Congress Returns to Much Unfinished NASA Business

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Providing NASA the relief it needs from the Iran Nonproliferation Act in order to pay Russia for Soyuz rides to the international space station is not the only piece of unfinished space business awaiting U.S. lawmakers upon their return to Washington: The first NASA authorization bill since 2000 and the U.S. space agency’s 2006 budget request also are awaiting final passage.

Hurricane Katrina is expected to further crowd a congressional calendar already jam-packed with 10 unfinished spending bills, a defense authorization and hearings on a U.S. Supreme Court nominee. The House of Representative s’ annual congressional schedule sets Sept. 30 as the target date for adjourning for the year, although it is likely that Congress will remain in session at least into October given all it has left to accomplish before the year’s end.

Congressional aides said they remain hopeful that all pending NASA legislation can still be enacted this year despite the stiff competition for lawmakers’ attention and floor time.

The House managed to pass both its NASA authorization bill and NASA spending bill before leaving for the August recess and now is waiting for the Senate to follow suit once it is back in session.

The House approved $16.47 billion for NASA for 2006 — $15 million more than the space agency requested — as part of a larger spending bill passed in July to funding federal science agencies and the d epartments of State, Commerce and Justice. The Senate’s NASA spending bill, which would provide about $60 million less than NASA requested, must still clear the Senate Appropriations Committee before it can be sent to the floor for a vote.

The Senate also must still give approval to its version of the NASA authorization bill, S. 1281, before it appoints negotiators to a House-Senate conference to produce a final bill that can be sent to the White House for the president’s signature.

It is during conference on the NASA authorization bill that lawmakers are expected to agree on at least limited relief from the requirements of the Iran Nonproliferation Act. The act, signed into law in 2000, bars NASA from buying space station related goods and services from Russia so long as the White House remains unable to assure Congress that Iran’s quest for advanced weaponry is receiving no assistance from Russia.

Congressional sources said lawmakers might also wish to use the NASA authorization and appropriations bills to give the space agency any help it needs to recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

The hurricane affected major NASA facilities in Mississippi and Louisiana, wreaking havoc on the local communities and displacing thousands of agency and contractor employees.

One aide said the Senate Commerce Committee has asked NASA if it needs anything added to the pending authorization bill to help clear bureaucratic roadblocks that might hamper the agency’s recovery efforts. The aide cited as examples expanded authority to lease facilities and relocate employees.

A Washington source said appropriators, likewise, might be asked to provide additional funding for NASA-specific recovery efforts.

Congress swiftly approved $10 billion in immediate aid the White House requested Sept. 1 for the U.S. Gulf Coast states hardest hit by the hurricane. The White House is preparing a second supplemental request that could include funds to help NASA recover from the storm.

“The administration is working on emergency supplemental legislation for the immediate response by [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] as well as longer term rebuilding, repair and relief. We are participating in those discussions,” said NASA spokesman Dean Acosta.