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Hutchison Endorses Big Increase for NASA

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), one of NASA’s most influential allies in Congress, said she supports giving the U.S. space agency a substantially bigger budget increase for 2007 than the 3-percent raise sought by the White House.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here May 23, Hutchison said NASA’s $16.6 billion budget amounts to less than 1 percent of the $2.6 trillion U.S. federal budget. Devoting even an additional one-tenth of a percent of the federal budget to NASA, she said, would provide a substantial amount of additional money for the aeronautics and science programs that would be hard hit under the White House spending proposal.

As chairman of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, Hutchison was instrumental in passing a bill last year that set NASA’s authorized 2007 spending level at $17.892 billion or about $1.1 billion more than the White House is seeking.

Hutchison is not the first lawmaker this year to suggest that NASA should be funded next year at a level above the White House request. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), one of Hutchison’s close allies on space issues, proposed May 15 at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon speech giving NASA an additional $2 billion designated as emergency spending meant to reimburse the agency for money it spent recovering from the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident. By designating the money emergency spending, Mikulski said, Congress could avoid spending limits that would otherwise make it very hard to find such a big increase for NASA this year. Mikulski told the 500 people in attendance that she would be taking her proposal to the White House before trying to line up support among her Senate colleagues.

When Hutchison was asked by a reporter May 23 whether she supported Mikulski’s call for giving NASA $2 billion in so-called emergency spending, Hutchison said she favored getting NASA more money, but stopped short of explicitly endorsing the specifics of Mikulski’s proposal.

“Regarding an addition to the NASA budget, I favor that,” Hutchison said. “I think increasing [it] even one-tenth of 1 percent would add to the research capability. We want to get the [Crew Exploration Vehicle] out as quickly as we can and that is a major focus of the budget. But the hard sciences part could also be included along with the aeronautics and the Earth sciences, which is Barbara Mikulski’s particular interest, with just an increase in the budget of one-tenth of 1 percent.”

Jeff Bingham, an aide to Hutchison who participated in a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies after Hutchison left for a vote in the Senate, said that the additional one-tenth of a percent Hutchison would like NASA to get amounts to big money.

“That’s one-tenth of 1 percent of the federal budget so do the math, that’s a lot of money,” Bingham said. “That’s close to the [$1.1 billion] shortfall between the request and the authorization level.”

Bingham, who served as NASA’s associate administrator for legislative affairs before going to work as staff director on Hutchison’s science and space subcommittee, said should Congress go along with Mikulski’s proposal and give NASA $2 billion or so in emergency funds in the name of Columbia, the agency could legally spend it, even though it would exceed the amounts spelled out in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act.

“If money is appropriated on an emergency basis like that, then there’s not a violation of the authorization,” Bingham said. “The same thing was done in a sense after Challenger, not in quite the same way, but [Congress] took $2.7 billion out of the Defense appropriations and gave it to VA-HUD appropriations for the purpose of building another orbiter … and that was done without additional authorization necessary.”

Mikulski said in a written statement that she was ready to team up with Sen. Hutchison to push for more funding for NASA this year. Mikulski and Hutchison are both members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for crafting the annual spending bills that fund the federal government.

Mikulski spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the senator met with a White House legislative aide May 24 “as the first step in the process” but offered no further details on the meeting.

Hutchison also said during her speech that including NASA in the so-called American Competitiveness Initiative that President George W. Bush unveiled in his State of the Union address in January could improve the space agency’s funding prospects.

The American Competitiveness Initiative, as put forward by the White House, seeks to increase federal spending on research and technology while also expanding efforts to produce more scientists and engineers. NASA, to the consternation of some lawmakers including Hutchison and Mikulski, was left out of the initiative.

A bill unanimously approved May 18 by the Senate Commerce Committee seeks to change that. The American Innovation and Competitiveness Act (S. 2802) would involve NASA in the initiative by directing the agency to increase its spending on “basic science and research” by $160 million in 2007 provided it has the extra money available.

White House officials have said NASA was left out of Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative because the space agency’s budget has fared considerably better than the agencies that are the focus of the initiative. Under Bush’s proposal, the United States would double over the next 10 years what it spends on “innovation-enabling research” at the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology and the Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

Some science advocates favor leaving NASA out of the initiative, fearing that the space agency’s inclusion would only muddle the push for more money for smaller science agencies.