WASHINGTON — NASA likely will be denied a budget increase for next year under a Democratic plan to make short work of all unfinished spending bills for 2007 when the new Congress convenes in January.
When the Republican-controlled 109th Congress adjourned Dec. 9 having finished only two of the 11 annual bills that fund the U.S. federal government, NASA’s 2007 budget was among those left in limbo.
Rather than try to deal with the unfinished bills one at a time or fold them into a catch-all omnibus package , the incoming Democratic leaders of the House and Senate say they instead intend to pass a year long spending resolution that could force all agencies besides the Defense and Homeland Security departments to stay within their 2006 spending levels in the year ahead.
The specific terms and conditions of the proposed spending resolution were still being finalized at press time Dec. 15. However, an appropriations source who deals with NASA’s budget said the agency probably will be held to its 2006 level, not including the roughly $350 million Congress gave the agency as part of a hurricane-relief package.
For NASA that would mean having to get by next year on roughly $16.2 billion — or about $500 million less than the agency requested for 2007. Factoring in the effects of inflation, NASA could find itself with diminished spending power in the new year.
A source familiar with NASA’s budget deliberations said the agency was “planning for the worst and hoping for the best” as the fluid situation unfolds, and later added that NASA will not see a funding hike under any circumstances. “We’re going to have less money to work with,” the source said. “The question is how much.”
NASA also appears to stand no chance of getting a $1 billion emergency supplement to its 2007 budget.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the incoming chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, and science subcommittee, had championed the supplemental funding as a way to partially reimburse NASA for the nearly $3 billion in expenses it incurred as a result of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident. Mikulski and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) succeeded in getting the supplemental funding added to the Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill as an amendement prior to its approval by the Senate Appropriations Committee in July.
Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for Mikulski, said Dec. 12 that the Mikulski-Hutchison amendment “is now off the table” and that the senator intends to wait to see NASA’s 2008 budget request “before re-evaluating any re-introduction.”
NASA supporters had been hoping that an omnibus spending bill would be passed before Congress adjourned this year, seeing the catch-all bill as the best vehicle for the Mikulski-Hutchison amendment. But a last-minute attempt craft the omnibus measure was derailed in the Senate when a pair of lawmakers held up consideration of a military construction and veterans affairs appropriations bill that was to have served as the legislative vehicle.
The demise of the Mikulski-Hutchison amendment — sometimes referred to as the Mikulski Miracle — follows a decision by the incoming chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees to dispose of the remaining 2007 spending bills and draft a joint resolution that will keep the government funded at current levels until the new budget year starts Oct. 1.
“Unfortunately, there are no good options available to us to complete the unfinished work of the Republican Congress,” incoming House Appropria tions Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis .) and his Senate counterpart, Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), said in a Dec. 11 joint statement. “After discussions with our colleagues, we have decided to dispose of the Republican budget leftovers by passing a year-long joint resolution. We will do our best to make whatever limited adjustments are possible within the confines of the Republican budget to address the nation’s most important policy concerns.”
Obey and Byrd also said the joint resolution would be free of earmarks — special spending provisions inserted by lawmakers for pet projects.
“Earmarks included in this year’s House and Senate bills will be eligible for consideration in the 2008 process, subject to new standards for transparency and accountability,” the statement said. “We will work to restore an accountable, above-board, transparent process for funding decisions and put an end to the abuses that have harmed the credibility of Congress.”
The temporary prohibition on earmarks could be the one silver lining for NASA in the proposed joint resolution. NASA’s 2006 budget contained about $550 million in earmarks, including increases for existing programs and funds for site-specific projects that were not in the White House request.
Lawmakers were expected to go easy on the earmarks in NASA’s 2007 budget, if only because of the greater public scrutiny the practice attracted this year.
Sources familiar with NASA’s internal budget deliberations said the moratorium on earmarks could take a lot of the sting out of being flat-funded for 2007.
NASA also might have more flexibility under the joint resolution to move money around within accounts to address what it considers to be its most pressing needs.
That point was noted by Mikulski’s spokeswoman, who said that while NASA would not be able to start any new programs that “take them beyond their budget level,” the agency “within their amounts . . . has the ability to shift funds and work out their own specifics.”
One NASA division that could find itself particularly pinched without an increase is the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. The administration’s funding request called for that division’s budget to increase by $900 million, to nearly $3.9 billion, in 2007 . A source tracking the unfolding situation said that without such an increase for Exploration Systems, NASA would hard pressed to keep development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket on track.
A Republican congressional aide who follows NASA had not given up on securing an increase for the agency, however. “I don’t see this as a done deal,” the aide said. “This is the two principals saying what they prefer. They don’t unilaterally make those decisions.”
White House Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman issued a statement Dec. 12 expressing disappointment with the budget plan unveiled by Byrd and Obey.
“There are still more than nine months remaining in the fiscal year, and we believe we should be working through the remaining bills to achieve the best results possible for the American people,” Portman said. “While it is not our preference to have a year-long continuing resolution, we will certainly work with the agencies and the Congress to ensure there are no major disruptions to essential government services.”
Recent continuing resolutions, including the one U.S. President George W. Bush signed Dec. 9 to keep the government operating through Feb. 15, have funded agencies at the lowest of three possible amounts: the 2006 enacted level or the House-approved or Senate-approved 2007 levels.
Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin told Space News that the joint resolution currently being finalized would not employ a rigid formula to determine agency funding levels .
“The Committees are going to go through the departments and agencies on a case-by-case basis and see what are the most pressing needs, what areas need adjustment, and what resources may be available to fill the budget hole,” Gavin said in a Dec. 14 e-mail.
The appropriations source who deals with NASA’s budget said departures from 2006 spending levels would probably be reserved for cases where not providing an increase would result in a disruption of important services. For example, the source said, Congress will provide whatever funding is necessary to the Department of Veterans Affairs next year to ensure that wounded veterans returning from Iraq are taken care of.
Injecting another element of uncertainty into the situation is the sudden illness of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.). The 59-year-old lawmaker underwent emergency brain surgery Dec. 13, just weeks before the Democrats are slated to take control of the Senate with a thin 51-49 majority. If Johnson were to leave office, South Dakota’s Republican g overnor, Mike Rounds, would name a replacement, possibly setting the stage for Republicans to retake control of the Senate. And that, in turn, could put the Obey-Byrd joint resolution in jeopardy.