Sens. Josh Hawley and Bernie Sanders are speaking out against a $10 billion corporate "bailout" to Blue Origin, a space flight company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
The measure was part of an amendment tacked on to the Endless Frontier Act, a bill aimed at increasing U.S. competitiveness with China through science and technology research. The amendment was authored by the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Maria Cantwell, who represents Washington state, where Blue Origin is headquartered, and Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi.
The Senate is voting on amendments to the bill, which costs about $130 billion, and could vote on the final legislation by Thursday. Whether the package sinks or swims without use of "reconciliation," which would require only 50 votes to pass, depends on whether Republicans are satisfied with the amendments that make their way into the bill. GOP members have introduced hundreds of amendments, and not all will get a vote.
The amendment would come after the company lost out on a multibillion-dollar NASA contract to SpaceX, run by Elon Musk. It would provide additional funding for NASA to carry out the Human Landing System program, and direct NASA to have two lander programs, giving Blue Origin another shot.
Sanders, D-Vt., introduced an amendment Monday to block Cantwell and Wicker's amendment. "Jeff Bezos is the richest guy on the planet. He's gotten $86 billion richer since the start of the COVID pandemic," the democratic socialist lawmaker wrote on Twitter. "Does he really need $10 billion from Congress for space exploration?" Cantwell said Tuesday afternoon she wasn’t sure if the Sanders amendment would get a vote.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., co-sponsored the amendment. "Why would @SenSchumer and Democrats give billionaire Jeff Bezos a multi-billion dollar bailout? Happy to co-sponsor @SenSanders’ amendment," he wrote on Twitter.
Hawley, R-Mo., a frequent Amazon foe, concurred. "Why is the Senate preparing to give @amazon’s Jeff Bezos a $10 billion bailout?" he wrote on Twitter.
The Bezos space company lost a bid with SpaceX for a contract to put U.S. astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972. NASA said SpaceX had offered the lowest cost by a wide margin. The Cantwell amendment wouldn’t rescind the SpaceX contract but would create another contract that Blue Origin would be favored to win.
Blue Origin spent $625,000 lobbying Congress in the first three months of 2021, according to disclosure records.
"I worry very much that what we are seeing now is two of the wealthiest people in this country, Mr. Elon Musk and Mr. Bezos, deciding that they are going to take control over our space industry," Sanders said on the Senate floor.
Sanders is also concerned about a provision that would give $52 billion to major manufacturers of semiconductors such as Intel to combat the global semiconductor shortage. Automobile manufacturers General Motors and Ford cut production at their North American plants last month because of the shortage. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., argued that fewer than 12% of semiconductors are made in the U.S., and that number could decrease without the funding.
"Yes. Congress should work to expand U.S. microchip production. No. As part of the Endless Frontiers bill we should not be handing out $53 billion in corporate welfare to some of the largest and most profitable corporations in the country with no strings attached," Sanders wrote on Twitter.
Sanders said he wants the government to secure warrants, or nonvoting shares, in the companies it doles out cash to. "There has to be some negotiation and the taxpayers have got to get something in return," he told The Hill.
Hawley, meanwhile, has proposed seven amendments to the Endless Frontier Act to favor American workers and protect human rights, including one that would impose a 100% punitive tariff on goods coming from the Xinjiang region in China, and requiring a label on goods imported into the U.S. to certify they are not the product of slave labor.