House passes spending bills to end shutdown

Space

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives, now under Democratic leadership, passed spending bills Jan. 3 that would fund government agencies that have been shut down for nearly two weeks, but the bills face a presidential veto threat.

The House, hours after swearing in members for the 116th Congress, passed on a 241–190 vote H.R. 21, a consolidated spending bill that funds most government agencies through the end of the 2019 fiscal year Sept. 30. A separate bill, H.J. Res. 1, that funds the Department of Homeland Security through Feb. 8 passed on a 239–132 vote.

H.R. 21 combines several spending bills that had been working their way through the Senate last year, including a commerce, justice and science bill that funds NASA. The bill includes $21.3 billion for NASA, compared to $21.5 billion in a House bill last year and the administration’s original request of $19.9 billion for the agency.

The NASA provisions of the new House bill are effectively identical to the earlier Senate bill, including the same funding levels for various accounts. Other aspects of that Senate bill are retained in the new House bill, such specific funding levels for programs like Orion, the Space Launch System and the RESTORE satellite servicing program. The bill also retains the use of NASA’s existing accounting structure for various programs versus an alternative structure, which replaced the Exploration and Space Technology accounts with Deep Space Exploration Systems and Exploration Research and Technology, that NASA used in its budget request.

“This legislation moves forward in the areas where there has already been bipartisan agreement in the Senate, restoring vital services for the American people and allowing public servants to get back to work,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the new chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, in a statement after the passage of the bills.

The use of the Senate language was an effort by new Democratic leadership of the House to put the Republican-controlled Senate in a bind, daring them to reject legislation that they had backed just months ago. “Senate Republicans now face a choice: They can vote for bills they have already supported and reopen the government or they can block them and prolong this unnecessary shutdown,” Lowey said in her statement.

Senate leadership, though, has indicated that they will not consider legislation that does not include an additional $5 billion in border security funding sought by the White House. “The Senate will not take up any proposal that does not have a real chance of passing this chamber and getting a presidential signature,” Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Majority Leader, said in a statement on the Senate floor Jan. 3.

The White House issued a veto threat for H.R. 21 and H.J. Res. 1. “The Administration is committed to working with the Congress to reopen lapsed agencies, but cannot accept legislation that provides unnecessary funding for wasteful programs while ignoring the Nation’s urgent border security needs,” the Office of Management and Budget stated Jan. 3. “If either H.R. 21 or H.J. Res. 1 were presented to the President, his advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.”

The rhetoric suggests no immediate end to a shutdown that has affected part of the federal government for nearly two weeks. The impact of that extended shutdown will likely be felt next week at several events, including conferences by the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and American Meteorological Society that typically involve hundreds of people from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation, agencies all affected by the shutdown.

In a Jan. 3 statement, the AAS estimated that between 10 and 15 percent of its estimated 3,200 attendees for its meeting in Seattle Jan. 6–10 will no longer be able to attend because of the shutdown. That will affect both scientific sessions and side events, like town hall meetings planned by NASA and NSF.

“We still view this situation as highly detrimental to the meeting, but it is not going to be a devastating impact,” Kevin Marvel, executive officer of the AAS, said in the statement. The organization said it’s taking measures like allowing other people to present papers for those unable to attend and providing webcasts of plenary sessions.

The AAS cautioned that its estimate of those unable to attend because of the shutdown may be too low since it is based on a survey emailed to conference registrants. Many government employees furloughed by the shutdown are not able to access their email for the duration of the shutdown.

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