NASA's Search for Another $1.2 Billion Gets Tougher

NASA's prospects for a $1.2 billion budget increase that many agency supporters see as vital to getting U.S. space exploration plans off the ground without tossing popular aeronautics and science initiatives overboard appear dim.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, where annual spending legislation is starting to take shape, the appropriations subcommittee that deals with NASA's budget learned in early May that it has an extra $109 million to work with thanks to a slightly bigger-than-expected budget allocation meted out by House leaders.

Not only is that amount about one-tenth of the additional money NASA would like to get, the U.S. space agency is only one of more than a dozen federal agencies the House must fund in the 2007 Science, State, Justice and Commerce Appropriations bill. And NASA supporters are far from alone in seeking money above and beyond the budget requests the White House sent Congress back in February.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Appropriations science, state, justice and commerce subcommittee is under the gun to find about $1 billion for popular local law enforcement initiatives the White House cut from Justice Department's budget request. Restoring the local law enforcement money, congressional sources say, is a top priority. As a result, lawmakers will have to weigh, for example, how soon to put astronauts on the Moon versus how many police officers to put on the streets.

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), a staunch NASA supporter who serves on Wolf's appropriations subcommittee, told attendees at a Space Transportation Association breakfast here May 11 that it is unlikely in such a tight budget environment that Congress will give NASA the $1.2 billion increase it recommended for the agency in legislation signed into law late last year.

That legislation, the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, endorsed building new rockets to replace the space shuttle and eventually carry astronauts to the Moon, but also said NASA must maintain "a balanced set of programs." Congress sought to help NASA achieve those often competing goals by authorizing the White House to spend $17.9 billion on the space agency in 2007, or about $1 billion more than the White House ended up requesting.

Congressional appropriators are under no obligation to fund agencies at the authorized levels and often do not. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), an appropriator who also chairs the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, reminded NASA supporters of that at a NASA budget hearing in late April. DeLay's remarks at the Space Transportation Association breakfast conveyed the same message, telling the industry and government officials in attendance that NASA supporters would have to "fight and claw for every dime" this year.

DeLay, who has been so influential in NASA's budget victories of the past couple years, will not be around much longer to fight for NASA. The former House majority leader, who faces money laundering charges related to campaign financing, is leaving Congress June 9. Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee, is expected to take DeLay's seat on appropriations.

DeLay said May 11 that it would be up to Calvert and Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), who already serves on Wolf's appropriations subcommittee, to "work very, very hard to eke out as much as we can" for NASA in the budget battles ahead.

Two of the House Science Committee's senior Democrats, meanwhile, sent Wolf a letter May 9 urging funding NASA "as close as possible" to the $17.9 billion level recommended in the authorization act.

Reps. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) pointed out in their letter that the $17.9 billion Congress authorized last year is consistent with the amount of money the White House said NASA would need in 2007 when President George W. Bush announced the space exploration initiative two years ago.

"Unfortunately, the Administration has failed to request funding for NASA in either 2006 or 2007 commensurate with what it has estimated would be needed," Gordon and Udall wrote. "Thus, the 2007 budge request for NASA is more than a billion dollars less than the Administration and Congress ... have believed is required to undertake the new exploration initiative while maintaining robust and healthy science and aeronautics initiatives."

Absent finding additional money for NASA, Gordon and Udall recommend taking money out of NASA's exploration systems budget to fund nearly $590 million in increases for various aeronautics, science and international space station research programs, including an $8 million increase for a NASA-initiated demonstration program meant to foster commercial services capable of delivering supplies and perhaps astronauts to the station.

While Gordon and Udall recommend looking in NASA's exploration account for more money for aeronautics and science, they also said they would prefer to see appropriators pare back spending on activities geared toward human expeditions to the Moon and Mars before cutting into funds available for the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle and cargo carriers NASA plans to build to replace the space shuttle.

The House Appropriations Committee is expected to take up the NASA spending bill in mid-June. The Senate Appropriations Committee, which has not yet set budget allocations for each of the 12 spending bills it must complete this year, is expected to mark up its version of the NASA legislation in July.

While a $1 billion increase does not appear to be in the cards for NASA for 2007, the agency still could end up with a bigger budget than the White House requested, according to congressional and other sources. NASA supporters, for example, see the hundreds of millions of dollars included in the State Department's request for non-governmental organizations and various international assistance programs as ripe for the picking, if for no other reason than cutting foreign aide rarely costs lawmakers votes back home.

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