The Senate has completed its consideration of the FY 2008 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill, clearing the way for a final version of this bill to be written. Although the bill passed by a strong bipartisan vote of 75-19, its future is troubled by the promise of a presidential veto.
The Senate considered H.R. 3093 at two different times this month. At the outset, it agreed to an amendment to provide NASA with an additional $1 billion to offset cuts that were made in the agency's programs for shuttle safety upgrades (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2007/102.html.) When the Senate reconvened last week it considered several amendments, one of which, if it had prevailed, would have made a significant cut in NASA's budget. No amendments were considered regarding the National Science Foundation.
During last week's deliberations, senators agreed quickly to an amendment to shift $10.0 million within the agency's FY 2008 budget to STEM educational activities at NASA's ten centers. Another amendment was approved without dissent to provide greater transparency and accountability for NASA's conference and meeting expenses. Of far greater significance was a controversial amendment offered by Senator John Ensign (R-NV).
Ensign's amendment would have shifted $150 million from NASA's Science, Aeronautics, and Exploration account to a Department of Justice program that provides payments to local governments for the incarceration of undocumented criminal aliens. Ensign explained that "it is critical that we help" local governments "battle illegal immigration and keep law-breaking illegal aliens off our streets."
The amendment was criticized by senators on both sides of the aisle. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the appropriations subcommittee that wrote the bill, called the proposed cut "a devastating blow to NASA . . . a major setback to the exploration programs." Richard Shelby (R-AL), the Ranking Republican on the subcommittee, described how the amendment would put the "vision for exploration" in jeopardy, and questioned the minor impact that the Justice Department program has in most states. The Ensign amendment was defeated by a vote of 68-25 (see http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=110&session=1&vote=00367 –- a "yes" vote is against the amendment.)
Ensign did win unanimous approval of his amendment to shift $7.8 million from (what used to be called) the Advanced Technology Program budget to increase funding for the enforcement of a child sex predator program. He said the Commerce Department program "has been something of questionable efficacy."
The last action on the bill was a motion offered by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to send the bill back to the Appropriations Committee with instructions to keep the bill's total cost to that recommended by the President. "This bill, should it pass, will never get signed into law," said McConnell. He criticized how the bill's funding level had grown by almost 10 percent, while the Consumer Price Index had risen about 2 percent. "The American people demand that Congress get serious about restraining spending," he said.
Mikulski spoke of the many programs funded under H.R. 3093, and then said: "This bill is the product of strong bipartisan work. Our bill totals $54 billion in discretionary budget authority. Some say we spent more than the President asked. Yes, we did. . . . the President underfunded." She added: "I do appreciate the Republican leadership for wanting fiscal accountability and stewardship. But I believe we also need to fund America's priorities. I believe law enforcement and the fight against terrorism is No. 1. By God, we did it in this bill. And by God, this bill should stand." Shelby agreed: "Chairman Mikulski and I have worked hard with a lot of Members on both sides of the aisle to meet the priorities of the Senate and the Nation. This bill funds State and local law enforcement $1.6 billion over the administration's request. The budget proposed to cut law enforcement to an unacceptable level. The bill fully funds the President's vision for space and makes critical investments in science and education that will be needed to keep this country competitive. I urge my colleagues to support the bill Senator Mikulski and I have crafted to meet the needs of the Senate and the American people."
Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) spoke in favor of the motion, telling his colleagues: "I understand these appropriations bills are difficult. You have a lot of demands from a lot of Members. You have to work with the administration. You have to work with outside people who have needs, concerns, and priorities. It is not easy to live within a budget. But if we are ever going to begin fiscal responsibility and some restraint on spending, when is it going to be? This is a bill which richly deserves to have some restraint applied to it. I think this bill demonstrates why the American public has such a dismal view of the Congress."
After considerable discussion, senators voted against the motion to send the bill back to the Appropriations Committee by a vote of 44 yes (all Republican) to 50 no (see http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=110&session=1&vote=00371 ) The Senate then approved the bill by a vote of 75 to 19 (see http://www.senate.gov/legislative/LIS/roll_call_lists/roll_call_vote_cfm.cfm?congress=110&session=1&vote=00372.
House and Senate appropriators will next meet to decide on a final version of this bill, known as the conference report. Differences in funding levels and policy direction will be settled in this conference (see "Latest Congressional Budget Action" at http://www.aip.org/gov/budginfo.html for an agency-by-agency summary of these differences.) It has not been decided which will be the first of the appropriations bills to be sent to President Bush, who has stated, almost without exception, of his intention to veto it.