Senate Passes Revised NDAA, Clearing it for the President

Senate Passes Revised NDAA, Clearing it for the President

UPDATE, November 25, 2015:  The President signed the bill into law today.

ORIGINAL STORY, November 10, 2015: The Senate passed the revised FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today, clearing the bill for the President.   The President vetoed an earlier version of the NDAA primarily because of a budget “gimmick” it used to add money for defense while ignoring non-defense needs.  The recently approved budget/debt limit deal solved that problem.

The President had objected to two policy provisions in the earlier version (H.R. 1735) that have not been changed (that the bill prevented needed reforms and did not allow the closing of Guantanamo), but no new veto threat has been issued for this version (S. 1356).  The only changes were budgetary.  The House passed the revised authorization bill last week by a vote of 370-58.  The Senate vote today was 91-3.  By passing a revised bill, Congress avoids a showdown over whether to try and override the President’s veto of H.R. 1735.

The bill sets policy.  It also recommends funding for defense programs, but only appropriations bills actually provide money.  Senate Democrats are blocking action on the defense appropriations bill for fear that Republicans might pass only defense spending bills and leave the rest of the government under a year-long Continuing Resolution (CR).  One exception is the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA) appropriations bill.  Senate Democrats reportedly did not object to that bill because its funding is about equally split between defense and non-defense activities.  The Senate passed the MilCon-VA appropriations bill today, too.

Among the space-related provisions of the revised FY2016 NDAA is a limit on the number of Russian RD-180 engines the United Launch Alliance (ULA) can obtain for its Atlas V rockets.  A 2013 block-buy contract between ULA and the Air Force called for obtaining 29 RD-180s.  ULA already has contracted for 15 of them but the remaining 14 have been the source of strong debate. This bill permits nine, while ULA wanted all 14, although the Secretary of Defense may grant waivers under certain circumstances.  The limits are only on the use of RD-180s for national security space launches. 

Congressional opposition to the use of RD-180s stems primarily from a desire to end dependence on Russia for launching U.S. national security satellites following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and resulting tensions in the U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationship.   The new goal is to develop an American engine to replace the RD-180s by 2019.  Determination by some very influential Senators, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), to reduce costs by forcing ULA to compete for national security launches with new entrants like SpaceX is another factor.  ULA has held a monopoly on those launches since it was formed as a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture in 2006.  The RD-180 issue is very controversial.

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