WASHINGTON ? The Nov. 2 elections that will putRepublicans in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives in January likelymeans that two vocal critics of U.S. President Barack Obama's new direction forNASA will assume leadership of committees that oversee the space agency.
Riding a wave of voter unhappiness due in part to thecountry's stalled economic recovery, Republican challengers as of early Nov. 3had gained at least 60 seats in the House, well above the 39 needed to seizethe majority of the chamber's 435 voting members. [Poll:How Will NASA's New Direction Fare in the New Congress?]
Before the elections, Republican leaders pledged tocurtail U.S. federal spending, which could also have implications for NASA.
The U.S. Senate is expected to remain under Democraticcontrol, although Republicans made gains there as well.
Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Ralph Hall (R-Texas), whoboth won re-election and are expected to assume leadership of keyNASA oversight committees, have criticized Obama's plans to cancel thenation's Moon program and outsource crew transit to and from low Earth orbit.
Wolf, the ranking member of the powerful HouseAppropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, which oversees NASAspending, is expected to assume the panel's chairmanship come January. Astaunch critic of the Obama plan, Wolf, who is entering his 16th term inCongress, has said the president's vision effectively would cede U.S.leadership in space.
"We would turn over the Americanspace program to allow China to catch us," Wolf said shortly after theWhite House sent lawmakers a new NASA budget blueprint in February.
Commercial space plans under scrutiny
In addition to questioning Obama's plan to delaydevelopment of new rockets and spacecraft capable of taking astronauts intodeep space, Wolf took issue with a plan to foster development of commercialcrew taxis for operations in-low Earth orbit.
In an April 20 interview Wolf said private space firmscould have "a role to bring cargo back and forth" between Earth andthe International Space Station, but singled out one of two firms building newhardware for such missions ? Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space ExplorationTechnologies (SpaceX) ? as not having "the best record in the world."The other company, Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., is located inWolf's Virginia district.
Part of a growing number of House and Senate lawmakerswho sought to strike a balance between the White House plan and concerns itcould jeopardize U.S. leadership in space exploration, Wolf ultimatelysupported a Senate measure authorizing $58 billion for NASA over three years.
The bill, S. 3729, which Obama signed into law Oct. 11,retained elements of the president's commercial crew initiative while directingNASA to begin workon a heavy-lift rocket in 2011 ? some five years earlier than the WhiteHouse had envisioned.
The bill, brought to the House floor Sept. 29 under arule suspension that prevented amendments and limited debate, won backing from185 Democrats and 119 Republicans, including Hall, the ranking member of theHouse Science and Technology Committee that oversees NASA policy and which setsoverall funding levels for congressional appropriators to consider.
Hall, who is expected to assume the committee'schairmanship next year, initially supported a House version of theauthorization bill that would have gutted funding for Obama's commercial crewinitiative. But in remarks made shortly before the House adopted the Senatecompromise, Hall characterized the measure as flawed but necessary in order tomove NASA forward.
"While the bill before us today is far from perfect,it offers clear direction for a NASA that's floundering," he
NASA in limbo
However, until Congress funds the newly enacted law in aforthcoming 2011 appropriations bill, the agency is likely to remain in limbo.[NASAin Transition]
?Although lawmakers are expected to reconvene for alame-duck session Nov. 15, it remains unclear whether new spending legislationwill be approved before a stopgap measure intended to keep the governmentrunning into the current budget year expires Dec. 3. That stopgap measure,called a continuing resolution, funds the federal government at 2010 levels.
In the meantime, with incoming Republican leadersthreatening to dial back discretionary spending across the federal governmentnext year, the $19 billion Congress authorized for NASA in 2011 could be injeopardy.
House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who isexpected to become speaker of the House in January, voted against the recentlyenacted NASA legislation and more broadly has pledged to roll back spending inan effort to reduce the federal deficit.
In a weekly Republican address Oct. 30, Boehnercriticized spending under Democratic leadership and outlined reforms in thegoverning agenda Republicans expect to implement in the 112th Congress.
"We're ready to cut spending to pre-'stimulus,'pre-bailout levels, saving taxpayers $100 billion almost immediately,"Boehner said. "And we're ready to put in place strict budget caps thatlimit spending from here on out, to ensure that Washington is no longer on thisspending binge."
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