When Congress returns to Washington next Tuesday it will attempt to do what it has been unable to accomplish during the preceding months: pass nine appropriations bills for the fiscal year that is now more than five weeks old. While there has been success in ironing out differences between the House and Senate and White House in some of these bills, the outlook on two bills of greatest interest to the physics and astronomy community - those funding the Department of Energy, NSF, and NASA - remains very unsettled.
In theory, last week's election should make the going a little easier. With the electorate's decision to return President Bush to the White House and to increase Republican control in the House and Senate, the appropriations cycle does not have to contend with inside-the-beltway strategizing about the optimal political time to pass these bills. For the lame duck session scheduled for the eight-day period of November 16 through the 23, the same key players will be in place on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Two numbers are important to breaking this appropriations' deadlock. The first is $821.9 billion, which is the amount of discretionary money that the White House and congressional leaders have agreed to spend in FY 2005. The second number is $8 billion, which is the total of various bookkeeping dodges that Senate leaders have employed to work around that $821.9 billion limit. While these dodges have made it possible to write a Senate funding bill that is more favorable to NSF and NASA, as an example, fiscal conservatives in the House and White House have indicated their great displeasure with such tactics.
The FY 2005 VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies bill is very problematic. In order to get the Senate bill out of committee, appropriators designated $2 billion as "emergency" spending for VA health care and NASA, money that did not count against the spending cap. An additional $2 billion in HUD funding was shuffled around the spending ceiling. With this extra money, Senate appropriators also were able to provide NSF with the requested 3% increase. Fiscal conservatives, at least at this point in time, are not buying this approach. Yet House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) is so disgruntled with the House bill that kept to the spending ceiling, but also came in with a low NASA number, that he has not let the committee's bill that was passed on July 22 come to the floor for a vote.
The FY 2005 Energy and Water Development bill is even more troubled. Senator Pete Domenici's (R-NM) subcommittee has not even released a bill. Funding for the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository is a major hurdle. The Bush Administration requested $880 million, far more than the $131 million in the House-passed bill. Domenici supports taking $749 million every year from a federal trust that has been funded by the nuclear industry, as well as imposing an additional $446 million from the nuclear utilities as a one-time surcharge. In addition, the House bill and the presumptive Domenici bill are going to be at loggerheads about the funding of the Administration's nuclear weapons initiatives.
Appropriations bills are called "must-pass bills" for a good reason, as they must be enacted to continue the operations of a federal department or agency. In order to get these bills passed before President Bush sends his next budget to Congress, it is expected, as has been done in the last two years, that a select group of key individuals in Congress and the Administration will roll these bills into a single omnibus bill, making policy and budget decisions along the way. The bill's total funding will then be made to conform to the spending target by an across-the-board reduction in all of the budgets within the bill. There is one caveat to this strategy: budget and policy differences in the Energy and Water Development appropriations bill are so great that it may not make it into the omnibus bill to be passed in less than two weeks. In that case, current funding levels - those dating back to the last fiscal year - will continue for the Department of Energy, and for how long, is anyone's guess.