A few months after Vice President Joe Biden’s eldest son died of an aggressive form of brain cancer, he traveled to Philadelphia to see off Pope Francis after his first U.S. visit.
Before he took off, the pope privately met, and mourned, with Biden and his extended family.
“I wish every grieving parent, brother or sister, mother or father would have had the benefit of his words, his prayers, his presence,” Biden recalled Friday.
Within weeks, Biden would announce the end of his long-running presidential ambitions and devote himself to the “moonshot” effort he said was needed to cure the disease that claimed his son.
The anti-cancer initiative has become a driving focus for the vice president in his final year in office, and it brought him here Friday to a conference at the seat of the Catholic Church calling for a decade’s worth of progress fighting cancer in half as long, a goal that Biden described as a “quantum leap.”
Pope Francis spoke after Biden, declaring that “the globalization of indifference must be countered by the globalization of empathy."
His comments echoed Biden’s, as Francis called for increased funding and legislation to promote research for cures for rare diseases.
“The centrality of the human person will be rediscovered thanks to the coordinated efforts on various levels and in different sectors to find solutions to the sufferings which inflict our sick brothers and sisters,” he said, touching on the themes of humanity and compassion that have been hallmarks of his message as pope.
The cancer initiative is not only a personal cause for Biden at the twilight of his career, but something he’s said may be the best use of his decades of experience as a Washington dealmaker. He aims not only to bring more federal resources to cancer research but also break down often self-imposed barriers toward greater collaboration in the medical field.
Biden’s visit to the Vatican served as an opportunity to plum an unexpected channel of support for his anti-cancer effort: foreign governments.
While he has traveled to leading research centers throughout the U.S. this year, he said it has been a surprising topic of conversation abroad as well.
“The number of world leaders that have contacted me who want to collaborate and work together – they sense exactly what we sense: the enormous possibilities,” he said.
The vice president also called for more government-funded cancer research to back up the administration’s proposed $1 billion increase.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats have expressed support for that expanded federal investment in cancer research. Last year, Congress backed a budget deal to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health, even at a time when other federal agencies are struggling with flat budgets.
Senior lawmakers from both parties have also been cooperating on major legislation to speed approval of drugs and medical devices and boost funding for medical research.
The House overwhelmingly passed a version of the legislation last summer – the 21st Century Cures Act, which would commit $8.75 billion to the initiative. And the Senate health committee has been working on a package of its own bills.
The congressional effort complements Biden’s initiative, according to senior administration officials as well as House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), one of the architects of the House bill.
“There is a good probability that we’ll be able to marry the two together,” he said, noting congressional leaders and the administration have had “a lot of very productive discussions.”
Last month, Biden met with Upton as well as other senior lawmakers working on the medical research initiative, including Senate health committee chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and the committee’s ranking Democratic, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
But funding for the effort remains a major hurdle, particularly among conservative Republicans who have committed to slash federal spending.
“Scientific and cancer research should be a national priority,” said House Budget Committee chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.). “Sadly, we have an administration which refuses to prioritize. It simply wants more and more tax dollars and borrowed money to be spent, without regard for the fiscal consequences.”
The White House has asked for more than $750 million in new funding to support medical research next year, though it is unclear how that would be paid for.
Also controversial on the Hill is the president’s request that the new funding be made mandatory, which would exempt it from the appropriations process that Congress is supposed to use every year to fund the federal government.
Administration officials have argued that Congress’ budgeting has been so dysfunctional in recent years that it would threaten scientific research, which depends on more stable funding.
But many Republicans, already furious over their inability to control mandatory spending in other parts of the federal budget, such as the Affordable Care Act, reject this out of hand.
“It’s not realistic. And I can’t believe anyone at the White House thinks it’s realistic,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees health spending. “It’s very disappointing that the president is pushing something on cancer that they know can’t happen.”
Alexander and Murray are working in the Senate health committee on a funding compromise to support the cancer research effort.
But it remains unclear whether, and when, a deal may be struck. Some believe it may not happen until the lame-duck session after the November elections, when Congress may be forced to cobble together a government funding bill.
Congressional Democrats have strongly backed the president’s call for new spending on medical research and have been pushing in talks with Republicans for mandatory spending.
“Strong mandatory investments in medical research at the NIH are a key priority,” said Murray. “Our negotiations are continuing, and I remain hopeful that we’ll be able to work toward a bipartisan agreement.”
Biden said in another major speech on his cancer effort last week that when he first suggested the idea of ending cancer last fall as he announced he would not run for president, it was a “wistful” notion. But he has committed himself fully, even knowing the steep challenge with the science, and the politics.
“I’ve never quite seen the political situation as dysfunctional as it is today,” he said. “I have a reputation of being able to get along with both sides of the aisle, because I have enormous respect for the House and Senate. But this may be the one subject ¿ and one of the reasons I picked it ¿ where there is absolute, unlimited bipartisan support.”
Memoli reported from Vatican City and Levey from Washington.