Democrats Win the House, Republicans Keep the Senate – UPDATED

Democrats Win the House, Republicans Keep the Senate – UPDATED

Votes were still being counted at press time, but the top level results of the 2018 mid-term elections are in:  Democrats have wrested control of the House from Republicans, but Republicans not only retained control of the Senate, but increased their majority.  As for the three key space policy related races we previewed yesterday, one was reelected, one lost, and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) has announced that he wants a recount.

About 11:30 pm ET, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, gave a televised speech heralding Democratic return to power after Democrats won or were leading in more than the 23 districts needed to secure victory. President Trump called her at 11:45 pm ET to extend his congratulations.

Pelosi was Speaker of the House (the first woman to hold that position) when Democrats were last in control (2007-2011) and expects to reprise that role when the 116th Congress convenes although she will have to win election by the other House Democrats.  The exact number of seats that will be held by Democrats and Republicans will not be known until all the votes are counted.

The exact split in the Senate is also not definite yet, but Democrats lost at least three seats, so Republicans will have a larger majority than they do now.  One race, between Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) and Mike Espy (D) in Mississippi, is headed to a run-off later this month.  Trump also called Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to offer congratulations.

Of the three key space policy individuals we highlighted yesterday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) won his race against Beto O’Rourke.  Cruz chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness.  He is a strong supporter of NASA’s human spaceflight program in particular (he represents Johnson Space Center, home of the astronauts) and of commercial space.

Although the Orlando Sentinel reported that Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) lost, and his opponent, Rick Scott, declared victory, Nelson is asking for a recount.  He is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee. Nelson has been a leading voice in the Senate for NASA and working closely with Cruz on assuring the future of the International Space Station (ISS) and human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.  As someone who flew in space himself, Nelson has a unique voice in the Senate on space issues. If he loses, it will leaves a significant gap to fill.  A statement from his campaign about 10:00 am ET on November 7 says that Nelson is behind by “less than one-half percentage point” and under Florida law than means a recount is required.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) lost his seat to Lizzie Fletcher.  That could be the most profound change for NASA in these elections.  As chair of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA, Culberson is the force behind the Europa missions and the language that prohibits NASA from cooperating with China on a bilateral basis unless certain conditions are met.  Culberson almost single-handedly forced NASA to add a Europa orbiter and lander to its planetary exploration portfolio, providing the extra money needed to execute those missions.  What will happen to them without his powerful backing is unclear.

The same is true with the China restrictions.  Although there are other House Republicans who hold similar views — that China must improve its human rights record and stop trying to steal American technological secrets before gaining the benefit of space cooperation with NASA — it is not clear if Democrats agree.  This language has always originated in the House CJS subcommittee, beginning with Culberson’s CJS predecessor Frank Wolf.  If a Democratic-led House subcommittee does not include it in next year’s bill, the Republican Senate might and then it would become an issue to be resolved in conference.  It is just too early to tell.

Rep. Jose Serrano is the top Democrat on the CJS subcommittee and could become its chair. He has been supportive of NASA and NOAA, but it is not clear whether he sees them as priorities compared to the Departments of Commerce and Justice, which are funded in the same bill.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)

Another significant change will be at the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee where Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) is expected to become chair.  Although most NASA issues are bipartisan, NASA’s Earth science program and climate change science in general are not.  Johnson is an advocate for those programs while Republicans on the committee have been skeptics, at best.

Johnson also led an effort to put the FAA in charge of regulating non-traditional space activities and civil space situational awareness rather than the Department of Commerce as proposed by the Trump Administration and championed by Republicans on the committee. Her efforts failed at the committee level, but neither bill has been finalized.  Their fate now is unclear.  Pending Senate legislation is closer to her position than what cleared the House committee. If Nelson loses, he and Cruz may accelerate efforts to get their legislation passed before this Congress ends, but that would mean reaching compromise with the current House SS&T leadership, not Johnson.

Johnson released a statement already saying that she “cannot wait to get to work” if she is appointed as chair and wants to call the committee the “Committee of the Future.” She listed three priorities, including climate change, but not specifically mentioning anything about space policy.

  • Ensure that the United States remains the global leader in innovation, which will require attention to a wide range of activities: promoting effective STEM education solutions, engaging the underrepresented minorities and blue collar workers in the STEM fields, supporting a robust federally funded R&D enterprise and emerging areas of science and technology, defending the scientific enterprise from political and ideological attacks, and challenging misguided or harmful Administration actions;
  • Address the challenge of climate change, starting with acknowledging it is real, seeking to understand what climate science is telling us, and working to understand the ways we can mitigate it; and finally,
  • Restore the credibility of the Science Committee as a place where science is respected and recognized as a crucial input to good policymaking. — Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

As for national security space, as we wrote yesterday, the big issue next year will be Trump’s proposal to create a new Department of the Space Force and the Administration has an uphill battle to convince Congress to support it regardless of the today’s outcome.  Republicans and Democrats have many questions about the cost of and requirement for a new military service.

It is important to remember that almost two moths remain in the current Congress and much work remains to be done.  At the top of the list is completing action on FY2019 appropriations.  NASA is one of many agencies funded by a Continuing Resolution (CR)  that expires on December 7.  Whether Congress will try to finish them in the remaining days of the 115th Congress or pass another CR and bump them into the 116th Congress is an open question.

This article was updated twice:  to reflect Bill Nelson’s loss in Florida as reported by the Orlando Sentinel, and then with the announcement by Nelson’s campaign that he wants a recount.


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