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Senators Balk on Russia Sanctions
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Senators Balk on Russia Sanctions

Plus: Cleaning up our space trash and tussling over the gas tax.

Good Friday morning. We hope you also spent a couple of hours watching an extremely delightful livestream of airplanes attempting to land at London Heathrow airport during a storm. (Haley and editor Michael both watched it while finalizing this newsletter, so any errors or oversights are because of the airplanes. Vroom.)

Senators pushed through the pre-recess malaise Thursday to pass a short-term funding bill to avert a government shutdown. The stopgap measure, approved by the House last week, will keep the government funded through March 11. It gives top appropriators more time to come to a larger agreement on a spending package for the remainder of the fiscal year.

Sanctions Stalemate

Senators failed to reach an agreement this week on a package of sanctions to deter Russian leader Vladimir Putin from launching another invasion into Ukraine. The congressional stalemate gives more flexibility to President Joe Biden in responding to the crisis.

Instead of a comprehensive sanctions bill, the chamber passed a non-binding resolution by voice vote Thursday night condemning Russia’s buildup of troops on Ukraine’s border and calling for Biden to “impose significant costs” on Russia in the event of a new invasion.

Senators on Thursday afternoon downplayed their inability to reconcile differences on sanctions, taking pains to emphasize their unified support for Ukraine against Russian aggression.

“There actually is already a coming together,” argued Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “There’s a coming together on the objective. The only issue we’ve had is how you achieve that objective.”

Republicans wanted to impose sanctions sooner, and they pushed for the bill to target a broader net of entities, including Russian banks. Democrats were concerned the move could cause fallout among European countries that do business with Russia’s biggest banks. Democrats also wanted to withhold the sanctions until after an invasion, arguing that would be more of a deterrent. Risch said the parties had largely struck a balance on the timing of sanctions, but they remained at odds over the scope. The talks fell apart after Risch introduced a Republican-only version of the bill earlier this week.

Risch predicted senators would resolve their disagreements swiftly if the situation escalates: “I can tell you this: If there’s an invasion, that gap is going to close very quickly.” 

Asked if there’s a risk that Russia could see Congress’ failure to pass comprehensive sanctions as U.S. weakness, Risch said “there’s always that risk.” But the analysts and advisers weighing the situation in Moscow know that in general “there is no daylight between us and the Democrats on this issue.”

The Senate is out next week. Risch said he doesn’t expect the chamber to return early to take action if Russia moves before the Senate is scheduled to come back. Drafting the legislation would take some time, as would finalizing an approach.

Senators also emphasized Biden could slap sanctions on Russia unilaterally.

“He doesn’t need a bill to do the sanctions,” Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, told Politico this week. “Congress not passing a bill isn’t going to change our ability to respond to this.”

Space Traffic Jam

For a couple of months now, lawmakers have been contemplating new steps Congress could take to make sure Earth’s orbit remains a safe place for satellites and space exploration. The buildup of debris in orbit is increasingly threatening satellites and spacecraft, like the International Space Station. Orbital debris moves at dangerously high speeds—enough to disable or damage spacecraft and threaten the lives of any astronauts on board. Collisions can create more debris, which can cause damage for years afterward. The problem has implications not just for the future of space exploration, but also for many services we rely on today, including GPS and communications technology. 

As some members of the international community are renewing their efforts to ban hazardous anti-satellite missile tests, like the one Russia conducted last November, lawmakers at home are looking at the American licensing process for satellite launches. They are also considering resources for boosting the government’s ability to keep track of objects in orbit. Coordinating spacecraft to avoid collisions is an important challenge, and a growing one, as companies send more and more satellites into space. Some “constellations” could ultimately include tens of thousands of satellites. 

Last week, the top Democrat and Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released discussion draft versions of two bills to overhaul the licensing process for satellite launches. One bill would ban the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from approving licenses for foreign entities that the American government designates a threat to supply chains or national security. The second bill is intended to streamline the licensing process. It also calls on the FCC to establish more stringent safety requirements to prevent the creation of orbital debris.

But in order to avert further collisions, space experts say the United States also needs to more directly support efforts to clean up the orbital environment. Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation wrote an opinion piece this week calling on the American government to get serious about funding the development of products to dispose of space junk.

He noted that “modeling done by NASA and other space agencies shows that we need to start removing at least 5-10 of the most massive debris objects each year to prevent the creation of future debris from collisions.”

Various proposals to deal with large pieces of space debris exist, although most are in early stages. Some prototypes could push defunct satellites into the atmosphere to burn up or into a higher orbit, known as a graveyard orbit, where they are less likely to collide with anything. 

Weeden made the case for NASA to create a program dedicated to space environment management, modeled on NASA’s successful Commercial Cargo and Crew program. This would include public-private sharing of research and development costs, and the stability that comes with the promise of government service contracts for companies.

“Ideally, the program would lead to the development of a robust set of commercial remediation capabilities from multiple companies that all governments can then leverage to reduce the near and long-term threat posed by orbital debris,” he wrote.

Fuel Tax Frenzy

A handful of vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection are calling for legislation to eliminate the 18-cent-per-gallon fuel tax until the end of the year, in a bid to reduce prices amid the highest rate of inflation in decades.

Republicans slammed the idea as a transparent political ploy ahead of the 2022 midterms—one they said isn’t likely to help consumers substantively. It was once shot down by then-presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama in 2008. “We’re arguing over a gimmick that will save you half a tank of gas,” he said at the time. “It’s not an idea to get you through the summer. It’s an idea to get them through an election.”

Gas prices today are up about $1 over last year, per estimates by AAA. 

Arizona Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, and Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock are the most vocal supporters of the move.

“I’m just hearing that people are being really stretched by the cost of everything,” Hassan said this week. “And anything we can do to help lower costs is something I think we should do.”

Other Democrats, such as West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, have criticized the idea, citing the revenue losses it would cause, which could hurt infrastructure projects. But the group behind the effort has a powerful ally in Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, who said he thinks the tax is too regressive.

(Economist Kyle Pomerleau, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, made the contrarian case that the gas tax should actually be raised to keep up with inflation, which will lead to higher prices for infrastructure maintenance and repairs.)

“After triggering an historic run of inflation and hammering American producers with anti-energy policies designed to restrict supply, our Democratic colleagues are suddenly talking about gas prices,” Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor this week. 

“Democrats want to blow a $20 billion hole in highway funding so they can try to mask the effects of their own liberal policies on working Americans.”

Dog Days on the Hill


Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.