Updated 5:30 a.m. June 11.
WASHINGTON — A spending bill approved by a Senate appropriations subcommittee June 10 would provide $18.3 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2016, a cut of more than $200 million from both the administration’s original request and a companion House bill, drawing criticism from NASA and another senator.
The NASA funding is part of a $51.1 billion appropriations bill that the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee marked up during a brief session. The subcommittee favorably reported the bill on a voice vote.
The bill’s $18.3 billion for NASA is $229 million less than the administration’s original request of $18.529 million for the agency. The CJS appropriations bill that the House passed June 3 also provided $18.529 billion for NASA, but shifted funding from some programs, including commercial crew and space technology, to the Space Launch System and planetary science.
The Senate bill also has similar changes. A summary of the bill released by the committee June 10 stated that funding for SLS is increased by $544 million from the request to $1.9 billion. The bill also adds $104 million for the Orion crew vehicle, funding it at $1.2 billion.
Commercial crew, however, would receive $900 million in the bill, $344 million less than requested. Space technology is funded at $600 million, $125 million less than requested. The bill increases NASA’s overall $5.3-billion science request by just $6 million, but the summary did not disclose how that funding was allocated among the various Earth and space science programs.
The bill supports “a balanced space program within NASA,” subcommittee chairman Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said at the markup. “Funding the Space Launch System in a responsible manner in 2016 is especially needed at this critical stage of development.”
“It does move us forward in a balanced space program,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), ranking member of both the CJS subcommittee and the full appropriations committee, in remarks at the markup. She specifically mentioned funding for science programs, including the James Webb Space Telescope and the proposed Wide Field Infrared Space Telescope.
However, Mikulski was critical of the bill’s overall funding levels. “I have to say that we do not have enough money to meet compelling national needs,” she said.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement late June 10 that he was “deeply disappointed” in the cut in the commercial crew program in particular.
“By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts to space – and continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the Russian economy rather than our own,” he stated, referring to the potential delay in the program the reduced funding could create.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) also criticized the commercial crew funding cut in a June 10 speech on the Senate floor. “If that cut in the subcommittee is sustained,” he said, “it’s going to delay us from being able to launch Americans on American rockets.”
Mikulski is expected to attempt to address NASA’s funding when the full committee marks up the bill June 11. According to a Senate aide, Mikulski will introduce an amendment to increase NASA’s budget by $500 million. Of that additional funding, $300 million would go to the commercial crew program, while $54 million would go to space technology. Orion would receive $50 million in additional funds, while science programs get the remaining $96 million.
Nelson mentioned Mikulski’s planned amendment in his floor speech. “I hope senators will understand all the nuances and support Sen. Mikulski,” he said.
That amendment, however, is unlikely to pass. As in the House, Senate appropriators have refused to support proposals that would cause appropriations bills to exceed caps set by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
Regardless of the outcome of the proposed amendment, the bill may not have a future in the full Senate. Democratic leadership there, including Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have hinted they would block consideration of appropriations bills as a tactic in negotiations over spending priorities.
Mikulski hinted about those plans during a May 21 committee markup of two other appropriations bills. “We want to move the process forward to get as many bills to the floor,” she said. “But when we get to the floor, I think there will be a new strategy.”
Dan Leone contributed to this story.