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Senate-Passed Sanctions Bill Includes Exception for NASA, Commercial Space Launches

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jun-2017
Updated: 15-Jun-2017 06:54 PM

The Senate passed a Russia-Iran sanctions act today by a vote of 98-2.  During debate, the Senate adopted an amendment to clarify that the bill is not intended to prevent commercial launch service providers from using Russian engines on rockets that launch NASA or commercial payloads.

The amendment was sponsored by Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) and co-sponsored by his Democratic counterpart (Bennet), both Republican Senators from Alabama (Shelby and Strange), both Democratic Senators from Virginia (Warner and Kaine), and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL).

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) spoke against the amendment.  His opposition to use of Russian RD-180 engines for national security launches using United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket is well known.  During consideration of last year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), he finally relented in his efforts to require ULA to terminate its use of those engines by 2019, agreeing to a more gradual transition as U.S. companies work to develop alternatives.

His passion to end U.S. reliance on Russian engines has not waned, however.  Today he turned his attention to the use of Russian engines for civil and commercial customers. 


Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).  Photo Credit: McCain's Senate Website

ULA's RD-180-powered Atlas V already is sometimes used for launching Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).  In the future, it will be used by Sierra Nevada for Dream Chaser cargo missions and by Boeing for launches of its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew spacecraft.  Atlas V is also used for NASA science missions and for NOAA weather satellites, as well as commercial customers.

Orbital ATK uses its own Antares rocket for Cygnus launches to ISS, too.  Antares is outfitted with Russian RD-181 engines.

Invoking the same rhetoric he used in the RD-180 debate, McCain insisted that buying engines from Russia puts money into the pockets of Russian President Vladimir Putin's "cronies."  He said the language agreed to in last year's NDAA put DOD on the path to eliminate dependence on Russia as soon as possible while fostering competition among American companies and "NASA needs to do the same.  NASA needs to do the same.  NASA needs to do the same."  Repeating it three times for emphasis, he urged a no vote on the Gardner amendment (SA 250).

He conceded that the amendment would pass despite his objections and he was correct.  It passed 94-6.

Gardner insisted that putting NASA on a path to phase out reliance on Russia is, in fact, the intent of the amendment, but just like DOD, time is needed for that transition to occur.   He characterized the amendment as an effort to avoid an "unintended consequence" of the underlying bill, S. 722.

The bill, "An Act to Provide Congressional Review and to Counter Iranian and Russian Governments' Aggression," came out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  It imposes additional sanctions on Iran and on Russia, but as committee chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) said, it also "reasserts congressional authority" over imposing or ending sanctions on those countries.  "For decades, Congress has slowly and irresponsibly ceded its authorities to the executive branch, particularly as it relates to foreign policy." 

Corker added that the bill provides the Trump Administration with "appropriate national security flexibility."  Its intent to prevent the President from unilaterally ending sanctions, particularly on Russia, however, is clear. Hence, the fate of the bill is in question.  It still must pass the House and be signed into law by the President to become law.  If it passes the House, it seems unlikely that any President would sign a bill limiting his authorities.  If Trump vetoes the bill, Congress could override it with a two-thirds vote of the House and of the Senate.  The 98-2 Senate vote today clearly would meet that margin, though voting to override a veto is quite different from voting on a piece of legislation at this stage of its development.   All eyes will be on the House to see what it does with the bill.


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