House may vote on Senate version of NASA funding bill despite disputes

With time running out before recess, a key Democrat said the House will likely vote on the Senate's version of the NASA reauthorization bill on Wednesday.

House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said Monday that there isn't enough time to reach a legislative compromise, which would have to pass both the Senate and the House.

Gordon said he still believes the compromise bill he offered last week is superior to the version that passed the Senate last month. But with time running short, he said it's better for Congress to pass the flawed bill rather than leave NASA in limbo to start the new fiscal year.

"It has become clear that there is not time remaining to pass a compromise bill through the House and the Senate," Gordon said in a statement. "For the sake of providing certainty, stability and clarity to the NASA workforce and larger space community, I felt it was better to consider a flawed bill than no bill as the new fiscal year begins. I will continue to advocate to the appropriators for the provisions in the compromise language.”

A trade group representing the commercial space industry hailed the news and urged the House to pass the Senate bill before breaking for recess, arguing a delay could leave the industry in limbo for months and unable to add new jobs. The Senate bill contains roughly $400 million more than Gordon's compromise in seed money for the commercial space flight industry.

“With the new fiscal year about to begin, space industry businesses and individual space workers can’t afford more months of ongoing uncertainty — they need to know what future to plan for," Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Bretton Alexander said. "A protracted stalemate over the NASA authorization bill would likely cause continued layoffs and would make it more difficult for commercial companies to ramp up hiring."

Gordon said he still objects to several provisions within the Senate bill, including what he called an "unfunded mandate" to preserve the shuttle program through fiscal 2011. Both bills authorize one final shuttle flight next year, but Gordon said the Senate bill doesn't specify where the money to pay for it will come from. He said that all but ensures other important NASA programs will be cannibalized.

He also said the Senate bill doesn't do enough to preserve NASA's human space flight capabilities, potentially making the U.S. dependent on the private sector or Russia to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.

"The Senate bill does not provide a timetable for a government backup capability, which could make NASA’s access to space completely dependent on commercial providers," Gordon said.

"I am hopeful the commercial providers will be successful, but, whereas they have missed contractual cargo milestones thus far, I am wary of being completely dependent on them, because if they fail, we will be dependent on the Russians for longer than absolutely necessary."