House OKs Funding For Mars Mission

President Bush's plan to send man to Mars in coming decades received a green light Thursday as the House passed a bill funding the annual budgets of NASA and the departments of Commerce, Justice and State.

The bill passed after a meandering three-day debate that touched on everything from medical marijuana laws to the Pacific Northwest's troubled salmon fishery. Along the way, House lawmakers endorsed the Supreme Court's ruling to permit evidence seized in violation of long-standing "knock and announce" rules and endorsed bilingual ballots for citizens whose native language isn't English.

The bill, which covers the annual budgets of the departments of Commerce, State and Justice and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is the 10th of 11 annual spending bills to pass the House in a tight budget climate that has lawmakers bemoaning cuts across a wide spectrum of programs. This comes even as GOP core voters worry that Congress is being too fast and loose with taxpayers' money.

Senate yet to take up measures

The Senate is just getting started in advancing its versions of the annual spending bills, the core job of Congress each year. On Thursday, the Appropriations Committee approved a $30.7 billion measure funding the Energy Department's budget as well as flood control projects cherished by lawmakers.

All signs point to a post-election lame duck session, however, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, has yet to award floor time for any of the bills.

On Bush's plan to eventually send man to Mars, the House on Wednesday rejected by a 259-163 vote a move by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., to stop early stage preparatory work to send U.S. astronauts to Mars as the House debated a $59.8 billion measure funding .

Frank contended the Mars initiative is unaffordable at a time when agencies, including NASA, are struggling with a clampdown on their budgets.

"Sending human beings to Mars ... is a luxury that this country cannot now afford," Frank said. "The justification for sending people to Mars is political. It is psychological. It is cultural. It is not scientific."

The underlying Commerce, Justice and State bill passed Thursday by a 393-23 vote and contains $700 million for Mars exploration, the bulk of which would go to several unmanned missions. Bush in January 2004 pledged that the United States would return humans to the moon by 2020 and ultimately launch manned flights to Mars and beyond.

"This is the United States of America. We are a nation of pioneers and explorers," said Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Florida. "We are destined to explore not just Mars but go on to other stars. It's in our nature as human beings."

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

$2 million for fisherman

On Wednesday, lawmakers approved $2 million for salmon fishermen suffering from a sharply curtailed fishing season because the government is more tightly limiting their catch. That was far less than the $81 million West Coast lawmakers want, but they hope to win more later.

Meanwhile, lawmakers Wednesday again voted to continue to allow federal prosecution of those who smoke marijuana for medical purposes in states with laws that permit it. And despite the opposition of more than two-thirds of Republicans, the House affirmed the right of voters in areas with large populations of non-English-speaking citizens to cast ballots in their native language.

The underlying 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 Senate would cut far more funding from Pentagon accounts, which has already triggered protests and a veto threat from the White House.

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