Congress Passes CR but Postpones Work on Space Bills

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate passed a short-term funding bill for the federal government Sept. 18, one day after the House of Representatives passed the same bill, but both houses delayed consideration of several space-related bills, in some cases until the next Congress.

The Senate voted 78-22 to approve a continuing resolution (CR) that funds the federal government from Oct. 1 — the beginning of the 2015 fiscal year — through Dec. 11. The House approved the CR on a 319-108 vote Sept. 17.

The CR funds government agencies at fiscal year 2014 levels, with an across-the-board cut, or rescission, of 0.0554 percent. The rescission will cost NASA about $9.6 million of its $17.64 billion budget, assuming the temporary spending measure lasts a full year. If it lasts two-and-a-third months, as currently planned, that would amount to a little less than $1.9 million.

The CR gives the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the flexibility to fund its weather satellite programs so that they maintain their planned launch schedules.

The CR also includes a provision that keeps alive the Export-Import Bank of the United States through the end of June 2015. Authorization for the bank, which in recent years has backed several commercial satellite manufacturing and launch deals, was set to expire at the end of September. 

After passing the CR, the House and Senate recessed until after the November elections. Congress will resume work on 2015 appropriations bills and other legislation when it reconvenes for a lame-duck session in mid-November.

When it returns, the House is unlikely to consider additional legislation on two space topics. In a speech at the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meeting here Sept. 17, House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said that space property rights is “a topic that I am interested in addressing through legislation early in the next Congress.”

Smith’s comments were in reference to a hearing held by his committee’s space subcommittee Sept. 10 about the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space Act, legislation introduced in July that would grant to U.S. companies rights to resources they extracted from asteroids. The bill got a mixed reception at the hearing, where some members and witnesses raised questions about vague language in the bill.

Smith said that an update to the Commercial Space Launch Act would also have to wait until the next Congress convenes in January. “I wanted to try and get something done in the lame-duck session this year,” he said, “but I just won’t have the bipartisan support that I need, so we’ll continue to work on that in the early part of the next Congress.”

Smith did not elaborate on the specific issues holding up the bill, or the provisions he would like to include. Past discussions about updating the bill have ranged from an extension of the current restriction on commercial spaceflight safety regulations to granting “on orbit authority” to an agency like the FAA to oversee commercial space activities in orbit.

The one remaining major space bill for this Congress is a NASA authorization bill. The House passed its authorization legislation June 9 on a 401-2 vote. “This NASA authorization bill is waiting for daylight in the Senate,” Smith said at the COMSTAC meeting.

The Senate has been working on a NASA authorization bill, but was unable to get it passed by unanimous consent before it recessed Sept. 18. According to sources familiar with the bill, the Senate was working on an amended version of S.1317, a NASA authorization bill that had been in limbo since the Senate Commerce Committee approved it on a party-line vote in July 2013. The Senate bill would likely authorize funding for fiscal year 2015, versus 2014 in the House bill and fiscal years 2014 through 2016 in the original Senate bill.

 

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