WASHINGTON – The White House is threatening to veto a key spending bill unless more money is added for NASA and other “presidential initiatives.”

White House budget director Joshua Bolten sent a letter Thursday to several House members in which he described the Bush administration as “disappointed” at the amount of money set aside for several programs in the VA-HUD appropriations bill, which cleared its committees this week.

The bill pours cash into veterans’ health care but cuts the budget of other agencies, including the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In January, Bush outlined a new agenda for the space program, including phasing out the shuttle around the end of the decade and aiming for a manned mission to the moon as early as 2015. The following month, he submitted a budget request to Congress that included $16.2 billion for NASA, $866 million more than this year.

But this week – straining to fund the Department of Veterans Affairs while trying to limit spending for the entire federal budget – the House Appropriations Committee not only gutted the request for an increase but offered the space agency $229 million less than it received this year.

In the legislation, the committee expressed support for Bush’s plan and regret that there wasn’t more money in a tight budget year.

But in the White House letter, sent to the chairmen of the Appropriations panel and the subcommittee that controlled the VA-HUD bill, as well as top Democrats on both committees, Bolten said funding levels would “drastically delay” key technology that will lay the groundwork for future missions.

Among the cuts in the bill are $438 million to begin developing the Crew Exploration Vehicle, a new spacecraft; all $70 million requested for development of robotic missions to the moon; and $238 million from Project Prometheus, a nuclear-propulsion program considered key to the success of a long-duration flight, perhaps to Mars.

Bolten also objected to the committee’s decisions to fund the AmeriCorps program at less than the president’s request and the lack of any money for a prisoner education program that was part of the proposed HUD budget.

“If the final version of this bill that is presented to the president does not include adequate funding levels for presidential initiatives, his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill,” Bolten wrote.

NASA chief Sean O’Keefe also wrote to Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. “Bill” Young, a Republican, asking him to add money to the NASA budget. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whose new district includes Johnson Space Center in Houston, has threatened to block the bill from coming to a full House vote.

“This is encouraging news, in that we’re going to continue to protect NASA’s interests,” Jonathan Grella, a spokesman for DeLay, said of Bolten’s letter.

But Young and Rep. James Walsh, the New York Republican who heads the VA-HUD subcommittee, said this week that spending on veterans has to be the highest priority. They pointed out that other agencies funded in the bill took deep cuts as well: The Environmental Protection Agency would get $631 million less than this year, and the National Science Foundation $111 million less.

In a statement Friday, Walsh said his subcommittee’s top priority was to fund health care for veterans. He added that he welcomed the chance to work with the White House on the NASA budget.

“The federal appropriations process is a marathon, not a sprint, and we are at the beginning of that process,” Walsh said. “Our subcommittee was given an extremely tight allocation this year, and it met its number one priority to increase veterans healthcare funding as authorized in the budget resolution passed by the House. Our goal was to create a fair bill, and I believe that we did.”

(c) 2004, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-23-04 1755EDT

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