Lawmakers grill HHS secretary about proposed budget

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson took a bit of a beating Wednesday over his department's proposed budget before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees it.

Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, called the proposed 2.5 percent increase for the National Institutes of Health-which has received double-digit increases for each of the past five years-"unacceptable." And he flatly said the administration's plan to move the Head Start program from HHS to the Education Department "ain't going to happen."

Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chided Thompson not only over the NIH number, but over proposed reductions to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "which we are asking to do more and more." Specter said the fundamental problem with the HHS budget is its proposed discretionary increase of less than 1 percent over fiscal 2003 spending.

"When you present a budget like this, you end up having us add to CDC and NIH and taking away from everything else," Specter complained. "I know your problems with OMB, but there has to be a higher level of advocacy."

Thompson defended himself by saying, "I don't think you'll find a stronger advocate." Replied Specter, "You could take over OMB."

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