Senate

Trump’s NASA nominee advances after floor drama

The Senate narrowly advanced President Trump’s controversial pick to lead NASA on Wednesday after Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) switched his vote to break a tie.

Senators voted 50-48 on Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine (Okla.) to lead NASA, giving him the simple majority needed to move forward.

Bridenstine’s nomination appeared to have stalled after Flake initially voted against him, resulting in a 49-49 tie. Vice President Pence, who could normally have put Bridenstine over the top, is in Florida, leaving Republicans unable to break the stalemate.

Flake’s temporary opposition appeared to take lawmakers by surprise. After he voted “no,” Flake was immediately cornered by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the GOP vote counter, and Republican floor staff.

The Senate was stuck in a tie for roughly 30 minutes before Flake came back to the floor and switched his vote from a “no” to a “yes,” allowing the nomination to advance.

The vote on the nomination lasted more than an hour.

Flake told reporters later that he needed to have “some discussions, some extra time” on issues, but declined to provide specifics.

“I just needed some more time so we’ll see where it goes from here. … It was a close vote so, I just wanted some time to think about it,” he told reporters.

Cornyn said Flake was “looking for some assurances” that he would be able to talk again to CIA Director Mike Pompeo, nominated to lead the State Department.

“I’m confident he’ll have that chance this afternoon,” he told reporters, adding there were “issues” about travel restrictions to Cuba.

Flake said on Tuesday that he was undecided on Pompeo’s nomination and wanted more information. 

 

Bridenstine now faces up to an additional 30 hours of floor debate, potentially kicking a final vote into Thursday.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is battling brain cancer, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who recently gave birth, missed Wednesday’s cloture vote.

Bridenstine was widely expected to overcome Wednesday’s procedural hurdle after key GOP votes indicated they would support him at least on the first hurdle.

“I’ve met with him and I’ve been lobbied both for and against him. People are raising some concerns that I’m looking further into,” GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) told The Hill.

Collins previously has made waves by rejecting some of Trump’s nominees — including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Education Secretary Besty Devos. She said she was still undecided on how she will vote on final confirmation for Bridenstine.

Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has previously said he doesn’t think a “politician” should head NASA. But he nonetheless voted to invoke cloture on his nomination.

“The unexpected April 30 retirement of the Acting Administrator would leave NASA … with a gaping leadership void unless we confirm a new Administrator. Because of this I decided to support the nomination of Rep. Bridenstine,” Rubio said in a statement. 
 
He added that “I expect him to lead NASA in a non-political way and to treat Florida fairly.”

Republicans argue that Bridenstine is up to the task.

He has served in the House since 2013, and was previously a Navy pilot, having flown missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was also previously the head of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium. Democrats, however, say he blatantly mismanaged that organization, leaving it with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.

“I am proud and deeply gratified that President Trump has nominated Rep. Bridenstine to lead NASA,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said at Bridenstine’s confirmation hearing last year.

Democrats have also criticized Bridenstine for being skeptical of climate change science and argue that he doesn’t have the scientific background necessary to lead such an important agency.

Furthermore, they’ve charged that Bridenstine has been politically divisive, including through his involvement as an outspoken surrogate for Cruz’s presidential campaign in 2016.

“NASA is one of the few remaining areas that has largely avoided the bitter partisanship that has invaded far too many areas of government and our society today, until now,” Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), the top Democrat on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said on the Senate floor earlier Wednesday.

Nelson flew into space in 1986 as part of a NASA program to put politicians on spaceflights. He is running for reelection this year.
 
Miranda Green contributed to this report.
 
Updated: 3:54 p.m.
Tags Bill Nelson Donald Trump Jeff Flake Jim Bridenstine John Cornyn John McCain Marco Rubio Mike Pompeo Scott Pruitt Susan Collins Tammy Duckworth Ted Cruz
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