Congress Unswayed by Obama's Speech

Congress Unswayed by Obama's Speech

One week after President Obama’s speech at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), it remains difficult to see who in Congress will take the lead in getting his new plan for the country’s human spaceflight program enacted into law. On the surface, at least, little has changed.

Congressional reaction immediately after the speech was generally negative. Most of those commenting clearly were not converted into supporters. Events in Congress this week – at the Senate Budget Committee markup and the Senate appropriations hearing — underscore that the White House still has a lot of work to do.

The much anticipated Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee hearing yesterday did little to clarify where Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) stands. As chair of the Senate subcommittee that funds NASA, she is a key player in NASA’s future. She had not shown her hand prior to the speech and many expected that the hearing would be her platform for revealing her position. Instead, she said that she needed to learn more, a clear indication that the KSC speech did not meet its goal of clarifying the President’s program and building support for it.

Senator Mikulski was the only Democrat at the hearing. The Republican Senators were just as critical as ever. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of the subcommittee, was particularly harsh in his criticism of the proposal and of NASA Administrator Bolden, telling Gen. Bolden that “your destructive actions towards the Constellation program will only ensure that Members cannot trust you.” He added that “you are creating an atmosphere where you and your leadership team have become a major impediment to moving forward.” Sen. Shelby was pretty harsh last year, too, with regard to the notion that commercial companies could take over transporting NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station instead of building the Ares rockets whose development is underway in Alabama. It’s obvious that his position is unchanged.

Anyone who reads the news knows that the Senate as a whole is a highly partisan environment these days, but the space program has been a bipartisan topic throughout the years. It still may be bipartisan, but in opposition to – or at least not supportive of – the President. There are months to go in the congressional appropriations process and plenty of time for the President to put on a full court press to win support at least from members of his own party.

Still, Senator Mikulski and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) are bellweathers of Democratic views on NASA. Even Senator Nelson, credited as the architect of the President’s appearance in Florida, does not yet seem completely sold on it himself. On Wednesday he persuaded the Senate Budget Committee to recommend more funding for NASA in FY2011 in part to enable the agency to continue testing the Ares 1 rocket that the President is determined to cancel.

Other key congressional space leaders have not publicly reacted to the speech, including Senator Mikulski’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), or the chair of the House Science and Technology Committee, Rep . Bart Gordon (D-TN) or the chair of its space and aeronautics subcommittee, Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). Gordon raised a number of reservations about the proposal during a hearing in February and Giffords has been openly antagonistic to the idea of terminating the Constellation program at several hearings.

If nothing else, the speech did lay to rest any reservations about whether the President himself is committed to the new plan. Whether he would have staved off some of the critics by giving the speech initially instead of revealing this profound proposed change in the U.S. human spaceflight program as part of the FY2011 budget request is unknown.

The President sought to convince the aerospace community that he personally is committed to NASA and to human spaceflight. He presented destinations and timelines in response to criticism that the original announcement was too vague. But it is clear that he will have to do more to win converts in Congress, at least, to his proposal. Stay tuned.

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