- - Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What happens when corporate interests see a $600 billion government authorization bill coming down the pike? Especially when it’s a bill that has been enacted every single year for more than 50 years? Well, not surprisingly, if you’re the Washington office (read: lobbyist) of such a corporate entity, you go all out to get your provision into that bill.

This week’s example comes from the U.S. Senate, where Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain of Arizona is attempting to use his clout to do a big favor for one of his big liberal donors during consideration of the annual National Defense Authorization Act.

Let’s back up.

Bad people want to do bad things to Americans.

International drug traffickers smuggle drugs and illegal immigrants - likely including terrorists - across our borders, and radical Islamic terrorists attack U.S. interests around the world with regularity.

One of the most important defensive tools at our disposal is our advanced technology - specifically, surveillance satellites orbiting high above the Earth, used to track their movements.

Currently, there’s only one rocket in our space fleet capable of sending those large payloads into space to reach the high orbits where they must be deployed - the Atlas V rocket.

Naturally, there’s a catch. Though this rocket is built in America, it uses the Russian-made RD-180 rocket engine. Unfortunately, it will be years before an American-made rocket engine can be developed and supplied for use in the Atlas V rocket.

And that’s a problem.

Sen. McCain does not like the Russian-made RD-180 engines used in those rockets. He says it’s because we shouldn’t buy rocket engines (or, presumably, anything else) from Russia, because Russia invaded the Crimea. (One problem with that argument, though, is that we do almost $35 billion in trade with Russia every year, and the rocket engines account for less than $100 million - less than one-third of 1 percent of our total bilateral trade with Russia - and Sen. McCain hasn’t said much, if anything, about the other $34 billion in trade.)

What is beyond dispute is that Sen. McCain wants the Pentagon to use rockets made by his liberal donor buddy, Elon Musk, whose SpaceX is now trying to get those contracts.

But there’s a hitch: SpaceX doesn’t have a rocket capable of carrying these payloads into space.

And even if it did, SpaceX has another problem: Its rockets seem to have a tendency to blow up. I’m no rocket scientist, but I can watch video clips on YouTube as well as the next guy, and I’ve seen several clips of those SpaceX rockets engulfed in flame.

In fact, if you query Google and type in “Elon Musk rocket,” the first page of searches results return “explosion.”

One almost wonders whether Mr. Musk should seek the assistance of the noted rocket engineer Wile E. Coyote before his next attempt.

This is a real problem. Roughly two-thirds of our military, intelligence community, scientific and even weather satellites are launched into space on the Atlas V rocket, which uses the Russian RD-180 rocket engines.

Says Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee (read: He knows what he’s talking about), “Given the current volatility of our relationship with Russia, our nation needs to develop a reliable, American alternative to the RD-180 as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that may not be for another four to five years at best … Recklessly restricting the use of the RD-180 in the near term will undermine both national security and the prospects for real competition in the military launch business.”

“Undermin[ing] both national security and the prospects for real competition?” “Meh,” responds Sen. McCain.

So Sen. McCain has inserted a provision into the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) - being considered by the Senate this week - that prohibits the use of the RD-180 engine. That would freeze the satellite launch program for several years.

That is simply unacceptable.

The House of Representatives agrees. In its version of the National Defense Authorization Act, there is no prohibition on the use of the Russian RD-180 engine.

And Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Cory Gardner of Colorado agree, too. They’ve introduced an amendment to strike the offending provisions in the Senate’s version of the NDAA, and let the U.S. government continue to use the RD-180 until a suitable replacement engine can be deployed.

Here’s hoping the Nelson-Gardner amendment prevails. It’d be nuts to have to fly blind just to have one senator be able to do a favor for a liberal donor.

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