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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) announced this afternoon that the House and Senate have agreed on a temporary resolution of their differences that will allow the FAA to resume normal operations -- and 70,000 construction workers to return to their job sites -- while Congress is on its August break.
Senator Reid said that the fundamental differences between the two chambers are not resolved. This is just a way to fix the problem until Congress returns in September. The President and others had been pressuring Congress to resolve the issue before the House and Senate left town for their summer vacation. Most members have left already, but both the House and Senate are scheduled to meet in pro forma session tomorrow.
According to The Hill newspaper, the Senate will pass the bill that the House passed earlier. The House-passed bill contains a provision to which Senate Democrats strongly object that would cut subsidies to small airports in states like Nevada and West Virginia. The Senate had passed a "clean" bill that simply extended the FAA's authority to collect airline taxes. Each side refused to pass the other's bill. Under the agreement, although the Senate will pass the House bill, the Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, will use his authority to waive the airports from the cuts.
The House and Senate presumably will return to their feud in September.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sent a letter to DOD personnel yesterday reassuring them that although DOD must share in budget cuts, he would "fight for you and your families" as the debt limit/deficit reduction deal plays out. His specific concern is the potential across-the-board cuts that would take effect if the 12-person congressional commission -- or "supercommittee" as it has come to be known -- fails to reach agreement on more cuts.
The debt limit/deficit reduction deal signed into law on Tuesday included immediate agreement on $1 trillion in cuts over 10 years of which $350 million is from defense. However, it creates a 12-person congressional supercommittee that is chartered to put forward by Thanksgiving --- and that Congress must pass by Christmas -- another round of cuts totalling $1.2 - 1.5 trillion over 10 years. As an incentive, a provision is included that says that if the supercommittee fails to reach agreement or Congress fails to pass it, a set of automatic across-the-board cuts would take place. Those cuts would be distributed evenly between defense and non-defense spending. Potential cuts to Medicare providers are permissible, but other cuts are not, including cuts to Medicare benefits and Social Security. The New York Times has a helpful graphic of how the deficit deal works.
Panetta said in his letter that the across-the-board cuts were designed to be "unpalatable" to force the congressional supercommittee to reach agreement and Congress to approve it. Panetta, a former congressman and former Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), referred back to the problems created after the Vietnam War with across-the-board funding cuts. He insisted that DOD must think carefully about what its requirements are for the future and cut in specific areas: "By better aligning our resources with our priorities, the Department can lead the way in moving towards a more disciplined defense budget."
Note: The title and text of this article was revised to indicate that the congressional "commission" set up by the debt llimit/deficit reduction deal has come to be known as a "supercommittee" and to include a more specific reference to the deal.
Rep. David Wu (D-OR) is making his resignation official as of 11:59 pm tonight, August 3, 2011.
Wu, a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and its Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, was under pressure to resign after allegations that he had an unwanted sexual encounter with the daughter of a donor. He said that he would resign once the debt limit issue was resolved. Today, he made good on his promise, announcing that his resignation is effective tonight.
President Obama took aim at congressional inaction on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization today in remarks prior to a Cabinet meeting. Congress has failed to reauthorize the FAA to collect airline taxes. Consequently, 4,000 FAA workers and 70,000 construction workers have been furloughed and the taxes are not being collected. The President called it a "lose, lose, lose" situation.
While this has no direct effect on space activities, the situation is indicative of how dysfunctional Capitol Hill is these days. That could affect the passage of any number of bills, including appropriations for NASA, NOAA and DOD space activities.
The President said the government is losing $200 million a week in revenues because of the uncollected taxes. If the situation is not resolved while Congress is on its August break, that would mean $1 billion in lost revenue, according to the President.
Congress has failed to pass an FAA reauthorization bill since 2007. The portion of the FAA that depends on the revenue from the airline taxes has continued to function because Congress passes short-term extensions, 20 of them so far. The 21st extension is now pending in Congress. The Senate wants a "clean" extension that does that and only that. The House passed a short-term extension, but added a provision about reducing federal subsidies to small airports in certain states, including Nevada, home to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and West Virginia, home to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, whose committee has jurisdication over the FAA. The Senate has adamantly refused to pass the House version.
Both sides are pointing fingers at the other. Meanwhile, both chambers have gone into recess for the month of August, leaving the FAA and construction workers in limbo, and the taxes uncollected. As the President noted, the airlines continue to collect the money, but are keeping it.
The President called on Congress to fix the problem temporarily, saying it could be accomplshed without the Members returning to Washington and they could resume the debate in September. Although House and Senate members have left town, both chambers actually are scheduled to meet in pro forma sessions on Friday. A unanimous consent agreement could be adopted with a minimum number of members present if the two sides could agree.
The President ended his statement today calling on Congress to fix the problem:
"So this is a lose-lose-lose situation that can be easily solved if Congress gets back into town and does its job. And they don't even have to come back into town. The House and the Senate could, through a procedural agreement, basically do this through unanimous consent. And they can have the fights that they want to have when they get back. Don't put the livelihoods of thousands of people at risk. Don't put projects at risk. And don't let a billion dollars, at a time when we're scrambling for every dollar we can, get left on the table because Congress did not act."
Boeing picked the Atlas V as the launch vehicle for its CST-100 commercial crew spacecraft today.
The CST-100 spacecraft is described by Boeing as being larger than the Apollo spacecraft, but smaller than the Orion spacecraft that Lockheed Martin is building for NASA. The plan is for CST-100 to take people to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) landing on the land rather than splashing down in the ocean.
Boeing has been working with Bigelow Aerospace on the commercial crew project for several years. Bigelow Aerospace is developing inflatable space stations for use in LEO that will require a crew transportation system. The companies also are hoping to market the system to NASA as part of the agency's commercial crew program. Boeing received awards in both of NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) competitions.
Boeing's press release today said that the CST-100 development schedule calls for an autonomous orbital flight, a transonic autonomous abort test, and a crewed launch, all in 2015.
Atlas V is produced by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that produces both the Atlas V and the Delta IV launch vehicles. NASA and ULA signed an unfunded Space Act Agreement last month that allows the two to share information on the Atlas V with the goal of ensuring that its meets all requirements for launching people int space ("human-rating"). ULA also received a CCDev award in the first round.
NASA will hold a news briefing tomorrow to announce a new Mars finding from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The briefing is at 2:00 pm EDT at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. NASA says only that it is a "significant new Mars finding" from the MRO, which has been orbiting Mars since 2006. It will be televised on NASA TV.
President Obama has signed the debt limit/deficit reduction deal. It is now the law of the land. The New York Times has a very helpful graphic of what it all means.
The Senate has passed the debt limit/deficit reduction bill. It now goes to President Obama for signature. The vote was 74-26 according to the National Journal.
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee has postponed the hearing on LightSquared that was scheduled for tomorrow.
Rep. Gabriele Giffords (D-AZ) returned to her job representing her Tucson, AZ district in the House of Representatives today after a seven month absence following an assassination attempt in January. Her vote helped the House pass the debt limit/deficit reduction deal agreed upon by the White House and congressional leaders yesterday.
The House passed the bill 269-161, but the big story was the return of Rep. Giffords.
The Senate is expected to vote on the bill tomorrow.
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