House Panel Approves NASA Authorization – Only One Democrat Votes for Endorsement of Bush Vision for NASA

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A NASA authorization bill cleared the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee June 29 with only one Democrat voting in favor of the measure.

The bill, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2005 (H.R. 3070), endorses NASA’s space exploration agenda by calling for Americans to return to the Moon by 2020 and sets a mandatory 2010 retirement date for the space shuttle. The bill also would impose new reporting requirements including stricter guidelines for notifying Congress when programs encounter budget problems.

H.R. 3070 was introduced two days before the markup by the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), with the chairman of the full House Science Committee, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), signing on as co-sponsor.

Nearly all of the subcommittee’s Democrats withheld their support for H.R. 3070 by voting “present,” citing concerns with the bill’s content as well as the short amount of time they were given to review the legislation before it came up for a vote. In the end, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the bill, her approval secured by the inclusion of an amendment she sponsored requiring NASA to report annually on how much money it spends on workplace safety.

Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, said the bill does not go far enough to ensure “a productive balance is maintained” between NASA’s science, aeronautics and human spaceflight programs.

“The bill expresses the sentiment that such a balance is desirable, but does nothing to make it a reality,” Udall said during the June 29 markup. “And since it is a one-year authorization bill with just a single funding number, it lacks the funding direction provided by a more traditional multiyear authorization, such is under consideration by the Senate.”

The Senate’s version of the NASA authorization bill, S. 1281, would set funding guidelines for NASA’s major programs for the next five years. It was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee June 23 and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), the House Science Committee’s ranking Democrat, said Democrats were not included in drafting H.R. 3070 and were shown a copy of the bill for the first time June 24, three days before Calvert introduced it. Gordon said he hopes to work with Boehlert and other Republicans on changes to the bill by the time the full Science Committee takes it up the week of July 11.

Calvert, speaking to reporters after the markup, said the bill is intended to give NASA Administrator Mike Griffin the flexibility he needs to reshape the space agency as he sees fit, while Congress gets the information it needs from NASA to follow up with “a more proscriptive bill” next year.

“We have a new administrator and a lot of the reports, if you were here yesterday and heard the administrator, we haven’t received yet,” Calvert said.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, testifying before the House Science Committee the day before Calvert’s markup, said that NASA should know by September what it intends to do on the Moon, how it plans to get there, what kind of Crew Exploration Vehicle and launchers will be needed, and what it all means for completing the international space station and retiring the shuttle.

Griffin also told the committee that he would not allow the human spaceflight program “to poach onto other areas” of NASA’s budget such as its science and aeronautics accounts, but said he was opposed to the strict budget firewalls some lawmakers have proposed. “I would rather avoid legal restrictions on flexibility and I would rather rely on working with this committee to establish the correctness and the utility of the decisions being made,” Griffin said.

Senate authorizers voted down amendments that would have set minimum spending levels for aeronautics and other programs but did include broad guidelines for how NASA should apportion its money in the years ahead. Senate authorizers also included language protecting space station research NASA intends to cut in order to refocus the research portfolio on exploration-oriented goals. The Senate version would prohibit NASA from retiring its shuttle fleet until the Crew Exploration Vehicle is flying.

The House and Senate must work out any differences between the two competing bills before a NASA authorization can become law. Congress has not sent a NASA authorization bill forward for the president’s signature since 2000.

Calvert acknowledged the differences between his bill and the one approved by the Senate Commerce Committee, but said he did not think they would stand in the way of getting a bill to President George W. Bush this year.

“That’s [what] conferences are all about and we will discuss any differences then,” he said.