Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said that the difference in NASA funding between the House and Senate bills was about $300 million. This figure did not take into account a 0.098 percent rescission included in the House continuing resolution.
WASHINGTON — NASA’s budget for the remainder of 2013 would be nearly $94 million less under a stopgap spending bill introduced March 11 in the U.S. Senate than it would under a bill approved March 6 by the House of Representatives.
Congress has just two weeks to enact new spending legislation needed to keep U.S. government agencies operating past March 27. Both bills would leave NASA with significantly less funding than the $17.8 billion the agency received in 2012 after the across-the-board budget cut known as sequestration is imposed.
“I think we will pass something prior to March 22,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House minority whip, told SpaceNews March 12 after a town hall meeting at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
Hoyer was among the 151 Democrats who voted against the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 (H.R. 933) when it came to the House floor March 6. But he said he would vote for the Senate’s amended version — provided he gets a chance.
“I think we have a majority of votes on the House floor for the Senate alternative, if the Republican leadership will put it on the floor,” Hoyer said.
Both the House bill and the expanded version put forward by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), include roughly $17.8 billion for NASA for the remainder of 2013. But the Senate version imposes a nearly 1.9 percent rescission to all nonsecurity-related spending in the Commerce, Justice, Science portion of the bill — which includes NASA — in order to free up funding for agriculture and other priorities without busting the nearly $1 trillion top line approved by the House.
That means NASA’s budget would be trimmed back to $17.5 billion before absorbing the 5 percent sequestration cut the White House ordered most nondefense agencies to phase in starting March 1. If the Senate bill becomes law, NASA would end up with $16.65 billion after sequestration; under the House bill, which imposes a smaller .098 percent rescission for NASA spending, the agency would get $16.74 billion when all is said and done.
NASA’s Exploration account — a category that funds development of the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, its companion Orion crew capsule, and the Commercial Crew Program — would get $3.62 billion under the Senate bill after factoring in the sequester. Under the House bill, Exploration would get $3.91 billion. After rescissions and sequestration, both bills would provide about $1.99 billion for the heavy-lift rocket, including funds for vehicle development at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., ground infrastructure work at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and support work at NASA centers across the country.
Post-sequester, the Commercial Crew Program would get about $489 million under the Senate bill, and about $494 million under the House bill.
The NASA Science account, which traditionally fares well in Mikulski-drafted budgets, would get a post-sequester $4.8 billion, about the same as in the House bill.
The Senate bill would not, as Mikulski proposed in spending legislation drafted last year, transfer full procurement authority and budget for U.S. weather satellites to NASA from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
NOAA operates the U.S. fleet of civilian weather satellites but has for years let NASA act as its procurement agent. NOAA weather satellite programs have been beset by delays and cost growth, which in 2012 led Mikulski to propose giving NOAA’s procurement responsibility — and more than $1 billion in annual funding to carry it out — to NASA.
Rather than include the provision in the Senate’s version of H.R. 933 — appropriators said making such a change midway through the year could cause launch delays — the bill calls for “additional information to fully evaluate the implications of transferring acquisition of operational satellites to NASA is needed.”
The Senate bill includes $1.67 billion, for NOAA’s Procurement, Acquisition, and Construction account. Most of the funds in this account are used for satellite procurement.
The House, meanwhile, provided $1.69 billion including the House’s smaller rescission and sequestration. Both versions set aside $802 million, or $754 million post-sequestration, for the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R series of spacecraft.
The House version of the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 included full-fledged spending bills for the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments while holding all other agencies to their 2012 levels minus the appropriate sequestration cut.
Mikulski’s bill goes further and includes three more full-fledged appropriations bills: Agriculture, Homeland Security and Commerce; Justice; Science.
U.S. federal agencies have been operating at 2012 funding levels since October under a so-called continuing resolution that expires March 27.
“We must prevent a government shutdown,” Mikulski said in a statement. “My Vice Chairman, Senator [Richard] Shelby, and I worked together on this bipartisan agreement that avoids a shutdown, complies with the Budget Control Act, improves the House [continuing resolution] for many critical priorities, and lets us wrap up fiscal year 2013 so we can get on to next year’s budget and find a balanced solution to the sequester.”
Shelby (R-Ala.) said in a statement the Senate bill aims to prevent a shutdown and provide agencies with as much budgetary flexibility as possible while adhering to overall spending levels that will past muster with the Republican-controlled House.