WASHINGTON - Key lawmakers applauded President Bush's vision for new space missions to the moon, Mars and beyond yesterday but questioned whether a skeptical election-year Congress will be willing to make the tough choices and find the money to follow through on the ambitious plans.
As they greeted the president's proposal with elation and optimism, several Republicans and Democrats active on space issues made it clear that Bush's plan could be a tough sell on Capitol Hill.
With a wary eye on the deficit-ridden federal budget, they are bracing for a lively debate in Congress about the nation's space priorities, and about which programs might have to be trimmed or scrapped to make Bush's ideas a reality.
"It's going to be a challenge to get Congress to approve it," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee, which oversees space programs.
"We've got a deficit, we've got financial problems, and we've got a lot of demands on our resources," Boehlert said. "Is this a demand that should be responded to? That's the test."
The deficit is on track to exceed $500 billion this year, according to an analysis released last week by the Congressional Budget Office.
The report said the government has run up a deficit of $126 billion in the first three months of fiscal 2004, which began Oct. 1.
Still, Boehlert said he is "enthused" and "excited" by the proposal, and praised Bush for submitting a "realistic" plan and for "not suggesting that we rent a truck, send it up to Treasury, fill it up with money and bring it over to NASA headquarters."
Indeed, Bush says his plan can be accomplished without heaping exorbitant sums on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the short term. He called yesterday for completing work on the International Space Station and retiring the space shuttle by 2010, freeing up funding for the new programs.
Of the $12 billion needed to fund the new efforts over the next five years, $11 billion would come from reallocating money within NASA's budget, Bush said.
But that means Congress will have to be willing to pull back on some existing NASA programs - which typically have powerful constituencies around the country and influential proponents on Capitol Hill - to pay for Bush's proposal.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, who has an influential spot in the space policy debate as the senior Democrat on the panel that funds NASA, did not return calls seeking comment yesterday.
But in a statement last week in response to the release of an outline of Bush's plan, she expressed concern about its costs and its impact on existing space programs.
"I applaud the president for renewing America's commitment to space exploration," she said then.
But Mikulski, who has been a leading proponent of space science and Earth science, went on to add that "a manned mission to the moon must not come at the expense of NASA's other scientific endeavors or domestic priorities."
Some lawmakers, however, say it is about time to reconsider NASA's programs and set some of them aside.
"If the president is serious, Congress is going to have to work hard to prioritize the NASA budget. That's not an easy thing to do," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who chairs the space committee.
He said Congress would have to "make sure that we have the courage to make the cuts that are necessary."
NASA's science programs are an obvious place to look for cuts, Rohrabacher said, mentioning global warming research as an example: "Some of the science side, we could start looking to the private sector to start picking up."
The debate over NASA's priorities is almost certain to pit states and congressional districts against each other in the quest for coveted - often lucrative - space projects.
"Everything is open, everything is up for grabs," Boehlert said.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the second-ranking House Democrat, said he hoped Bush's plan would bring new jobs to Maryland, and especially to the Goddard Space Flight Center, which is in his district.
The first major test of Bush's proposal likely will come as early as this spring, when Congress begins hashing out next year's NASA budget.
The agency's current funding level is $15.5 billion.
Bush announced yesterday that he will ask Congress for an additional $1 billion boost for NASA over the next five years. That's a relatively modest increase of about $200 million a year.
But the proposal, and the new budget, promise to become an opportunity for lawmakers to debate - and, in some cases, clash over - NASA's future.
"You can't do space flight on the cheap," said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who, as a congressman, traveled to space on the shuttle Columbia. "You can't go to the moon in the next decade for a $200 million increase."
Nelson and other Democrats caution that cutting back the space shuttle program to fund Bush's new plan could exacerbate the problems that led to the Columbia explosion last year.
"Simply adding more missions to NASA without the necessary resources won't cut it," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee, which oversees NASA.
"Disregarding these concerns will only further jeopardize the safety of our astronauts, the integrity and viability of our broad American agenda for space, and the nation's fiscal health," Hollings said.