NASA’s Hopes for Infrastructure Funding Grow to $15.7 Billion

NASA’s Hopes for Infrastructure Funding Grow to $15.7 Billion

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson revealed earlier this year that he was seeking $11.5 billion as part of the infrastructure/jobs bill to pay for a second Human Landing System for the Artemis program, repairing and upgrading NASA facilities, and other needs that were not included in the agency’s FY2022 budget request. That now has grown to $15.7 billion. The likelihood of getting any or all of it is anyone’s guess.

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-VT), three Democratic Senators put forward the case for including $15.7 billion for NASA as part of reconciliation, a budgetary process Democrats are using to provide $3.5 trillion in “human infrastructure” funding for Democratic priorities in areas such as health care, education and clean energy.

That is in addition to the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure deal to pay for fixing the nation’s physical infrastructure like roads, bridges, and rail. The original $4.5 trillion infrastructure proposal was split into two packages, which are proceeding on parallel tracks, because many Republicans agree with Democrats on the physical infrastructure needs, but not the rest.

Nelson told the House Appropriations Committee in May that he was asking Congress to add $11.545 billion in the infrastructure bill on top of the agency’s $24.8 billion FY2022 budget request: $5.4 billion for the second Human Landing System (HLS), another $5.4 billion for repairing aging facilities at NASA’s Centers around the country, $200 million for lunar spacesuits, and $585 million for nuclear propulsion.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia)

The August 6 letter signed by Virginia Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and California Senator Alex Padilla asks for $15.7 billion: $10.032 billion for HLS and $5.4 billion to fix aging facilities. Use of the remaining $268 million is not specified, but the letter says “the funding will lead to the development of new spacesuits for the Artemis program and nuclear propulsion technology for future missions to Mars.”

The $10.032 billion for HLS matches the amount authorized in the 2022 NASA Authorization Act that passed the Senate in June as part of the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA).

There is agreement among enough Republicans and Democrats on the $1 trillion Invest in America Act (H.R. 3684) that it passed the Senate last week 69-30, with 19 Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in favor. It does not appear that any of the money is destined for NASA.

As for the other $3.5 trillion, no Republicans on either side of Capitol Hill support it. To get it passed by the Senate, with its 50-50 split between Democrats (including two Independents who often vote with the Democrats) and Republicans, Democrats are using reconciliation, which cannot be filibustered. That means it can pass by a simple majority instead of 60 votes. With Vice President Harris breaking the tie, they will just be able to do it if all Democrats stick together.

Reconciliation begins with the House and Senate agreeing on a budget resolution that caps annual spending for each of the next 10 fiscal years. The Senate passed its budget resolution, S. Con. Res. 14, last week hours after agreeing to the infrastructure bill, by a vote of 50-49.

Ironically, Bernie Sanders, the architect of the Senate budget resolution and one of the recipients of the Warner-Kaine-Padilla letter asking for $10 billion for HLS, excoriated the idea of allocating billions for HLS during consideration of the NASA Authorization/USICA bill. He characterized it as “corporate welfare to Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk … to fund their space hobby.”

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Arizona)

Kaine and Padilla also were part of a larger group of Senators who wrote to Schumer and Sanders advocating for a total of $40.25 billion for NASA, NSF and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST, part of the Department of Commerce). Former astronaut Mark Kelly, now Arizona’s junior Senator, signed that one. It does not break down how much they want for each agency, but calls it funding for “the necessary research and development infrastructure” to begin implementing the USICA.

“Addressing both the aging infrastructure and deferred maintenance that supports NSF and NASA as well as fully funding new infrastructure projects and exploration missions upfront through the upcoming budget reconciliation bill would allow these agencies to more efficiently focus their resources and attention on the cutting-edge science and human investments that are necessary to ensure the U.S. remains the global leader in scientific breakthroughs and technology development.”

The budget resolution itself does not specify how much money agencies get and does not go to the President for signature to become law. It is an agreement between the House and Senate on how much the nation should spend, divided into 21 categories or budget functions. NASA’s space activities are in function 250, General Science, Space and Technology; aeronautics is in function 400, Transportation.

Budget resolutions often stop there, but they can also be used to give directions to committees to develop legislation authorizing direct spending, outside the appropriations process, to “reconcile” spending and revenue priorities. After the House and Senate agree to the budget resolution, committees develop corresponding policy legislation to meet the priorities in the budget resolution. That legislation then must pass the House and Senate as part of a reconciliation measure and be signed into law.

Until all that happens, there is no way to know how much NASA will get and for what purposes. That is up to the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.  The Senate-passed bill directs them to report changes in laws within their jurisdictions that increase the deficit for FY2022-2031 by not more than $45,510,000,000 for House SS&T and not more than $83,076,000,000 for Senate Commerce. The two committees have quite different jurisdictions, although NASA is within both.

The next step is up to the House. Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the House back to work early from its summer break to pass the budget resolution next week so committees can begin work on writing their implementing legislation. The goal is for them to do so by September 15. The House is scheduled to meet on August 23 and 24, although a group of nine moderate Democrats notified Pelosi they will not vote for the budget resolution without voting on the infrastructure bill, too, so the situation remains fluid. With the party-control margin so close, Pelosi can afford to lose only three Democratic votes or the bill will be doomed.

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