Space Launch System
Space Launch System. Credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — U.S. midterm elections Nov. 4 will determine exactly how Congress handles 2015 appropriations, but even if Republicans keep the House and take over the Senate, NASA’s budget will likely resemble the one that cleared the Democrat-held Senate Appropriations Committee this summer, a veteran space lobbyist said here Oct. 29.

Under the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) spending bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee in June but derailed by election-year politics that had nothing to do with space, NASA would get $17.9 billion for 2015, some $250 million more than in 2014. The bill included record-high appropriations for the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and commercial crew programs, de facto competitors for NASA human spaceflight funding.

The CJS bill and several others appear to have enough bipartisan support to make it through a bicameral conference committee and get signed, Kate Kronmiller, vice president and general manager for government affairs for Orbital Sciences Corp., said here Oct. 29 at the American Astronautical Society’s 2014 Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium.

Other spending bills produced by the current Congress, however, do not enjoy such broad support. That means when the stopgap spending bill that has kept government agencies funded since the 2015 fiscal year began Oct. 1 expires Dec. 11 during the lame-duck legislative session, lawmakers will likely opt for a “hybrid appropriation” that combines bills written this summer with continuing resolutions that would hold spending for some agencies at the 2014 level until legislators can reach an accord, Kronmiller said.

“What we hear is if the Democrats maintain control of the Senate they want to pass some version of a hybrid appropriation with CJS in it,” Kronmiller said in her podium presentation. “If the Senate flips to Republican control, the [Republican] leadership of the Senate said they want to do the same thing.”

Beyond that, things get murky, Kronmiller said. In particular, it appears uncertain whether lawmakers will opt for a long-term bill that sets spending levels through September, or a short-term bill that carries budgets into March to limit the influence of the lame-duck session on the incoming Congress.

Richard Obermann, who has worked on the Hill nearly 25 years and is currently chief of staff for the Democratic minority on the House Science Committee, had no better idea than Kronmiller what to expect.

Answering his own rhetorical question about the length of forthcoming appropriations bills, Obermann said, “We don’t know. We’ll have a better sense when members come back.”

Meanwhile, Republicans are widely expected to retain control of the House, which will likely dampen Sen. Bill Nelson’s aspirations to get a unanimous consent vote in the Senate on an amended version of S.1317, a NASA authorization bill that was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in July 2013 but has not been able to get a vote since.

“Sen. Nelson has indicated that he would like to hot line a NASA reauthorization bill [but] I don’t know how that’s going to play in the House,” Kronmiller said.

The potential obstacle for the Senate bill is that it would authorize appropriations at all. A NASA authorization bill the House sent to the Senate this year contained many policy prescriptions but no funding guidelines for appropriators — something traditionally included with such bills. The omission was the result of ongoing partisan gridlock about budgets, which forced the House Science Committee to strip all funding guidelines out of its bill just to get the measure out of committee.

The reason for the budget impasse is sequestration, the across-the-board spending cuts phased in for federal agencies in 2013 as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011. Compromise legislation enacted in 2013 shielded  2014 and 2015 appropriations from the worst of those cuts, but the reductions will phase back in starting in 2016 unless the incoming Congress acts to avert them — as Obermann reminded the symposium’s attendees.

The White House’s probable solution, Obermann said, will be to “submit a [2016] budget request that may have spending targets higher than those in the [Budget Control Act], but which will also include proposed revenue enhancements and other offsets so that the net expenditure would still conform to the overall caps.”

The Obama administration has run that play before. Its 2013 budget request ignored sequestration and attempted to address the national deficit through a combination of tax hikes and entitlement reform that Republicans in Congress swiftly rejected.

It could happen again, Obermann warned.

“In government, failure is always an option,” Obermann said.

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.