By ANDY PASZTOR
In the latest sign that future U.S. space efforts remain mired in uncertainty, a House Appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday voted to temporarily withhold all funding for NASA’s manned exploration programs until lawmakers hammer out a consensus on spending priorities.
The unusual vote highlights the extent of bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill to President Barack Obama’s bid to reshape NASA. The White House wants to end most of NASA’s current manned exploration projects, and shift billions of dollars over the next few years to help outsource U.S. astronaut transportation to private rockets.
Mr. Obama also wants to put off until at least 2015 government decisions on building the nation’s next-generation heavy-lift boosters.
Critics contend Mr. Obama’s strategy is too risky and threatens to gut NASA’s manned exploration programs at a time many foreign governments are boosting spending and increasing overall efforts in this area.
Tuesday’s vote essentially hands the controversial issue to the House Science and Technology Committee, which now is under greater pressure to work out a compromise between those who back the White House plan to curtail NASA’s current manned space program and those who favor keeping it intact.
The science panel shares jurisdiction over NASA and is responsible for authorizing agency programs for which appropriators allocate funds.
Though the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations subcommittee approved the full $19 billion NASA budget requested by the White House, it is putting a hold on $3.56 billion earmarked for manned space exploration. The money won’t be available until the House science panel passes an authorization bill and the legislation gets through Congress.
Despite months of debate, neither House nor Senate committees have voted out a bill either supporting the White House’s position or retaining NASA’s current manned programs.
Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, the ranking minority member on the appropriations subcommittee, said that if Congress allows NASA manned exploration programs “to continue to drift,” the result will be “increased costs and lost capabilities.”
Earlier this month, Mr. Wolf joined 59 Republican and Democratic members of Congress from 18 states to send a letter urging Mr. Obama to continue some version of NASA’s existing manned programs.
Signed by the majority of members from Texas and Florida—states that would be the most negatively affected by the White House cuts—the letter calls on the Obama administration to support a compromise plan. It would include funding immediate development and production of a heavy-lift booster designed for either lunar exploration or missions deeper into the solar system.
Major changes in the direction of the U.S.’s space program should come through the authorization process, said Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, the chairman of the subcommittee. Mr. Mollohan said such decisions have effectively been on hold for about a year and a half.
The authorizing committees in both the House and the Senate are working on the possible outlines of compromise bills, but so far no specific language or funding breakdowns have been released.
Historically, appropriations panels haven’t consider such bills from authorizing committees to be essential before laying out a spending blueprint.
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