WASHINGTON — There aren’t a lot of issues that can get Elizabeth Warren and Newt Gingrich into a room together.
But there they were Monday, talking up the importance of medical research at a Capitol Hill forum — the one issue where they could not only agree, but the one where they could actually flatter each other.
The liberal Massachusetts senator invited the former Republican House speaker to appear at her forum on the importance of scientific research for one reason: Gingrich is not only one of the most outspoken Republican supporters of medical research, but one of the congressional leaders who launched the doubling of the National Institutes of Health budget in the late 1990s.
So Warren called him to the witness table to explain to members of Congress — especially his fellow Republicans — why it’s time for another increase in the NIH budget after years of decline.
“Since you’re conservative, you may have more credibility than I do in some circles,” Warren told him.
Gingrich didn’t disappoint her. His pitch: The staggering costs of diseases like Alzheimer’s makes it critical to find better treatments, because those investments in research will save the government money down the road.
“I say this to all my fiscal conservative friends: You have trillions of dollars of guaranteed expenses that you’re never going to be able to walk away from,” Gingrich said. “There is no other strategy with the baby boomers retiring that will get you to a sustainable balanced budget.”
Gingrich loaded up his testimony with his trademarks, including historical anecdotes (“Lincoln was totally fascinated with technology”) and futuristic predictions about the possibilities of science (“within a generation, we should be able to help you regrow your own liver rather than a transplant”).
And of course, he couldn’t resist lobbing an assault or two.
“To allow research funding to languish at a time of historic opportunity when you could be saving lives and saving money takes a special kind of stupidity that is reserved for this city,” Gingrich said.
The forum wasn’t exactly a standing-room only event. At least half of the seats in the spacious hearing room were empty.
But it allowed the two political stars to trade compliments and highlight the potential for bipartisan agreement on medical research funding, with Warren telling Gingrich that “I hope we are able to follow your example” by achieving a funding increase similar to the one achieved in the 1990s.
Gingrich offered to help her and the co-host of the forum, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, push for more funding — although he carefully avoided any endorsement of Warren’s preferred approach.
Warren has introduced a bill that would make pharmaceutical firms pay a portion of their profits to the NIH when they reach settlement agreements with the government for breaking laws — an idea she calls a “swear jar” for drug companies. “If there are other ideas, then folks should put them on the table, but we need to get this done,” Warren said.
Instead, Gingrich offered his own solutions, like issuing bonds to pay for the medical research and offering prizes for the studies that lead to medical breakthroughs.
Gingrich said Warren invited him to the forum after reading a New York Times op-ed he wrote in April that called on conservatives to support doubling the NIH budget again.
He has also thrown his weight behind a House-passed bill to speed the approval of new cures and treatments, which includes $8.75 billion in new funding for the NIH over the next five years. That measure is controversial, with critics warning that it could undermine the safety of new drugs. (The Senate hasn’t acted on the issue yet.)
The forum came at a time when Congress already seems receptive to giving more money to the NIH, after years of stagnant budgets. A Senate committee has approved a $2 billion increase over last year, and its House counterpart has signed off on a $1.1 billion funding boost.
Those bills won’t get signed into law in their current form — they’re going to get caught up in larger budget battles between President Obama and the Republican-controlled Congress. But they’re increasing the odds that the NIH could end up with more money after the broader spending fights get worked out.David Nather can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DavidNather.