Mikulski Amendment Rejected – No Relief for NASA in Senate Appropriations Markup

Mikulski Amendment Rejected – No Relief for NASA in Senate Appropriations Markup

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) offered an amendment to the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill during full committee markup today that would have added money above the level recommended yesterday by the CJS subcommittee for several NASA programs, including commercial crew.  The amendment was rejected 14-16 along party lines.

Debate on the CJS bill, as well as the FY2016 Defense Appropriations bill that also was approved by the committee today, followed familiar themes.  Democrats want to negotiate a new budget deal that replaces budget caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) with more flexible limits.  Republicans insist that non-defense spending must stay within those caps, but are adding money for defense in an off-budget account (Overseas Contingency Operations) to which the caps do not apply.  Democrats in Congress and the White House are railing against what they call a “gimmick” to add money for defense while shortchanging domestic needs.

Yesterday, the CJS subcommittee approved a bill that provides about $240 million less for NASA in FY2016 than requested by the Obama Administration.  The commercial crew program was one of those cut most deeply.  Only $900 million was approved versus the $1.244 billion requested. 

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden repeatedly warns that if the full request is not approved, he can not guarantee that U.S. systems capable of taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) will be ready by 2017.  He argues that if Congress had fully funded the program in the past, the systems would be ready now, so 2017 is already a two-year delay.  Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said on the Senate floor yesterday that if the Senate cuts the program to $900 million, another two-year slip will be incurred.

Mikulski’s amendment would have added $300 million for commercial crew above the subcommittee’s recommendation, bringing it close to the requested level.  She also sought to add funds for NASA programs in science ($96 million above the subcommittee’s recommendation — $46 million for WFIRST and $50 million for Mars 2020), space technology ($54 million), and the Orion spacecraft ($50 million).

The NASA additions were part of an overall $2.784 billion increase Mikulski sought for various activities in the CJS bill. 

The amendment was defeated by a 14-16 party line vote.   CJS subcommittee chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) opposed the amendment, but said that if a new budget deal is indeed negotiated, he will work with Mikulski on how to allocate any additional funding.

Meanwhile, however, NASA would be held to the subcommittee levels if this bill passes the Senate and is signed into law.   Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has said Democrats will work to prevent any appropriations bills from reaching the Senate floor for debate until a new budget deal is reached, so the future of this and the other appropriations bills in the Senate is uncertain.  President Obama vowed to veto any funding bills that abide by the 2011 BCA caps.

The House passed its version of the CJS bill last week, providing the same total amount requested by the Administration, $18.527 billion, but allocating it differently.  For commercial crew, for example, the House approved $1.0 billion, a $244 million cut.

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