Divergent Numbers: Senate Committee Approves NASA Authorization Bill on Party Line Vote

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Publication date: 
29 August 2013

"A disappointment for me” was how Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) described what he predicted would be party line votes on a three year NASA reauthorization bill passed by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.  Nelson’s prediction was correct as the committee’s Democrats all voted in favor of this bill that every Republican on the committee opposed.

The committee’s consideration of this bill contrasted greatly with that of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s passage of its own version of this bill on July 18, but the outcome was the same: a deep division between the Republicans and Democrats on both committees about federal spending.  In each instance, the committees’ majorities prevailed, with little indication that there is a middle ground between the Members.

As was true during the House committee’s deliberations, the July 31 markup session of the Senate committee was not as much about disagreements regarding NASA’s programs as it was about how much the federal government should be spending on all discretionary programs in FY 2014 and FY 2015.  There are differences between the two bills, most notably in how much funding should be authorized for NASA’s Earth Science program and the proposed asteroid retrieval mission.  Nelson told his colleagues that the only major policy difference between the House and Senate bills is the retrieval mission: the House bill prohibits it from moving forward while the Senate bill does not comment on it. 

The Senate committee approved S. 1317 in a markup session lasting less than 90 minutes that also included 21 other agenda items.  The senators approved 20 bills and nominations in one vote, with committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) commenting “all of this has been gone over.”  There was brief debate and then approval of the nomination of a senior agency head.  The remainder of the session was devoted to the NASA bill during which there was a vote on one major amendment, contrasting with the House markup session that started at noon and lasted until 5:30 PM with votes on 35 amendments.

When the members turned to the last item on its agenda – the NASA reauthorization bill – Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) commented that it would cause a “sour note” in the committee’s traditionally strong bipartisan support for the agency.   He complained that the bill had been unveiled only a week earlier, and that there had been no bipartisan discussions about it.

Wicker, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) offered an amendment to Nelson’s bill.  Cruz explained their amendment would protect space exploration and the manned exploration programs from what he called the “blunt instrument” of sequestration, while bringing the bill’s authorization levels in line with spending limits set by the Budget Control Act.  Rubio spoke of the need to reform entitlement programs, warning that unless that occurs discretionary programs will continue to be cut.  Rubio expressed disappointment that the bill had not been discussed in hearings or meetings before it was brought before the committee.

Nelson countered that his Subcommittee on Science and Space had held three hearings, pointing out that only he and Rubio were present during all of them.  Nelson explained that there was no controversy about the content of the bill, and that the approaches it takes to various issues had been widely embraced.  The disagreement about the bill was, Nelson said, about how much it should authorize in spending.

Authorization bills set policy and spending (or authorization) limits for various programs.  They do not provide the actual funding which is done through appropriations bills (in this case, the Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill.)  Authorization bills are meant to guide appropriations bills.  In some cases, such as with defense sending, the linkage is fairly tight.  In other cases, appropriators act on their own, explaining that authorization bills set unrealistically high levels of proposed spending for programs, or have expired.

The three Republican senators contended that the NASA reauthorization bill should set program spending limits that fall in line with the overall level of discretionary funding that the Budget Control Act sets for FY 2014.  Nelson countered that the Act did not apply to authorization bills, but only to appropriations bills.  If this controversy sounds familiar it is, as it was the focus of much of the discussion during the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s markup of its own bill. 

Republicans were in the majority in the House markup, and they prevailed in passing their bill that follows the spending limits sent in the Budget Control Act.  Democrats were in the majority in the Senate markup, and the bill they passed does not follow these limits.  The bills each committee approved reflect these different approaches.  The House bill authorizes a total of $16,865.2 million for NASA in FY 2014, and FY 2015.  The Senate bill authorizes $18,100.0 million and $18,462.0 million for the two fiscal years.

Before the senators voted against the Republican amendment, and for the bill sponsored by Nelson and Rockefeller, Nelson expressed hope that a “grand bargain” would be struck later this fall that would replace the spending levels in the Budget Control Act.  Wicker responded that the debate the committee was having is similar to that found in every other forum in Washington.  He again stressed the need to adhere to spending limits and the savings that the Budget Control Act provides.  Regarding the amount of this savings Wicker told his Democratic counterparts “we are not prepared to budge.”

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