Senate Passes Deal to Avoid Government Shutdown

Senate Passes Deal to Avoid Government Shutdown

Agreement apparently has been reached among the Senate, House, and White House to avert a partial government shutdown on Friday.  Many agencies, including NASA and NOAA, are currently funded by a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on December 21.  The agreement is to extend that CR until February 8, 2019.  The deal is not done yet, but it did pass the Senate this evening.

President Trump’s demand that Congress provide $5 billion in FY2019 for his border wall threatened to end government funding for agencies in seven of the 12 regular appropriations bills that have not yet cleared Congress.  He said last week that he would be “proud” to close the government over the border wall issue, but neither Republicans nor Democrats in Congress want to shutter part of the government over the Christmas holidays.

The White House relented and House and Senate Republicans and Democrats appear to have agreed to the extension of the CR until February 8.   The Senate passed the extension this evening about 10:00 pm ET.

If it passes the House and is signed into law by the President, it will push the border wall issue into the 116th Congress when Democrats will control the House.

Congressional action on appropriations had been going well earlier.  For the first time in many years, five of the 12 appropriations bills were enacted before FY2019 began on October 1 and four others were in conference negotiations.

The five enacted bills fund the Department of Defense (DOD) and other agencies that collectively spend 75 percent of discretionary government funds.  The remaining 25 percent of funding is in the other seven bills.  That funding pays for about 800,000 civil servants who would be without paychecks until another appropriations measure was enacted.

The timing of the CR extension is interesting.  It will expire on Friday, February 8.  By law, the President is supposed to submit his budget request for the next fiscal year, in this case FY2020, on the first Monday in February.  In 2019, that will be February 4.  If the FY2020 budget request is submitted on time, it would be without knowing how much money those agencies received for FY2019.

It would hardly be the first time that happened, but it does complicate planning for NASA, for example.  For FY2019, the President requested $19.892 billion.  The House Appropriations Committee approved $21.546 billion and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $21.323 billion, an increase of more than $1 billion above the request in both cases.  The bills have not been taken up by either the House or Senate.

NASA can look at what the committees recommended to get guidance on what the outcome might be, but the committees agreed on some projects and disagreed on others. The Administration’s proposal to terminate projects in Earth sciences (PACE, CLARREO-Pathfinder, OCO-3 and DSCOVR’s Earth-facing instruments) were specifically rejected in the Senate bill, but the House bill was not explicit. Both also rejected the proposal to terminate the WFIRST space telescope program, but the Senate committee provides more than twice the funding in the House bill with the goal of keeping the project on track for launch in 2025.  They agreed to continue funding for NASA’s education programs, which the Administration wants to terminate, but the recommended amount is different.  They disagreed on whether to adopt the new budget structure NASA proposed.  [See’s NASA FY2019 Budget Request fact sheet, on our Fact Sheets page, for details.]

Meanwhile, under the CR, everything remains as it was in FY2018.  Projects that were proposed for elimination in FY2019 will continue; those proposed to begin in FY2019 generally are not allowed to start.  Among the latter are the Lunar Discovery and Exploration program, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, and the DART asteroid deflection mission.  Some of those may trace back to earlier approved activities and might not be considered new starts under a flexible interpretation, so precisely how all of that plays out remains to be seen.

When negotiations resume on finalizing FY2019 appropriations, perhaps the biggest change for NASA will be the absence of Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chair of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee and NASA champion.  He lost his reelection race and will not be returning.  He no longer will be able to protect the generous $1.65 billion increase he provided for NASA in that committee’s markup of the FY2019 bill.  Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), will still chair the Senate Appropriations Committee, which recommended a $1.43 billion increase, but his NASA priorities are not always the same as Culberson’s.  Shelby particularly supports the Space Launch System and Orion and others on his committee are advocates of NASA’s Earth science and astrophysics programs.  Culberson is well known for his enthusiasm for planetary science.  He is also the primary architect of the restrictions on U.S.-China space cooperation.

All this leaves NASA and the other agencies in the CR in unsettled positions.  How the Democratic House and Republican Senate will work together, or not, on budget issues is a critical question with no answer at this time.  But it definitely is better than having no funding at all.

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