WASHINGTON, July 26 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush's new space exploration plan has received a burst of hard-core support in Congress, aimed at blocking any attempt to cut its funding, and backed up by a rare veto threat from the president himself.
This development has emerged in the wake of action by a House appropriations subcommittee last week, which cut the administration's NASA budget request for fiscal year 2005 by more than $1 billion.
Bush had sought an FY 2005 NASA budget of $16.2 billion, a $866 million increase over the current year. The subcommittee, however, approved a NASA budget of $15.149 billion. That amount would not only slash the entire increase the administration had requested, but also would cut NASA to $229 million below the FY 2004 amount. Every element of the new space exploration plan was cut, as were all other programs related to it.
The proposed new manned spaceship, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, was cut $436 million. Programs to begin to mature the technology for the manned moon and Mars mission, totaling $30 million, also were stripped from the bill. A $230 million project to develop a new atomic rocket and deep space power system called Project Prometheus -- begun prior to the Bush proposal but folded into the effort -- was deleted. Other new initiatives likewise were slashed.
Strange, but the House bill did contain words of support for the vision. It just did not provide any funds for it.
The only human spaceflight programs contained in Bush's request that went unscathed were full funding for the space shuttle and space station programs -- both of which were earmarked by the president for, respectively, retirement and withdrawal.
The president has not said anything publicly since his Jan. 14 speech announcing the new space exploration vision, and there has been speculation his silence evidenced second thoughts or a backing away from the plan.
NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe has repeatedly said in public that Bush's support remained strong, but without any direct evidence from the president, the inference has been the space plan had slipped to the back burner in this hectic election year.
Now, the space plan's supporters have received a clear signal of continued White House support -- even though it has arrived in an unprecedented form.
Josh Bolten, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, last week sent a letter to Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, R-Fla., the House Appropriations committee chair. The letter, dated July 22, drew a line in the sand over the intended cuts in NASA spending Young's full committee had approved the day before.
"The administration, however, would not support House passage of the FY 2005 VA/HUD Appropriations bill as it is currently drafted," Bolten's letter said, referring to the measure within which the NASA appropriations were contained.
"The funding levels provided by the committee would drastically delay plans for FY 2005 critical technology design efforts that are needed to begin to implement the president's vision," Bolten wrote. "If the final version of this bill that is presented to the president does not include adequate funding levels ... his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill."
Presidential veto threats have been a rarity in the Bush White House. Also, no U.S. president has ever vetoed a spending bill because it contained too little money for space programs.
How did the veto threat emerge?
To a great extent, NASA's fortunes currently are riding with House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas. Delay, who has been the most enthusiastic supporter of the space plan in the House, threatened to doom Young's bill from ever getting a full vote on the floor when Congress reconvenes in September.
Sources close to Delay said this was not an idle threat.
Preventing the bill from reaching a final vote has become the first layer of defense for space plan supporters.
Delay has moved to establish a second layer, however. Administration sources told United Press International that Delay asked the White House for the veto threat -- and got it. If the cuts in space spending approved by the House appropriators reach Bush's desk in the fall, he will not sign the measure.
For a sitting President in an election year to threaten to veto a bill containing appropriations for veterans and housing because of its space spending provisions is a clear signal Bush has not backed away from his space plan. It also is another sign NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe's legislative strategy -- what some have called a game of political "chicken" -- has several layers in place before supporter's options are exhausted.
The Senate's action on NASA funding is yet to come. Former O'Keefe mentor Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is widely expected to make sure the full Bush request for space plan funding will be contained in the Senate's mark-up of the legislation. If so, it would set up yet another chance for NASA to prevail, because the House-Senate conference would have to reconcile both versions of space spending.
With the veto threats, threats to undo the Republican budgeteer's work, and the Republican House leadership divided, the unusual and unexpected space budget battle will come right up to the beginnings of FY 2005 before its outcome becomes certain.
"We're in a tough neighborhood," Sean O'Keefe told UPI last week, meaning NASA is by no means out of the woods.
Frank Sietzen covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org