Bridenstine Nomination Squeaks Through Cloture After Flake Changes His Vote – UPDATE

Bridenstine Nomination Squeaks Through Cloture After Flake Changes His Vote – UPDATE

The Senate narrowly voted to proceed with consideration of Rep. Jim Bridenstine’s (R-Oklahoma) nomination to be NASA Administrator this afternoon.  The 50-48 vote came only after Arizona Republican Jeff Flake changed his vote from no to yes, resolving what had been a 49-49 tie.  The cloture vote limits debate on the nomination itself to 30 hours once it begins.  The Senate has not specified when that will happen.  [Update: the Senate will continue consideration of the Bridenstine nomination tomorrow morning, with a vote scheduled at 1:45 pm ET.]

Before the cloture vote, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) took to the floor to restate his objections to Bridenstine serving as NASA’s next Administrator.  As he said during the nomination hearing and votes in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, he considers Bridenstine unqualified to run the $20 billion-a-year agency with its 10 field centers across the country, 18,000 employees, and the responsibility of sending humans into space.  For that, a “consummate space professional … not a politician” is needed. While commending Bridenstine for his public service as a military aviator, Nelson characterized Bridenstine’s more recent public service as a politician “divisive” and not indicative of someone who can be a leader and bring people together.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida)

Until today, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) had joined Nelson in publicly voicing similar objections.  It came as something of a surprise when he nonetheless voted in favor of Bridenstine.  In two tweets after the vote, USA Today’s Ledyard King (@LedgeKing) quoted Rubio as explaining that the imminent retirement of Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot changed his mind because he does not want a “leadership void” at the agency.

Nelson and other Democrats also object to Bridenstine’s views on climate change considering NASA’s critical role in earth science research and on LGBTQ rights since he will be managing such a large workforce.

Rubio’s yes vote was followed by another surprise — a no vote from Flake.  He was the only Republican to vote no and after an approximately one hour pause, with the vote tied at 49-49, Flake returned and changed his vote to yes.

Flake’s office did not respond by press time to a request for comment as why he voted as he did and how he plans to vote on the nomination itself.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona)

Bridenstine was confirmed by the Senate Commerce Committee in November and again in January (after his nomination had to be resubmitted when the second session of the 115th Congress began), both times on party-line votes.

Presidential nominations need only 51 votes to succeed, but there are only 51 Republicans in the Senate and one, Sen. John McCain, is absent while he battles brain cancer.  That leaves 50 Republican Senators available to vote versus 49 Democrats.  If all Democrats vote no, as it appeared they would based on the committee votes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could not afford to lose even one Republican.

As it was today, one Democratic Senator also was absent — Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), who is on maternity leave.  That left 98 Senators in the chamber to vote — 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats.

All 48 Democrats voted no, and with Flake initially voting with them, it was a 49-49 tie.  Ordinarily the Vice President would be called upon to break the tie, but he is in Florida today meeting with President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Abe.

Flake’s decision to change his vote ended the impasse on cloture, but what it portends for the vote on the nomination itself is unclear.  One other Republican has also indicated that she is not yet convinced to vote in favor of Bridenstine.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was quoted yesterday in a tweet by Timothy Cama, a reporter for The Hill, that although she would vote in favor of cloture, she was undecided on the nomination.

Cloture is a procedural vote that, if approved, limits the time for debate on a nomination or legislation to no more than 30 hours.  It does not specify when the debate will take place.  Lightfoot’s imminent departure is adding a sense of urgency to resolving who will be his successor.  McConnell could move forward as soon as tomorrow, but could wait if he is not certain whether he has the votes to win.

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