Commercial Space News
Here is our list of space policy events coming up during the week of October 5-9, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session.
During the Week
Today is the 58th anniversary of the Space Age. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik on October 4, 1957, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. Nine months later, after considerable debate and many hearings, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. President Eisenhower signed it into law on July 29, 1958 and NASA opened its doors on October 1, 1958. Hard to imagine anything happening that fast these days.
Kicking the can down the road seems to be the best Washington can manage at the moment. Congress passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) last week to keep the government operating through December 11 without resolving the issues that have prevented the 12 regular appropriations bills from getting passed. Now there will be a leadership transition in the House. The election of a new Speaker to replace John Boehner (R-OH), who is leaving at the end of the month, will take place on Thursday. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is still the favorite despite controversial comments he made over the past week. Two others have announced their own candidacies, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL). If McCarthy wins, there definitely will changes in other leadership positions since his current post will become vacant, and if one of the others wins, changes also are possible.
Against this backdrop, Congress has a very busy schedule between now and December 11. Must-pass bills include reauthorizing spending from the Highway Trust Fund (another issue that was kicked down the road in July when it was given a 3-month extension that expires on October 29), raising the debt limit by November 5, and, of course, doing something about appropriations before the CR runs out. Many consider the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act another must-pass bill and the House and Senate did reach a compromise on it, but most Democrats on the conference committee refused to sign the report and the White House has threatened to veto the bill. The House passed the compromise last week and the Senate is supposed to take it up this week. The fate of other bills, such as the House and Senate commercial space bills or attempts to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, remains up in the air. The provision in existing commercial space law that had to be dealt with -- the learning period for commercial human spaceflight regulations -- because it would have expired on September 30 was given a 6-month extension (to April 1, 2016) in a hastily passed airport and airways bill that extended a number of expiring provisions to give Congress more time to deal with them.
The only space-related hearing that we know about as of Sunday morning is a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Space Subcommittee hearing on Friday. The topic is "Deep Space Exploration: Examining the Impact of the President's Budget" with two former NASA human spaceflight officials (Doug Cooke and Dan Dumbacher) as witnesses.
NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot will talk to the Space Transportation Association (STA) on Wednesday. The event is by invitation only, so we do not list it on our calendar, but anyone who is interested can contact STA's Rich Coleman at firstname.lastname@example.org. The NASA Advisory Council's Planetary Science Subcommittee meets on Monday and Tuesday, and a National Academy of Sciences committee reviewing progress in achieving the vision outlined in the 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey meets in open session on Thursday and Friday. All of those are in Washington, DC.
Elsewhere in the United States, the annual ISPCS (International Symposium on Personal and Commercial Spaceflight) is on Wednesday and Thursday in Las Cruces, NM, and there's a LunarCubes workshop in San Jose, CA from Tuesday to Friday. NASA will hold two briefings on Wednesday at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA about cubesats that are flying on a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) launch scheduled for Thursday. NASA sponsored four of the 13 cubesats that will tag along on the launch and funded a fifth in conjunction with NRO. The remainder are NRO's.
Elsewhere in the world, pre-meetings begin for the annual International Astronautical Congress (IAC), which will be held in Jerusalem, Israel next week. The IAC combines meetings of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), and International Institute of Space Law (IISL). IAC officially begins next Monday (October 12), but the associated 3-day Space Generation Congress starts this Thursday and the IAA has meetings over the weekend.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below. Check back throughout the week for any additional events we learn about and post to our Events of Interest calendar on the right side of SpacePolicyOnliine.com's main page.
Monday-Tuesday, October 5-6
Tuesday, October 6
Tuesday-Friday, October 6-9
Wednesday, October 7
Wednesday-Thursday, October 7-8
Thursday, October 8
Thursday-Saturday, October 8-10
Friday, October 9
Supporters of the Export-Import Bank may try a new tactic to put the institution back in business -- National Journal is reporting that a discharge petition may be filed to get the issue out of committee and to the House floor. Advocates have often said that a majority of House members support the bank, but the House Republican leadership is preventing them from having a chance to vote on it.
The Bank helps provide financing for U.S. exports, including communications satellites, for example. Created in 1934, its charter must be periodically reauthorized by Congress, something done routinely over the decades. This year, however, the reauthorization has been a matter of bitter debate. The issue splits the Republican and Democratic parties with some members of each insisting that the bank is essential to U.S. exports and therefore to U.S. jobs, while others assert it is corporate welfare for a few big companies. Boeing is often mentioned in the latter regard. Advocates claim that small and medium size businesses also benefit not only because of their own projects, but because many are suppliers to the big companies.
The Bank's authorization expired on June 30 after an attempt to reauthorize it failed. Another attempt in July met the same fate. The Bank currently cannot make new loans, only administer those already in force.
Boeing chairman, W. James McNerney, Jr said in July that the whole point of the Bank is to level the playing field with foreign competitors and If there will be no U.S. Ex-Im Bank, "we are actively considering now moving key pieces of our company to other countries and we never would have considered it before this craziness on Ex-Im." He called it "the triumph of ideology over any description of private business." Boeing is the biggest beneficiary by dollars, he agreed, but not by transactions: "There are more deals for small and medium size companies than big companies. The congressional situation is a "sign of dysfunctionality" when two-thirds of the House and of the Senate support reauthorization, but legislation cannot pass because of the "extremes" of the two parties.
Boeing and Orbital ATK reportedly have lost satellite business already because of the inability of the Bank to make new loans.
In the House, the challenge has been that the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), supported by members of the House leadership, opposes the bank and has not moved legislation out of his committee to reauthorize it.
National Journal reports tonight, however, that Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) is planning to use a procedure called a discharge petition to move a bill out of that committee and to the floor of the House for a vote. As explained in a Congressional Research Service report, a discharge petition requires 218 signatures. Signing a discharge petition might be viewed as an affront to House leadership, making it a difficult decision for Republican members and at least 30 Republican signatures would be needed if all 188 Democrats signed (and there is no guarantee of that).
House rules (Rule XV, clause 2) establish time periods for when discharge petitions may be filed and when they may be considered on the floor, so it could take some time for this to play out. It is possible that outgoing Speaker John Boehner could decide to bring a bill to the floor and avoid the need for a discharge petition that could pit Republicans against Republicans. If not, this will be one more issue to land in the lap of his successor.
Even if the bill does pass the House, it still, of course, must pass the Senate where the issue is equally divisive.
First the Senate and then the House passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) today to keep the government operating tomorrow when FY2016 begins. The CR lasts through December 11, 2015.
The Senate vote was 78-20. All 20 no votes were Republicans. Republican presidential candidates Cruz and Paul voted no, while Graham and Rubio did not vote. The 78 yes votes were 32 Republicans, all 44 Democrats, and both Independents. Democratic presidential candidate Sanders (who is an independent in the Senate) voted yes. The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee (who also chairs a subcommittee) and 6 other subcommittee chairs voted yes, and 4 voted no, including Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) who chairs the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA. One (Graham) did not vote.
The House vote was 277-151. All 151 no votes were Republicans. All 186 Democrats who voted and 91 Republicans voted yes. The chairman of the full appropriations committee, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) and nine of the 12 subcommittee chairs voted yes. Two voted no. One, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee, did not vote.
Congress is using the TSA Office of Inspection Accountability Act, H.R. 719, as the legislative vehicle for the FY2016 CR. The operative part for the CR is Senate Amendment 2689 (SA 2689).
Agencies are funded at their FY2015 levels except that there is an across-the-board 0.2108 percent reduction to ensure the total does not exceed agreed upon budget caps.
The President is expected to sign the bill, keeping the government open until December 11. What will happen at that point is anyone's guess.
The House and Senate Armed Services Committees (HASC and SASC) announced agreement today on a compromise version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-CA) said that he expects the bill to reach the floor of the House for debate on Thursday. One thorny space-related issue, on use of Russian RD-180 rocket engines, was resolved largely in the Senate's favor.
Broadly speaking, the House, Senate, Air Force, DOD, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) agree that the United States should not rely on Russian rocket engines to launch U.S. national security satellites. ULA was created in 2006 as a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing and has been essentially a monopoly launch services provider to the national security community since then. ULA's Atlas V rocket uses Russian RD-180 engines. From an engineering standpoint, the RD-180 apparently is an excellent engine and users are reluctant to give it up.
However, the advent of "new entrants" like SpaceX into the launch vehicle market, and the deterioration in the U.S.-Russian relationship following Russia's actions in Ukraine, marked a paradigm shift in the U.S. launch vehicle industry last year. SASC chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has been particularly strident in his views that the United States should not be paying money to Russia for rocket engines that goes into the pockets of "cronies" of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also strongly supports the entry of SpaceX as a competitor to ULA.
In last year's FY2015 NDAA, Congress set 2019 as a deadline for when RD-180s should be replaced by a new domestic rocket engine for national security launches (the provision does not affect the use of Russian engines for commercial or other government launches). Flexibility was provided by giving the Secretary of Defense waiver authority to certify that additional Russian engines were needed for national security purposes, but the Air Force and DOD have been fighting to get the 2019 deadline extended to 2022 to 2023. They argue that while a new U.S. engine could be ready by 2019, it would take several years to integrate it into a new rocket and certify the rocket for launching expensive, vital national security satellites. HASC has been more sympathetic to that view than SASC.
The Senate version of the FY2016 NDAA kept the 2019 deadline and said only nine more RD-180 engines could be obtained. The House version provided substantial flexibility by expanding the Secretary of Defense's waiver authority.
The compromise version announced today mostly adopts the Senate language. At a press conference today, McCain vehemently reiterated his opposition to paying Russia for RD-180 engines and his support for SpaceX. He said that SpaceX asserts that it can have a domestic engine ready to replace the RD-180s by 2017. The compromise still allows the use of nine more RD-180s, he said, as his committee recommended. He added, though, that the language does allow more to be purchased if needed "but to commit to 6-7 [more] years is not something I'm prepared to do." He criticized the ULA-Air Force relationship on this issue as a "classic example of the military-industrial complex."
In a separate press conference, the four Republican and Democratic leaders of HASC and SASC also addressed the issue. Thornberry said "we want to wean ourselves off of Russian engines as soon as possible and have assured access to space as we do it" and that is what the compromise language does. HASC ranking member Adam Smith (D-WA) added that "I think we're going to get to a good place sooner than most people realize," but stressed that "we don't want just one alternative" to the RD-180s. There are companies out there, a number of them happen to be in the State of Washington, as a matter of fact, Blue Origin, Aerojet, bunch of other folks, and they'll get there sooner than we expect. Still, "we can't ... count on that and say that we can't buy the only thing that's actually available." The language in the bill ensures DOD "has good choices," he remarked, but also pushes "domestic industry to quickly develop an alternative domestically."
Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne are competitors in developing a new engine for ULA's planned Vulcan rocket that will eventually replace both the Altas V and Delta IV, ULA's other rocket. ULA and Blue Origin announced a partnership last fall where ULA said it would use Blue Origin's BE-4 engine for Vulcan. The BE-4 is an innovative design that uses methane (liquefied natural gas) and liquid oxygen (LOX) as propellant. ULA said this spring, however, that it is also considering a traditional LOX/kerosene engine being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the AR1, and will make a choice between them next year. Blue Origin is headquartered in Kent, Washington and Sacramento-based Aerojet Rocketdyne has a major facility in Redmond, Washington. Aerojet Rocketdyne is trying to buy ULA, adding further complexity to the outlook for the U.S. launch services market.
ULA and Blue Origin said last fall that the BE-4 engine is fully funded and no government funds are required, although ULA President Tory Bruno said this spring that he certainly would not turn down government help. Aerojet Rocketdyne has indicated that it does need government funds. The compromise version of the NDAA authorizes $184.4 million.
The NDAA is an authorization, not appropriations, bill, so its funding levels only are recommendations. Democrats still want a grand deal on replacing sequestration, and not only for defense, but for domestic priorities as well. They object to a maneuver Republicans are using for FY2016 defense spending by putting money into an off-budget account, Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), to get around the existing budget caps. McCain and Thornberry argue that since the NDAA is only an authorization bill, that debate should not derail this bill. SASC ranking Democrat Jack Reed (D-RI), said at the press conference today, however, that he would oppose the bill on those grounds.
The Senate passed a bill today that extends certain FAA airport and airway provisions, including the so-called "learning period" during which the FAA cannot issue new passenger safety regulations for commercial human spaceflight. The bill now goes to the President.
The bill, H.R. 3614, the Airport and Airway Extension Act, was introduced on Friday and passed the House yesterday. No hearings or markups were held. It passed the House under suspension of the rules. Today it passed the Senate by unanimous consent.
Under existing law the prohibition, or moratorium, on new regulations would expire tomorrow (September 30). Both sides of Capitol Hill have passed commercial space bills that would extend it for several years, but they have not reached agreement on a compromise. H.R. 2262 would extend it to 2025; S. 1297 would extend it to 2020.
The House and Senate bills cover a wide variety of commercial space issues and have many differences. The existing learning period provision is the only one with an imminent expiration date, so a quick fix was needed. The 6-month extension will give conferees time to reach agreement on a final version of a new commercial space bill.
Under this legislation, the learning period is extended until April 1, 2016.
The Senate advanced a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government through December 11, 2015 today, all but ending fears of a government shutdown on October 1. House Speaker John Boehner's surprise announcement on Friday that he is stepping down sharply diminished the chances of an October 1 shutdown, but may make a December shutdown instead more likely.
By a vote of 77-19, the Senate agreed to let the CR move forward. A final vote is expected tomorrow. It is a "clean" bill without a policy rider sought by some ultra-conservative Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood.
Assuming the Senate approves the bill tomorrow, it will go to the House where the betting today is that it will pass. Now that he has announced his departure on October 30, Boehner is more free to focus on his goal of keeping the government operating rather than negotiating with the right-wing of his party that vowed not to vote for any bill that did not defund Planned Parenthood.
Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have been saying all year that they will not permit another government shutdown like the one in 2013. In that case, Tea Party Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) refused to agree to a bill that did not repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). After 16 days, Boehner decided to reopen the government by going against that wing of his party and using Democratic votes to pass the bill. It is widely expected that he will do the same when this Senate bill reaches the House tomorrow or Wednesday.
Congress must pass an appropriations bill by midnight Wednesday, the last day of FY2015, in order for the government to open for business on Thursday, the first day of FY2016.
The bill has not passed yet, however, and it is unwise to heave a sigh of relief until it does. Even then, it may be short-lived. Boehner is leaving on October 30 and a new Speaker will have to deal with the same forces in the Republican party to get appropriations passed for the rest of the fiscal year. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) formally announced his candidacy for Speaker today and many consider him the odds-on favorite, but Tea Party challengers are expected.
Whoever wins, the issues are likely to remain the same, so this is just kicking the can down the road. For those worried about whether the government will be open on Thursday, however, it is good news.
NASA has terminated its unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) with the B612 Foundation. The Foundation is trying to raise private funds to build a spacecraft, Sentinel, to hunt for asteroids. B612 says that they are proceeding with their efforts uninterrupted despite the termination.
The B612 Foundation's goal is to "enhance our capability to protect Earth from asteroid impacts." Its CEO, Ed Lu, and Chair Emeritus, Rusty Schweickert, are both former astronauts and have focused for many years on raising awareness of the threats posed to Earth by asteroids and trying to find solutions to address that threat. One of the challenges is finding out where the Earth-threatening asteroids are and while NASA has ground-based programs to achieve that objective, B612 argues that only a spacecraft with infrared sensors in a "Venus-trailing" orbit would have the field of view necessary to really answer that question.
The B612 Foundation is named after the asteroid in the children's story The Little Prince.
NASA is not currently planning to build a dedicated asteroid-hunting spacecraft, although it did re-purpose its earth-orbiting Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WISE) satellite to focus on asteroid detection in 2013. Launched in 2009, WISE was designed to image the entire sky in the infrared band using super-cooled detectors. It completed its primary mission in September 2010 after exhausting the coolant and was decommissioned, but NASA later determined some of the instruments could still be useful in searching for asteroids. Renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, NEOWISE, it began a three-year observation program in 2013. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is proposing NEOCam, another asteroid-hunting mission, as part of the the Discovery 14 selection process, though competition is stiff and it is far from clear whether it will be chosen as one of semi-finalists from among the 16 proposers, a decision expected soon. It was also proposed in 2006 and 2010.
WISE/NEOWISE was built by Ball Aerospace, which is partnered with B612 on the Sentinel mission (and would also be the prime contractor for NEOCam if it is selected).
B612 is trying to fund the Sentinel mission privately, using mostly philanthropic donations although anyone may contribute.
The nonreimbursable NASA-B612 Foundation agreement was signed by NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier and Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld on May 31, 2012. B612 CEO Ed Lu signed it on June 19, 2012 and was to be in effect for 10 years from that date. Its primary purpose was obtaining NASA technical consulting and agreement for B612 to use NASA tracking facilities for Sentinel after it was launched. In return, B612 would keep NASA informed of the spacecraft's technical characteristics and progress and deliver data from the spacecraft to the Minor Planet Center.
The milestones identified in the agreement were:
NASA spokesmen Dwayne Brown and Dave Steitz confirmed via email that NASA terminated the agreement with B612. Steitz explained that B612 had not met an important milestone in the SAA -- starting Sentinel's development -- and NASA therefore terminated the agreement because "due to limited resources, NASA can no longer afford to reserve funds" to support the project. "NASA believes it is in the best interest of both parties to terminate this agreement but remains open to future opportunities to collaborate with the B612 Foundation," he added.
B612 Vice President for Communications Diane Murphy also confirmed the termination, but said NASA had invited them to return to obtain another SAA when Sentinel's launch date is closer. She noted that "our timeline is dependent on our fundraising -- and while that is going well - it is hard ... and taking longer than we first anticipated." She provided a statement from Lu asserting that the "status of the SAA in no way changes the resolve of the B612 Foundation to move forward. ... We will continue to work independently and together with NASA, the US Congress and others to see our goals realized."
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story said there would be three semi finalists in the Discovery selection, but there were five. They were announced on September 30. NEOCam is one of those five.
Today the House passed a bill that includes a provision extending the "learning period" during which the FAA cannot issue new regulations for commercial human spaceflight for six months. The current prohibition on new government regulations expires on Wednesday.
In 2004, Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Act amendments that created certain regulations for the commercial human spaceflight industry, but directed the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) not to issue new regulations governing the safety of passengers for 8 years. The law established an "informed consent" regime where commercial human spaceflight providers had to inform potential passengers of the risks, but it was up to the passenger to decide whether or not to take them. The idea was that the government should have a light hand of regulation over the nascent commercial human spaceflight business until enough experience was gained to determine whether more was needed.
The 8 years passed without a single commercial human spaceflight, so the prohibition on new regulations -- called a "moratorium" or a "learning period" -- was extended. At the moment, it will expire on September 30. Whether or not to extend it again is a matter of contention between FAA/AST and its Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).
So far, Congress has shown willingness to extend it; the question is only for how long. A House bill, H.R. 2262, would extend the learning period until 2025. The Senate bill, S. 1297, would extend it to 2020.
Both bills address a range of commercial space issues and while the two sides of Capitol Hill are trying to reach agreement, the bill that passed today, H.R. 3614, would provide a 6-month extension for the learning period (among a number of non-space related provisions). That bill, the Airport and Airway Extension Act, was introduced on Friday and passed the House today under suspension of the rules. No hearings or markups were held on that bill.
Sec. 102(e) of the bill extends the relevant section of the U.S. Code, 51 U.S.C. 50905(c)(3), by striking October 1, 2015 and inserting April 1, 2016. The brief extension allows negotiators on H.R. 2262 and S. 1297 some breathing room to reach agreement.
There does not appear to be a Senate counterpart to the bill, but it is certainly possible for Congress to pass a bill like this in two days if there is no strong opposition.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 28-October 2, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session.
During the Week
This is it! The week when FY2016 begins -- ready or not. The House and Senate have until Wednesday, September 30, at midnight to pass, and for the President to sign, a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government open. House Speaker John Boehner's surprising announcement on Friday that he will resign as Speaker and from his House seat on October 30 is widely expected to make it easier to get a CR in place. He can worry less about placating the right wing conservatives in his party who are refusing to vote for a CR unless it defunds Planned Parenthood and use Democratic votes to get the CR through the House. While that is good news in the short term, the CR is only expected to last through December, so the proverbial can is just being kicked down the road into the lap of whoever becomes the next Speaker. But it's best to take one crisis at a time and perhaps the country will be able to get through this one less painfully than expected. But it's never over till the fat lady sings. Predicting what Congress will do is a risky undertaking, as Boehner's announcement proves.
The Senate is expected to pass a clean CR (without any policy riders like defunding Planned Parenthood) early in the week. It is using the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Office of Inspection Accountability Act (H.R. 719) as the legislative vehicle for the CR. A cloture motion is expected on Monday at 5:30 pm ET. (Congress often uses an unrelated bill that is already through most of the legislative process as a vehicle for a CR or omnibus appropriations since it speeds things up.)
Amidst all the appropriations drama, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on astrobiology on Tuesday. It originally was scheduled for June 23, but postponed when the House recessed to allow members to attend the funerals in Charleston, S.C. after the mass shooting there.
As if Washington politics isn't exciting enough, NASA apparently has something intriguing of its own to announce on Monday. It's not saying exactly what, but at 11:30 am ET there will be a press conference where a "Mars mystery" will be solved. Lots of speculation on Twitter and elsewhere as to what it will be, but we won't spoil the surprise.
Speaking of Mars, another BIG EVENT this week will be the theater release of The Martian on October 2. In the unlikely event you haven't heard about the movie, based on the book by Andy Weir, it's about an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars. NASA has been going all out to advertise the film and a panel discussion at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Thursday -- So You Want to be a Martian -- includes two of the actors in the film, Mackenzie Davis and Chiwetel Ejiofor. KSC Director Bob Cabana, who is also on the panel, clearly is hoping that Congress does, in fact, pass that CR so KSC will be open for business that day (October 1).
Those and other events we know about as of Saturday afternoon are listed below. Check back throughout the week for updates on the calendar on the right side of our main page.
Sunday-Friday, September 27-October 2
Monday-Tuesday, September 28-29
Tuesday, September 29
Tuesday-Wednesday, September 29-30
Thursday, October 1
Friday, October 2
House Speaker John Boehner told his Republican conference this morning that he will resign his Speakership and his seat in Congress on October 30, 2015.
The House has been girding for battle on the FY2016 appropriations bills pitting those whose primary interest is keeping the government operating against those determined to end government funding of Planned Parenthood. The most conservative wing of the Republican party in the House has sent strong indications that they plan to try to remove Boehner as Speaker this fall because they do not think he fights strongly enough for their causes, such as defunding Planned Parenthood.
Boehner, a Catholic and former altar boy, was visibly moved by the visit of Pope Francis yesterday. He and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), also a Catholic, were the ones who invited the Pope to address a joint session of Congress, the first Pope to accept such an invitation. The Pope's visit fulfilled one of Boehner's lifelong dreams according to multiple accounts.
One of the Pope's messages to Congress was unity: "Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. .... Legislative activity is always based on the care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you."
The Hill newspaper quotes a Boehner aide as saying that Boehner feels his primary role in Congress is to protect the institution and "as we saw yesterday with the Holy Father, it is the one thing that unites and inspires us all." The aide added that Boehner felt a prolonged battle over his leadership "would do irreparable damage to the institution" and he therefore will resign "for the good of the Republican conference and the institution." The aide also said that Boehner planned to retire last year, but stayed after his second-in-command, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), lost his seat in a primary race.
Cantor was succeeded as Majority Leader by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Speculation as to who will replace Boehner as Speaker in these initial hours focuses on McCarthy. He issued a statement saying "It takes profound humility to step down from a position of power, and John's depth of character is unmatched. ... Now is the time for our conference to focus on healing and unifying to face the challenges ahead and always do what is best for the American people."
From a space policy standpoint, McCarthy represents the district that includes Edwards Air Force Base and the Mojave Air & Space Port. He has been actively involved in commercial space issues and is the lead sponsor of H.R. 2262, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, which passed the House on May 21. It is far too early, of course, to assume that he will become Speaker or that space policy will have greater visibility in the House if he is.
Boehner's announcement may be good news for those who want to avoid a government shutdown next week because he may be more willing to pass a clean Continuing Resolution (CR) using Democratic votes to get the needed 218 votes even though many of his own members will vote against it. He and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have vowed since the beginning of the year that they will not allow another shutdown like the one in 2013, and both have been fighting the most conservative wings of their parties that do not view a government shutdown as a negative. McConnell is going through a process in the Senate right now that many expect will ultimately lead to the Senate passing a clean CR (without any policy riders such as defunding Planned Parenthood).
It is always risky to try and predict what Congress will do, however, as Boehner's surprise announcement this morning proves.