Budget Cuts Top Priority as 112th Congress Convenes Tomorrow

Budget Cuts Top Priority as 112th Congress Convenes Tomorrow

The 112th Congress will convene at noon tomorrow, January 5, 2011. As the House and Senate swear in new members, the House will come under Republican control with John Boehner (R-OH) as Speaker of the House. The Senate remains in Democratic hands with Harry Reid (D-NV) continuing as Majority Leader. Both parties know that reining in the federal deficit is one of the country’s top priorities, but the road to agreement on how to do that is expected to be quite rocky.

The Republicans will have 242 seats in the House compared to 193 for the Democrats, roughly a 56 percent to 44 percent majority. The Senate will have 51 Democrats, two Independents who caucus with the Democrats (Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont), and 47 Republicans, essentially a 53-47 split.

While most politicians will privately admit that the only way to reduce the deficit significantly is to cut spending on “mandatory” programs – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – those are difficult to cut politically because they affect so many voters. Instead, they are expected to aim first at “discretionary” programs, which include NASA, NOAA, DOD and most of the federal agencies with which people are familiar.

Repealing the health care bill passed last year is another top Republican priority that is expected to pass in the House, but fail in the Senate. House Republicans yesterday released a copy of the repeal bill they plan to bring to the floor of the House for a vote next week, which also calls for writing a new health care bill that reflects Republican priorities. That virtually assures that health care reform will dominate Washington politics for at least another year.

Some Democrats, such as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who is expected to win election by House Democrats as the Minority Leader tomorrow, believe the real issue in the 2010 elections was jobs, not deficit reduction. President Obama seems to agree and sounded optimistic as he returned from his Christmas vacation back home in Hawaii. News reports today quote the President saying that while the Republicans will “play to their base for a certain period of time,” he is “pretty confident that they’re going to recognize our job is to govern and make sure that we are delivering jobs for the American people and that we are creating a competitive economy for the 21st century.”

Where the space program will play in all of this is anyone’s guess. Space program advocates have been trying to make the case that investing in NASA, in particular, is an important element in making America competitive. The termination of the space shuttle program will mean the loss of many high tech jobs, some of which could be salvaged with a robust investment in a new rocket program. Cutting NASA’s budget is a comparatively easy political move, however, so it is a toss up as to whether the pro-NASA arguments will sway Congress and the White House. The key for NASA is to get some certainty about its future human spaceflight program, which is currently caught between one law that says not to cancel the Constellation program yet and another that specifies many of the details of the replacement program. That replacement program was not exactly what the Obama Administration wanted, but was close enough to get the President’s signature.

DOD and intelligence community space programs are also up in the air. Some news reports say that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will announce program cuts this Thursday. Months ago he directed the services to find $100 billion in savings over the next 5 years. The extent to which that will affect national security space programs is unclear since most of those programs are ongoing rather than being new starts, which are easier to defer or eliminate. One of the few “new starts” is the reconfigured NPOESS program, though it could be argued that it is a restructuring of an existing program rather than a new program. DOD’s portion is called the Defense Weather Satellite System (DWSS). Senate appropriators took a harsh stand on DWSS in their report on the FY2011 DOD bill, denying any funds for building a spacecraft and providing only $50 million for sensors. That bill never cleared the 111th Congress, but it sends a message that DOD needs to do a better job of convincing Congress that it has a solid plan for moving forward with that program. DOD has two of its legacy weather satellites awaiting launch, so it does not have the same sense of urgency as NOAA in moving forward with the restructured program.

Senate appropriators had many questions about NOAA’s part of the restructured NPOESS program, too. While recommending funds for the first of NOAA’s satellites, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), the Senate committee made clear that it was not convinced that NOAA had a good overall plan either. The Continuing Resolution (CR) under which NOAA is currently operating did not provide any of the substantial additional funds requested in FY2011 for JPSS. Like most other federal agencies, NOAA is operating at its FY2010 level. All of NOAA’s polar orbiting weather satellites already are in orbit, so the need to proceed quickly in building new satellites is much more pronounced than for DOD. NOAA is not precluded from proceeding with JPSS, but must do so within its existing budget.

Among the critical upcoming deadlines that will shape the debate this year are release of the FY2012 budget request, expected on February 14, a week late; deciding what to do about the FY2011 budget when the current CR expires on March 4; and the need to raise the debt ceiling, with a vote expected this spring.

The current debt limit is $14.3 billion, while U.S. debt is $13.9 billion and rising. A White House aide said it would be “catastrophic” if Congress did not raise the limit, but Republicans are expected to use the debate to force dramatic funding cuts. Republican Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) said on Meet the Press that he would not vote to raise the debt ceiling unless government spending is cut back to 2008 levels, for example. For reference, NASA’s FY2008 funding level was $17.4 billion, compared to its current (FY2010) level of $18.7 billion.

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