Election Brings New Leadership to NASA Oversight Committees

By Amy Klamper, Spacenews

WASHINGTON — The Nov. 2 elections that will put Republicans in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives in January likely means that two vocal critics of U.S. President Barack Obama’s new direction for NASA will assume leadership of committees that oversee the space agency.

Riding a wave of voter unhappiness due in part to the country’s stalled economic recovery, Republican challengers as of early Nov. 3 had gained at least 60 seats in the House, well above the 39 needed to seize the majority of the chamber’s 435 voting members. Before the elections, Republican leaders pledged to curtail U.S. federal spending, which also could have implications for NASA.

The U.S. Senate is expected to remain under Democratic control, although Republicans made gains there as well.

Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who both won re-election and are expected to assume leadership of key NASA oversight committees, have criticized Obama’s plans to cancel the nation’s Moon program and outsource crew transit to and from low Earth orbit.

Wolf, the ranking member of the powerful House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, which oversees NASA spending, is expected to assume the panel’s chairmanship come January. A staunch critic of the Obama plan, Wolf, who is entering his 16th term in Congress, has said the president’s vision effectively would cede U.S. leadership in space.

“We would turn over the American space program to allow China to catch us,” Wolf said shortly after the White House sent lawmakers a new NASA budget blueprint in February.

In addition to questioning Obama’s plan to delay development of new rockets and spacecraft capable of taking astronauts into deep space, Wolf took issue with a plan to foster development of commercial crew taxis for operations in low Earth orbit. In an April 20 interview Wolf said private space firms could have “a role to bring cargo back and forth” between Earth and the international space station, but singled out one of two firms building new hardware for such missions — Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies — as not having “the best record in the world.” The other company, Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., is located in Wolf’s Virginia district.

Part of a growing number of House and Senate lawmakers who sought to strike a balance between the White House plan and concerns it could jeopardize U.S. leadership in space exploration, Wolf ultimately supported a Senate measure authorizing $58 billion for NASA over three years. The bill, S. 3729, which Obama signed into law Oct. 11, retained elements of the president’s commercial crew initiative while directing NASA to begin work on a heavy-lift rocket in 2011 — some five years earlier than the White House had envisioned.

The bill, brought to the House floor Sept. 29 under a rule suspension that prevented amendments and limited debate, won backing from 185 Democrats and 119 Republicans, including Hall, the ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee that oversees NASA policy and which sets overall funding levels for congressional appropriators to consider.

Hall, who is expected to assume the committee’s chairmanship next year, initially supported a House version of the authorization bill that would have gutted funding for Obama’s commercial crew initiative. But in remarks made shortly before the House adopted the Senate compromise, Hall characterized the measure as flawed but necessary in order to move NASA forward.

“While the bill before us today is far from perfect, it offers clear direction for a NASA that’s floundering,” he said.

However, until Congress funds the newly enacted law in a forthcoming 2011 appropriations bill, the agency is likely to remain in limbo. Although lawmakers are expected to reconvene for a lame-duck session Nov. 15, it remains unclear whether new spending legislation will be approved before a stopgap measure intended to keep the government running into the current budget year expires Dec. 3. That stopgap measure, called a continuing resolution, funds the federal government at 2010 levels.

In the meantime, with incoming Republican leaders threatening to dial back discretionary spending across the federal government next year, the $19 billion Congress authorized for NASA in 2011 could be in jeopardy. House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is expected to become speaker of the House in January, voted against the recently enacted NASA legislation and more broadly has pledged to roll back spending in an effort to reduce the federal deficit.

In a weekly Republican address Oct. 30, Boehner criticized spending under Democratic leadership and outlined reforms in the governing agenda Republicans expect to implement in the 112th Congress.

“We’re ready to cut spending to pre-’stimulus,’ pre-bailout levels, saving taxpayers $100 billion almost immediately,” Boehner said. “And we’re ready to put in place strict budget caps that limit spending from here on out, to ensure that Washington is no longer on this spending binge.”


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