Bridenstine Confirmed as NASA Administrator On Party-Line Vote

Bridenstine Confirmed as NASA Administrator On Party-Line Vote

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) was confirmed by the Senate this afternoon to be the next Administrator of NASA.  The vote was along party lines: 50-49.   Bridenstine is taking over the agency as Robert Lightfoot retires.  A career NASA civil servant, Lightfoot has been serving as Acting Administrator since the Trump Administration began in January 2017.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma)

Bridenstine was nominated by President Trump in September 2017, but his nomination was controversial.  Like the vote today, he was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee twice — in November 2017 and January 2018 — on party-line votes.  (Under Senate rules, the nomination had to be resubmitted in January at the beginning of the second session of the 115th Congress.)

The nomination took this long to get a vote on the Senate floor because of the opposition of one Republican Senator, Marco Rubio (Florida).  He and his Florida Democratic counterpart, Sen. Bill Nelson, criticized Bridenstine as lacking the necessary experience to run the $20 billion-a-year agency.  They argued NASA needed a “space professional” at its helm, “not a politician.”  Nelson led the effort to prevent Bridenstine from winning confirmation.

Presidential nominees need a simple majority vote to be confirmed, but with the slim Republican majority of 51-49, and one Republican (Sen. McCain of Arizona) absent as he battles brain cancer, one vote can make the difference between winning and losing in a debate split along party lines.

Rubio had a change of heart, however, and decided to vote in favor of Bridenstine, clearing the path for confirmation.  He voted yes both on the procedural cloture vote yesterday and again today on the nomination itself.

In a statement on the Senate floor earlier today he explained that with Lightfoot’s imminent departure and the length of time it takes to get a nominee through the Senate confirmation process, NASA could be left leaderless for an unacceptable period of time. “I was not enthused about the nomination. Nothing personal about Mr. Bridenstine.  NASA needs to be led by a space professional.”  Starting over with a new nomination, however, “we could go into February of next year.  There is no way NASA can go that long without a permanent Administrator.”  Presidents should have discretion in choosing their teams and while nominees should be qualified, “we give great deference to the President on choosing qualifications.”

The votes of two other Republican Senators also were in doubt.  Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) reportedly said earlier this week that she was undecided and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) initially voted no on the cloture vote yesterday, though he later changed it to yes.  Both voted yes today, though Flake waited and was the last Republican Senator to cast his vote.

With the vote at 50-48, meaning Bridenstine had won confirmation, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) held the vote open for an extended period of time to allow one last Senator to vote — Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois). Her “no” vote (yielding the final tally of 50-49) was not decisive, but it was historic.  Duckworth is the first Senator to give birth while in office, but under Senate rules, children were not allowed on the Senate floor.  Since Senators must be physically present to cast votes, the Senate yesterday changed the rules to allow Senators to bring their children under the age of one onto the floor so they can do their jobs.  Today Duckworth returned from maternity leave just to cast this vote, with 10-day old daughter Maile Pearl Bowlsbey in her arms.  The rule change is being heralded as bringing the Senate into the 21st Century and creating a family-friendly work environment for all Senators. There are currently 23 women serving in the Senate.

Immediately after the vote, Bridenstine issued a statement expressing his appreciation.

“It is an honor to be confirmed by the United States Senate to serve as NASA Administrator. I am humbled by this opportunity, and I once again thank President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for their confidence. I look forward to working with the outstanding team at NASA to achieve the President’s vision for American leadership in space.” — Rep. Jim Bridenstine

Lightfoot also issued a statement:

“I’m very pleased to welcome Jim Bridenstine to NASA. …  He joins our great agency at a time when we are poised to accomplish historic milestones across the full spectrum of our work. Jim now takes the reins of this agency and its talented and dedicated workforce. I’m looking forward to him building on our great momentum and sharing our many strengths to help us make the next giants leaps on behalf of humanity. I also want [to] express my heartfelt appreciation to the NASA team for all they accomplished during my time leading the agency.” — Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot

Others offering congratulations included House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and the Satellite Industry Association.

Smith said he is looking forward to working with Bridenstine “to maintain America’s leadership in space.”

The Senate has rightfully approved Jim Bridenstine’s nomination. He will lead the agency with knowledge and expertise, leaning on his years of service as a Naval aviator, a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve, former executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and his work in Congress, especially on the Space Subcommittee of the Science Committee. As chairman of the Science Committee, which has jurisdiction over NASA, I look forward to working with Administrator Bridenstine to maintain America’s leadership in space.” — Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman, House Science, Space, and Technology Committee

The unified Democratic opposition to Bridenstine was based not only on concerns that he does not have the requisite experience to lead such a large government agency with 10 field centers across the nation and 18,000 employees.  They also have reservations about his views on climate change considering NASA’s critical role in Earth science research and on LGBTQ rights since he will be managing a large workforce.  However, Nelson said before the vote that if Bridenstine was, in fact, confirmed, he would work with him “for the good of our nation’s space program.”

Bridenstine is a military aviator, originally with the U.S. Navy and U.S. Navy Reserve and currently with the Oklahoma Air National Guard.  Before his election to Congress to represent the first district of Oklahoma, he was Executive Director of the Tulsa Air & Space Museum & Planetarium.  He is in his third term in the House, a position from which he will have to resign before being sworn in as NASA Administrator.

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