalition pushing to avoid sequester cuts to NIH. “And this could help to create an environment where other types of things could be worked out.”

Bilbray has so far succeeded in getting 154 of some of the most liberal and conservative members of the House of Representatives to sign on to a letter pushing House leaders to avoid sequester-related cuts to NIH. But will the bipartisan push extend to other areas of healthcare affected by the sequester?

Fat chance, said one of his colleagues.

“I wouldn't want to over-extrapolate from any agreement that we could reach on NIH into other areas,” Rep. Ed. Markey (D-Mass.), said when I asked him about an NIH deal helping to resolve other sequester areas.

“That might be a step beyond what you could conclude on the basis of reaching an agreement to preserve NIH funding from the cuts,” said Markey, who is also a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

So much for the healing powers of NIH.

You can follow Rich Daly on Twitter @MHRDaly.

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