WASHINGTON ? NASA's advocates in Congress are racing against the clock to adopt a new space policy and get additional money proposed by President Obama.
But lengthy talks have so far failed to bridge the gap between House and Senate visions for the agency.
The impasse jeopardizes the extra $6 billion that Obama wants to spend on the agency over five years, and could gut Obama's plans to spur the development of a commercial space industry.
"It's important to get the authorization bill out before we adjourn for October, so that the blueprint is there, the roadmap is there for them to do the appropriations after we come back after the election," said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who drafted the Senate version of legislation. "I've spent a lot of time on it, but we're not there yet."
Obama has proposed a major change in NASA's course. He wants to rely on commercial rockets to ferry people to the International Space Station. NASA would then concentrate on research and development, with the goal being a trip to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s.
Lawmakers from both parties have attacked his plan to abandon the Constellation return-to-the-moon program in a bid to preserve the program's rockets, which are important to the economies of certain states and congressional districts. [NASA's New Direction: FAQ]
But the House and Senate took different paths, diverging particularly on how much to spend on commercial rockets. The Senate approved policy legislation calling for $612 million in 2011 for commercial cargo and crew development. In the House, the Science and Technology Committee authorized only $50 million for commercial crew development and $14 million for a cargo demonstration project.
The House version awaits floor action, which could come as early as this week. But leaders of both chambers are trying to negotiate a compromise before the House vote. They're hoping the Senate would approve the compromise, which would save time over convening a House-Senate conference committee to work out differences between two separate bills.
"We're still talking about it," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said.
Nelson said he met for two hours Wednesday with the House science committee's chairman, Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, but they weren't able to reach a compromise.
A significant dispute focuses on a Senate proposal for a heavy-lift rocket by 2015, which has support from key senators. The House rejected that option because of the projected cost -- $11.5 billion over five years.
"He doesn't think we can do a heavy-lift rocket for $11.5 billion," Nelson said of Gordon. "If we can't do a rocket for $11.5 billion, we ought to close up shop."
Gordon said he hopes to bring a bill to the House floor this week.
"We're in discussions. We're making a lot of progress, and I'm very optimistic," Gordon said.
Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach, echoed that optimism, saying she hopes "we will have a move-forward plan" by mid-week.
This year's legislative calendar creates some urgency. Congress is expected to depart for campaigning by early October, leaving only two or three weeks to debate NASA and other issues.
Because Congress hasn't approved any spending bills for the year starting Oct. 1, lawmakers will have to adopt a short-term measure that holds funding steady for most agencies.
Already, factions are lining up for exceptions. The Obama administration reportedly is seeking $5 billion for some programs, including $1.9 billion for "Race to the Top," grants for schools, $624 million for a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty the Senate is debating, and $250 million to implement the health-care overhaul.
NASA aims for an extra $278 million in 2011.
Talks will become trickier if Republicans regain control of the House or Senate in the Nov. 2 election. Some Republicans already have proposed freezing spending or returning to 2008 levels.
The threat to curb all spending is what keeps NASA advocates searching for a compromise.
"They haven't worked out anything yet, and that's a dangerous situation," said Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, the top Republican on the science committee and an ardent supporter of NASA. "I have preferences for what I want, but I'll take the House bill. I'll take the Senate bill rather than no bill."
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