Updated 6:52 p.m. | House Majority Leader Eric Cantor cheered the passage of one of his top priorities Tuesday, as a pediatric research funding bill he laboriously pushed through the House easily passed the Senate.
But it almost did not happen at all.
A dying child, geography and some last-minute politicking may have given the bill the final boost it needed to get to President Barack Obama's desk.
The bill is the first piece of legislation under the umbrella of Cantor’s much-publicized Republican rebrand — the Make Life Work agenda — to pass the Senate. So it is curious that Senate Democrats who regularly deride Cantor's party as extremist would give the Virginia Republican a legislative win as he tries to soften the GOP's image.
The bill would move $126 million that would have been used to pay for political conventions into a fund that can only be applied to pediatric research through the National Institutes of Health.
Several House Republicans opposed the legislation because they would rather see the money used to offset the deficit. Top House Democrats, meanwhile, called the $126 million authorization over 10 years a pittance in the NIH budget and said Cantor was simply trying to obscure several years of Republican-sponsored cuts to medical research through the sequester.
Furthermore, they implied the money may never help the NIH. The money will be held in a fund until appropriators apply it to the agency, and overall funding levels must still stay within the budget caps agreed to in the recent bipartisan budget deal.
All that made for a tenuous road to passage. It was not until Cantor rebranded the bill itself that he found legislative success.
Formerly called the Kids First Research Act, the bill was renamed for Gabriella Miller, a 10-year-old Virginia girl who died last year. Afflicted with brain cancer, she nonetheless applied her boisterous personality to viral YouTube videos advocating for heightened awareness for pediatric diseases.
Democrats decried the move at the time, saying it was cynical to name the bill for Miller because they believed it did little to advocate for her cause.
Yet aides noted that the name change did indeed have an effect. With Miller’s parents watching from the House chamber’s visitors gallery, the bill passed in December on a 295-103 vote.
Shortly after it passed, both of Virginia’s Democratic senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, joined with GOP Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah to co-sponsor corresponding legislation in the Senate, taking on the cause of their home-state constituents.
It passed the Senate on Tuesday with unanimous consent.
"We decided to take whatever funding authorization NIH can get at this time (since it seems that Republicans have no interest in otherwise increasing NIH’s research budget), and to have a fight for more funding when appropriation time comes," a Senate Democratic leadership aide said in an email.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., noted on the Senate floor that NIH funding has been cut far more than this bill will add, and noted that no money would go toward research until it is appropriated. "It is so very, very important that we not claim victory for the NIH because of this," he said.
The bill also recently become an issue in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's campaign.
His Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, speaking at a fundraiser in Kentucky over the weekend, called on McConnell to quickly endorse the bill, invoking a home-state youngster who died in 2012 from a rare form of cancer.
Lane Goodwin, who died at age 13, had achieved minor celebrity status with a Facebook page that asked well-wishers to post “thumbs up” photos in support of his recovery.
“It’s time you put your name on the bill and lead,” Grimes said March 8, challenging McConnell, according to the Courier-Journal. “We can’t afford to lose any more youngsters like Lane here in the commonwealth of Kentucky.”
McConnell's office noted, however, that he had already put the bill on the Senate "hotline" Jan. 7 to try and clear it for passage.
He put in the unanimous consent request Tuesday, noting that he has been a strong supporter of pediatric research, in part because of personal experience.
“As a survivor of polio as a child, I have always empathized with children battling life-threatening or disabling disorders,” he said. “It is well past time we pass this bill out of the Senate and send it to the president for his signature.”