By Ledyard King and Gannett Washington
A key Senate panel narrowly approved a bill reauthorizing NASA on Tuesday, setting up a showdown with the House over how much money the nation's space program should get to carry out its missions and which ones it should be allowed to execute.
The three-year bill, which now heads to the full Senate, would give the space agency $18.1 billion in fiscal 2014, $18.4 billion in fiscal 2015 and, $18.8 billion in fiscal 2016. NASA received $17.7 billion in fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed the bill 13-12 along party lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.
"While it's not as much as we'd like NASA to have, it's certainly a step in the right direction," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Orlando, said after the vote. Nelson chairs the Science and Space Subcommittee that helped shape and steer the legislation.
If the Democratic-led Senate passes the bill as expected, lawmakers likely will have to reconcile it with a House bill that promises NASA much less. Earlier this month, lawmakers on the GOP-led House Science, Space and Technology Committee settled on a funding figure closer to $16.8 billion for fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2015. A vote on the House floor is expected later this year.
The partisan conflict over NASA funding largely involves each party's view of much money exists to spend on most federal programs, such as space and science
Republicans are unwilling to go beyond the overall allocations spelled out in the budget they approved earlier this year. Those levels assume the sequestration budget cuts Congress agreed to in 2011 will remain in effect.
Democrats on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee argued Tuesday that NASA reauthorization should be based on how much money the agency realistically needs, not on what might be available in the next budget cycle.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., called a Republican amendment to reduce the bill's funding levels "a misguided attempt to really turn the committee into nothing but the Appropriations (Committee)."
"And I think we have very important technology-mission oversight that we have to focus on," she said.
South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the top Republican on the panel, sounded optimistic that lawmakers can compromise.
The NASA bill "will likely need even more work before (it) reflects the kind of consensus that has characterized our committee's enacted legislation," he told panel members. "With additional effort, however, I am hopeful that we can get there in the weeks and months ahead."
The difference is not just about money. It's also about NASA's overall direction and whether the agency should be allowed -- or trusted -- to pursue the course it's laid out for the next few years.
Both the House and Senate measures would provide money to continue developing NASA's top priorities: a deep-space mission to Mars, a joint venture with aerospace firms to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, and completion of the James Webb Space Telescope.
But while the Senate bill would permit an asteroid retrieval mission the agency wants to undertake as part of its stepping-stone approach to Mars, the House measure strictly prohibits it.
"I don't think that is the position of a committee to be telling the scientists and the NASA experts of what we should be doing," Nelson told committee members Tuesday.