Big-Ticket Science Meets An Ax-Wielding Congress

Can space station, super collider survive deficit-cutting promises? BUDGET BATTLE

HOW serious was all the talk during last year's campaign about cutting the deficit? Voters will find out this week as the House of Representatives passes judgment on two big-ticket science programs.

Today lawmakers are scheduled to vote on a bill authorizing $2.1 billion for a slimmed-down version of Space Station Freedom that will eventually cost at least $25 billion. Also on the line in the next few days is $620 million for the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas.

The consensus on Capitol Hill is that budget-cutting fervor is more likely to strike down the super collider than the space station.

"The space station is in better shape because the super collider was not able to spread contracts around the country the way the space station did, and because the space station brings back the `warm fuzzies' we all have for the '60s, Kennedy, and the man-on-the-moon," says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado.

Fiscal conservatives say that's ironic because, in their minds, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space station is more guilty of runaway spending than the Energy Department's $10 billion super collider. The space station was started in 1984 as an $8 billion program, but already has cost $9 billion, though no equipment has been built yet.

President Clinton responded to criticism from fiscal conservatives, including budget director Leon Panetta, by ordering NASA to come up with plans for a space station that would cost no more than another $9 billion over five years. After a 90-day effort, the space agency offered three versions of a leaner station, but failed to meet the cost target.

Mr. Clinton last week decided to proceed with a design similar to current plans for Space Station Freedom because, he said, "We need to stay first in space." The new design will cost an estimated $16 billion and aims to put four astronauts in orbit by 2001. The White House claims that the revamped plan will save $4 billion over five years, mainly through the early retirement of thousands of NASA employees.

But the details of the plan are vague, leaving critics unconvinced that it will result in genuine savings. "Waste in space," snorts Rep. Caroline Maloney (D) of New York. "A black hole for taxpayers' money," says Rep. Tim Roemer (D) of Indiana. "A redesigned piece of space junk," chips in Rep. Tim Penny (D) of Minnesota.

Supporters of the project reply that, though it did not satisfy critics, the redesign may boost support for the space station in Congress. "Our guess is that the president's commitment, along with the realignment of NASA's bureaucracy, will be sufficient to give us a majority on the space station," says Rep. George Brown (D) of California, chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Space station backers have mounted a lobbying effort that, says Rep. Dick Zimmer (R) of New Jersey, is going "hot and heavy." Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, and Rockwell International - the three prime contractors - each employ dozens of lobbying firms and carry weight on Capitol Hill because of their campaign contributions. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 1991-92 election cycle, Boeing gave $336,100 to congressional candidates; McDonnell Douglas, $263,050; and Rockwell, $340,164.

The biggest weapon supporters of the space station have is that - unlike the Texas-based super collider - this project brings thousands of jobs to 39 states, the biggest beneficiaries being Texas, California, Florida, and Alabama.

"There's not a member in Congress who hasn't been lobbied by someone in their district who has a little piece of the project," says Rep. Christopher Shays (D) of Connecticut. "I've had other members from my state lobby me because they have a $1 million piece of it in their districts."

In the battle over the space station, self-styled "pork busters" are clearly outmatched. Their only hope is that deficit-cutting fervor whipped up last year by Ross Perot will carry the day. But they aren't overly optimistic.

"There's no constituency in Congress for deficit reduction," says Representative Roemer. "Members find it easier to please lobbyists or constituents than to cast difficult, deficit-reduction votes."

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