Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) was the scheduled speaker at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon on Thursday, but with votes taking place on the Senate floor that morning, it wasn’t clear that he was going to make it—so much so that the luncheon organizers drafted a last-minute replacement, NASA administrator Mike Griffin. However, Nelson was able to get away and make it to the luncheon (after Griffin had started speaking) and he brought good news: the Senate had voted 75-22 to pass its version of a supplemental appropriations bill that, while primarily intended to fund military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, includes $200 million for NASA.
While this is a step forward for getting more money for NASA, it’s hardly a done deal, because the House version of the bill has no additional money for NASA, and the legislation in general faces a veto threat from the president. Nelson tried to remain optimistic about it as he laid out the plan for beyond this supplemental bill. “If we can hold that [extra money] in the negotiations with the House, and then, if we can avoid a presidential veto,” he said, adding that the bill passed in the Senate with a veto-proof majority, “if all those ‘ifs’ take place, then what we do is we go to the NASA appropriations bill for fiscal year 2009, which starts this October the 1st, and we try to get at least another $800 million, so that the total funding in this year would be a billion dollars extra.”
That billion, plus an additional $1 billion for NASA in FY2010, “does a number of things for us” beyond simply shortening the Shuttle-Constellation gap, ranging from reducing the amount of money that would have to go to Russia for ISS transport services to mitigating the effects of layoffs at the Kennedy Space Center. “In other words, we don’t have to lay off Americans at the Kennedy Space Center in order to hire Russians in Moscow,” he said.
But that near-term obstacle remains convincing the House to go along with any extra money for NASA, be it $2 billion or $200 million. He recounted a meeting he and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison had last year with House colleagues and OMB director Jim Nussle. He described “some of the most eloquent statements that I’ve heard made” in support of additional NASA funding, then pointed at the wall behind him. “But it was like talking to that wall.” Although the Senate approved the extra $1 billion last year, the measure didn’t have the support of the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, David Obey, and “without White House support, the deal collapsed,” Nelson said.
Nelson said they would try again this year, “and you’re looking at the guy who is the most visibly exercised in the Congress about this because of the potential devastation to our folks at the Kennedy Space Center.” However, he didn’t indicate any new change in tactics or support that would lead to a different, more positive outcome this time around.