WASHINGTON — Only days before Congress was scheduled to adjourn for its annual August recess, the Democrats who control the Senate Commerce Committee united to make their party’s point that sequestration does not apply to authorization bills and approved a NASA Authorization Act that would allow appropriators to fund the agency at $18.1 billion in 2014.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2013 (S. 1317) cleared the committee July 30 on a straight 13-12 party line vote. A handful of amendments were also tacked on, by unanimous consent, to the 75-page measure, which allows $400 million more for NASA in 2014 than the White House is seeking.

The bill, spearheaded by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.,) chairman of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, may now be considered by the full Senate, which would have a chance to propose new amendments when, and if, the measure makes it to the floor.

Authorization bills provide policy direction for federal agencies and programs and establish funding guidelines but provide no actual money. Agencies such as NASA are funded through annual appropriations bills.

The Senate Commerce markup was a mirror reversal of the debate that occurred in the Republican-controlled House Science, Space and Technology Committee July 18, when Democrats pulled together in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to amend a Republican bill that would authorize $16.9 billion for NASA. Democrats argued then that sequestration, across-the-board cuts put in play by the Budget Control Act of 2011, does not limit the amount of funding lawmakers may authorize federal agencies to receive. House Republicans disagreed and united to pass the measure 22-17. Republicans said that they would not relax funding constraints on discretionary spending such as NASA until Democrats agreed to rein in spending on mandatory social programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

That sentiment is shared by the Senate’s outnumbered Republicans.

“We are not prepared to budge, and I think our House colleagues are not prepared to budge,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said during the Commerce Committee’s July 30 markup. Wicker joined with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — Nelson’s science and space subcommittee vice chairman — in an unsuccessful attempt to constrain authorized funding to sequestration levels. The amendment was shot down 13-12 on party lines, but not before Wicker warned that the debate over spending was far from over.

“We’re going to be having this debate in every forum, whether it’s before the Senate Commerce Committee, on the floor of the Senate, with regard to every appropriation bill,” Wicker said.

The House and the Senate are similarly far apart on the funding they are willing to appropriate for NASA in 2014. Bills awaiting floor action in both chambers are $1.4 billion apart on NASA spending. House appropriators would give NASA $16.6 billion; Senate appropriators $18 billion. Neither bill has been scheduled for a floor vote, and even some NASA officials are expecting that a stopgap spending measure will be approved before Sept. 30 to preserve NASA funding at the 2013 level of about $16.9 billion.

Meanwhile, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who will retire in 2014 after 30 years in the Senate, said he was pressured like never before on NASA by Nelson, the primary architect of the NASA Authorization Act the committee approved July 30. “Never have I been lobbied so hard, so brutally, so cruelly, so unrelentingly to have a markup on NASA,” the 76-year-old political lifer quipped at the beginning of the markup session.

Nelson, a constant advocate for the Kennedy Space Center in Florida who flew as a payload specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986, said that aside from the level of funding it authorized the bill is very similar to the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s bill.

“The only difference is that we are silent in our bill about mandating that NASA do an asteroid retrieval,” Nelson said. “I don’t think that is the position of a committee to be telling the scientists and the NASA experts of what we should be doing. That’s the only major difference between the two bills.”

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s bill would ban the Asteroid Redirect Mission NASA announced in April. The proposed mission calls for relocating an asteroid to lunar space so that astronauts could visit it in the early 2020s aboard the Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule NASA is required to build under a 2010 authorization bill crafted by Nelson and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

A Senate aide said that staff-level work will continue while lawmakers return to their home states for August recess, which runs Aug. 5 through Sept. 6. When lawmakers return, Congress will be under the gun to complete appropriations by the Oct. 1 start of the federal government’s 2014 budget year.

One NASA official, speaking July 29 to the NASA Advisory Council’s Science Committee, said there is widespread doubt that any authorization bill will pass this year.

“General speculation is that we’re unlikely to have an authorization bill,” said Craig Tupper, director of resource management for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Meanwhile, four amendments were added by unanimous consent to the Nelson-authored authorization act July 30. These would:

  • Require the NASA administrator to improve launch infrastructure used to service the international space station and require White House budget requests to identify exactly how much funding is needed for this purpose each year.
  • Require the NASA administrator to continue flying experimental technology and science payloads to microgravity zones and other suborbital environments, and to “expand the development of technology payloads that investigate improved capabilities and scientific research.”
  • Advise NASA to immediately begin studying how to construct a follow-on satellite to Landsat 8, the latest in a long-running line of medium-resolution Earth observation satellites, using existing flight hardware.
  • Mandate that the NASA administrator begin an “Advanced Composites Project,” which would be a public-private partnership designed to “accelerate the development and certification of advanced composite materials and structures for use in commercial and military aircraft.”

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.