Senate Democrats repeatedly tore into President Trump’s pick to lead NASA at a Wednesday confirmation hearing.

Democrats on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee repeatedly argued that Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) is unqualified to lead the nation’s space agency due to what they said was his climate change skepticism, opinions on homosexuality, scant experience in science and other issues.

The raucous hearing laid bare Bridenstine’s political history, including his accusations against Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) during his presidential campaign and his criticism of former President Barack Obama.

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Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), a former astronaut and the top Democrat on the panel, said that while nominees are often highly political, NASA is not the place for politics.

“Your record and your behavior in Congress has been divisive, and it’s been as extreme as any that we have seen in Washington. And this senator is wondering, how does that fit with a leader of a technical agency where unity is often right on the line as to what is going to happen in success or failure of a mission or a program?” Nelson asked.

“NASA represents the best of what we can do as a people. And NASA is one of the last refuges of partisan politics. And when it has got partisan in the past, we’ve gotten in trouble,” Nelson continued, referencing conclusions that political fighting contributed to the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Some Democrats, like Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), focused their grilling of Bridenstine on climate change.

NASA is one of the lead federal agencies in observation and science of the atmosphere and the climate, and its official position is that human activity, via greenhouse gases, is the main cause of climate change.

Bridenstine told Schatz that “carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas” and “humans have contributed to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

But Schatz said that doesn’t go nearly far enough.

“The scientific consensus is not that it’s really difficult to tell how much of climate change is attributable to human activity,” he said. “The scientific consensus is that climate change is primarily caused by human activity.”

“It’s gonna depend on a whole lot of factors, and we’re still learning more about it every day,” Bridenstine said, adding that “sun cycles and other factors” may have a big influence on the climate.

To other Democrats, Bridenstine’s statements on homosexuality were the most worrying.

“I’m wondering, if you’re a child and you see quotes like ‘Some of us in American still believe in the concept of sexual morality,’ tell me how you think a child will view a leader who thinks that they are immoral, or engaging in immoral acts,” said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), quoting a past statement from Bridenstine regarding the Boy Scouts’ decision to allow homosexual leaders.

Nelson sought, in part, to paint Bridenstine as an enemy of many Republican senators, like Rubio and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and potentially a source of division in the GOP.

Bridenstine supported Kelli Ward, who previously challenged McCain in a primary and planned to challenge Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) before Flake announced his intent to retire.

“I wonder, does NASA need someone that has been so involved in politics in these kind of causes? You can say that politics is politics, which you have stated earlier. But these are some of the most divisive tactics that this senator has ever seen in either party,” Nelson said of Bridenstine.

Rubio previously told Politico that putting a politician atop NASA could be “devastating for the space program,” without directly saying if he would vote against Bridenstine.

Florida, which Rubio and Nelson represent, hosts the Kennedy Space Center, NASA’s main launch facility.

Republicans hold 52 seats in the Senate and need 51 votes to confirm nominees, so any defection would be significant.

The panel’s Republicans saw the Democrats’ criticisms as pure politics and based only on Bridenstine’s status as a politician.

“I consider wildly inappropriate the suggestion that this somehow disqualifies you. And with all due respect to my colleague, I cannot for the life of me understand why that would be something that would disqualify you,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said, addressing Nelson.

“I am proud and deeply gratified that President Trump has nominated Rep. Bridenstine to lead NASA,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who counts himself as a close friend of Bridenstine’s and chairs the space subcommittee.

“And I will say, this committee’s sorry performance during the confirmation hearing may not be surprising in the current environment, but is disappointing nonetheless,” he continued.

Bridenstine committed to the panel that he would leave his politics and personal opinions out of his NASA leadership.

“The advocacy that I’ve had for the constituents of Oklahoma is the same advocacy I would like to bring to NASA,” he said.

“I would say that when it comes to space issues, and when it comes to issues that are important to the national security of this country, I have worked across the aisle with great Americans to bring about, I think, legislation that will ultimately serve every American,” Bridenstine continued.

“It is also true that as a member of the House of Representatives representing Oklahoma, I have advocated for issues that are not relevant to NASA. And that’s a part of my background,” he added.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Nelson Brian Schatz Cory Booker Jeff Flake Jim Bridenstine John McCain Marco Rubio Mike Lee National Aeronautics and Space Administration Ted Cruz

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