WASHINGTON — U.S. President George W. Bush signed an overdue 2007 spending plan into law Feb. 15 that omits a number his administration’s priorities, including a requested half-billion-dollar increase for NASA.
The Senate gave final passage to the budget bill Feb. 14, four months past the annual deadline for setting the government’s spending levels for the year. Following the lead of the House of Representatives two weeks earlier, the Senate voted on and passed the $463.5 billion measure without considering any of the amendments lawmakers were prepared to offer. After signing the measure, Bush said he was pleased the measure held spending below inflation, but felt it reflects many wrong spending priorities.
Democratic leaders first announced in mid-December that they intended to dispense with the pile of 2007 spending bills their Republican counterparts left unfinished at the end of the last Congress and instead pass by Feb. 15 a stripped-down spending measure, called a continuing resolution, that would maintain most government agencies at their 2006 levels through the end of the year.
As a result, NASA will have to make due with $16.2 billion in 2007 , about $544 million less than it had requested.
Hardest hit will be the U.S. space agency’s exploration program, which was counting on every dollar of that proposed increase to keep development of its proposed space shuttle replacement, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket, on track to enter service by 2014. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has said that denying the agency a budget increase for 2007 jeopardizes that schedule.
Bush’s science advisor, John Marburger, made the same point the day before the Senate’s vote during a House Science and Technology Committee hearing on the president’s 2008 research and development budget proposal. Marburger told the committee the flat 2007 funding for NASA would not only “put at risk” the agency’s plans to field a shuttle replacement by 2014, but also imperiled “priority Earth and space science missions.”
NASA has so far declined to say exactly what programmatic impacts will result from the unexpectedly flat budget, but Griffin warned during his Feb. 5 unveiling of the agency’s 2008 budget request that it would have “serious effects on many people, projects and programs this year, and for the longer term.”
Now that Bush has signed the measure into law, NASA is required to submit to Congress by mid-March an operating plan that details the budget cuts the agency intends to make to get through the year with a half-billion dollars less than it was counting on. NASA’s choices are expected to reverberate through the $17.3 billion request just sent to Congress.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that deals with NASA, said she did the best she could for the space agency given the circumstances. She also expressed skepticism that a less-than-expected increase for exploration would jeopardize the timely fielding of Orion and Ares.
“While I would have liked to have increased funding for NASA, there was simply not enough extra funding available for us to do so,” Mikulski said in a Feb. 14 statement. “Within the limits of NASA’s  operating plan, we added an extra $460 million to exploration while protecting other critical NASA programs in science and aeronautics. With only seven months left in this fiscal year, I believe NASA will be able to manage their programs in exploration with minimal impact to the overall schedule.”
The spending measure, introduced as House Resolution 20, sets specific spending levels for each of NASA’s four mission directorates and gives the agency no flexibility to move money between the accounts, something the agency has sought. While NASA’s Science and Space Operations Mission Directorates both were funded within 2 percent of their requests, Exploration Systems was give 15 percent less than it sought while Aeronautics Research was given 20 percent more. NASA officials have said they will have to scramble to find a way to spend the sudden aeronautics windfall.
Mikulski spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz told Space News Feb. 15 the senator has not given up on finding more money for NASA this year. She said Mikulski would look for opportunities in an emergency supplemental spending bill and 2008 budget legislation that will start to take shape soon.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) the chairman of the Senate Commerce space and aeronautics subcommittee, plans to join Mikulski and his subcommittee counterpart Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) in finding a way to help NASA, Nelson spokesman Brian Gulley said Feb. 15.
“We’re certainly disappointed that NASA didn’t receive an adequate share of funding through the [continuing resolution], so its Sen. Nelson’s intention to make every effort to restore some of that lost funding this year through either a supplemental or the ’08 budget,” Nelson spokesman Brian Gulley said Feb. 15.
Gulley said Nelson has scheduled a NASA budget hearing for Feb. 28.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Feb. 12 that Congress could seek to address some of the spending measure’s perceived shortcomings when it takes up the president’s $93.4 billion supplemental defense request in the weeks ahead, but that NASA’s problems probably would have to wait for consideration of the 2008 spending bills.
“We understand there are a lot of things the [continuing resolution] did not provide for and therefore will cause some agencies some problems,” Hoyer said during a lunch with reporters in Bowie, Md. “Now whether we will try to deal with those in a supplemental or will try to deal with it in the ’08 budget itself remains to be seen. I think NASA falls into that [latter] category.”