In symbolic move, Senate passes NASA authorization bill
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate passed a NASA authorization bill late Dec. 9 that, while it will not become law this year, could serve as a template for a similar bill in the next Congress.
The Senate passed by unanimous consent an amended version of S. 3346, the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016, as it wrapped up its work for the year. The bill is an amended version of one passed by the Senate Commerce Committee in September after discussions with House members.
The bill authorized $19.5 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2017 and included a wide range of policy provisions. That included developing a transition plan for future operations of the International Space Station, creation of a “strategic framework” for human space exploration leading to Mars missions, and a report about the effectiveness of NASA’s planned Asteroid Redirect Mission.
However, since the House passed its final bills of the 114th Congress on Dec. 8, the legislation will not be taken up there. Proponents of the bill still saw its passage as a victory, setting the stage for consideration of a similar bill when the 115th Congress convenes in January.
“This broad, bipartisan legislative achievement provides NASA with the stability it needs as the agency transitions to a new administration. It also lays an important marker as we continue working to enact this important legislation as soon as possible,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the bill’s lead sponsor, in a Dec. 10 statement. He also said he planned to work “with colleagues in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle again next year” on similar legislation.
The Senate passed the NASA act and other legislation after approving a continuing resolution (CR) that funds the federal government through April 28. The government had been operating under a CR funding agencies at fiscal year 2016 levels since the new fiscal year started Oct. 1; that original CR expired Dec. 9.
The new CR includes a provision, known in legislative jargon as an “anomaly,” that gives NASA flexibility to spend money at higher levels on the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, Orion spacecraft and associated ground systems. The CR includes a similar provision for the Joint Polar Satellite System program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said at a Dec. 9 Space Transportation Association luncheon here that the agency’s operations should not be affected by the CR, particularly with the addition of the anomaly for exploration programs. “Right now we’re fine, with the anomaly,” he said. “I don’t think anything will be affected.” That assessment might change, he added, if the CR is later extended for the entire fiscal year.
In other action Dec. 9, the Senate passed H.R. 2726, a bill that authorizes the United States Mint to create coins for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. The House passed the bill on a voice vote Dec. 5. Proponents of the bill had warned that the coins might not be ready in time for the anniversary in 2019 if the bill was not passed this year.
The Senate, though, did not take action on the To Research, Evaluate, Assess, and Treat (TREAT) Astronauts Act, which provides extended health care screening for former astronauts. The House passed that bill, H.R. 6076, on a voice vote Dec. 7. The Senate’s NASA authorization bill included a similar provision.