Supercomputing bill set for House action next week

The House next week is expected to pass a bill to boost funding for supercomputing efforts at the Energy Department by $165 million, sending it to the president for signature. The legislation is slated for floor action Tuesday.

But House Science Committee aides said the measure, H.R. 4516, is only a piece of a larger effort needed by the U.S. government to keep the nation globally competitive.

The House passed a similar version by voice vote July 7, and the Senate passed an amended version by voice vote Oct. 10, just before lawmakers adjourned for the campaign season. They return to Washington next week for a brief post-election session focused primarily on federal spending and intelligence legislation.

The supercomputing bill would authorize $50 million in fiscal 2005, $55 million in fiscal 2006 and $60 million in fiscal 2007.

The version before the House next week has several small but substantive changes from the earlier version, according to a House aide. The supercomputing debate began in the Senate on a companion measure, S. 2176, but after the House passed its bill, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee acted on the House legislation.

Before the committee approved it, however, negotiations were held with House staff to draft a version both sides would like. That is the version the Senate ultimately passed.

The Senate removed a House provision that would authorize the National Science Foundation to support research into the societal implications of high-performance computing. One source said the provision arose from concerns by Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., about using such computers to create human-like "sentient beings."

The Senate also added a provision that would require Energy to establish a software development center, but the House negotiators opposed it, as they generally discourage the creation of new centers in lawmakers' districts that might be considered "pork," the House aide said.

House aides argued that supercomputing centers already exist and could work on software. A compromise changed some words so the provision could be interpreted as creating a "virtual" center rather than a physical structure, the aide said.

Negotiators also removed a requirement that the Energy secretary act through the department's Science Office. The department's National Nuclear Security Agency also uses supercomputing and is separate from the Science Office. The reference to the office was removed.

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., has set his sights on the reintroduction early next year of a more comprehensive bill, H.R. 4218, to create a national, interagency, high-end computing program. The House passed the measure July 7, but it has languished in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee ever since, lacking a "champion" to push it through, the House aide said.

A high-end computing interagency process was created in a previous law, but "that process is largely broken," the aide said. For instance, an annual document intended to help appropriators by reporting agencies' spending on supercomputing now trickles out at the end of each fiscal year, not the beginning.