House Trims NASA’s 2007 Budget Request

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WASHINGTON — After rejecting calls to ground NASA’s space exploration plans, the U.S. House of Representatives voted June 29 to give the agency $16.7 billion.

The NASA money was included in the 2007 Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill (H.R. 5672), which passed on a vote of 392 to 23.

The bill gives NASA a slight raise for 2007 — about $86 million — but still falls $83 million short of the amount the White House requested for the space agency.

The bill also requires NASA to boost its spending on aeronautics research and unmanned science missions by $175 million next year and cover the increase by throttling back on its space exploration spending.

NASA’s space exploration budget would still increase $800 million in 2007, to $3.8 billion if the House bill becomes law. And the agency could have fared much worse.

During debate on the bill, several efforts were made to strip much of the space exploration money or restrict NASA’s use of it. But of the roughly half-dozen NASA amendments lawmakers introduced, in the end only one made it into the bill: an amendment from Rep. Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) requiring the U.S. space agency’s compliance with White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) regulations on the use of government airplanes.

NASA recently tightened its air travel policies in consultation with OMB after the Government Accountability Office found NASA employees made liberal use of private jets in 2003 and 2004.

NASA supporters were more concerned about an amendment proposed by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) that sought to cut $476 million from NASA’s space exploration budget and use the money instead to address a nearly $500 million funding shortfall in the Community Oriented Policing Services program, a U.S. Justice Department-administered grant program that helps local communities hire more police officers.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), a NASA supporter in line for an appropriations seat, said Weiner’s amendment would “gut” and “transfer the preeminence that we presently have in space to India and others, and China especially.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), whose district is home to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, opposed the amendment on the grounds that “robbing one vital program to support another is not the answer.”

Weiner’s amendment was defeated on a vote of 185 to 236.

Lawmakers also rejected by a vote of 145 to 274 an amendment offered by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to prohibit NASA from using any of its 2007 budget to prepare for a human trip to Mars. “This amendment does not cut one penny out of NASA. Instead, it allows the money to be spent by NASA more wisely,” Frank told the chamber, adding that “allowing funds to be spent now on sending human beings to Mars is … at best a luxury that the country ought not to be indulging in.”

A half-dozen Republicans and Democrats rose to oppose Frank’s amendment, including Reps. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) and John Culberson (R-Texas), who argued that while NASA’s 2007 budget contains no money for manned Mars trips, technology NASA needs for the Moon could be used on Mars. Frank’s amendment, they and others argued, could put a damper on such overlapping projects.

NASA supporters in the House also beat back a half-hearted attempt by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.) to take $783 million out of space exploration and give it to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which fared poorly in the White House request and even worse in the spending bill the House Appropriations Committee sent to the floor. The bill provides just $3.4 billion for NOAA next year, or about $500 million less than the agency’s 2006 budget.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, state and science subcommittee, said he agreed NOAA needs more money but that taking it from NASA was the wrong way to go. Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) said he too was sympathetic to NOAA’s plight, but cuts proposed would be “very devastating” to NASA. Reps. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) also spoke against the amendment.

Even Gilchrest could not muster much passion for robbing NASA to pay NOAA, telling the chamber: “We need to spend $16 billion on NASA and probably a lot more. But in my judgment, the Moon will be there for a long time. Mars will be there for a long time. And I don’t want to take the money out of needed science programs, but the world’s oceans are being degraded.”

Gilchrest shortly after withdrew his amendment before it could come to a vote.

An amendment offered by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) that would have imposed a moratorium on NASA layoffs through October 2007 also failed to make it into the bill. Congress passed legislation late last year, the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, prohibiting NASA from laying off civil servants before March 2007.

The Senate has yet to act on NASA spending legislation this year. The Senate Appropriations Committee is slated to mark up the Commerce, Justice, and Science spending bill — the Senate version of H.R. 5672 — July 13.