WASHINGTON -- Placing some 11,000 Maryland jobs in jeopardy, a key House subcommittee approved a proposal last night to shut down the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt within three years.
Catching Maryland lawmakers by surprise, Rep. Jerry Lewis, a California Republican who heads the subcommittee that appropriates money for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, proposed to close Goddard and move most of its work to Pasadena, Calif., adjacent to his congressional district.
The subcommittee vote is only the first step in a long and winding Capitol Hill road that will give Maryland legislators numerous opportunities to try to derail it before final action in September.
Mr. Lewis' subcommittee went along with the proposal, though some members indicated that it did not have their wholehearted support. And, without suggesting that Goddard would be spared, Mr. Lewis said that he expected changes in the plan to cut the NASA budget, in part by closing three space flight centers.
Nevertheless, Marylanders reacted with alarm.
"It's awful," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat whose district includes the space flight center. "This makes no sense."
Added Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat who represents an adjacent district in Prince George's and Montgomery counties: "This literally came out of nowhere. This is coming without any hearings or any analysis about why these heretofore successful operations should be moved to the state from which the subcommittee chairman comes."
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that handles the NASA budget, was ready for battle. "The House proposal to cut Goddard is preposterous and purely politics, with no basis in mission or merit, and I will fight it," she said in a statement.
GOP Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, a member of the House Science Committee, which oversees NASA operations, said the panel chairman, Rep. Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania, assured her that the panel would oppose the effort to close Goddard.
Nevertheless, Mr. Lewis' proposal offered further confirmation that Maryland, with 300,000 federal workers, is particularly vulnerable to budget cutting. And it illustrated how a budget-cutting exercise can turn into a political battle over the location of a diminishing number of federal jobs.
Mr. Lewis' proposal came on the heels of the recommendation by a federal commission to close six military installations in Maryland, eliminating about 3,000 jobs. President Clinton is expected to accept the commission's recommendation.
Mr. Clinton's January budget proposed to cut the NASA outlay by $100 million, to $14.3 billion. His plan would require the elimination of 28,000 NASA jobs, including 3,000 at Goddard.
Goddard employs about 3,500 government workers and finances the jobs of 9,500 people who work for NASA contractors. More than 11,000 of those jobs are in Maryland.
After the president unveiled his budget, Republicans warned that they would make even deeper cuts, but until yesterday they had not suggested closing Goddard.
Mr. Lewis' proposal would mean a cut of an additional $740 million.
Mr. Hoyer learned of the surprise proposal late yesterday and approached Mr. Lewis, with whom he serves on the full Appropriations Committee. Mr. Lewis confirmed the plan, Mr. Hoyer said, but did not mention that much of the Goddard work would be shifted to a Republican California congressional district near Mr. Lewis' own. Only later did Mr. Hoyer find out about that.
Mr. Lewis said last night that he had tried to get Daniel S. Goldin, the NASA administrator, to suggest deeper cuts in the NASA budget than those proposed by Mr. Clinton. Mr. Goldin refused.
"Goldin walked away from the table, so I drew up a list of my own priorities," Mr. Lewis said in an interview. In addition to Goddard, Mr. Lewis proposed to close the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
He said he expects the full Appropriations Committee to approve his proposal next week. Mr. Hoyer is the only Marylander on the committee.
Moving from Goddard to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena would be the Mission to Planet Earth project, a series of satellite missions to study changes in climate.