HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Republican Sen. Richard Shelby has been one of Barack Obama’s most persistent critics, accusing the president of putting the country on a road to financial ruin with deficits as far as the eye can see.
But his demands to slash government programs tend to stop at the Alabama state line.
Here in his home state, Shelby has been pressuring the Obama administration to spend billions to build what could become the world’s biggest rocket at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville — a government project that would affect thousands of jobs, benefit a network of powerful industry interests and fill a major void at the agency after the collapse of the Bush-era Constellation initiative and the end of the space shuttle program in July.
Behind the scenes, Shelby has staked out Alabama’s turf against other states, attacking the administration for sending $340 million to Florida rather than to the Marshall agency and pushing NASA to put out bids for a key rocket engine, a move that could help an Alabama company at the expense of one in Utah. A provision he authored ended up directing $215 million to the scrapped Constellation program earlier this year, and he’s been a prolific earmarker, sending $185 million for a range of projects in Huntsville in the past few years, nearly half of which went to NASA programs.
The fight for the new project illustrates Washington’s larger struggle over reining in the deficit while trying to deal with high unemployment, proving once again that powerful senators can save government jobs back home, regardless of the anti-spending rhetoric coming out of Congress.
It also raises this question: Will lawmakers be willing to sacrifice programs and projects in their backyards to help pay down the debt during Congress’s fall budget fight?
When it comes to the rocket project, lawmakers whose states are major centers for the aerospace industry answer with a definitive “no.”
Shelby says it’s not just about dollars going to his state — it’s about moving forward with a rocket project that will ultimately benefit the country, resurrect the struggling manned space program and lead to the creation of technologies that could change the world.
The rocket, if successful, could send Americans to the moon for the first time since 1972 and to places where no human has ever gone — and potentially even to Mars, raising profound implications for mankind.
“This will help promote American prestige and competitiveness when we need it most,” Shelby said. “As such, I believe this is a wise and worthwhile investment.”
Indeed, Huntsville is proud and protective of its reputation as a major defense and aerospace hub — federal spending has long been a lifeblood for this town, where 64,000 jobs are tied to the government and where federal agencies manage more than $50 billion of the annual budget.
“We call ourselves the Rocket City,” said former Rep. Bud Cramer, a conservative Democrat who represented Huntsville for 18 years. “We kind of view this as we [have] part of our identity at stake here.”
But the long-term costs of the project are not well-known, and at least one unofficial estimate said it would fly just twice over a 10-year period and cost $38 billion.
Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle dismissed that estimate. But he said that the budget crunch has already hurt his city in other ways, like losing a $10 million Shelby earmark to widen to five lanes of a road that connects to Redstone Arsenal, the 38,000-acre Army base where Marshall is located.
“The infrastructure dollars that the delegation could put in this area were important to this area’s growth,” he said, praising Shelby for helping to make the city “a center of excellence.”
The 77-year-old Shelby — who was elected to the House in 1978 as a Democrat and became a Republican in 1994, eight years after becoming a senator — is virtually untouchable back home. He still has a staggering $17 million in his campaign account after skating to reelection last year.
Even as he’s positioned himself as a fiscal hawk in Washington, strongly opposing the bank bailout in 2008 and voting against the debt ceiling compromise last month, he’s been successful in office largely because of his fiercely parochial nature. Throughout the state, buildings at university campuses, and some federal facilities, bear his name. He represents one of the remaining old-bull GOP lawmakers protective over spending in his state, butting heads with the anti-spending tea party movement.
The $185 million in earmarks for Huntsville in the past few years has gone for a bevy of projects — to help the local police with its communications systems, for facilities at a dental clinic, to bolster an art museum as part of downtown redevelopment and to develop a missile attack early warning system, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
The Marshall space facility was a beneficiary of Shelby’s earmarks, as well — including $4.3 million in 2009 and $6.8 million in 2008 — for projects like the creation of a nuclear power system and for robotics exploration. NASA, as a whole, won $58 million in Shelby earmarks in 2010, according to the watchdog group.
The push for the rocket comes as the space agency is facing serious budget cuts. Critics of the rocket project fear that it’ll suck up dollars the Obama administration wants to give private companies looking for contracts to serve as taxis into lower orbit and to the International Space Station, which is about 210 miles from Earth.
Yet Republicans like Shelby and the congressman from this area, conservative Rep. Mo Brooks, argue that the private sector can’t do what NASA can when it comes to space travel, though that could cost billions more.
Meg Reilly, a spokeswoman at the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the administration is reviewing the costs of the new rocket project “to ensure that a final plan is practicable and executable over the long term.”
The rocket’s possible beneficiaries have been big campaign contributors to Shelby over the years. Boeing has shelled out $136,300 to his campaign in his time in the Senate; Lockheed Martin donated $152,100 to the senator; Teledyne Brown Engineering donated $189,200; and the aerospace firm ATK donated $54,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Shelby called it “baseless” to imply that his support hinges on campaign donations.
Last month, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) — a major proponent of the rocket — made a fundraising swing through Huntsville, urging hosts to shell out as much as $5,000 a pop to attend the event, according to an invitation.
The latest fight comes as a result of a $3 billion provision added to a budget law in April to avert a government shutdown, a line item championed by the likes of Shelby, Nelson, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and several House members.
The language reflects last year’s NASA authorization law calling for the rocket to be operational by the end of 2016 — and seemed to guarantee that the funds would be split between the upper stage of the rocket that would be built by Boeing in Alabama, a motor that would be built in Utah by ATK and an astronaut-carrying capsule that would be built by Lockheed Martin in Texas.
But in June, Shelby appeared to be pushing NASA to consider contracting the engine to Huntsville-based Teledyne Brown, which recently formed a joint venture with California-based Aerojet.
“I can’t speak for him, but I presume that’s what he’s doing,” Hatch said when asked if Shelby appeared to be moving to strengthen his home state’s industry rather than Utah’s.
The fight over the future of the space agency is already affecting careers here at Marshall: 1,500 workers tied to the space agency have lost their jobs partly because of the impasse over the new rocket. Several thousand more could be affected if it doesn’t happen.
“It’ll be a major part of what we do,” Robert Lightfoot, director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, said, referring to the 130-metric ton rocket. “Frankly, if you look at the capabilities of Marshall Space Flight Center, that’s what we should be doing.”
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