Cantor's Pediatric Research Bill Has Democrats Fuming

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

While the House ties up some legislative loose ends this week before adjourning for the year, there is one suspension bill the public — and House Republicans — might be surprised to find many Democrats opposing: a measure aimed at boosting pediatric medical research at the National Institutes of Health.

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, would end $12.5 million in funding for party nominating conventions and authorize the money for pediatric research grants instead. It's the latest iteration of a proposal House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., unveiled in April and is sponsored by Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss.

“They're politicizing the death of a child by naming the bill after her,” a Democratic leadership aide told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday. “That's pretty disingenuous and callous to use a tragedy like hers to advance something partisan.”

The Wednesday vote sets up a politically charged choice for Democrats: Vote to fund politics or vote to fund research for childhood diseases. The attack ads almost write themselves. And by offering the bill on suspension, usually a path for non-controversial items, Democrats will not have a chance to amend it and perhaps find some cover. Because suspension bills require a two-thirds majority, Democrats have the power to kill the bill.

Incensed Democrats note the measure won't necessarily move money to the NIH — it would only authorize appropriators to do so.

Another Democratic leadership aide told CQ Roll Call that the bill was “disrespectful to the intelligence of the American people” and “a desperate attempt to cover up the GOP's abysmal record to adequately fund the NIH.”

“Democrats won't support it,” the aide said of the bill.

Indeed, Democratic leadership sent out a “whip alert” Tuesday urging members to vote no.

The alert, obtained by CQ Roll Call, says the bill is “merely a political messaging Band-Aid that House Republicans are using to hide the gaping wound they have left in our nation’s medical research abilities.”

But if the bill is just a Band-Aid, that doesn’t seem to bother Ellyn Miller, the mother of Gabriella.

“You’re talking about a Band-Aid?” Miller said of the Democratic response to the bill. “We need Band-Aids — lots of them.”

“Don’t tell me it’s a Band-Aid when I’m going around asking — begging — for money, and every single penny helps in this battle,” Miller told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday. Miller said her family’s charity — the Smashing Walnuts Foundation, which refers to the walnut-sized tumor in Gabriella’s brain — is raising small amounts of money. She also noted that her family donated Gabriella’s tumor to a researcher so that he could better understand the growth, and that the researcher was operating on a $100,000 grant.

That he could have his hand on the “doorknob” to a cure for $100,000 really affected Miller, she said.

But Democrats see the bill as nothing more than a cynical messaging ploy.

Matt Dennis, a spokesman for Appropriations Democrats, said it wouldn't boost funding “by one dime.”

“Rather than increasing the amount that can be appropriated to NIH, it merely creates an unnecessary and unfunded authorization — a solution completely irrelevant to the problem,” Dennis said. “It is a cynical attempt by the majority to obscure their shameful record on medical research funding.”

The NIH has been squeezed by billions of dollars since Republicans took over the House, Democrats note, and the caps under the sequester for the Labor-HHS-Education budget would not be changed by the bill.

A number of prominent Democrats sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter Tuesday, saying that if the money is ultimately appropriated, the bill would add about four-tenths of 1 percent to the roughly $3.6 billion the NIH spent on pediatric research last year — and the letter claims the real issue for NIH funding is the sequester.

The appropriations needed to make the funds available for pediatric research, the letter said, are ordinary discretionary appropriations, which are subject to and reduced by the Budget Control Act.

“It is those caps and allocations, combined with sequestration, that have been driving down funding for NIH research and many other important national needs,” said the letter from Appropriations ranking member Nita M. Lowey of New York, Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry A. Waxman of California and Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey.

Rory Cooper, a spokesman for Cantor, said he hoped Democrats would put politics aside and agree that funding political party conventions is “not more important than saving and bettering the lives of our nation’s children who are combating diseases and disorders.”

“Partisan opposition to the president’s sequester, which leader Cantor has proposed alternatives for, should not stand in the way of doing the right thing for these kids,” Cooper said. “As Gabriella Miller said, ‘Less talking, more doing. We need action!’”

Indeed, Ellyn Miller told CQ Roll Call that she felt as though “people are letting the letter after their name — D or R — stand in the way of good for children.”

She will be in the House Gallery on Wednesday to watch the vote. And she said she’ll be happy regardless of the outcome.

“If it’s a defeat, it’s simply going to gather the forces to help move forward with the next phase,” she said.