After years of near-death experiences in federal budget battles, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space station won a promise of survival Wednesday when a House subcommittee authorized all funds needed to complete the station by 2002.
The bill to authorize $13.1 billion for completion of the space station--which supports more than 1,000 jobs in Orange County--earned the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee's approval despite objections from some Democrats that the nation's premier science project would be funded at the expense of other lower-profile NASA programs.
"Orange County has always been at the forefront of the space station, and the space station has just passed a major hurdle, especially during a year of deficit reduction," Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) said after the vote.
With the space station enjoying strong bipartisan support and the GOP in control of Congress, Rohrabacher and other Republicans were confident that the long-term funding strategy would win final approval.
The three-hour debate over the bill rarely touched on the merits of the space station.
Backers of long-term funding for an international space station--which is part of a cooperative agreement with Russia--maintained that the bill would send a message to international partners that the U.S. is committed to the project.
They also contended that the measure would bring stability to a program that has been threatened by other sessions of Congress because of cost overruns, sponsors argued.
Since the space station's inception in the mid-1980s, nearly $9.4 billion has been spent on a project originally budgeted at $8 billion, according to a committee staffer.
Subcommittee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said full funding of the station is not a "blank check" for NASA, because annual spending caps are included in the bill. Rohrabacher also amended the bill to require NASA to promote commercial use and operation of the station as a way of reducing the federal government's costs.
"Here is the space station. Do you want it or not?" Sensenbrenner told the committee, firing a warning shot to some Democrats intent on waging a fight over spending priorities.
The Republicans' momentary abandonment of their budget-cutting ways was not lost on the Democrats, who tried to hold hostage the station's long-term funding in exchange for restoration of the NASA budget, which was recently slashed by the House.
"I think it will be difficult for a number of members to argue that the space station alone is to be exempt from scrutiny over the next seven years, while all other programs have to take cuts," said the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Ralph M. Hall of Texas.
Republicans recently proposed cutting the space agency's budget--now at $14.4 billion for the 1994-95 fiscal year--to $11.5 billion for fiscal 1999-2000. The Clinton Administration's plan would have reduced spending to $13.1 billion.
The Democrats have argued that the GOP spending cuts violated a bipartisan agreement to support a NASA budget that "kept pace with inflation."
Former Science Committee Chairman George E. Brown (D-Calif.) read aloud what he described as a NASA position paper supporting the multiyear funding for the space station as part of a budget that is similar to the Administration's spending plan.
"We have just about reached the limit of how much we can continue to cut NASA without sacrificing some major programs," Brown told the committee.
NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin has previously expressed misgivings about congressional budget cuts, despite NASA's own efforts to streamline management without cutting a single scientific program or mission. NASA has estimated that the Republican proposal could result in a loss of 40,000 jobs nationwide for the agency and its contractors.