WASHINGTON?NASA's advocates in Congress are racing against the clock to adopt anew spacepolicy and get additional money proposed by President Obama.
Butlengthytalks have so far failed to bridge the gap between House and Senatevisions forthe agency.
Theimpassejeopardizes the extra $6 billion that Obama wants to spend on theagency overfive years, and could gut Obama's plans to spur the development of a commercialspaceindustry.
"It'simportant to getthe authorizationbill outbefore we adjourn for October, so that the blueprint is there, theroadmap isthere for them to do the appropriations after we come back after theelection," said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who drafted theSenate version of legislation. "I've spent a lot of time on it, butwe'renot there yet."
Obamahasproposed a major change in NASA's course. He wants to rely oncommercialrockets to ferry people to the International Space Station. NASA wouldthenconcentrate on research and development, with the goal being a tripto an asteroidby 2025 and Mars inthe 2030s.
Lawmakersfrom both parties have attacked his plan toabandon the Constellation return-to-the-moon program in a bid topreserve theprogram's rockets, which are important to the economies of certainstates andcongressional districts. [NASA'sNew Direction: FAQ]
ButtheHouse and Senate took different paths, diverging particularly on howmuch tospend on commercial rockets. The Senate approved policy legislationcalling for$612 million in 2011 for commercial cargo and crew development. In theHouse,the Science and Technology Committee authorized only $50 million forcommercialcrew development and $14 million for a cargo demonstration project.
TheHouseversion awaits floor action, which could come as early as this week.Butleaders of both chambers are trying to negotiate a compromise beforethe Housevote. They're hoping the Senate would approve the compromise, whichwould save timeover convening a House-Senate conference committee to work outdifferencesbetween two separate bills.
"We'restill talking about it," House MajorityLeader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said.
Nelsonsaidhe met for two hours Wednesday with the House science committee'schairman,Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, but they weren't able toreach acompromise.
Asignificant dispute focuses on a Senate proposal for a heavy-liftrocketby 2015, which hassupport from key senators. The House rejected that option because oftheprojected cost -- $11.5 billion over five years.
"Hedoesn't think we can do a heavy-lift rocket for $11.5 billion," Nelsonsaid of Gordon. "If we can't do a rocket for $11.5 billion, we ought toclose up shop."
Gordonsaidhe hopes to bring a bill to the House floor this week.
"We'rein discussions. We're making a lot of progress, and I'm veryoptimistic,"Gordon said.
Rep.SuzanneKosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach, echoed that optimism, saying she hopes "wewill have a move-forward plan" by mid-week.
Thisyear'slegislative calendar creates some urgency. Congress is expected todepart forcampaigning by early October, leaving only two or three weeks to debateNASAand other issues.
BecauseCongress hasn't approved any spending bills for the year starting Oct.1,lawmakers will have to adopt a short-term measure that holds fundingsteady formost agencies.
Already,factions are lining up for exceptions. The Obama administrationreportedly isseeking $5 billion for some programs, including $1.9 billion for "Racetothe Top," grants for schools, $624 million for a new Strategic ArmsReduction Treaty the Senate is debating, and $250 million to implementthe health-careoverhaul.
NASAaimsfor an extra $278 million in 2011.
Talkswillbecome trickier if Republicans regain control of the House or Senate intheNov. 2 election. Some Republicans already have proposed freezingspending orreturning to 2008 levels.
Thethreatto curb all spending is what keeps NASAadvocatessearching for acompromise.
"Theyhaven't worked out anything yet, and that's a dangerous situation,"saidRep. Ralph Hall of Texas, the top Republican on the science committeeand anardent supporter of NASA. "I have preferences for what I want, but I'lltake the House bill. I'll take the Senate bill rather than no bill."
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