Two key U.S. senators have joined forces to increase NASA’s 2007 budget by as much $2 billion above the White House request.

Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), two long time NASA supporters who serve on the Senate Appropriations Committee, are pushing for the extra money to reimburse NASA for bills the agency incurred as a result of the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the damage to agency facilities caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Mikulski and Hutchison will seek to add the supplemental funding for NASA to the 2007 Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill when it goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee July 13, according to aides to the two lawmakers. The pair is expected to cite the precedent Congress set after the 1986 Challenger disaster when it gave NASA nearly $3 billion in emergency funding to build a replacement orbiter and make a host of changes necessary to resume shuttle flights.

The White House has asked Congress to give NASA $16.792 billion for the 2007 budget year , or about $170 million more than Congress gave the agency for 2006. However, Mikulski and Hutchison say the White House request is too low to keep U.S. space exploration goals on track without sacrificing science and aeronautics programs and international space station-based research. At the same time, NASA is grappling with Columbia and Katrina expenses.

The two lawmakers have pointed out repeatedly this year that the White House request for 2007 is $1 billion less than the amount Congress authorized NASA to spend when it passed legislation last year endorsing the goals U.S. President George W. Bush laid out in his 2004 Vision for Space Exploration speech.

Bush initially backed the new goals, which include building a space shuttle replacement and sending astronauts to the Moon by 2020, with a proposal to give NASA three back-to-back years of nearly 5-percent increases, raising the agency’s annual budget to $18 billion in 2008 before leveling it out. The proposed increases never materialized and under Bush’s latest five-year-plan, sent to Congress in February, NASA’s budget would not pass the $18 billion mark until 2010.

As NASA embarks on a space exploration initiative with smaller-than-promised budget increases, getting the space shuttle ready to resume space station assembly flights has taken longer and cost more than the agency expected.

Congress to date has provided $100 million explicitly for post-Columbia recovery efforts, but NASA expenses associated with the accident and the three-year hiatus in space station assembly are many times that amount –$2.3 billion through 2006, according to the agency’s latest estimate. Further compounding NASA’s money woes, Hurricane Katrina caused $500 million to $750 million in damages to several NASA facilities along the U.S. Gulf Coast, but Congress so far has provided only $385 million in hurricane relief.

Aides to Mikulski and Hutchison briefed a Senate hearing room packed with industry, university and association representatives on the lawmakers’ funding stratagem during an invitation-only meeting here June 23.

According to attendees, the aides said Mikulski and Hutchison are working now to build support among their colleagues for an amendment the two intend to introduce when the Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee July 13. The amendment, these sources were told , would provide between $1.5 billion and $2 billion in emergency supplemental funding for NASA and states that the money is needed “to reimburse NASA for bills incurred by the loss of Columbia and damage from Hurricane Katrina.”

Aides told the group the exact amount to be included in the amendment would be finalized once NASA responds to a formal request from Mikulski to provide a detailed accounting of its Columbia- and Katrina-related costs.

About a week after the meeting, NASA sent its response. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told Mikulski in a June 29 letter the agency’s estimated total cost for all shuttle return-to-flight activities is $2.3 billion through 2006 with an additional $408 million needed for 2007 through 2010.

At the June 23 meeting, aides told the group whatever number makes it into Mikulski and Hutchison’s amendment, the language will make clear that half of the money should go to shuttle, station and exploration and half should go to science, aeronautics, and education, but leave it to NASA to decide how best to apportion the money. The aides said that all of NASA’s accounts have been stressed to one degree or another to cover the cost of the shuttle’s return to flight and ongoing compliance recommendations handed down by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

The aides told the group that Mikulski and Hutchison think they have the support they need to attach the Columbia and Katrina relief amendment to the Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill and get it out of committee, but what happens next is less certain.

One aide told the group he was concerned that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) or others might oppose the one-time NASA increase and seek to strip it from the bill before it leaves the Senate. Even if the NASA increase makes it out of the Senate, the aide told the group, getting the House of Representatives to go along could prove even tougher. The House, which has been drawing a harder line on spending bills than the Senate this year , included just $16.7 billion for NASA in its version of the Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill that passed June 29.