Sen. Barbara Mikulski
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) retires at the end of her term next year. Credit: Sen. Mikulski's office

Updated at 3:49 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Setting the stage for a potential showdown with the GOP-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) unveiled a 2014 spending bill that includes $18 billion for NASA — about $300 million more than the Obama administration requested and $1.4 billion more than the agency would get under a competing bill House appropriators are set to vote on this week. 

The Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, which Mikulski also chairs, met July 16 to mark up a $52.27 billion spending bill that assumes Congress and the White House will find a way to end the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that took effect at the end of March. 

“The $18 billion in the bill for NASA will preserve a NASA portfolio balanced among science, aeronautics, technology and human space flight investments. Moreover, it will keep NASA in the forefront of innovation, inspiring private companies to build new crew transportation and spawning a new satellite servicing industry that can revive, refuel, and rejuvenate defunct communications satellites,” Mikulski wrote in a bill summary posted July 16 on the committee’s website.

The seven-page summary is short on specifics, saying only that the bill would provide “better balance [than the House bill] for all of NASA’s important missions, including $373 million more for Science that helps us to better understand Earth and own solar system while peering at new worlds way beyond the stars. 

“The Senate also provides $597 million more to let humans explore beyond low earth orbit while safely sending our astronauts to the space station on U.S. made vehicles.”

Mikulski’s bill would also provide $5.6 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a sum that includes “$1.95 billion to keep our next generation weather satellites on budget and on schedule.” 

Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the committee’s top Republican, praised the bill for providing NASA with the money it needs “to maintain key schedules for ongoing missions and activities, including development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle,” but promised to vote against it July 18, when the full Senate Appropriations Committee is due to take it up.

Shelby said Democrats are ignoring the fiscal realities imposed by sequestration, a provision of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Republicans are “going by the law right now,” Shelby told reporters after the markup. “And they’re [Democrats] going just like they didn’t have it. But sooner or later, it’s going to have to be worked out, one way or the other.” 

Despite his vow to vote against the bill, Shelby said he was happy the proposal included “language that provides greater accountability and budgetary transparency to the Commercial Crew Program.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to release a copy of the bill or the accompanying report.  A Senate aide, however, said Mikulski’s bill would fund the Commercial Crew Program next year at $775 million — significantly more than Congress has been willing to provide so far, but less than the $821 million the White House requested.

The $16.6 billion NASA budget the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee approved July 10 would fund the Commercial Crew Program at $500 million. NASA officials have said commercial crew needs at least $800 million next year to keep the program  on track to meet a 2017 deadline for fielding at least one of the competing systems Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada are developing for transporting astronauts to the international space station. 

The House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to vote on the NASA budget July 17 as part of a broader $47.4 billion commerce, justice, science spending bill. 

SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone contributed to this report. 

Brian Berger is editor in chief of and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. He was named senior staff writer in 2004, a position he held...