WASHINGTON — The White House formally resubmitted nominations for leaders of both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Senate Jan. 8, a procedural move even as the path to their confirmations becomes narrower.
The administration announced late Jan. 8 that the nominations of Jim Bridenstine to be administrator of NASA and Barry Myers to be administrator NOAA were being resubmitted to the Senate, along with several dozen other nominees for government positions. Also included in the list was Jeffrey DeWit, who was first nominated Nov. 29 to be chief financial officer of NASA.
The resubmitted nominations are a procedural move. The Senate, under its rules, returns nominations to the president at the end of its first session if they have not been either confirmed or rejected by the full Senate, unless the Senate agrees by unanimous consent to keep the nominations active. The president must resubmit the nomination if he still wants the Senate to consider them.
Both Bridenstine and Myers were pending consideration by the full Senate after party-line votes by the Senate Commerce Committee to advance their nominations, with all committee Republicans voting for the nominees and all committee Democrats voting against them. DeWit had not yet had a confirmation hearing by the committee before the Senate adjourned for the year Dec. 21.
The nominees return to a Senate where Republican control has become razor thin. Republicans now hold 51 seats after Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat, was sworn in Jan. 3 to take the seat previously held by interim Republican Sen. Luther Strange. Democrats now hold 49 seats, counting two independent senators who caucus with the Democrats.
That narrow majority is unlikely to affect Myers’ confirmation, as no Republicans have expressed opposition to the nomination. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, acknowledged at the committee’s Dec. 13 vote to advance the nomination that it was likely Myers would ultimate be confirmed.
“If Mr. Myers is confirmed — and I can count votes — this senator will do everything in the world, as will all of these senators,” he said in a statement prior to the committee’s vote, pointing to the other Democrats on the committee, “to make him successful.”
The path to confirmation is less certain for Bridenstine. At least one Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, has publicly expressed reservations about Bridenstine’s nomination, but has not announced if he would vote to confirm Bridenstine. With the current 51–49 split, only one Republican can oppose a nomination and still allow confirmation, with a 50–50 tie being broken by the vice president.
Complicating those calculations is the uncertain health of two Republicans in the Senate, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and John McCain of Arizona. Cochran missed several weeks last fall with an illness, and McCain went home in December prior to the end of the session to recuperate from brain cancer treatments but is expected to return this month.
Despite the uncertain support for Bridenstine in the Senate, industry continues to back his nomination to lead the space agency. “For us, this was an ideal candidate,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a Dec. 18 speech at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Broomfield, Colorado. He cited Bridenstine’s space policy experience as a member of the House of Representatives, working on civil, commercial and national security space issues, as a key factor.
He acknowledged, though, the political factors that have complicated the confirmation process. “This has been the most unusual, awkward, weird presidential nomination I have ever seen, and certainly the likes that NASA has seen,” he said, adding he hoped the Senate would finally take up the nomination by early this year.
For now, Robert Lightfoot, NASA associate administrator, remains the agency’s acting administrator. He had held that position for nearly one year, an unprecedented span in the agency’s nearly 60-year history. Lightfoot has received widespread acclaim for his interim leadership of the agency, but even Lightfoot has said he’d like to have a permanent administrator confirmed sooner rather than later.
“It’s been fun running the agency for a while, but I’m ready for a boss,” Lightfoot said in a Dec. 5 speech at the Space Commerce Conference and Exhibition in Houston. “Hopefully we’ll get one here soon.”