Edwards: No Progress on Reconciling Commercial Launch Bills

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GREENBELT, Md. — Despite individually passing legislation that would extend key provisions of commercial launch law, the House and Senate have yet to start efforts to reconcile their separate bills, a leading House Democrat said Aug. 25.

Speaking at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon here, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), ranking member of the House Science space subcommittee, said she was unaware of any effort in Congress to establish a conference committee to resolve differences between a commercial space transportation bill the House passed in May and one the Senate approved Aug. 4.

“I’m a little concerned about that. I haven’t heard anything yet about a prospective conference,” she said in response to a question about the status of the legislation. “I would be on the conference, so I would know that.”

Both the House bill, H.R. 2262, and the Senate bill, S. 1297, would extend the current restriction on the ability of the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate the safety of participants of commercial spaceflights except in the case of accidents. This grace period, frequently called the “learning period” by industry, is scheduled to expire Oct. 1. The Senate bill extends the learning period by five years, while the House bill extends it by ten.

The House and Senate bills also differ regarding another extension for the commercial launch indemnification regime, where the government is responsible for any third-party losses from launches in excess of a level the company must insure against. Launch indemnification, currently in place through 2016, would be extended through 2020 in the Senate bill and 2025 in the House bill.

In addition, the two bills have widely varying policy provisions. The House bill is a combination of four separate bills, and includes sections on space resource property rights, commercial remote sensing and revamping the Commerce Department’s Office of Space Commercialization, all of which are missing from the Senate bill. The Senate version authorizes an extension of International Space Station operations from 2020 to 2024, which is not included in the House bill.

During the debate about the bill on the House floor in May, Edwards introduced an amendment to replace the bill with the Senate version, which was rejected by the House. “The reason I introduced the Senate version on the House floor,” she said, “is precisely because I thought that if we had two separate versions, we would be in exactly this position, and that is not being able to really move forward.”

Edwards said she was concerned that, in lieu of a conference, Congressional leadership might include some provisions of the bill in a continuing resolution Congress must pass by the end of September to fund the government through at least the beginning of the 2016 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

“My fear now, frankly, is that we might end up some sort of an extension that would come in the context of what might be a continuing resolution,” she said.

Both houses of Congress are in recess until Sept. 8, and Edwards indicated that when they reconvene, they will likely focus on legislation like a continuing resolution that must pass to avoid a government shutdown, as was the case in 2013.

“We’ve really got to get down to brass tacks as members of Congress to make sure that we try to at least get an appropriations bill done, or a continuing resolution, or something that doesn’t allow the government to shut down,” she said.