In a surprise move, committee members restored all funds trimmed earlier this month by the subcommittee responsible for funding the space program. They also exceeded, slightly, President George W. Bush's original request for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the new fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., offered an emergency funding amendment for NASA. Co-sponsored by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., it added $800 million to a base NASA budget of $15.6 billion passed by the committee just minutes before.
The total approved by the Appropriations Committee raises NASA's FY 2005 budget more than $100 million above the $16.2 billion requested by the administration last February. If both houses of Congress can agree to the total, it would allow NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to reprogram enough funds to start the space exploration plan announced by the president last Jan. 14.
The $800 million increase consists of $500 million to help restore the nation's fleet of space shuttles to flight, and $300 million to begin developing a robotic servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.
"I believe we've crafted a good bill," said subcommittee Chairman Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., as the full Appropriations Committee passed his bill and readied the amendment. That bill alone raised NASA funding $200 million above the agency's FY 2004 amount, but was $665 million below Bush's 2005 request. The Mikulski amendment added the rest -- and more.
Senior administration sources told United Press International Mikulski's move had been pre-approved by Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. It was accepted without objection by voice vote Tuesday afternoon during the full committee mark-up of the complete NASA FY 2005 spending plan.
As an emergency measure, the extra spending was allowed above the previously set ceiling for the full slate of appropriations measures covered by the committee -- which includes the Veterans Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and independent agencies, including NASA. That ceiling also included extra funds for veterans medical benefits.
The budget-boosting, emergency amendment was the only part of NASA's appropriation that was amended by the Senate committee Tuesday. The victory comes as welcome news for space program supporters, but it ultimately might have limited practical effect on NASA's budget fortunes.
Few expect either the House or Senate spending bills for NASA actually to be approved by Congress before it recesses in early October for the political campaign. A continuing resolution will be required just to keep the government running after the start of the new fiscal year.
If the bill and amendment package approved by the Appropriations Committee actually does arrive on the Senate floor, some Democrats who approved the measure in the committee warned that a fight is looming.
"I'm not going to offer an amendment today," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D. "But this needs to be addressed on the floor of the Senate."
Even Stevens warned inflating the budget with emergency spending measures was likely to trigger other objections.
"(The White House Office of Management and Budget) is disturbed by the level of emergencies we've been spending," Stevens said.
Others who wound up supporting Mikulski's move did so reluctantly.
"I support this amendment, but I don't like supporting this amendment," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
Brownback, who has emerged as a critic of the space shuttle in the Senate, but a supporter of the Bush space plan, suggested spending additional millions on the shuttle would ultimately make it more difficult to fund the development of NASA's new spaceship -- the crew exploration vehicle -- intended to carry astronauts to the moon and beyond.
On the other hand, the committee's action strengthens NASA's chances of having its budget raised in the House-Senate conference committee that ultimately will be responsible for crafting a compromise NASA spending measure that both houses will need to approve. This action most likely will occur after the elections on Nov. 2.
The House Appropriations Committee previously had approved a $1 billion cut in NASA's request. Like its Senate counterpart, the committee did not move the bill to the full House.
Any increases for NASA the Senate approves in theory gives O'Keefe greater latitude when the bargaining in the conference committee.
Meanwhile, both houses are likely to approve extra billions in an emergency spending measure to pay for damages sustained by the series of summer hurricanes in Florida. That measure will include $126 million for NASA to repair the space shuttle's hangar, tile manufacturing workshops and other facilities damaged at the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral by Hurricane Frances.
Mikulski's action saved both the shuttle and the Bush plan, then, at least for a while. That is where things will remain until the conference committee deliberations begin.
"We need to make the shuttle fly and be as safe as possible," Mikulski said Tuesday, "and Hubble has been the most successful mission since Galileo invented the telescope. NASA has been battered by the budget."
A series by UPI examining the attempt by NASA to fulfill the vision of President George W. Bush to resume missions to the moon and, eventually, send humans to Mars. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org