While the NASA authorization bill had to compete with nearly two dozen other bills and nominations at a Senate Commerce Committee markup Tuesday, that bill ended up getting the bulk of the attention during the hearing. It started off on a light note from the committee’s chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). “Never in my entire life have I been lobbied so hard, so brutally, so cruelly, so unrelentingly, to have a markup on NASA as I have by a certain senator from the state of Florida,” he said in his opening statement, referring to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the space subcommittee.
The committee’s ranking member, Sen. John Thune (R-SD), hinted at discord about the bill in his opening statement. “Other bills, like S.1317, the NASA reauthorization, will likely need even more work before they reflect the kind of consensus that has characterized our Committee’s enacted legislation,” he said. “With additional effort, however, I am hopeful that we can get there in the weeks and months ahead.”
While most of the bills and nominations were approved by the committee en bloc, the NASA authorization bill was handeld separately. Four Republican members of the committee—Sens. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Ron Johnson (R-WI)–sought an amendment that would reduce the authorized funding levels in the bill to those compliant with the Budget Control Act, as the House version of the bill does.
“It surprises me to be bringing a sour note into a NASA reauthorization bill,” Wicker said in his comments, noting that the agency has traditionally been treated in a bipartisan manner in the committee. “I am disappointed that we would have a proposal unveiled essentially a week ago, that we haven’t worked on together in a bipartisan fashion,” referring to the bill’s introduction in mid-July.
“This authorization disregards the Budget Control Act,” Cruz said in introducing his amendment. “Proceeding with an authorization while pretending that the existing law is something other than what it is, is not the most effective way to protect the priority that space exploration and manned exploration should have.” He was concerned automatic cuts from sequestration would prevent a proper rebalancing of priorities for NASA.
Rubio noted the issue put him into a difficult situation. “This is my first NASA authorization bill, and being a senator from Florida, that means a lot,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that my first vote on this may be a partisan one.”
Nelson defended the content, and his handling, of the legislation. “I want to put to rest that this thing hasn’t been considered,” he said, noting his subcommittee held several hearings on NASA this year, but few members other than himself and the subcommittee’s ranking member, Cruz, participated. “This legislation does not violate the Budget Control Act,” he continued. “The authorizing committees are free to set their agency budgets, and that includes NASA. Authorization of appropriations has no impact on the BCA limits.”
Ultimately, Rubio’s fear came true: the Republican-backed amendment failed on a 13-12 vote that fell on party lines. The committee then approved the bill, also on a straight party-line vote (Rockefeller, the last to vote, accidentally voted against the bill before realizing his error.) If that sounds familiar, it should: it mirrors what happened in the House earlier in the month when Democrats proposed many amendments, most of which were rejected on party-line votes by the Republican majority there. An area of policy that has traditionally not been particularly partisan has, at least among authorizers in both houses of Congress, become sharply partisan.