One word: rockets
A furious Sen. John McCain lit into two of his Senate colleagues Wednesday over a provision slipped into the 2,000-page spending bill that would lift a ban on the use of Russian-made rocket engines.
Sen. McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, is reportedly so upset about the effort to reverse the ban that he’s indicated that he won’t support the $1.1 trillion spending bill unless the provision is removed.
Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama added the language to the legislation that would let rocket builder United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between aerospace titans Boeing “BA” and Lockheed Martin “LMT” , continue buying Russian RD-180 rocket engines for at least one more year. ULA needs the engines to power its workhorse Atlas V rocket that launches everything from communications satellites to sensitive national security assets into orbit.
The bill’s approval would reverse a measure restricting the import of Russian rocket engines contained in the latest National Defense Authorization Act—a measure championed by McCain. Congress enacted the restrictions in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year.
“Senator Shelby and Senator Durbin have chosen to reward Vladimir Putin and his cronies with a windfall of hundreds of millions of dollars,” McCain said in remarks made on the Senate floor Wednesday. “A rocket factory in Alabama may benefit from this provision. Boeing, headquartered in Illinois, may benefit from this decision. But have no doubt, the real winners today are Vladimir Putin and his gang of thugs running the Russian military-industrial complex.”
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the top Democrat on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, also supports the provision.
In his remarks, McCain called the provision “the height of hypocrisy,” insisting that the U.S. cannot continue to ask its European allies to continue leveling economic sanctions against Russia while continuing to buy hundreds of millions of dollars worth of rocket engines from companies with close ties to the Putin regime.
McCain’s outpouring of contempt for his Senate colleagues marks the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between ULA and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which only recently was certified to perform the kind of national security-related launches that ULA has performed exclusively for the last decade.
While Congress has ordered that a new American-made rocket engine be developed to reduce U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines, a new engine won’t be ready until 2019 at the earliest. ULA has insisted that it needs to buy more RD-180s to remain competitive with SpaceX as well as to ensure the Pentagon’s uninterrupted access to space in the years between now and whenever a new engine is ready.
ULA drove its point home last month when it declined to bid in the first contract competition for which SpaceX was eligible, claiming that the restriction on RD-180 imports has left it without enough engines compete. McCain claims ULA is “manufacturing a crisis” in order to pressure Congress to lift the ban. Sen. Shelby, whose state is home to ULA’s rocket-building factory, has taken up ULA’s cause on Capitol Hill.
In an op-ed, Shelby claims that Congress’s restriction on RD-180 imports could leave the Pentagon without access to space for several years while it waits on an American-made rocket engine to be fully developed. He also takes a shot at McCain, accusing the Senator of pushing for the ban “in close coordination with SpaceX.”
From the Senate floor, McCain vowed revenge if the provision is not stripped out of the bill before Friday’s vote to approve the spending package. Right now, the ban on Russian rocket engines is finite, coming up for reevaluation in each successive annual defense spending bill. Wrapping his remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, the Senator threatened to take up harsher, more permanent measures against the RD-180 and, by extension, ULA.
“On the record, I make this promise: If this language undermining the National Defense Authorization Act is not removed from the Omnibus, I assure my colleagues that this issue will not go unaddressed in the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act,” he said. “We have sought to be flexible and open to new information, but if this is how our efforts are repaid, then perhaps we need to look at a complete and indefinite restriction on Putin’s rocket engines.”
For more on the commercial space industry, watch this Fortune video.