The station, the centerpiece of NASA's manned space program, may be the first high-priority administration program to be cut by House Democrats in an attempt to win more money for domestic programs, congressional and White House officials say.
The House Appropriations Committee was expected to vote today to eliminate funding for the project, which has split the scientific community. Supporters say the Freedom Project could lead to cures for major diseases, but critics blast it as a waste of money, saying its uses are limited and inefficient.
Space station supporters say they consider the project doomed in the House and are looking to Mikulski, the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA funding, to save the day.
"Mikulski realizes she has a real good hostage here and she's going to play with that as much as it's worth. It gets her additional bargaining leverage with the administration," said space expert John Pike of the American Federation of Scientists. "If she agrees to carry their water, they owe her for whatever her pet rock is."
Mikulski, who met with President Bush last week to seek his active involvement in saving the space station, is working with Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., to obtain additional funding for the space station, said Mikulski spokesman John Steele. Space experts said they expect Mikulski to be successful.
While working against the wishes of many in the scientific community, who would rather see the funding go to other science programs, Mikulski believes that the space station is "crucial to NASA's future" and critical to the future of Maryland's Goddard Space Flight Center, Steele said.
But the House may use the expensive and controversial space station as a dramatic illustration of the shortcomings of last fall's budget agreement, which caps discretionary spending for the next five years. More funding for one program must come at the expense of another.
Today's committee vote is expected to be the first of many battles that Congress will wage this year under the agreement's terms.
"Basically, the station got caught in the crossfire between the Democrats and the White House on how much we should be spending on domestic programs such as the environment and housing," Pike said.
The House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees funding for the departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development as well as independent federal agencies decided two weeks ago to increase funding for domestic programs by cutting the $2 billion request for the space station.
Following the vote, Rep. Bob Traxler, D-Mich., blamed the budget caps for jeopardizing the space station, saying, "If we stay on the same budget course, we will soon be faced with the prospect -- even the necessity -- of making more awful decisions in the years ahead."
According to an analysis prepared by the subcommittee staff, without the space station the Environmental Protection Agency would receive $162 million above what Bush called for in his budget, but only $75 million above his request with the station. With no space station, medical care funding for veterans would be $175 million over what Bush wanted, opposed to only $50 million above Bush's request with the station.
Some administration officials say the subcommittee vote is part of a larger Democratic scheme to force the White House to demand the elimination of the budget caps.
"It's not only to make a point, but it's part of a calculated and interwoven set of plans to kill a whole bunch of programs the administration wants in an effort to get the administration to lift the cap," said an administration official, who asked not to be identified.
In a draft letter to House Speaker Thomas Foley, D-Wash., Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said his subcommittees had identified almost $9 billion "in fully justified additional domestic needs that will not be accommodated under the domestic allocation we have been given. Many of these needs are supported by the administration."
With the station's ever-increasing cost and NASA's promises that the cost won't decrease, the budget committee realized that other programs would have to be cut repeatedly, said Rep. Donald J. Pease, D-Ohio, a committee member.
Proposed in 1984, the space station was initially estimated to cost $8 billion and was to be launched into space by 1992. But now the costs have soared to $18.5 billion with final assembly in space scheduled for mid-1999.
Annual space station research and development funding has climbed from $150 million in fiscal 1985 to almost $1.9 billion in fiscal 1991. These increases have made it "fairly easy" for the budget panel to justify cutting the space station, Pease said.
"The budget committee saw that coming and said the space station is not a high enough priority to justify actually reducing other programs," Pease said. "If the scientific community were singing the praises of the space station without reservation, the committee would've found the money one way or the other."
Expecting the Appropriations Committee to kill the station's funding, the House has scheduled a vote Thursday on an amendment to restore the money.
Even if the amendment fails, a close vote can be used as a negotiating tool with the Senate, House members said.