Senate confirms Trump’s pick to lead NASA
The Senate on Thursday voted along party lines to confirm Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine (Okla.), President Trump’s choice to lead the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The 50-49 vote came after months of Democratic attempts to stop Bridenstine’s confirmation and a day after a procedural vote that nearly failed.
The vote came after a dramatic nearly hourlong vote period on the Senate floor. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) cast the final “yes” vote after holding out for about 15 minutes longer than his fellow Senators.
Flake was seen speaking to Senate leaders and their staff, including Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas). It wasn’t immediately clear why Flake waited so long.
He similarly withheld his vote Wednesday on a procedural motion to move forward on Bridenstine’s confirmation. Cornyn said at the time that Flake wanted more time to meet with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for secretary of State, before the Senate moved forward on that nomination.
All Republicans voted to confirm and all Democrats and independents voted against.
Bridenstine, who has represented Tulsa, Okla., since 2013, is a former Navy pilot, and previously led the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium.
He’ll be responsible for a 17,000-person agency whose far-reaching duties include space exploration, overseeing commercial space activities, studying aeronautics and researching the Earth’s atmosphere, among other tasks.
While Republicans hailed Bridenstine as a top-notch candidate to lead NASA, Democrats argued that he was unqualified for the high-profile scientific spot and too divisive of a politician. They also argued that his views, such as doubting climate change science and opposition to LGBT rights, ought to disqualify him.
A key vote for Bridenstine came from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Rubio, whose state hosts NASA’s primary space launch facility, had bemoaned the nomination of a “politician” to lead the agency instead of a scientist.
Bridenstine notably spoke in advertisements for Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) 2016 presidential campaign, frequently criticizing Rubio as weak on security and immigration.
Rubio said earlier Thursday that though he still had misgivings about Bridenstine, the impending retirement of acting NASA Director Robert Lightfoot meant the organization needs a leader.
“I was not enthused about the nomination,” he said on the Senate floor. “Nothing personal about Mr. Bridenstine. NASA is an organization that needs to be led by a space professional.”
Lightfoot’s departure, Rubio said, “leaves us with the prospect of this incredible agency with a vacancy in its top job.”
Rubio’s GOP colleagues had no reservations about supporting Bridenstine.
“Claiming our rightful place in the stars will require an effort spanning many years and several presidential administrations,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said. “We can begin that undertaking today by confirming a leader with a remarkable record of service to our country, a vision for the American space program that is big, not small, and a genuine faith in his country that is as boundless as the heavens. That man is Jim Bridenstine.”
Democrats argued that Bridenstine is the wrong man for the job.
“Jim Bridenstine, the nominee that we are considering, served as a Navy pilot, and I thank him for his service. But that does not qualify him to run NASA,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
“Just because you know how to fly a plane does not mean that you have the skills and experience to lead the federal government’s space agency,” he continued.
“James Bridenstine is a climate denier with no scientific background who has made a career out of ignoring science,” Schatz said.
NASA is one of the leading federal agencies responsible for studying climate change, including tracking temperature changes throughout history.
“I am deeply concerned about this nomination because it is further evidence of a much deeper problem. I am concerned this administration does not respect science, especially science in government institutions,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.). “NASA’s science and research needs a champion who understands and promotes the nuances of work being done by their team. In short, NASA needs an administrator who will be driven by science and not politics.”
The vote was also notable for the final vote cast.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) briefly returned from her maternity leave, with her baby in her arms, to cast a vote against Bridenstine. Senators applauded her when she came in, and a handful crowded around her to see the child.
Duckworth gave birth to her daughter, Maile, on April 9, becoming the first woman to give birth to a baby while in the Senate.
The Senate passed a resolution Wednesday evening to allow her to bring her baby onto the floor during votes.