To win votes in the South, the White House may be backing away from its opposition to making new-generation space shuttle boosters in Mississippi.
That would be bad news for Utah, where current shuttle boosters are made by Thiokol. It also comes as the Senate will debate next week a space-funding bill. The House previously cut most funds for Mississippi boosters in its version of the bill.The Wall Street Journal used anonymous sources to report Friday that under pressure from Southern Republicans, White House budget director Richard Darman is backpedaling on opposition to the new boosters and is seeking funds to continue the project.
The new rocket plant would provide up to 3,100 jobs in the tri-corner area of Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee.
Mississippi and Alabama are considered key battleground states in the upcoming presidential election, and have 16 electoral votes between them. Tennessee and its 10 electoral votes will likely go Democratic because Sen. Al Gore, D-Tenn., is running for vice president.
Meanwhile, Utah has only five electoral votes, and is considered to be solidly in support of Bush no matter what happens with the rocket plant.
Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah - who led the House fight to kill most funding for the new plant - said he has talked to NASA and other officials who support the contentions made in the Journal story.
"I have talked with people whose credentials are unimpeachable who assured me that is exactly what is happening, that the White House is going to support the ASRM (booster) and repudiate previous statements opposing it," Owens told the Deseret News.
He is urging Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, to seek an amendment next week when the Senate debates space funding to clearly state that the Senate opposes any moves to increase funding for the new plant.
Earlier rumors and stories suggested that supporters of the new plant may try to salvage such funding in back-door deals as a conference later works out differences in House and Senate versions of the bill, and Owens wants to prevent that.
Garn and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, whose district includes Thiokol, were on vacation Friday, and aides were unable to reach them for comment.
The White House, Darman's office, the office of Vice President Dan Quayle (who oversees space matters for the administration) and Quayle's National Space Council all declined comment on the Journal story and any backpedaling.
However, administration sources who declined to be quoted told the Deseret News that the administration has not yet changed its formal opposition to the new plant, and any backpedaling by Darman to Southern Republicans is being done on his own.
Darman's Office of Management and Budget issued a statement on July 29 - which has not been formally withdrawn - opposing the new booster, saying its remaining $2.5 billion cost is too high and that Thiokol's redesigned motors would provide an adequate alternative.
Quayle has also consistently said the new plant is not needed. A letter he wrote in July said, "Safety problems associated with the existing space shuttle solid rocket motors have been corrected, and the number of projected space shuttle flights has declined. . .. The bottom line is that the space program doesn't need ASRM."
But congressional and administration sources say a main reason the Bush administration pulled funding for the boosters out of its proposed budget this year was to tweak House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., for not providing more overall space funding. The new plant is in Whitten's district.
The Journal reported that when worried Republicans - which others said included Sens. Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, R-Miss.- complained about the White House pulling ASRM out of the budget, they were told not to worry, that it was just a tweak and there was no way the House would go against Whitten's wishes.
But to nearly everyone's surprise, the House lopsidedly approved an amendment by Owens in July to kill much of the funding for the new boosters - which led to howls to the administration by Southerners.
Some Utah Republican congressional sources complain Owens' amendment messed up strategy that Garn and Hansen had to allow construction to proceed slowly in Mississippi while Thiokol continued to quietly build boosters - and thereby salvage what was realistically possible.
However, Owens has said his amendment was the last chance to kill the Mississippi plant and save 4,000 jobs at Thiokol - and should help kill the overall ASRM program. He said another year's worth of funding for the plant would have put it too far along to ever kill.