The 2017 session of the current Congress ended with Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) still not confirmed by the full Senate to become NASA administrator. The lack of action persists, even though Bridenstine’s nomination cleared the Senate Commerce Committee, albeit on a party-line vote, in early November. President Trump, who still warmly supports his nominee, will have to re-nominate Bridenstine this month, which should be just a matter of filing paperwork.
The reason Bridenstine is having problems getting a full senate vote for confirmation is that Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), is leading the Senate Democratic Caucus in total opposition to his appointment. During Bridenstine’s confirmation hearing last fall, Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee led a full-throated, tag-team assault on Bridenstine, painting him as divisive on social issues and accusing him of being a “climate denier” and, most curious of all, a politician.
The climate-change denial charge stems from a statement Bridenstine made several years go expression doubt about the severity of human-caused climate change. He has since revised his position on that subject and has pledged not to punish NASA scientists based on their positions on climate change. It has also been pointed out that James Webb and Sean O’Keefe, both considered successful NASA administrators, also did not have a technical background.
Bridenstine also once opposed same-sex marriage and voted against the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act on constitutional grounds, two positions that seemed to cause the Democratic members of the committee some aggravation. Bridenstine has pledged that he will treat all NASA employees equally and with respect regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
To be sure Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have also expressed reservations about Bridenstine, based on past statements made in the heat of political campaigns. Neither has specifically stated that they would vote against him. However, the Commerce Committee Democrats have given for opposing Bridenstine seem frivolous and driven by partisan rancor.
NASA Watch reports that one of the reasons that Bridenstine did not get a vote on the Senate floor in November or December is that Nelson is insisting on having the full 30-hour debate on his nomination. Usually, the requirement is waived by unanimous consent for presidential nominees. Not enough time existed to vote on Bridenstine, as well as a number of nominees, before the clock ran out on 2017. Nevertheless, the betting is that the gentleman from Oklahoma will be narrowly confirmed by a 51 to 49 vote or even a 50 to 50 vote with Vice President Mike Pence serving as the tie breaker, likely in January.
However, the question arises, why is Nelson leading what seems to be a holy war against Bridenstine? The senior senator from Florida has cast himself as the protector of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and its interests. Not having a permanent administrator as the start of second year of the Trump presidency would seem to run counter to those interests.
The lack of a confirmed chief of the space agency is especially relevant, considering Trump’s recent directive to NASA to return American astronauts to the moon. NASA needs an administrator who has the confidence of both the president and the vice president, the latter being chair of the National Space Council, as well as friends on Capitol Hill, if it is to succeed in sending explorers back to the moon. Bridenstine has received the support of scientists such as lunar geologist Paul Spudis, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and even Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
The return to the moon initiative, no matter what shape it takes, will be of great benefit to the Kennedy Space Center. Kennedy is the prime spaceport for NASA missions. The launch facility is also increasingly the home of a great deal of commercial activity. SpaceX is launching flights from the Kennedy Space Center. Companies like Moon Express, which will play a crucial role in lunar exploration, have also established a strong presence in Florida.
Thus, it would seem to be in Sen. Nelson’s best political interests not to risk a failure of the return to the moon program, which would surely short-circuit an increase in activity at the Kennedy Space Center. Nelson is risking alienating an important voting bloc in his state if he persists in his all-out war against Bridenstine’s nomination.
The Washington Times recently reported on the results of a Saint Leo University survey indicating that Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, is leading Nelson by double digits in a matchup for the 2018 senate race. Scott, who is term limited as governor, is expected to run against Nelson for his senate seat. Nelson is going to need all the support he can get if he plans to be reelected. The senator would best serve himself, his state, and NASA by dropping his partisan opposition to Bridenstine’s nomination to be head of the space agency.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.