Just as Utahns feared, House-Senate negotiators ignored votes by both houses and decided Tuesday to resurrect a Mississippi plant that would build new-generation space shuttle boosters to replace those now made at Utah's Thiokol.
A Senate spending bill earlier provided only $50 million to terminate contracts for the new plant or to convert it to other uses. The House version provided $215 million for transition.But a conference to work out differences in those bills decided instead to skyrocket funding to $360 million next year and to resurrect the Advanced Solid Rocket Motor program instead of canceling it.
Such new math could eventually subtract up to 4,000 jobs at Thiokol - although Utah members say Congress still likely will kill the Mississippi plant another year, and delays with it will keep Thiokol producing boosters well beyond 2000, anyway.
The new "compromise" results from arm twisting by Southerners, who also rejected a deal worked on for months by Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, which he says would have provided Mississippi with 1,000 stable jobs through relocation of aerospace companies in return for letting the new booster program die.
To top off a bad day, any efforts to convince the House and Senate to reject the new compromise were hurt when NASA announced it found a leak in a redesigned "O-ring" on a Thiokol booster scheduled for launch in November. (See accompanying story.)
A faulty O-ring on an old-version Thiokol booster was blamed for the 1986 Challenger explosion.
Utah members of Congress were not happy about the turn of events.
"It's the worst example of congressional arrogance I've ever seen," said Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah. "A small band of inside tyrants reversed the choice of both houses. No wonder people say Congress is broken."
Earlier this year, Owens surprised even himself by persuading the House to vote to kill the new plant - which is located in the district of powerful House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jamie Whitten, D-Ala.
Owens sent letters Tuesday to members who had voted with him, saying he is searching for a way to have the House reject that new compromise and is seeking their support.
He acknowledged the O-ring problem will hurt that fight. "I'm sure our opponents will use it as an argument against us. But it's a phony argument. A routine check caught and fixed the problem, like it is supposed to. Safety was not compromised."
Garn agreed. "Look at the number of times NASA goes through and changes or fixes something on a shuttle while it is waiting for a launch. I think of it as a fail-safe that should be applauded. . . . It's not a failure but a success in finding the problem." He said he will work with Owens to try to reject the compromise.
Garn was the only member of the Utah delegation on the House-Senate conference. "A conference shouldn't be able to go over the spending levels approved by either house, but it is done all the time," he complained.
Because the new plant would provide jobs throughout the tri-corner area of Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama, Garn expected members from all those states - who have heavy and powerful representation on the conference - to try the move they made.
He tried to overcome it by working with NASA to find ways to bring other jobs to the Mississippi area in return for allowing the new booster program - which even NASA says is unneeded - to die.
He said he came up with about 1,000 stable jobs through possible relocation of some aerospace companies. But the new plant would employ up to 3,000 people. However, Garn said his deal would have provided stable jobs not subject to the whims of Congress, and the new plant will be a continuing target.
"I think that had it been Utah and I said I had come up with 1,000 long-term stable jobs, people would have gone for it at home," Garn said. "But the good ol' boy network had been caught off guard and embarrassed by for them.
"It's a sign of what's wrong with Congress. For purely political reasons, we're spending all this money for something that's not really needed," he said.
But Garn sees a silver lining for Utah.
He noted the funding level for the new boosters will not allow them to be ready now until at least the sixth shuttle flight to be flown in support of the Space Station Freedom. He said that means Thiokol will be building boosters well beyond 2000.