Senate moving towards vote on Bridenstine nomination

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COLORADO SPRINGS — After a months-long impasse, the Senate may vote to confirm Jim Bridenstine as the next administrator of NASA later this week.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) filed a cloture motion April 16 on Bridenstine’s nomination. The Senate could vote on the motion as soon as April 18, with only a simple majority required for passage.

If approved, there would be up to 30 hours of debate on the nomination before a vote. That vote, sources say, could take place April 19, depending on the amount of debate and other Senate business.

Filing the motion suggests that the Senate’s Republican leadership believes they have the votes needed to pass the nomination. That has been in doubt for months as the nomination languished in the Senate.

The senate’s 49 Democratic members have been united in their opposition to the nomination, arguing that Bridenstine, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, was not qualified to lead the agency. At a confirmation hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee in November, members also criticized his stance on a variety of other topics, from climate change to social issues.

The committee favorably reported his nomination to the full Senate on a party-line vote in November, and again in January after the administration resubmitted the nomination to comply with Senate rules.

While Republicans hold a 51–49 majority in the Senate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been absent for several months because of poor health. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who was critical of Bridenstine’s nomination when it was first announced in September 2017, was reportedly unwilling to vote for Bridenstine, effectively blocking the nomination since it lacked a majority.

The cloture motion has led to speculation that Rubio has dropped his opposition to Bridenstine. Rubio has not publicly commented on the nomination recently. Alternatively, one or more Democrats may now be willing to back Bridenstine.

While the nomination was stalled in the Senate, Bridenstine’s fellow House members lobbied on his behalf. In a March 20 letter to Senate leadership, 61 House members, led by space subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) and including a dozen Democrats, called for the Senate to confirm Bridenstine.

Bridenstine enjoys broad support in the space community because of his space policy expertise. As a congressman, Bridenstine promoted legislation called the American Space Renaissance Act two years ago that included a wide range of civil, commercial and national security space provision. Some elements of that original bill were included in other legislation.

Bridenstine has kept a low public profile since the White House announced the nomination in September. He is at the 34th Space Symposium here this week but is not scheduled to speak.

His presence, though, was noticed by Vice President Mike Pence in his April 16 keynote address here. Pence thanked Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator who is retiring this month, for his service to the agency.

“And we’re hopeful very soon that those big shoes will be filled and that the Senate will confirm a man who also joins us here today, a great champion of the men and women at NASA and a great champion of the president’s vision for NASA and for American leadership in space,” Pence said, thanking Bridenstine for “for stepping forward to serve our nation at such a time as this.”

Bridenstine did appear at a event on Capitol Hill April 11 where the Space Transportation Association gave a leadership award to Lightfoot. In brief remarks, he thanked Lightfoot for his three decades at NASA as well as helping him prepare for the duties of administrator if confirmed.

“I want everybody here to know how much he has helped me going through this confirmation process, preparing me in many ways for what’s to come,” Bridenstine said of Lightfoot, adding that he would continue to solicit Lightfoot’s advice in the future. “I am confident there will come a day where everybody is trying to convince me of one thing or another, and I’ll be able to get the straight truth from you.”