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Area Lawmakers Push Priorities As Sequester Cuts Loom

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Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D–Md.) discusses how sequestration will affect the National Institutes of Health budget and ability to give grants to young research scientists.
Jared Angle
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D–Md.) discusses how sequestration will affect the National Institutes of Health budget and ability to give grants to young research scientists.

It's become popular on Capitol Hill to rail against faceless bureaucrats in the federal government, but officials warn that pending federal budget cuts will hurt average citizens.

When Felicia Sanchez was 21, her doctor in Arizona told her their hospital staff couldn't diagnose her deadly disease.

"And then I remember thinking and asking myself, 'Well what am I supposed to do go home and just wait to die?'" Sanchez recalls. "And then he said, 'No, you go to NIH.'"

At the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., Sanchez was diagnosed with a rare form of Valley Fever. In fact, her doctor says she's the only person in the world with this form of the disease. Sanchez says doctors at NIH saved her life and kept her from becoming paralyzed.

"I wouldn't know what I'd do without the doctors and the researchers and scientists here," Sanchez says. "I'm only here today because of them. I would just be a lonely empty grave. Faded bones and dust."

Democrats lay out their vision to address sequestration

If the sequestration hits the federal government next Friday, every program at NIH is facing a 5 percent budget cut. NIH director Dr. Francis Collins says if that happens, the research hospital may have to turn patients away.

"This is not just about administrative tasks," Collins says. "This is about real patients, real clinical opportunities that are going to be lost."

So how can Congress divert the billions of dollars in budget cuts set to take effect next Friday? Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) says she is open to making targeted cuts and exploring entitlement reform, but, like the president, she's demanding more revenue.

"More revenue comes from reforming the tax code and plugging up loopholes," Mikulski says.

Besides wanting new revenue from changing the tax code, she has her own ideas of where to find savings.

"We will have strategic cuts in farm subsidies for $27 billion and another $20 billion cuts in defense that will start in 2015, when our troops come home," Mikulski says.

Republican leaders are working on tax reform, but they say to divert sequestration Democrats need to cut spending.

Concerns about Pentagon workers linger

Programs like those at the NIH aren't the only ones on the chopping block, however. The Pentagon announced this week that it may have to furlough the "vast majority" of its 800,000 civilian workers if billions of dollars in budget cuts hit next Friday. That would means one forced day off a week for workers and forfeiting 20 percent of their pay.

That's why Congressman Rob Wittman (R-Va.) says Congress should cut the non-military side of the budget.

"I've already heard from hundreds of those folks that are very, very concerned," Wittman says. "You can imagine taking a 20 percent salary cut for a lot of folks is, for them, catastrophic."

Congress isn't in session this week, and the $85 billion in budget cuts are scheduled to kick in next Friday if there is no action. With both sides of the aisle working to protect their niche constituencies, it's looking more and more like the doomsday scenario of across-the-board budget cuts will soon hit many families in the region.

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