Wolf: Prospects Bleak for Timely Passage of NASA Spending Bill

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WASHINGTON — With five legislative weeks remaining in the 111th U.S. Congress, it is possible that lawmakers will not approve a 2011 NASA spending bill until January, more than three months into the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, the senior Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the space agency said July 27.

Although Congress is officially in session at least for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, lawmakers are expected to recess for seven weeks beginning Aug. 2 to campaign in their districts in advance of the November elections. That leaves little time to hammer out spending legislation for U.S. federal agencies, including NASA, before adjournment, now targeted for early October.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the ranking member of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, said NASA is likely to operate under a continuing resolution that funds the agency at 2010 levels until an omnibus spending package covering a broad range of federal activities is approved. Both the House and Senate could take up an omnibus spending package after the November elections, but Wolf downplayed the potential for a lame-duck session of Congress to pass such legislation, suggesting lawmakers who do not win re-election are often too preoccupied with job hunting to effectively focus on drafting bills. And if the Republicans regain control of the House, as Wolf predicts, approval of such a comprehensive spending package could drag into January.

“I think there’s a reasonable chance that that will happen,” Wolf told an audience of space industry representatives, government officials and academics during a Capitol Hill luncheon July 27. Wolf’s appropriations subcommittee approved a NASA spending package June 29 that fully funds the agency’s $19 billion request for 2011, though the measure fences off nearly $4.2 billion requested for manned exploration programs until a NASA authorization bill is approved.

The full House Appropriations Committee has yet to take up the measure, but in July the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19 billion for NASA in 2011, part of a $65 billion spending package that includes the Commerce and Justice departments. The measure is touted as a bipartisan compromise between lawmakers’ desire to continue funding elements of the current space shuttle replacement and lunar exploration program, dubbed Constellation, and the White House plan to cancel that effort and back private sector development of commercial vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from low Earth orbit.

In the meantime, the House Science and Technology Committee approved NASA authorizing legislation July 22 that largely ignores the White House proposal, reducing funds for commercial crew taxi development to just $50 million next year and providing another $100 million in the form of federal loans while adding more than $4 billion to continue Constellation-related work. Companion legislation in the Senate would provide at least some funding for commercial space transportation in 2011, but added an unsought $2.75 billion to continue elements of Constellation.

Wolf declined to take a position on either authorization bill, but suggested the Senate measure has broader appeal among “all of the groups” with a stake in the outcome. He urged audience members in attendance to reach out to House and Senate appropriators in the coming weeks, but left little hope that any of the bills in play would make their way to a floor vote.

“I just don’t want to miss the opportunity in the appropriations bill, or the continuing resolution or whatever it is, to make sure we have the good work that’s been put together in a bipartisan way,” he said.