Senators say NASA will get safety funds when requsted
Thursday, February 6, 2003
WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers expressed doubt Wednesday that they will rush extra safety funds to NASA, saying the space agency has not yet requested more money.
But they said they expected Congress to provide additional money once NASA makes progress in uncovering the cause of the shuttle Columbia disaster and requests more dollars, perhaps this spring. Investigators have said it could take weeks or more to discover why the shuttle broke apart minutes before its scheduled landing Saturday, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
First public hearing
Their comments came as the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Science Committee's space and aeronautics subcommittee announced that NASA chief Sean O'Keefe would testify Feb. 12 in the first public hearing on the Columbia.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate panel, and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, will lead the questions, expected to focus on the NASA investigation into the accident and the future of the space program.
Boehlert's spokeswoman, Heidi Tringe, said McCain and Boehlert wanted to start with a joint hearing to show their cooperative spirit, but would primarily move separately in future hearings on the issue.
The comments on funding meant there was little chance lawmakers would include extra funds for NASA in the government-wide, roughly $390 billion spending package for this year.
The remarks also emphasized the political tension between resolving any NASA safety problems and the Bush administration's effort to squeeze more efficiency out of the space agency's budget, expected to total about $15 billion this year.
"That would be a No. 1 priority for us, making certain they have money for a safety review of the next flights," Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told reporters.
"They haven't asked for extra money," Stevens said. "There is going to be no risk to NASA or anyone if we wait" until later this year because shuttle flights have been suspended.
Stevens and others said the likelier vehicle for extra NASA money would be a follow-up, wide-ranging spending bill that President Bush is expected to send Congress this spring. It also would cover the costs of war with Iraq if there is one.
"If it's needed, I'm for it," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that handles NASA's budget. But she said a government investigation and congressional hearings into the catastrophe were needed first.
A moment of silence
By 95-0, the Senate approved a resolution mourning Columbia's crew and resolving that the tragedy "shall not dissuade or discourage this nation from venturing ever farther into the vastness of space." Senators held a moment of silence immediately after the vote. The House later passed a similar measure by a 404-0 vote.
The spending bill lawmakers hope to finish next week is for the federal budget year that started last Oct. 1. It covers every federal agency but the Pentagon, whose spending legislation was enacted last fall.
House-Senate leaders met Wednesday and narrowed differences over extra money the Senate included for education, Amtrak and fighting famine in Africa. A dispute remained over $3.1 billion the Senate approved for farmers.
To pay for extra funds it endorsed, the Senate had approved a 2.9 percent cut in most agencies' budgets. Bargainers were hoping to reduce that to less than 1 percent and exempt NASA, Head Start and several other programs.
The White House budget office has threatened a veto of the legislation if its price tag rises too high.
Meanwhile, the House approved by a voice vote yet another temporary measure keeping the government open until the budget bill can be approved. The Senate approved the measure by voice vote soon afterward.
The bill, which would keep agencies financed through Feb. 20, is the eighth temporary bill lawmakers will have approved since the budget year started.