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Senate Joins House in Approving FY2017 Approps Bill - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-May-2017
Updated: 05-May-2017 04:22 PM

The Senate passed the FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill today.  President Trump is expected to sign it into law before midnight tomorrow.  Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) won praise from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) for winning the increase in NASA's budget that will boost it to $19.653 billion.  Meanwhile, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) also took credit for the increase and vowed that it is just the beginning. [UPDATE, May 5:  President Trump has signed the bill into law.]

Nelson is well known as an avid NASA supporter and is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees the agency.  When he was a member of the House, he became the second politician to fly into space aboard the space shuttle (the first was Sen. Jake Garn, a Republican from Utah).  Schumer said today that NASA had been targeted for certain cuts, but received an increase instead thanks to Nelson: "There is no one who has done more for [NASA] than Bill Nelson."

The $19.653 billion for FY2017 is $368 million above NASA's FY2016 funding level.

Nelson offered his "profound thanks" to Schumer and the other "big four" congressional leaders (the House and Senate Majority and MInority Leaders) and the bipartisanship that made it all possible.  "America's civilian space program should not be a partisan subject" and the new head of NASA should be nonpartisan, he urged.  "The leaders of NASA should not be partisans.  As a matter of fact, they should even be more than bipartisan.  They should be nonpartisans.  And that has been the tradition of NASA, so like the Secretary of Defense, you consider the appointment a nonpartisan."

A leading contender for NASA Administrator is Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a Republican member of the House from Oklahoma, but it is not at all clear that Nelson was suggesting that he is not the right person to lead the agency.   Several Secretaries of Defense have been former members of the House or Senate and/or held high level positions in Republican or Democratic administrations.  Their stewardship of DOD was widely considered nonpartisan, however.

Nelson ended his remarks by saying that "In this time when we find ourselves far too divided in our politics, the exploration of space continues to be a powerful force that brings us together into our search as we explore the universe."

Meanwhile, Culberson spoke to a meeting of the National Academies' Space Studies Board (SSB) this afternoon.  Culberson chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and is an ardent supporter, especially of its robotic planetary exploration including a mission to explore Jupiter's moon Europa.  The appropriations bill increases the planetary science budget to $1.846 billion, significantly more than the Obama Administration requested, including $275 million for Europa.  

According to a series of tweets from Space News' Jeff Foust, he took credit for the overall NASA increase while also thanking his Senate counterpart, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL).  Culberson asserted that he plans to boost the planetary science budget above $2 billion and the total NASA budget "well north" of $20 billion.  

He also said that the earth science budget held its own despite "intense pressure" to cut it, and he would continue to "protect" it. 

Those comments echoed remarks he made earlier this year.  Culberson also reportedly told SSB members "not to worry" about President Trump's FY2018 budget request for NASA.  The request is for $19.1 billion, slightly less than the $19.285 billion NASA received for FY2016, but now quite a bit less than the FY2017 allocation.   Trump's request would eliminate NASA's Office of Education and cut the earth science budget, though much less than supporters feared.

The bill. H.R. 244. now goes to President Trump's desk for signature. Trump said recently that he thought a government shutdown would be "good" for the nation, but he was referring to FY2018 appropriations, not this bill. He is expected to sign it to keep the government operating through September 30, the end of FY2017.  What happens after that remains to be seen.


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