WASHINGTON ? A controversial House NASAauthorization bill that appeared headed for a floor vote today has stalled, andit appears unlikely the measure will be taken up before lawmakers leave townfor a six-week summer break that begins Aug. 2.
House leadership aides said just beforemidnight July 29 that the bill, a three-year authorization that recommendsfunding the U.S. space agency at roughly $19 billion a year through 2013,would not be taken up today, and that it is very unlikely the measure will cometo a vote before lawmakers head home to campaign in their districts.
Although the bill, H.R. 5781, would notactually fund NASA, it would set guidelines for how much Congress can spend onthe agency?s programs. In June, House appropriators approved a $19 billionbudget for NASA next year, but fenced off most of the agency?s $4.2 billion humanspace exploration budget pending enactment of an authorization bill.
The House Science and Technology Committeeapproved H.R. 5781 with strong bipartisan support July 22, sending forward abill that authorizes only a small fraction of the $3.3 billion NASA sought toinvest in a commercial crew transportation system over the next three years.The bill authorized $150 million through 2013 for commercial crew and another$300 million in the form of government-backed loans or loan guarantees.
The measure also would continue much of thework being done under NASA?s Constellation program, a 5-year-old effort tobuild new rockets and spacecraft optimized for lunar missions that PresidentBarack Obama targeted for termination in his 2011 spendingproposal delivered to Congress in February.
With little time remaining in the fiscal yearthat ends Sept. 30, House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Rep. BartGordon (D-Tenn.) sought to bring the measure to the House floor undersuspension of the rules ? a move that prevents amendments to a bill andrequires a two-thirds majority vote to pass. But Gordon encountered resistancefrom House members hoping to weigh in on the measure during floor debate. Rep.Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and other House Democrats met with Gordon early July 29to address concerns with key elements of the legislation.
?We had a good conversation about thedifficult choices facing the agency and promised to continue to work togetherto reach consensus on the bill,? Schiff said of the meeting through aspokesperson July 29.
Schiff was one of 13 Democratic members ofthe California delegation who urged Gordon?s committee to restore funding for commercialcrew and cargo initiatives and exploration technology programs requested inNASA?s 2011 spending plan.
?These reductions will have a serious effecton California?s workforce and economy, and that of many states,? they stated ina July 21 letter to Gordon. ?These are areas that should be the cornerstone ofNASA?s new direction because they will drive innovation and job creation acrossthe nation.?
Space Exploration Technologies Corp.(SpaceX), a Hawhorne, Calif.-based company that holds a fixed-price contract todeliver cargo to the InternationalSpace Station and has aspirations to launch crews as well, sent an e-mailblast July 29 asking supporters to urge lawmakers to vote no on H.R. 5781.
Further complicating the bill?s path to thefloor, the House Science and Technology Committee made some last-minute changesto H.R. 5781.
The bill previously created federally backedloan guarantees for companies developing commercial crewed vehicles, but thecommittee dropped that provision after the Congressional Budget Office raisedquestions about the long-term cost of the program. In place of the loanguarantees, the committee added a $300 million grant program aimed at fosteringcommercial crewed systems, according to a July 28 copy of the suspension billobtained by Space News.
In addition, the modified bill would prohibitNASA from laying off civil servants for at least six months following thebill?s enactment.
The International Association of Machinistsand Aerospace Workers said in a July 29 statement that the organizationsupports the House version of the NASA authorization. However, two unions thatrepresent NASA civil servants ? The American Federation of Government Employeesand the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers ?issued a joint statement the same day opposing ?the far from non-controversial?bill ?in its current form.?
During a six-hour markup of the bill July 22,Gordon said the NASA authorization would create a balanced, sustainable mannedspace exploration program that allows the agency to live within its means.
?We are in tough economic times, and wecannot do it all,? Gordon said, adding ?some of the ?nice-to-haves? have had tobe deferred, and worthy activities have been funded at lower levels than someof us would like.?
Off Capitol Hill, commercial space advocateswere outraged that committee leaders sought to rush the measure to a floorvote.
?This bill is deeply flawed, and it would betotally inappropriate for it to be pushed through with no debate,? BrettonAlexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said in a July29 e-mail.
The Planetary Society, an advocacy groupdedicated to space exploration, said in a July 29 statement that the future ofthe space program is too important to rush through a controversial change inpolicy.
?There has been inadequate time to review andunderstand the implications of this new plan. Therefore, the Society urges theHouse leadership to wait until after the August recess to bring the bill to theHouse Floor, allowing a full and open debate and for amendments to improve thebill,? the Pasadena, Calif.-based group states.
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This story was provided by Space News, dedicated to coveringall aspects of the space industry.