Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) spoke in favor of H.R. 5746 during debate on the House floor Jan. 13. The bill, which he originally introduced to extend NASA's ability to lease property, was converted into a vehicle for voting rights legislation. Credit: C-SPAN

WASHINGTON — NASA’s ability to lease property at its facilities to companies or other organizations remains in limbo after a bill meant to reauthorize it was transformed in the House into voting rights legislation.

H.R. 5746 was introduced in October by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), chair of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee. The bill extended NASA’s authorization to enter into what are known as enhanced use leases, or EULs, of agency property to companies, government agencies, or educational institutions, for 10 years. The House passed the bill by a voice vote Dec. 8.

The Senate amended the bill, extending the EUL authorization by only three months instead of 10 years, and passed it by unanimous consent, sending it back to the House.

The Democratic leadership of the House, in an unusual move, then took the Senate-amended bill and stripped out the NASA provisions, replacing it with the text of two voting rights bills and now called the “Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.” They did so because H.R. 5746 had already passed the House and Senate, so the amended version could go directly to the Senate floor without the threat of a filibuster from Senate Republicans, who oppose the voting rights legislation.

The move effectively sacrificed the NASA portions of the bill, something that Beyer said he accepted. “Though I did not expect this outcome when I first introduced the NASA Enhanced Use Leasing Extension Act, if my legislation will help overcome the filibuster, the Senate can finally have the long-overdue debate on voting rights this country deserves,” he said in a Jan. 13 statement. “I would be honored to make this unexpected contribution to the cause of protecting our democracy.”

The House passed the bill Jan. 13 220 to 203 on strict party lines, with Democrats voting in favor of the bill and Republicans against it.

Republican members, including some who co-sponsored the original H.R. 5746, strongly criticized the decision to turn the NASA bill into a vehicle for voting rights legislation. “The majority has taken a practical, bipartisan bill and gutted it, inserting 735 pages of unrelated legislation and forcing the House to vote on it barely 12 hours after the text was released,” Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), ranking member of the House Science Committee, said in a statement. “What’s more, by stripping this NASA bill and replacing it with an attempt to impose federal control of elections, they have killed our only vehicle to extend NASA’s authority to lease out underutilized property and save taxpayer money.”

NASA’s EUL authority lapsed Dec. 31, meaning that the agency cannot enter into new leases until that authority is renewed. NASA had signed leases for 65 properties as of 2019, which provided the agency with nearly $11 million in revenue that went to support other facility improvements.

It’s unclear what the next step is for restoring NASA’s EUL authority. A Senate bill introduced in December proposed a two-year extension, but that bill remains in the Senate Commerce Committee.

“We hope and expect to pass an EUL extension in future legislation,” Aaron Fritschner, spokesman for Rep. Beyer, told SpaceNews Jan. 13 after the House vote, but details on how to do so were still being worked out.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...