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'God help us if we get a worldwide pandemic'

Associated Press

Most of the political world has given up talking about sequestration cuts, even as they hurt kids, the job market, military personnel, the criminal justice system, firefighters, and others. The policy was designed to hurt the country on purpose; and it's working as planned; but it's apparently not a sexy topic.

At this point, I'm not sure what might persuade the Beltway to give a darn, but Sam Stein talked to Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, about the sequester and the news was not at all good.

An already stagnant budget was made worse this spring when Congress and the White House failed to prevent sequestration. The NIH was forced to cut $1.7 billion from its budget by the end of September, lowering its purchasing power about 25 percent, compared with 2003.

Roughly six months into sequestration, however, the situation is worse than predicted. Internal NIH estimates show that it will end up cutting more than the 700 research grants the institutes initially planned to sacrifice in the name of austerity. If lawmakers fail to replace sequestration at the end of September, that number could rise above 1,000 as the NIH absorbs another 2 percent budget cut on top of the 5 percent one this fiscal year.

"It is so unimaginable that I would be in a position of somehow saying that this country is unable to see the rationality of covering what biomedicine can do," Collins said, in an interview with The Huffington Post. "But I'm not sure from what I see right now that rationality carries the day."

For a real-world example, consider NIH's work on a flu vaccine. "God help us if we get a worldwide pandemic that emerges in the next five years, which takes a long time to prepare a vaccine for," Collins told Stein.

Is there any hope congressional Republicans will change course and be more responsible on this? I'm glad you asked.

Earlier this month, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said "none of us like" the sequestration policy. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said the sequester "is not the best way to go about spending reductions." House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said the sequester is "unrealistic," "ill-conceived," and a policy that "must be brought to an end."

And yet, here we are.

House Speaker John A. Boehner said Thursday that he plans to avert a government shutdown at the end of September by passing a "short-term" budget bill that maintains sharp automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester.

"When we return, our intent is to move quickly on a short-term continuing resolution that keeps the government running and maintains current sequester spending levels," Boehner (R-Ohio) said on a conference call with GOP lawmakers, according to a person on the call.

So, when Boehner insists he doesn't like the sequestration policy, what he means is the exact opposite.

The plan from the Speaker's office is a short-term budget fix, which would leave the sequester intact (despite everything Boehner and GOP leaders have said), and temporarily delay the need for a government shutdown. Soon after, Boehner and Republicans will have created another crisis, in which Washington policymakers will face a budget crisis and a debt-ceiling crisis at the same time.

But this assumes the House GOP leadership can pass a temporary spending measure -- and there's no reason to assume that they can. Democrats who want to undo the sequester will balk, as well Republicans who agree. Meanwhile, most far-right GOP lawmakers will see this move as a surrender, because it neither shuts down the government nor defunds the federal health care system.

My advice for the fall? Buckle your seatbelt.