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This Week in Appropriations: Energy Bill Stalled on Senate Floor; Details on NSF, NASA

The first spending bill to reach the Senate floor in record time is just as quickly derailed.

Senators continued to make progress amending the FY 2017 Energy-Water bill until Wednesday, when a proposed amendment relating to the Iran nuclear deal brought the process to a standstill. It remains unclear how the situation will evolve going forward. The House for its part is still unable to bring any spending bills to the floor, following their continued failure to pass a budget resolution this year.

Negotiations over a Zika emergency funding package also appear to be going nowhere, with Senate Democrats voicing frustration over a $1.1 billion compromise measure that has yet to materialize. Meanwhile, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) continues to push for an overhaul of the federal budget process, holding a hearing earlier this week examining the issue.  

FY 2017 Energy and Water Appropriations
House Status (H.R. 2028, Through Committee 4/19) | Senate Status (S. 2804, Through Committee 4/14)
Funding Table: DOE R&D Estimates | DOE Energy Programs | Office of Science and NNSA

The Energy and Water bill, which funds the Department of Energy’s research and technology programs, remains stalled out on the Senate floor following the breakdown of bipartisan collaboration due to an Iran-related amendment. That amendment, offered by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), would prevent the United States from purchasing heavy water from Iran. The White House may veto the bill over the amendment, and Senate Democrats blocked the bill from advancing on Wednesday and again on Thursday. With recess the week of May 2, the energy spending bill may receive yet another vote the week of May 9.

As reported last week, the Senate bill would generally provide only modest increases for Energy Department programs, but with targeted boosts for nuclear energy technology and certain Office of Science research programs.

FY 2017 Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations
House Status (Not yet introduced) | Senate Status (S. 2844, Through Committee 4/21)
Funding Table: Dept. of Transportation

As mentioned in last week’s update, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (THUD) spending bill on April 21st. Here are a few additional details via the committee’s report:

  • The bill provides $850 million for R&D at the Department of Transportation, 8.1 percent below FY 2016 levels and 1.9 percent below the request. The main changes from the President’s budget request were a moderate increase for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and smaller increases than expected for railroad R&D programs and coordination offices in the Office of the Secretary.
  • At FAA, appropriators matched the $1.0 billion request for NextGen, FAA’s major aviation system modernization effort. Appropriators also provided an extra $10 million for research on integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into the national airspace system, to be carried out by FAA’S UAS Center of Excellence based at Mississippi State University.
  • The Federal Railroad Administration’s R&D program was essentially flat-funded, but an additional $1 million was provided for Intelligent Transportation Systems research.
  • In the Office of the Secretary, appropriators rejected the President’s request for a $5 million Green Ports initiative, which would have pursued pilot projects seeking to reduce emissions at major ports.

The THUD bill had been next up for Senate floor consideration, but the kerfuffle over the Energy and Water bill, described above, has gotten in the way of those plans. The Senate is scheduled for a recess next week, and THUD may thus receive further consideration the week of May 9th.

Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) Appropriations
House Status (Not yet introduced) | Senate Status (S. 2837, Through Committee 4/21)
Funding Tables: National Science Foundation | NASA | Dept. of Commerce

As reported last week, NASA R&D received a significant boost above the President’s request, while NSF fared less well, in a bill approved the same day as the THUD bill by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

With additional details from the committee in hand, AAAS now estimates that total R&D at NSF would amount to $6.1 billion in the Senate CJS bill, which is 0.5 percent below FY 2016 and 1.2 percent below the discretionary request. One of the major changes, previously noted, was the decision by Senate appropriators to provide construction funding for three regional class research vessels (RCRVs), rather than the two RCRVs included in the FY 2017 budget.

Additional NSF updates:

  • The committee would keep NSF’s I-Corps program equal to FY 2016 levels, as requested by the Administration.
  • However, Senate appropriators rejected a small $2 million increase sought for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which aims to broaden funding and avoid concentration of NSF research dollars throughout the states.
  • NSF’s Education and Human Resources Directorate would be flat-funded under the Senate bill, whereas the Administration sought a substantial $19 million discretionary increase.
  • Within the agency operations account, the Administration requested a $43 million increase for the NSF planned headquarters move from Arlington, VA to Alexandria, VA in 2017; however, the Senate keeps funding at the FY 2016 level.
  • The Senate bill would leave NSF’s base discretionary budget 2.5 percent below pre-sequestration levels (as of FY 2012; see chart).


At NASA, estimated R&D totals $13.2 billion under the Senate CJS bill, a full $1 billion more than the Administration’s request, though 0.7 percent below FY 2016 levels. As already highlighted last week – and to no surprise for those familiar with NASA appropriations – the Senate Committee prioritizes funding for the Space Launch System (SLS), granting a $150 million increase above FY 2016 and $920 million more than the request. Likewise, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle would receive $247 million more than the request to total $30 million above last fiscal year.  Following an exceptionally strong outcome in the FY 2016 omnibus, NASA’s budget now exceeds pre-sequestration funding levels in FY 2016, climbing back from its FY 2013 low (see chart).

Elsewhere in the NASA budget:

  • Senate appropriators would grant a small increase above the request for NASA Earth Science, which includes the requested $131 million to continue development of Landsat-9 for a 2020 launch.
  • Planetary Science would see a large 16.9 percent drop from last year, though the committee bill includes supporting language for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, a major priority on the House side.
  • Thumbnail
    Within NASA Astrophysics, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is funded at $120 million, whereas the Administration would have flat-funded WFIRST at $90 million.
  • The Senate Committee provides the requested level of $232.5 million for the Solar Probe Plus mission to launch in 2018, under NASA’s Heliophysics division.
  • The Space Technology Mission Directorate’s RESTORE-L mission, which aims to demonstrate the servicing of a government satellite in low Earth orbit, receives $130 million; the Administration proposed the same amount, though nearly half via mandatory spending.
  • Commercial Crew funding in the Senate bill equals the President’s requested level.

Within the Dept. of Commerce, NIST would see its R&D funding increase by a mere 0.4 percent according to AAAS estimates, totaling 3.7 percent below the request. NIST’s Scientific and Technical Research and Services account, which funds NIST’s seven research labs, would rise by $10 million over last fiscal year, compared to the Administration’s discretionary funding boost of $41 million. Both the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) and the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) were flat-funded by the Senate committee.


Estimated R&D funding at NOAA totals 3.5 percent below FY 2016 levels and 4.1 percent below the request. The Senate committee dismissed the Administration’s proposed 20.2 percent increase for climate research, instead providing flat funding in FY 2017. Weather and air chemistry research would also be cut further below the request, while funding would be maintained for ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes research at FY 2016 levels. The agency’s key environmental satellite programs, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series Program (GOES-R) and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS), would both decrease in accordance with the President’s budget; GOES-R and JPSS remain in transition from development to operations.

The Senate CJS bill awaits further action from the full chamber, while House appropriators have yet to introduce their own version of the bill.

Zika Update

Senate negotiations over Zika funding fell apart alongside the stalled Energy-Water bill. Senior lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had been in talks to partially fund the Administration’s $1.9 billion request for emergency funding to fight the virus. However, Democrats held a press conference on Wednesday to voice frustration over the bipartisan measure that has yet to materialize. Meanwhile, Republicans continue to request additional details as to how and when the additional money would be spent. Congress departs for a week-long recess amidst the impasse.  

Quote of the Week

“Over the last year and five months the White House has threatened 87 vetoes. That’s about one every week and a half. If we shut down the senate and stopped our work every time the President threatened a veto, we’d be here about three or four hours every Monday afternoon.” – Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), during the Energy and Water Appropriations floor debate Thursday.