WASHINGTON — Brushing aside the threat of a presidential veto, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an over-budget spending measure July 26 that would provide $17.6 billion for NASA for 2008.

The $53.8 billion Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill (H.R. 3093) passed by a vote of 281 to

142 following two days of debate that left the NASA portion largely unchanged from the amount that had

emerged from the House Appropriations Committee two weeks earlier.

The funding included for NASA represents a nearly $1.4 billion increase over the U.S. space agency’s 2007 budget and roughly $300 million more than President George W. Bush had requested. With big increases for the Departments of Commerce and Justice added in, the bill exceeds Bush’s request by $2.3 billion, prompting the White House Office of Management and Budget to issue a written veto threat.

“[I]f H.R. 3093 were presented to the President, he would veto the bill,” the White House wrote.

Listed among the objections was the inclusion of too much money for NASA science, aeronautics and education programs.

“The Administration supports the House’s full funding for NASA’s Exploration Systems and Space Shuttle. However, the Administration does not endorse funding in excess of the request for Aeronautics, Education, and Science, where increases for near-term support would create unsustainable outyear funding requirements,” the White House wrote in its Statement of Administration Policy on H.R. 3093.

Although Republican lawmakers tried without success to bring the entire bill in line with Bush’s request by proposing across-the-board cuts, there were no direct raids on the NASA account. That stands in sharp contrast to last year when several lawmakers, including Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) attempted to strip NASA’s exploration budget or severely restrict its use only to be trounced by a bipartisan core of NASA supporters, among them Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.)

Mollohan, now chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce, Justice, Science subcommittee that drafted H.R. 3093, took the lead during the two days of floor debate in defending the increase above the request that appropriators included in the measure for NASA.

“We have tried in a small way to give NASA the increases that it needs where the president has been negligent. The president’s budget request made an ambitious proposal in the Vision for Space Exploration for the United States to return to the Moon and to eventually go to Mars; however, by all accounts, he did not fund his vision adequately,” Mollohan said.

Mollohan pointed to the projected four-and-a-half year gap between the space shuttle’s September 2010, retirement and the March 2015, introduction of its successor, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket, as proof of the inadequacy of Bush’s budget proposal for NASA.

Mollohan said Bush’s NASA budgets, not the stripped-down spending resolution Congress passed earlier this year denying most federal agencies, including NASA, a raise for 2007, is to blame for the gap.

“Full ownership of this gap resides with the president. His unfunded mandate of the vision, as well as the fact that NASA had to pay for return to flight after the Columbia accident out of its own hide, has resulted in NASA being forced to rob Peter – science and aeronautics – to pay for Paul: shuttle, space station and exploration,” Mollohan said. “In the end there is not enough for either Peter or Paul.”

Mollohan, repeating a point he made earlier this year said the burden is on Bush to adequately fund the exploration vision he unveiled in January 2004.

“We invite him to reinvigorate and legitimize the Vision for Space Exploration by asking for necessary funds for returning to the Moon and for going to Mars eventually, and for other key NASA missions through a budget amendment or through an adequate fiscal year 2009 request. Otherwise, limited U.S. access to space and stagnation of key NASA programs will be, in this area,

the president’s legacy in space.”

Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), a Kennedy Space Center-area lawmaker and member of the House Appropriations Committee, said he shared Mollohan’s “criticism that this gap in human space flight is not good for America.”

“I am certainly anxious to work with the administration and with the committee to see if it will be possible for us in the years ahead to reduce that time where Americans will be relying on the Russians, essentially, to put our astronauts into space,” Weldon said.

H.R. 3093 includes report language crafted by Weldon that encourages NASA to accelerate its pursuit of a domestic commercial capability to put astronauts in space.

Weldon also defended the bill’s above-request funding for NASA’s aeronautics program, saying the money is vital to U.S. efforts to modernize its air traffic control systems.

While the bill funds NASA’s science, aeronautics and education accounts above the president’s request, it shorts the agency’s $6.79 billion request for the Space Operations Mission Directorate – which runs the space shuttle and space station programs – by $100 million, most of which would come out of the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS) procurement on tap for 2008. While NASA relies on TDRSS to communicate with the shuttle and station, the heaviest user of the aging system is the Defense Department, which pays the majority of TDRSS operations costs.

Both Weldon and the White House Office of Management and Budget objected to the TDRSS cuts, as did Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), the chairman of the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee, who issued a statement saying he hoped the funds could be restored when the House and Senate go to conference on the legislation.

The Senate has yet to vote on its version of the Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill, which cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee June 28 with $17.46 billion for NASA, only about $150 million above the request. While the Senate version also would increase NASA’s science and education budgets above the requested levels, it would provide no additional dollars for aeronautics.

Senate appropriators also earmarked their bill with a heavier hand than House lawmakers, including nearly $70 million in expenditures targeted at projects in lawmakers’ home states. The House bill, in fact, does not include specific earmarks. Instead, it sets aside $20 million of NASA’s education budget to be used for science museums, planetariums and other local education projects to be competitively selected by NASA.