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Senate committee boosts money for NASA, anti-crime efforts

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday cut into President Bush’s budget by $2.4 billion as it approved budget increases for NASA and for crime-fighting grants to state and local governments.

Senators approved $1 billion, which Bush did not request, to pay back NASA for about half of the cost of returning the Columbia space shuttle to flight. The committee also rejected Bush’s plan to virtually eliminate about $1.3 billion in grants to state and local governments.

Winning unanimous bipartisan approval was a $52.2 billion bill that covers the departments of Justice and Commerce in addition to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The bill includes an additional $40 million for Hurricane Katrina recovery at Stennis Space Center in south Mississippi and at the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, said Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss. Both sites are instrumental to NASA’s shuttle program.

The add-ons probably will draw a White House veto threat and the bill is unlikely to make it to the floor for debate before Election Day in November. Senate GOP leaders have made it plain that they want to save contentious debates on spending for a postelection lame duck session or even next year.

The additional NASA money would bring the agency’s budget to $17.8 billion and would go toward research, aeronautics and exploration programs and other NASA accounts tapped for funds to finance the shuttle’s return to flight. The July 4 launch of Discovery marked NASA’s second shuttle flight since the since the Columbia was destroyed in 2003.

The shuttle-related money was deemed emergency spending by the panel, which means it is exempt from budget limits. That drew protests from fiscal conservatives such as Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who said it hardly was an emergency since the shuttle has already launched.

“To call it an emergency is just a very big stretch,” Domenici said.

There’s widespread support, however, for restoring Bush’s proposed cuts in grants to local police departments and other anti-crime programs. The bill also roughly doubled Bush’s request for grants to help states and local government combat the methamphetamine scourge.

Senators endorsed Bush’s plan to double spending for basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next 10 years and improve training and recruitment of math and science teachers.