Republicans warn reconciliation may stall bipartisan R&D proposals

Democrats vow to keep bipartisan bills alive while GOP says budget process ‘guaranteed to undercut’ them

House Science, Space and Technology ranking member Frank D. Lucas is concerned that several bipartisan research and development bills are doomed. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Science, Space and Technology ranking member Frank D. Lucas is concerned that several bipartisan research and development bills are doomed. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 14, 2021 at 6:00am

House Republicans who worked with Democrats this summer to pass bills aimed at boosting U.S. scientific research and development are warning that the budget reconciliation process may undercut those efforts and endanger the prospects of a bipartisan science authorization bill becoming law this year.

Both chambers passed bipartisan science bills in June that would authorize billions for the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department and other agencies to conduct basic and applied research in fields ranging from climate science to artificial intelligence. 

Proponents say the investments would put the U.S. on a path to solving pressing societal issues such as how to deal with the effects of climate change and rivaling China’s investment in 21st-century technologies like quantum computing, advanced energy and cybersecurity.

But key differences exist between the Senate’s proposal and the two bills that make up the bulk of the House’s countermeasure. Republicans say the partisan budget process under which Democrats intend to pass a domestic spending bill with a potential $3.5 trillion price tag and a packed legislative calendar are lowering the chances of the chambers hammering out the differences and sending a bill to President Joe Biden’s desk.

They also object to Democrats using the budget process to provide billions in funding for research without the policy guidelines set by the bipartisan authorization bills.

At a markup last week, Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., the ranking member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, called it “putting the cart before the horse.”

Towering flames burn at the head of the Caldor Fire along Highway 88 near Caples Lake in Kirkwood, Calif., on Sept. 2. (Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images)

“We have yet to settle major policy disagreements between the House and Senate, which is what we should be spending our time on instead of this partisan spending spree,” Lucas said. “I have serious concerns that this reconciliation process will stall all of the momentum that we have to get our competitiveness bills across the finish line and to the president’s desk.”

Lucas proposed an amendment to the committee’s $45 billion budget reconciliation proposal that would prohibit any of the funding from being used by NSF to establish a new technology and innovation directorate, a key piece of both the House and Senate authorization proposals.

'Guaranteed to undercut'

“Without this amendment, this bill is guaranteed to undercut this committee’s ability to come to an agreement with the Senate on what the future of NSF should be,” Lucas said. “And, most troublesome, I’m concerned it will give the majority leader the means to bypass the House and pressure the NSF into his version of the new directorate.”

Disagreements between senior House and Senate lawmakers over how the new directorate should operate permeated the debate over both authorization bills this summer. While the directorate in the Senate proposal focused exclusively on countering China’s ambitions in advanced fields, the House version was aimed at addressing societal challenges such as climate change.

Committee Democrats said they remain committed to the House’s bipartisan vision for the NSF directorate.

“We do still need to work out important differences with the Senate,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo. “I’m not as pessimistic in terms of working out something with the Senate and [Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer] on this new directorate.”

Perlmutter said NSF isn’t required to wait for the authorization bills to become law before it begins work on the new directorate.

“If anything, NSF’s own vision for its new technology, innovation and partnerships directorate is closely aligned in scope and purpose with the directorate this committee endorsed,” he said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate at this time to prevent them from using funds in this act for that purpose.”

The committee voted along party lines, 21-17, to reject Lucas’ amendment and later approved the reconciliation recommendations by the same margin. The proposal would provide $11 billion for NSF, including $3.4 billion for equipment, facilities and infrastructure, and $7.6 billion for new and existing research grants, scholarships and fellowships.

Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, said she did not expect her Republican colleagues “to be happy about this process” but said the proposal was crafted to “not stray from the values from the other committee work we’ve done.”

Sean Newhouse contributed to this report.