House Lawmakers to Vote on Bush's Mars Mission Funds

Critics in the House are taking aim at $700 million that President Bush wants to spend next year toward sending man back to the moon and eventually on to Mars.

A comparable effort last year to cut money for the moon-Mars mission lost on a 230-196 vote. But critics of the program hope for a closer vote now that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has lost its biggest defender and champion on Capitol Hill with the resignation of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

A vote on the moon-Mars mission could come as early as Wednesday as the House continues to debate a $59.8 billion measure funding the annual budgets of the departments of Justice, Commerce and State as well as NASA's.

The underlying bill gives Bush's moon-Mars plan full funding while grants to state and local law enforcement agencies would be cut for the sixth consecutive year.

Reflecting tight budget times, the bill also cuts money for the Economic Development Administration while eliminating a microloan program for small businesses.

Democrats plan to try to cut spending for the moon-Mars initiative, which would return U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2020 and to Mars after that, and spend the money instead on other NASA programs or grants to local police at a time when violent crime rates are rising.

Opponents of the Mars mission says it's too expensive and that unmanned space travel produces better science per dollar spent. Others say there are more pressing needs here on Earth.

"It's a complete and total waste of money," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. "The manned shot to Mars is a pure boondoggle."

NASA's overall budget is $16.7 billion, essentially a freeze at current levels.

The bill cuts Bush's request for the State Department by $378 million, about 4 percent, as part of lawmakers' moves to trim his requests for defense and foreign aid-related spending to restore Bush-proposed cuts in domestic programs.

The FBI would receive $6 billion, a 5 percent increase.

Tuesday night, lawmakers succeeded in restoring some budget cuts to politically popular programs by raiding other accounts.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., for instance, won a 237-185 vote to add $25 million to the budget for the Legal Services Corp., which gives legal aid to the poor.

Rep. Nydia Velasquez, D-N.Y., won a 214-207 vote for $40 million in small business loan subsidies.

House lawmakers also added back money for grants to state and local law enforcement agencies. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., succeeded by voice vote in shifting $25 million into state and local grants aimed at curbing methamphetamine. Rep. Mark Kennedy, R-Minn., won a 291-129 vote to transfer another $50 million for the same purpose by cutting the budget for the 2010 Census.

The bill will also provide a vehicle for debates on blocking the use of bilingual election ballots, easing federal medical marijuana prosecutions and a longshot bid by Democrats to increase the minimum wage.

Democrats plan to offer an amendment to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 by Jan. 1, 2009. The minimum wage was last increased in 1997.

But the minimum wage bid is likely to be defeated on procedural grounds since under House rules it doesn't belong on an appropriations bill.