Yesterday the Senate managed passage of its first so-called “minibus” appropriation bill – a combination of FY12 Agriculture Appropriation; Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriation; and Transportation-HUD Appropriations bills — and retained the cuts to the FY12 budget of the National Science Foundation budget we covered back when the bill was first approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Those cuts would amount to a 2.4 percent reduction to NSF’s budget, a cut of nearly $162 million compared to the agency’s FY11 level. In addition, the Senate minibus includes cuts to both NASA (2.8 percent reduction, or $509 million less than FY11) and NIST (9.3 percent or $70.1 million less than FY11).
Though the House hasn’t passed its versions of all three appropriations bills, it will nevertheless go forward with a conference with the Senate on the minibus (technically, the minibus is based on the FY12 Agriculture Appropriation, which the House did manage to pass back in June — the other two bills have been added to the Agriculture bill). House conferees will use CJS and Transportation-HUD bills approved by the House Appropriations committee, but not approved by the full House, as the basis for their negotiations with the Senate. House appropriators approved essentially level funding for NSF in their version of the bill, along with a smaller reduction for NIST (6.6 percent, or $49.3 million less than FY11) and a much larger reduction for NASA (8.9 percent or $1.6 billion less than FY11), so there may be some challenging negotiations. One significant difference between the two versions that may impact funding available for other programs is that the Senate approved more than half a billion dollars for NASA’s James Webb Telescope, while the House zeroed the program. Should the conferees agree to move forward with the telescope, that will likely mean less funding available for other science programs within the minibus.
The House and Senate leadership are under some pressure to get the conference done quickly. Since October 1st, the start of the 2012 Fiscal Year, the government has been operating under a “continuing resolution” — a stop-gap spending measure designed to keep agencies funded at current levels until Congress can approve their FY12 appropriations. That continuing resolution is set to expire November 18th. It appears that the plan is to conference the current minibus expeditiously and attach a new continuing resolution that would keep government running through mid-December. For his part, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has named a slate of fairly moderate, but very experienced appropriators as conferees from the House majority, which suggests he isn’t necessarily interested in scoring ideological points with this bill as much as he is in just getting it done.
Senate leaders are hoping to move a second minibus by the end of the month. That bill would include the Energy-Water appropriation — which includes funding for the Office of Science at the Department of Energy — in addition to the Financial Services, and possibly the State-Foreign Operations or Homeland Security appropriations bills. However, complicating the calculus somewhat are the actions of the so-called Supercommittee charged with producing recommendations for dealing with the mounting debt crisis (the compromise solution to the debt limit crisis that garnered many headlines back in August and resulted in a downgrade of the country’s debt rating). The committee has until November 23rd to produce legislation to reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade. Failing to enact such legislation would trigger a series of automatic cuts that would guarantee $1.2 trillion in budgetary savings. With the outcome of the debt panel’s recommendations still unknown and, perhaps, in doubt, there’s a fair bit of gamesmanship and political calculation going on in both the majority and minority leadership offices — gamesmanship that could impact final passage of one or both minibuses. Congressional Democrats could opt to let the committee fail to produce recommendations because they view the cuts that would occur automatically to be more preferable than the ones they’re likely to receive at the negotiating table in the supercommittee. At the moment, the committee has stopped meeting, citing lack of progress, so it’s quite possible that there will be no agreed-upon recommendations come November 23rd.
Whatever the outcome, we’ll have all the details here!