WASHINGTON -- House Republican leaders were drafting a compromise last night that would spare Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt from being closed.
The proposal, which was being negotiated late into the evening, was expected to be offered this morning to the House Appropriations Committee as an amendment to the bill that spells out funds for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, the California Republican who convinced an appropriations subcommittee last week to order the closing of Goddard and two other space centers in Virginia and Alabama, said last night he would offer the reprieve himself.
"My goal was to get the attention of a lot of people who didn't seem to realize this is just the beginning of a budget process that is going to involve some very serious issues and some very tough votes," he said in an interview after a two-hour meeting on the NASA budget cuts in the office of House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "I think we accomplished that."
As chairman of one of the 13 Appropriations subcommittees charged with making the first down payment of $22 billion in specific cuts to reach a balanced federal budget by 2002, Mr. Lewis has 12 percent less money than last year to divide among the two dozen agencies that make up his turf.
He said last night he had not yet worked out where he would stretch and squeeze to make up the $55 million in first-year savings he expected from closing the space centers. Other big targets in his domain include the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency.
But Mr. Lewis told members of the Maryland delegation, who had lobbied vigorously to save Goddard, that his amendment would accomplish that.
"I want to reserve judgment until I see the language, but he told me we are going to be all right," said Democrat Steny H. Hoyer, one of several Marylanders who cornered Mr. Lewis on the House floor after the leadership meeting.
Mr. Lewis set off an uproar one week ago when he unveiled a surprise proposal that within three years could have cost the jobs of 11,000 civilian and contract workers at Goddard and thousands more at the other centers.
Space scientists and industry analysts almost universally condemned the proposal, saying it would cost more than it would save to move the highly specialized Goddard functions to a California facility.
The plan seemed doomed from the start since Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski serves as the ranking Democrat on the Senate counterpart to Mr. Lewis' subcommittee.
What's more, Mr. Lewis also had slashed NASA programs dear " to the hearts of legislators in Texas and California as well as Virginia and Alabama.
Further, he drew quick opposition from Rep. Robert S. Walker, of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Science Committee and a top Gingrich lieutenant whose own priorities Mr. Lewis ignored.
Speaker Gingrich got involved in the debate when he discovered that members of his own top leadership were at odds over the spending bill, which is one of the two largest in the appropriations package and vital to the balanced budget effort.
"I don't want to see a fight over this," Mr. Gingrich told members of his team in his office last night.
But Mr. Lewis said from the start his proposal was largely a negotiating tactic.
He was frustrated because he was blocked by advocates for veterans' groups from freezing spending for veterans' programs. Unlike almost every other category of the GOP budget, spending for veterans' programs is scheduled to rise.
"I think there should be more balance," Mr. Lewis said. Also attending the meeting in Mr. Gingrich's office last night was Rep. Gerald B. H. Solomon of New York, the Rules Committee chairman who is the veterans' top advocate.
With his original budget proposal, Mr. Lewis said he also wanted to send a a "shot across the bow" of NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin, who had refused to give him specific suggestions when the subcommittee chairman said he need to squeeze more money from the space program.
"Goldin said he's already come up with a plan for cutting $5 billion but that's all personnel in the future, and it doesn't call for closing any centers," Mr. Lewis said. "I need him to start saving money right away."
"I haven't talked to Mr. Goldin but from conversations with other people from NASA, I think I got his attention," Mr. Lewis said.