Reacting to a report that their funding was in jeopardy of being stripped from this year's defense spending, Mr. Clinton ordered White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta to relay his concern for the programs to Defense Secretary William J. Perry.
"The president believes that research to combat these deadly diseases is vitally important to all Americans, and it is of special significance to him," Mr. Panetta wrote.
Noting that 46,000 women die of breast cancer each year and 40,000 Americans die of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, he said: "The president believes that we cannot afford to allow these tragic losses to continue. And that is why breast cancer and AIDS research is a high priority for this administration." He ordered Mr. Perry to keep the president "advised" of continuation of the programs.
The Washington Post reported yesterday that $30 million earmarked for AIDS research and $150 million for breast cancer research this year might not be spent because the Pentagon did not consider them essential parts of the military's medical program.
But testifying before the Senate Budget Committee yesterday, the Pentagon's chief financial officer told the panel that AIDS research involved "particular military issues," including the development of battlefield tests for soldier-to-soldier blood transfusions.
Breast cancer research, Comptroller John Hamre said, was "not primarily a defense mission." The $150 million in this year's budget for the research should be transferred to the National Institutes of Health.
Pressed by Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, on whether the money would be transferred, he said: "I believe that's the situation. I will go back and check."
A Pentagon official later said that there was no proposal to transfer the money or the program from the defense budget and that Mr. Hamre, in his testimony, had "recalled something that did not come to pass."
But the two programs remain in jeopardy because congressional Republicans have identified medical research as the sort of "nondefense" spending they want to cut.
White House spokeswoman Ginny Terzano emphasized Mr. Clinton's message was directed at Congress as well the Pentagon, adding that the White House "feels it's important for those on Capitol Hill to know" the extent of his support.
The breast cancer research program is managed by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, which has awarded more than 400 cancer research grants worth $260 million to institutions nationwide. Maryland institutions have been awarded 22 grants, totaling $7.3 million, including $3.3 million to the Johns Hopkins University and $1.6 million to the University of Maryland.
The notion of redirecting the breast cancer research program from the Army to the National Institutes of Health, which is spending $350 million on its own breast cancer research program this year, was condemnned yesterday by the National Breast Cancer Coalition, one of the groups that lobbied in 1991 for the military program to be started.
Asked to respond to Mr. Hamre's assertion that breast cancer research was not primarily a defense mission, she said: "The Army has done biomedical research for a long time. There are women in the military, and there are dependents of active duty military men for whom this is a major issue."