The Republican congressman picked by President Trump to lead NASA is facing headwinds over his past comments on science, including a skeptical view on climate change.
The confirmation of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a tea party conservative and a Navy aviator, stalled recently amid concerns by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Bridenstine, whose nomination has not come to the Senate floor for a vote, said he’s appealing personally to the Florida senator. So far, Rubio has not committed to support him, Bridenstine said.
"We’ve had a good conversation, and I’m doing everything I can to earn his support," Bridenstine said in a brief interview.
Earlier this month, Bridenstine’s nomination passed out of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on a 14-13 vote, along party lines. Bridenstine also passed out of that committee in November, but the panel had to vote again after the Senate failed to bring his confirmation to the floor before the new year.
No Democrats have publicly signaled that they will vote for Bridenstine, and many have expressed concern that he would politicize an agency that has traditionally been immune to the whims of Washington. Rubio, whose state hosts a number of NASA facilities, has also expressed concern about politicizing the space agency.
Complicating the confirmation is the absence of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was diagnosed with brain cancer last year. The Senate’s political composition narrowed earlier this month when Democrat Doug Jones of Alabama was sworn in, leaving Republicans with a 51-seat majority. That means Rubio could scuttle Bridenstine’s confirmation, if he chose to. Rubio’s office did not respond to questions before deadline.
Bridenstine is not the first non-scientist tapped to head NASA, but he is the first politician. A number of his critics are concerned that he might politicize an agency that produces valuable climate research, at a time when it’s being curtailed by executive actions and proposed budget cuts by the Trump administration. Bridenstine’s nomination in September marked the latest an administration has ever waited to pick a NASA administrator. NASA has now gone its longest stretch, more than a year, without a permanent head. The agency is also missing a deputy administrator, the No. 2 position.
Amid his stalled nomination, Bridenstine has moved to the political center, perhaps to help win over wary lawmakers. His guest at the State of the Union address next week will be Bill Nye, the head of the Planetary Society and a bow-tied celebrity who delights in debating with climate skeptics on television.
The two are unlikely allies. Bridenstine has in the past expressed deeply held skepticism about climate change. He once called on former President Obama to apologize for spending so much to research it. He sought a more moderate position during his confirmation hearing, by acknowledging the reality of climate change and that humans have a role in it. He stopped short of saying that humans are the primary driver of atmospheric warming, which NASA scientists concluded years ago.
In a press release that included a picture of Bridenstine and Nye together, the two said they share a love of space and a desire to promote science, technology, engineering and math in schools.
"The Congressman is the nominee to be the next Administrator of NASA, and as I often say, NASA is the best brand the United States has," Nye said in a statement. "This means that the NASA Administrator not only works to advance space exploration, but serves as an informal ambassador of U.S. capability and optimism to the world."
The two have discussed climate science and are in agreement that it should be a priority for NASA, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation. Bridenstine told Nye that he would not interfere with NASA’s Earth science programs and that he would let policymakers decide what to do with the agency’s findings. At a town hall in April, Bridenstine defended one of the satellites that the Trump administration targeted for budget cuts. The PACE satellite monitors the ocean and atmosphere to track, in part, signs of climate change.
As NASA administrator, Bridenstine would have to defend the agency’s research, including its Earth science division, which receives about $2 billion annually, or 10 percent of the agency’s budget.
Bridenstine said he and Nye have an existing relationship.
"When it comes to space exploration and science, he has been a good help to me over the years," Bridenstine said this week. When it comes to climate science, Bridenstine said of Nye, "there’s more in common than you probably know."
Nye did not respond to questions about working with Bridenstine.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who has been one of Bridenstine’s most vocal critics, said this week that there are multiple Republicans unwilling to support Bridenstine. He would not name them.
"I know that at this point, they do not have the votes to pass him," he said. "Now that is always subject to change in the future, but my interpretation of all this is that this is the last thing in the world that NASA needs. NASA has never had partisan politicians. It needs a space professional as its leader."
NASA has a significant presence in Florida, where the Kennedy Space Center is located. It also has a major presence in Maryland and Alabama.
The signs of discord between Rubio and Bridenstine go beyond space politics.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Bridenstine appeared in an ad for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to blast Rubio’s proposed immigration legislation. "Border security is national security, and Marco Rubio’s amnesty bill would have made this country less safe," Bridenstine said in the ad.
It’s unclear if the memory of that attack is playing a role in delaying Bridenstine’s confirmation. Rubio’s office did not respond to a request for an interview. Still, in November, Rubio told the Fort Myers News-Press newspaper in Florida that he had doubts about Bridenstine’s nomination.
"I remain very concerned about the politicization of NASA, not even because he would do it on purpose but just given some of the resistance he’s already engendered," Rubio told the newspaper. "I don’t think NASA at this critical stage of its history can afford that. … As of this moment, I can’t assure anyone that I would support his nomination if it came to a vote."