WASHINGTON -- Maryland lawmakers expressed confidence yesterday that they would be able to block a proposal to close the Goddard Space Flight Center, but aren't yet sure how to do it.
In these tight-fisted times, budget fights rarely can be won on the merits, but rather by finding a way through the complex web of political intrigue that governs who wins and who loses a share of the ever-shrinking federal pie.
Now that a House Appropriations subcommittee has included the plan to close Goddard and two other space centers in its portion of the budget, the plan will become law unless Goddard advocates can get their colleagues to agree to take it out.
"It's going to be taken care of," predicted Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the Southern Maryland Democrat who represents many of the Greenbelt facility's 11,000 employees.
But that may be easier said than done if sparing Goddard would leave a gap in the budget that Republicans don't have another way to fill.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, the California Republican who heads one of the 13 House panels charged with making the specific spending decisions needed to carry out the GOP goal of a balanced budget, said this week his subcommittee had to cut the National Aeronautics and Space Administration budget deeper than he wanted because veterans' medical programs are taking more than their fair share of the pot.
One of the peculiar features of Congress' budget process is that unrelated programs and agencies are often grouped together to complete for the same funds. Mr. Lewis' turf includes two major departments, and nearly 20 independent agencies.
In his proposal, Mr. Lewis cut deeply from housing programs, and slashed funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by one-third.
But he said he had to cut $720 billion from President Clinton's budget request for NASA because GOP leaders insisted on an increase in veteran's benefits.
"If I put more money back into NASA, then tell me from where I would take it and where I would get the votes to pass those cuts," Mr. Lewis said. "I didn't have a dime left to spare."
Mr. Lewis also acknowledged he was angry at NASA Chief Daniel S. Goldin. He said that when he told Mr. Goldin he was under pressure to make further cuts in the space agency budget, the director refused to provide any suggestions.
"This was sort of a shot across the bow," Mr. Lewis said.
Mr. Hoyer said he had received assurances of help in reversing Mr. Lewis' handiwork from House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Livingston, a Louisiana Republican. That help might come through, he said, before the full Appropriations committee takes up the NASA funding bill Tuesday.
Rep. Robert Walker, a Pennsylvania Republican who leads the House Science committee, also predicted yesterday the Goddard problem would be "fixed" before the measure comes up for a vote in the full House.
But it isn't yet clear what kind of trade-offs might have to be made.
The Maryland congressional delegation met yesterday morning with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mr. Goldin to plot their strategy.
"If this proposal goes through, it will be devastating for the state of Maryland," the governor told a press conference after the meeting. Reporters were given a packet of NASA statistics that show Goddard means more than $1 billion a year to Maryland businesses.
Mr. Goldin told reporters he wasn't about to offer any alternatives to the space center closing because NASA has already cut its five-year spending plan by $5 billion -- on top of $35 billion in earlier cuts.
Closing the three space centers, including facilities in Virginia and Alabama, and moving their operations elsewhere is expected to save $130 million a year by 1998.
But the Marylanders' first gambit will be to try to demonstrate that closing the centers won't save enough money right away to make it worth doing for the sake of a short-term budget problem.
Mr. Walker suggested that another alternative might be to take money from NASA environmental programs dubbed "Mission to Planet Earth," which are strongly supported by Vice President Al Gore but not very popular with Mr. Walker and other Republicans.
Prospects for a Goddard rescue are brightest in the Senate, where Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski serves on the counterpart to Mr. Lewis' committee.
That panel will also have to divide up a limited pot of funds, but will almost certainly chose to do it differently.
Differences between the House and Senate versions of the NASA budget will later be resolved in a joint conference committee.
Claiming the proposal to close Goddard is political, Ms. Mikulski said yesterday, "We will play politics back. . . . We will be organizing a coalition." She expects to work with two Republican senators from Texas, which has a big NASA presence, Sen. Phil Gramm and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and with Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, to fight the Lewis proposal.