Obama budget would end program to return astronauts to moon

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama wants to end the nation's troubled program to return astronauts to the moon, but NASA officials indicated Monday that any change was unlikely to mean cutbacks at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

Obama's $3.8 trillion budget for fiscal 2011, which forecasts a record deficit, includes provisions for increased spending designed to improve the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a 1.4 percent annual pay increase for federal workers and an array of tax and education initiatives that would affect Maryland and the rest of the country, if Congress approves them.

The budget, for example, calls for an additional $25.5 billion nationwide to support state Medicaid programs, helping recession-battered states provide health care to the poor.

The president is requesting more than $800 million in new construction money for military and civilian projects in Maryland, including $219 million for a utility plant at the National Security Agency, which has struggled with inadequate electric power capacity, and $119.6 million for Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, briefing reporters on one of the most contentious budget items, sought to deflect anger, including from key members of Congress, about ending the $49 billion Constellation human spaceflight program.

They emphasized a small overall budget increase that Obama is requesting for NASA, while playing down the impact of ending Constellation, which is over budget and behind schedule. It has already cost $9 billion and would need $2.5 billion more to phase it out under Obama's plan.

Ending the lunar landing program would mean the loss of thousands of jobs at NASA installations in Florida and Alabama, and perhaps elsewhere.

"The truth is, we were not on a sustainable path to get back to the moon's surface," said NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr., a former space shuttle astronaut, who said he agreed with the president's decision.

Further details, including the budget for Goddard, are expected to be made public Tuesday. Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said some NASA employees who worked on the moon landing program would be reassigned to jobs where they already have expertise, adding that NASA's existing centers, which include Goddard, would "continue to really thrive."

Human spaceflight represents a relatively small part of the work at Goddard, which employs nearly 12,000 federal workers and contractors, officials said. They noted that Obama's plan to boost spending by more than $300 million for scientific research in global climate change and upgrading ground support for the International Space Station would play to Goddard's strengths as a center for Earth science and orbital communications.

Obama budget director Peter Orszag said the spending blueprint for NASA was designed to redirect spending toward "advanced robotics, research and development, [to] find those new technologies that will actually allow us to go further in space and not just repeat what we've already done" by landing more U.S. astronauts on the moon.

Congressional reaction ranged from caution to outrage, raising questions about whether the plan to kill the program would be approved.

Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, an influential lawmaker on NASA issues, urged the administration to consult widely with members of Congress.

"I am concerned by any abrupt or disruptive changes to the human spaceflight program," Mikulski said in a statement that stopped short of endorsing or opposing Obama's plan.

The leading Republican on the appropriations panel, Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, whose state would be hit particularly hard, promised to fight the administration proposal. He called Obama's decision the start of a "death march for the future of U.S. human spaceflight."

Other budget initiatives brought only positive comments from Maryland's Democratic lawmakers.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the House majority leader, said he was "pleased" that Obama decided to give civilian employees the same cost-of-living increase as members of the military, a change from last year.

Orszag, director of the president's Office of Management and Budget, defended the size of the salary increase at a time of double-digit national unemployment by saying that "to a lot of Americans, [a 1.4 percent raise] sounds pretty good." The increase "is lower than it's been in the past because inflation is lower than it's been in the past."

A variety of programs designed to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay would receive additional funding in a year in which Obama wants to hold overall nonsecurity spending flat.

The Clean Water revolving fund, an anti-pollution program that helps local governments upgrade sewage treatment systems, would get a major increase that could mean $387 million in additional funds for bay watershed states.

In addition, the Chesapeake Bay program, a federal-state partnership that has largely failed thus far in its mission to restore the bay, would get a $12.9 million increase, to $63 million. Obama is requesting $72 million for a separate conservation program designed to reduce farm runoff into the bay, up from $44 million in 2010.

Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called the increases a "significant" commitment of new federal spending for the bay when "times are tough."

Obama is proposing to increase the size of the federal work force by several hundred thousand in the next few years, building on recent increases at the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs. Much of the beefed-up staffing would be in offices that monitor federal acquisitions and other routine transactions, in an effort to cut down on fraud.

A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said the Democrat was "thankful" for the president's additional funding for state Medicaid programs. Obama is asking Congress to extend the current emergency aid to the states through June 2011.

Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Frederick, in a statement, said he would have preferred a more tightfisted approach to spending. But he added that "proposing a little bit of budget restraint in the future is better than the dangerously bloated and unsustainable budget that the president and the Democratic congressional majority approved last year."

White House fact sheets, tailored to each state, promoted the supposed benefits of the president's budget, while carefully avoiding mention of cuts, spending freezes or proposals for user fees or higher taxes that would pinch many Americans.

The administration touted Obama's proposed extension of a stimulus tax cut, which it said would help 2.1 million Maryland families. There was no mention of Obama's proposed tax increase on families earning at least $250,000, or how many in Maryland that might affect.

More details of the president's spending plan will be released in coming days and weeks, including programs such as Army Corps of Engineers harbor dredging, that have a direct impact on Baltimore and the state.

Obama is proposing to eliminate six agricultural research projects, totaling $3 million, in Beltsville, but includes $13 million for new research at the facility.

The president's 2011 budget, which attempts to start reining in the growth of federal spending, reflects a different political reality. With elections looming, the president chose to limit some of the fights that he, and his predecessors, have picked with Congress.

Last year, for example, Obama tried to save $400 million by eliminating the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which subsidizes state and local governments for the cost of jailing illegal immigrants accused of committing crimes. Two years ago, when Republican President George W. Bush tried to end the program, key Democrats, including Mikulski and Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger of Baltimore County, fought him; they avoided openly criticizing Obama, but the program survived.

The president's 2010 budget criticized the Justice Department program, which can be used for "extraneous items and services," including bonuses and consultants.

The money could be better spent protecting the borders and quickly deporting illegal immigrants who commit crimes in the U.S., White House officials said last year.

But the program survived Obama's effort to kill it. This time, he is asking Congress to spend $330 million on it, with the proviso that reimbursements for state and local governments be limited to the actual cost of housing illegal immigrants and other detainees.