Sen. John McCain will be saying “nyet” to the massive budget package on Friday over a provision that reverses a ban on purchasing Russian-made rocket engines.
McCain is furious with two of his colleagues — Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) — for inserting a provision into the budget deal lifting a ban on U.S. companies from purchasing Russian-made rocket engines used in military launches of satellites into space.
McCain made sure the rocket engine ban was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed Congress last month. As chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain played a major role in drafting and negotiating that bill. But the ban would be effectively lifted by the omnibus, which includes language allowing launch-service providers submitting government bids to use rocket engines “regardless of the country of origin.”
McCain pointed a finger in blame at Shelby, a senior appropriator, and Durbin. Both senators have local interests in allowing U.S. companies to buy the rocket engines: Boeing, who has some operations in Illinois, and Lockheed Martin, which has facilities in Alabama, are joint owners of United Launch Alliance, which stands to benefit from being able to use the Russian rocket engines.
The Republican is now using his rocket engine crusade as a launching pad to attack the $1.1 trillion spending package arrived at earlier this week as a bipartisan compromise by lawmakers. McCain has long battled against waste and pork — a complaint that is also resonating with some Democrats, who have taken particular issue with the $622 billion tax package favored by Republicans that the House passed on Thursday as part of the overall spending deal.
McCain sees the elimination of the rocket language as both a personal insult, and support for “pork-barrel parochialism” that has not just financial but national security implications.
“How can our government tell European countries and governments that they need to hold the line on maintaining sanctions on Russia, which is far harder for them to do, when we are gutting our own policy in this way?” McCain said on Wednesday. “How can we tell our French allies in particular they shouldn’t sell Vladimir Putin amphibious assault ships as we have, and then turn around and try to buy rocket engines from Putin’s cronies?”
On Friday, as the Senate votes on the budget deal, European governments will be meeting and are expected to make a formal decision on whether or not to extend sanctions against Russia that were adopted after Russia’s invasion of Crimea and during the height of the Ukraine war. They are expected to continue the sanctions.
The purchase of Russian-made rockets isn’t banned under the sanctions the United States adopted against Russia, which are focused on the energy, defense and banking sectors.
But for McCain — who has long been seeing red over Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere — any financial transaction that could lead to money going into the pockets of Russian contractors close to Putin is the equivalent of “subsidizing Russian aggression.”
“This is the height of hypocrisy,” McCain said.
McCain had warned colleagues against politicizing the omnibus bill, worrying that Congress shouldn’t risk a government shutdown over pet issues. But after the omnibus — without warning — reversed the NDAA provision on Russian rockets that he championed, he has changed his tune.
“This is a recipe for corruption,” he said, complaining that senators were being asked to swallow the omnibus package as “take it or leave it.”
Answering McCain’s accusations on the floor, Durbin countered the change is necessary to keep the American space industry humming.
ULA, a rocket launch services provider owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, relies on the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine to power the Atlas V rocket. Over the summer, Pentagon officials warned lawmakers drafting the NDAA that if they forged ahead with the ban of the Russian-made engines, it might push ULA out of business.
Lawmakers were trying to spur the production of an American-made alternative to the Russian-made rocket engine. But those alternatives aren’t yet ready, and won’t be until 2022 at the earliest.
“They don’t have an alternative engine,” Durbin said on the Senate floor.
Durbin went on to say that if ULA cannot get the Russian rocket engines, they cannot bid on government projects. If that happens, the Illinois Democrat fears creating an eventual monopoly in the domestic space engine industry in SpaceX – which is expected to test the mettle of its newest rocket engines this weekend, according to reports.
Having Russian rockets at the ready, Durbin argued, would prevent that monopoly from forming.
“I agree with him about Russia,” Durbin said of McCain. “But we’ve got to be careful we don’t cut off our nose to spite our face.”
But McCain doesn’t buy the timeline, arguing that ULA has plenty of additional rocket engines ready for use “through at least 2019, if not later.” He believes the company is pushing favors from lawmakers more interested in delivering pork to their constituents than in safeguarding national security.
He is also angry that he seemingly lost control over the policy-making that his stewardship of the NDAA was supposed to deliver.
“I say to my colleagues that are not on the Appropriations Committee, if you let this go, then maybe you’re next,” McCain said of the excluded rocket engine ban. “Subsidizing Vladimir Putin is outrageous enough. But if we’re going to allow this kind of middle-of-the-night airdropping…then we are destroying the very fundamental structure of how the United States Senate and the United States Congress is supposed to work.”