...The House of Representatives approved legislation Wednesday that would ease a budget shortfall that threatens to delay a key weather satellite program. Lawmakers voted 267-151 to pass a spending bill that would keep the federal government operating after the current stopgap funding legislation expires on March 27th. Although the bill would keep funding flat at the 2012 level for most federal agencies and departments, it makes an exception for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s geostationary weather satellites. The agency keeps a pair of geostationary probes orbiting at fixed points above Earth. The orbiters beam down data that is crucial for NOAA’s weather forecasts, including the agency’s ability to track developing storms.
The new spending bill would set aside $802 million for NOAA’s next generation of geostationary probes, known as GOES-R — $186 million more than the program received in 2012. That should be welcome news for NOAA, which has warned that budget shortfalls this year could delay the launches of the first two GOES-R satellites, now scheduled for 2015 and 2017. The agency says it needs $802 million in 2013 to begin purchasing and testing the equipment that will launch the two probes into orbit and process the information they collect.
So far, NOAA has not come close to receiving that amount. The stopgap spending measure that took effect in October provided $616 million this year for GOES-R, and that money has been further reduced by across-the-board spending cuts that began Friday. In a February 8th letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank said those cuts, known as “sequestration,” could delay the first two GOES-R launches by 2-3 years. “This delay would increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings,” said Blank, whose department oversees NOAA.
The new House legislation should improve that gloomy forecast, but there are a few catches. The legislation must be approved by the Senate before it can become law. And there are indications that Mikulski intends to take a different approach to funding the federal government once the current continuing budget resolution expires later this month. Mikulski is exploring plans to amend the House bill to include regular yearlong budgets for several agencies and departments, including Commerce, Politico reported yesterday.
Even if the funding laid out in the current version of the House bill becomes law, a classic bit of Washington tap-dancing would reduce the amount agencies actually receive. That's because the $1.043 trillion the bill budgets for federal operations is still subject to sequestration. That means funding throughout the bill would be reduced by 5 percent before the first dollar is doled out. Under those rules, the $802 million the House bill sets aside for NOAA’s GOES-R satellites shrinks to roughly $762 million. That's less than the amount that NOAA says is necessary to keep GOES-R on track, but it's still more than Congress has approved for the program so far this year.