President Clinton's endorsement of the space station will make it tougher than ever for its persistent band of congressional critics to kill off the multibillion-dollar project.
Three times in the last two years, the critics have failed to persuade the House to kill what Rep. Tim Penny, R-Minn., calls "the Edsel of the space program." It has survived similar challenges in the Senate.
One big reason for the popularity is NASA's savvy lobbying. When the House was considering the space station last year, the space agency distributed maps showing that the project was accountable for 75,000 contracting jobs in 37 states, including hundreds in the Tampa Bay area.
The next test is Tuesday, when Rep. Tim Roemer, D-Ind., and others are scheduled to ask their colleagues on the House floor to eliminate the project.
"We're still considering it an uphill battle," said Desiree Green, a spokeswoman for Roemer.
Rep. Penny, a fiscal conservative also trying to kill the atom smasher project in Texas, says Clinton's endorsement may pick up votes among House Democrats but lose support among Republicans. Previously, some Republicans felt duty bound to support the space project because it was backed by President Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle.
"Every effort to downsize the program is tacitly an admission that the program has no mission," Penny said in an interview.
The key to the vote, he says, is the freshman class of lawmakers who came to Congress pledging to cut spending.
Supporters of the project, meanwhile, say Clinton's announcement strengthens their hand. They note that some key critics have retired since the last time the House voted.
"The president has proposed a space station that will fly in space and also fly in Congress," said U.S. Rep. Jim Bacchus, a Democrat whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. "Had the president not done what he's done today, we'd have been in real trouble."
U.S. Rep. C. W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, said, "I think Congress will still be supportive of the space station."
A House appropriations subcommittee already has agreed to spend $1.5-billion on the project, about $350-million short of what Clinton proposed, Young said.
Two Tampa Bay companies working on the space station say they are not certain yet what the redesign Clinton is recommending might mean for them.
"The president's announcement appears to be good news for the space station," said Wendy Dimond, spokeswoman for Honeywell Inc.'s Space Systems Group in Clearwater. The group previously estimated that it could lose as many as 400 of its 2,200 Clearwater jobs as a result of cutbacks in plans for the space station.
"Until we have a better understanding of the scaled-down version recommended by the president, we really can't estimate the effects on Honeywell," Dimond said.
_ Information from staff writer Helen Huntley and Congressional Quarterly was used in this report.