NASA Nominee Is Confirmed by Senate on Party-Line Vote
Posted April 19, 2018 9:34 p.m. EDT
Updated April 19, 2018 9:36 p.m. EDT
Seven and a half months after being nominated to lead NASA, Jim Bridenstine finally gets to start his new job. His confirmation following a vote in the Senate ends the longest span of time that NASA has operated without a permanent leader, and comes with a vivid reminder that few posts in Washington are now spared from partisan conflict.
On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Bridenstine, an Oklahoma congressman, as the new NASA administrator in a stark partisan vote: 50 Republicans voting for him and 47 Democrats plus two independents against. The vote lasted more than 45 minutes as Republicans waited for Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona to cast his lot. The vote was also punctuated by the appearance of Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who cast her “no” vote on the Senate floor with her newborn daughter in hand.
Many who voted against him expressed concerns about his record of partisanship as well as some statements questioning climate change, an area of research in which the space agency plays a central role.
Bridenstine takes over an agency in transition. While President Barack Obama talked of sending astronauts to Mars in a couple of decades, the Trump administration has instead focused on a nearer, quicker goal: to return to the moon. The administration has also proposed getting NASA out of the business of running the International Space Station and instead spur commercial alternatives that do not yet exist.
Critics have questioned whether the agency’s new administrator is up to the task.
Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot who is now in his third term in the House of Representatives, has become immersed in space issues. In 2016, he sponsored a bill called the American Space Renaissance Act, which proposed broad, ambitious goals for the nation’s space program, including directing NASA to devise a 20-year plan. Although it did not reach a vote, some of the ideas were incorporated into other legislation.
But Democratic senators led by Bill Nelson of Florida opposed Bridenstine for several reasons. For one, they said Bridenstine was too political — he would be the first elected official to serve as NASA administrator. During the confirmation hearings in November, Nelson read back Bridenstine’s disparaging remarks about other politicians, even other Republicans.
“I think what’s not right for NASA,” Nelson said during a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, “is an administrator who is politically divisive and who is not prepared to be the last in line to make that fateful decision on ‘go’ or ‘no go’ for launch.”
Bridenstine also has no experience running a large government bureaucracy. The expectation was that someone with that type of background would be tapped to be NASA’s deputy administrator to handle more of the day-to-day management. However, the Trump administration has yet to nominate anyone for that position.
On Wednesday, the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog organization, raised questions about Bridenstine’s actions as executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium from 2008-2010, before he ran for Congress.
One of the events that he organized as executive was an air show in 2010 featuring races by rocket-powered airplanes — by a business he had personally invested in. That could be considered “self-dealing,” where a nonprofit official directs money from the organization toward a commercial venture the official has a stake in.
Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations at the watchdog organization, said Bridenstine’s actions at the museum raise concerns given that the administrator oversees an agency with a $20 billion budget and more than 18,000 employees.
“Someone in that position needs to set a strong ethical tone, from the top, about the proper use of taxpayer dollars,” Schwellenbach said in an interview.
“This is an old story, no there there,” said Sheryl Kaufman, Bridenstine’s communications director. “The accusations have been fully refuted by members of the Board of Directors of the museum both in 2012 and again in September 2017.”
Opponents also painted Bridenstine as a denier of climate change. In a 2013 speech in the House of Representatives, Bridenstine sharply criticized Obama, saying his administration was spending too much money on the issue and said Obama should apologize.
Bridenstine has since moderated his public views, saying he supports NASA research into the causes of extreme weather. During his confirmation hearing, he agreed that human activity “absolutely” contributed to climate change, but sparred with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, over whether it was “a contributor” or the “primary cause.” Some opponents also cite Bridenstine’s conservative social views like opposition to same-sex marriage. “I stand squarely in support of traditional marriage,” Bridenstine wrote on his congressional website in July 2013.
In his confirmation hearing, Bridenstine tried to make a distinction between views he espoused as a politician and how he would act as the manager of a large federal agency. “I want to make sure that NASA remains, as you said, apolitical,” Bridenstine said to Nelson.
The previous administrator, Charles F. Bolden Jr., stepped down on Jan. 20, 2017, the first day of the Trump presidency. Since then, a longtime NASA official, Robert Lightfoot Jr., has been filling in. By the time Bridenstine was officially nominated, on Sept. 5, Lightfoot had already served 228 days, the longest span for an acting administrator.
Lightfoot then served for another 226 days, until Thursday. Bridenstine’s nomination languished, because although the Republicans hold a 51-49 majority, he did not appear to have the necessary votes for confirmation. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was away for cancer treatment, while Marco Rubio, the other Florida senator, a Republican, also expressed reservations about putting a politician at the top of NASA.
Then, last month, Lightfoot announced plans to retire at the end of April. That appears to have led Rubio to reluctantly change his mind.
Still, Bridenstine’s confirmation was accompanied by last-minute drama.
On Wednesday, a preliminary vote to limit debate on his nomination unexpectedly deadlocked at 49-49 when Flake voted against it. (Two senators, Duckworth, and McCain, were absent.) Vice President Mike Pence, who could have broken a 49-49 tie, was also out of town.
Flake then changed his vote to yes. He did not offer a detailed explanation.
Other than the confirmation hearing, Bridenstine has spent much of the last seven months keeping quiet. He largely stopped making any public statements and voting on bills to avoid conflicts of interest.
He attended the first meeting of the National Space Council meeting in October, a panel revived by the Trump administration to coordinate space issues between various federal agencies, but did not speak or participate.
And during Trump’s State of the Union address in January, he brought a guest: Bill Nye “the Science Guy.”