Bridenstine Nomination Finally Headed to the Senate Floor

Bridenstine Nomination Finally Headed to the Senate Floor

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took a procedural step this afternoon to bring to a vote the nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) to be the next NASA Administrator.  NASA has been operating without a presidentially-appointed Senate-confirmed administrator since President Trump took office.  Robert Lightfoot, the top civil servant at NASA, has been serving as Acting Administrator, but is retiring at the end of this month.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma).

Bridenstine’s nomination is controversial.  It cleared the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee twice on party-line votes. He was nominated in September 2017.  He was approved by the committee in November by a vote of 14-13, but his nomination had to be resubmitted when the second session of the 115th Congress began. It cleared the committee a second time in January also 14-13.

The fact that McConnell has not brought it to the floor already indicates that he has not been certain there are enough votes for Bridenstine to be confirmed.  Apparently he now is more confident.

Senators weigh many factors in deciding how to vote, making it difficult to predict how any vote will turn out. All 49 Senate Democrats have been expected to vote against Bridenstine based on the objections raised during his confirmation hearing.  Those center on the fact that Bridenstine is a politician rather than a space professional. At least one Republican, Marco Rubio (R-Florida), also has publicly opposed him on that basis.  NASA will be certifying three new human spaceflight systems (Orion and the two commercial crew systems) in the next 2-3 years and opponents argue that NASA needs a leader skilled in technical management of complex systems where safety-of-life is paramount.  Democrats also have reservations about his positions on climate change since Earth science is a major focus of NASA’s science program, and on LGBTQ rights considering that he will be managing an agency with 18,000 employees.

Supporters counter that he is a former Navy pilot who continues to fly with the Oklahoma Air National Guard so does have technical credentials and experience in safety-of-life situations.  They also point out that other NASA Administrators have not had technical backgrounds.

If all 49 Democrats and Rubio did, in fact, vote no, McConnell would need all remaining 50 Republican Senators to vote yes in order to produce a tie that Vice President Mike Pence could break in Bridenstine’s favor. One Republican is absent, however — Sen. John McCain who is currently hospitalized in Arizona as he fights brain cancer.  The situation is complex and rumors abound, including the possibility that one or two Democrats may have been persuaded to support him.

The Senate’s confirmation process requires McConnell to begin by filing cloture on the nomination, which he did this afternoon.  According to a Congressional Research Service report, the motion then must wait until it “ripens” on the second day after it was presented (in this case, Wednesday) unless there is unanimous consent to proceed otherwise.  At that point, after ascertaining that a quorum is present, the Senate votes on the cloture motion to bring an end to debate.  If there is a simple majority in favor, cloture is invoked.  Then a maximum of 30 hours of post-cloture debate is allowed “including debate and time consumed by quorum calls, parliamentary inquiries, and all other proceedings.” To win, a simple majority of Senators present and voting, a quorum being present, is required.

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