House Democrats bucked their leaders Wednesday to join Republicans in voting for a contentious suspension bill that would authorize taking $12.5 million from political conventions and giving it to pediatric medical research.
The House voted 295-103, with 72 Democrats joining all but one Republican (Paul Broun of Georgia) easily clearing the threshold for a two-thirds majority required by suspension bills.
The Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, named after a 10-year-old girl who died in October following an 11-month battle with an inoperable brain tumor, was the latest iteration of a proposal that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., unveiled in April.
Democrats and their leadership made it clear this week that their objection was not to pediatrics medical research funding. One Democrat, Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey, called the bill "a joke," and said it was "nothing but a guise and a ruse."
Indeed, a number of Democrats pointed out Tuesday that it was Republicans who had cut billions from the National Institutes of Health and had proposed additional cuts in GOP budgets.
Debate on the bill got heated Wednesday afternoon, with Republicans accusing Democrats of prioritizing politics over pediatrics research, and Democrats accusing Republicans of making an unserious effort to fund the NIH after slashing funding.
"The question before members today is simple," Cantor said. "What is more important: finding cures for our children, or balloons for party conventions and catering for politicians?"
Cantor recognized Miller's parents in the gallery, a verboten gesture on the House floor that he didn't seem to mind breaking in this case. Cantor said Republicans were trying to do what's right.
"And we're trying to do what's right in terms of delivering on the legacy of their daughter," he said.
But Democrats characterized the bill as "window dressing." Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., delivered a microphone-rattling speech that echoed across the House floor, challenging Republicans on the sincerity of their words and castigating them for ever cutting NIH funding in the first place.
"This is not real. It is a message," Hoyer said, noting that the bill doesn't appropriate any money for pediatrics medical research, only authorizes it.
"Everybody on this floor, I presume, is for children's health, is for pediatric research, is for trying to make sure that our children are healthy and safe from disease and affliction," Hoyer said. "I presume all of us are for it. But talk is cheap."
Hoyer then went on to note that 134 Republicans co-sponsoring the bill voted for the Republican budget proposal authored by House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., which would have cut $6 billion from the NIH, of which $800 million would have gone to pediatric research, Hoyer said.
In the end, 72 Democrats broke with Hoyer, who, like Cantor, had made the bill somewhat of a pet issue. Democrats did not whip against the bill, though they did send a whip alert on Monday urging members to vote against it. But pressure on Democrats was limited. The electoral pressure — and attack ad potential — proved to be too much to stick with leadership.
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., a cosponsor of the bill, said it wasn't about politics.
Welch said both sides had failed on NIH funding — sequestration, after all, a bipartisan meat axe, also cut more than a billion from the NIH.
Welch ended his floor speech by imploring his Democratic colleagues to take the small NIH olive branch that Republicans were offering.
"Lay down your battle axes for just a moment, and take a step toward forward,” he said.