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Analysis: Summer showdown for space plan

By FRANK SIETZEN, United Press International   |   May 25, 2004 at 10:54 AM

WASHINGTON, May 25 (UPI) -- A political showdown is looming this summer and fall over NASA's fiscal year 2005 budget request, which contains $866 million in new funding.

Some $136 million of the proposed boost is earmarked to start President George W. Bush's new space exploration proposals. Neither house of Congress has acted on the plan yet, and though work has started on a bill to authorize both multi-year funding and a rationale for space exploration, most Hill staffers involved in the issue expect the authorization legislation to be left behind in the congressional rush to adjourn for the fall campaign.

Normally, National Aeronautics and Space Administration funding bills cover two years and contain language giving specific responsibilities for programs and policies. The last NASA authorization bill to pass Congress, however, was in 2000 -- and that effort took 18 months of negotiations to win final passage.

With so much of NASA's future riding on unpredictable political winds at the moment, it might be useful to take a look at the space agency's plan that will deliver success -- or fail in the effort.

Perhaps the best news for space supporters is Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas, House Majority Leader, will be shepherding the NASA authorization bill personally through the majority caucus. The House has been less supportive of the Bush plan than the Senate, so Delay's ability to hold the Republican majority in line could prove crucial. Delay has stated repeatedly he will make sure any NASA bill contains language that embraces the president's space exploration agenda, as well as full funding for the effort.

One radical proposal that may be inserted into the authorization bill would give NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe the ability to close down one or more of the agency's nine field centers. The language being studied would only give O'Keefe the political authority to carry out such closings -- not mandate it. That such action is being considered says much about the uncertain state of space program spending.

Although NASA leadership has shied away from embracing the idea, should the bill pass, giving O'Keefe the closings authority could be a budgetary ace-in-the-hole if NASA needs additional funds for the moon-Mars plan. Some congressional staffers have said that under such a scenario, O'Keefe could hold open the prospect of closing a facility to get the attention of legislators whose districts would be affected.

Prospects for NASA's overall FY 2005 budget are neither bleak nor slam dunk.

Take last week's House-Senate budget resolution conference report, which supported the moon-Mars plan. Back in March, the Senate had passed its version of the resolution and approved Bush's full NASA request, so Senate approval of the final conference report was anticipated. At the last minute, however, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., pulled the bill from the Senate calendar. Capitol Hill sources suggested Frist had the votes to pass the measure, but delayed the action to bring more moderate Republicans on board. The House agreed to the conference report -- but only by a three-vote margin.

Now, space supporters are focusing on both the authorization bill and on other possible NASA appropriations measures that might emerge this summer. The prospects for either remain doubtful.

Will NASA prevail in this tight political, election-year climate? Or, will the whole exploration initiative wind up as a fruitless exercise? Enter O'Keefe's political strategy.

The space chief is banking on a combination of factors to pull his agency's fortune from the fire. First is O'Keefe's own jawboning of members of the Senate. Forgotten in many profiles of O'Keefe is his political pedigree.

Before his appointment as Navy secretary and Pentagon comptroller during the first Bush administration, under Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, O'Keefe spent eight years on the staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and earlier as staff director of a Defense subcommittee. Even before that, he learned the ins and outs of political Washington as a presidential management intern.

Among O'Keefe's many mentors back then was Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, now in his seventh term. Stevens holds vast political power in today's Senate. He is chairman of the Appropriations Committee and occupies prominent seats on the Commerce, Science and Transportation, Governmental Affairs, and Rules committees.

O'Keefe has nurtured his relationship with his former mentor and used the connection since his 2002 appointment at NASA to pass other measures for his agency -- including support for a critical space budget amendment in late 2002.

Stevens was key in maintaining political support for NASA during the Columbia shuttle accident investigation, and has proven equally important in getting reluctant senators to buy into the Bush exploration plan.

As for support in the House, enter D. Lee Forsgren.

Appointed NASA's chief legislative liaison with Congress last January, Forsgren had experience with congressional defense issues but none with space.

He came from the New Orleans powerhouse law firm of Adams and Reese, which happens to be home to another key NASA political player -- Paul G. Pastorek, the space agency's general council and one of O'Keefe's closest associates. The pair attended New Orleans' Loyola University, served together in the school's student government and over the years forged a bond that many have compared to the relationship between President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert.

More than just the space agency's top lawyer, Pastorek wields considerable power within all of NASA, pushing O'Keefe's reform agenda and helping to clear away obstacles to his boss' political fortunes.

Pastorek's influence and Forsgren's appointment, while little known outside the space community, are key elements in O'Keefe's under-the-radar struggles to gain support for the space exploration plan -- and for his yet-to-come reorganization of NASA.

Forsgren, backed by a platoon of space industry lobbyists, has moved quietly this spring to "inform and educate" legislators on the benefits and importance of the Bush space plan. Working with Delay, O'Keefe and Pastorek, as well as industry supporters, Forsgren continues to forge an effort that has gained support from both conservative Democrats and Republicans alike -- especially in the House.

Despite these efforts, last week's three-vote win for the pro-space budget resolution in the House will not be the last cliffhanger vote for NASA. The agency's moment of truth is fast approaching. It will test the mettle of O'Keefe's political skills and, ultimately, that of his president.

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Frank Sietzen covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail sciencemail@upi.com

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