Cruz plans to try again with commercial space legislation

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WASHINGTON — A commercial space bill that fell just short of passage last year will be reintroduced this year to serve as the starting point for further discussions, a key senator said Jan. 15.

Speaking at a Space Transportation Association Event here, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said he hoped to win passage of a new version of the Space Frontier Act, as well as a NASA authorization bill, in the next two years with bipartisan support despite the “intense partisan discord” currently in Congress.

Cruz introduced last July the Space Frontier Act, which included a number of commercial space regulatory reform measures as well as extending NASA’s authorization to operate the International Space Station from 2024 to 2030. The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent Dec. 20.

However, the bill failed to clear the House the next day when it could not get the two-thirds majority needed for passage under suspension of the rules, the mechanism in the House for expedited passage of legislation. A large number of Democratic members there voted against the bill after Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who now chairs the House Transportation Committee, raised objections to the bill.

Cruz said he’ll try again with the bill in the new Congress. “My intention is to move forward and pass it again, and then work with the House,” he said.

He said that the differences with the House that kept the bill from winning passage there last year were less with the substance of the bill than “turf battles” over jurisdiction. Commercial space issues are generally handed by the House Science Committee, but the House Transportation Committee has shown an increasing interest in the topic, particularly in areas like access to airspace for launches and reentries.

“We will work very closely with the incoming chairman in the House and, hopefully, as we have on prior bills, get agreement and move this forward,” Cruz said.

Cruz said later that it might have been possible to work out an agreement with the House on the Space Frontier Act last year but time ran out in the final days of the previous Congress. “There was a short window of time” that limited negotiations on the bill, he said. “By the time the bill got out of the Senate, there were only a few days left in the year, so we ran out of time.”

He compared it to two years earlier, when the House and Senate were working on a NASA authorization bill but could not get it passed before Congress adjourned at the end of 2016. Congress did pass a NASA authorization bill early in the new Congress in 2017. “The work getting to consensus then sets the stage for final passage,” he said.

One area of debate between the House and Senate has been where to place authority for oversight of commercial space capabilities. The House, as well as the National Space Council, have argued for handing that work to the Department of Commerce and its Office of Space Commerce. Senate Democrats, though, have sought to instead give that to the Department of Transportation, particularly the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

Cruz said he had no strong opinion on the subject. “In listening to the varying views, I found myself somewhat agnostic,” he said. “I understood the arguments for going in one direction or the other. I wasn’t overwhelmingly convinced by the arguments on either side.” That’s why, he said, the Space Frontier Act didn’t make a concerted effort to assign those regulatory responsibilities to either department.

Either the new version of the Space Frontier Act or a new NASA authorization bill will also retain the extension of the ISS to 2030, he said. Cruz and others in the Senate, including now-former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), pressed for that extension in response to plans in NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal to end direct federal funding of the station in 2025.

“U.S. taxpayers have invested over $100 billion into the space station, and it is foolish not to get the maximum return from that investment,” he said. “There will come a time, to be sure, when there has to be a transition, but we shouldn’t force that prematurely.”

Cruz said he’s hoping that space will remain a bipartisan issue despite heated partisan debates on other topics. Those disputes have led to the ongoing partial government shutdown, now nearly four weeks old, that has furloughed most of NASA’s civil servant workforce. Cruz didn’t directly address the shutdown in his remarks, but did warn of sharp partisan divides in Congress in the next two years, with Democrats now in control of the House while Republicans retain control of the Senate.

“The blood sport of Washington, I think, will get even bloodier in the next two years,” he said of those partisan disputes. “We’ll see how things go in the House. I suspect we’re going to see a lot of investigations, we’re going to see a lot of subpoenas, we may see impeachment. That’s going to make for a crazy environment.”

“My hope is, on a parallel track to the craziness,” he added, “we’re still going to see a willingness to work together in a bipartisan manner to move forward on space issues.”