Space-Related Bills Await Action By Congress


WASHINGTON — Congress expects to take up several key pieces of space-related legislation in the next few weeks, from reauthorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank to the final version of a commercial space bill, two House members said Oct. 21.

The House is scheduled to vote Oct. 26 on a bill that would reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank until 2019. The bank, used frequently in recent years to finance commercial satellite and launch deals, has been unable to handle new transactions since its authorization lapsed July 1.

“We will get a vote and I think we will pass it out of the House,” said Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) during a meeting Oct. 21 of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) here.

The Ex-Im reauthorization bill had been held up in the House Financial Services Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), opposes the bank and declined to take action on the bill. Kilmer was one of 218 members of Congress who signed a discharge petition Oct. 9, a rarely used legislative tool to bring the bill to the House floor without a vote by the committee.

Kilmer said that while he expects the House to pass the bill, opponents of the legislation will attempt to block it through what he termed “procedural shenanigans” such as motions to table the bill. “There will probably be a handful of votes” on those motions before one on the bill itself, he said.

If the bill passes the House, the Senate would then have to take action. While Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) introduced a similar bill there Oct. 19, Kilmer said he is skeptical a standalone bill will pass in the Senate. “It will likely be attached to something like a transportation bill,” he said.

In a separate talk at the COMSTAC meeting, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) said he believed the House and Senate would soon finish reconciling their versions of commercial space bills passed earlier this year.

“We are in the final stages of working out the details on a final bill with the Senate,” said Babin, the chairman of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee. “I hope to have something that both chambers can send to the President for his signature later this fall.”

Both the House bill, passed in May, and the Senate bill, passed in August, extends current provisions of commercial launch law providing government indemnification of third-party damages above a certain level, and also restricting the FAA’s ability to enact regulations for the safety of people flying on commercial spacecraft. The Senate bill, however, extends them through 2020, while the House bill extends them to 2025.

The House and Senate bills differ in other respects as well. The House bill includes language about property rights of resources extracted from asteroids, while the Senate bill authorizes the extension of International Space Station operations through 2024. Babin did not discuss the details of the negotiations to reconcile the two bills.

Babin also called on the Senate to pass a NASA authorization bill by the end of this year. The House passed in February an authorization bill for fiscal year 2015 with little debate, but the Senate took no action on the bill. A separate authorization bill for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 is pending consideration by the full House after the House Science Committee approved it on a party-line vote in April.

“This should be an easy bill for the Senate to take up and pass quickly,” he said of the 2015 bill, saying that it would provide “consistency of purpose” for NASA in advance of a change of presidential administrations after the 2016 elections.

Potentially overshadowing all of those bills, though, are deliberations on a fiscal year 2016 spending bill. The government is operating on a continuing resolution (CR) that funds agencies at 2015 levels until Dec. 11 as Congress considers either an omnibus spending bill for 2016 or a full-year CR.

“I certainly hope that we have an omnibus,” said Kilmer, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee. An omnibus bill provides more spending flexibility than a full-year CR, he said, but added that he was reluctant to predict what Congress would do.

NASA Chief of Staff Michael French said at the COMSTAC meeting that current situation is compounded by the challenge of passing a fiscal year 2017 budget next year during the presidential election. “We’ve got eleven months to deal with two budgets,” he said. “This obviously creates another level of uncertainty that we’re already under with the CR.”