Culture, climate wars complicate vote for NASA administrator 

Oklahoma Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine will be counting on a thin Republican majority in the Senate to confirm him as NASA administrator, possibly before Congress adjourns on Dec. 15 for its winter recess.

During Bridenstine’s Nov. 1 confirmation hearing, Democrats pointed to his voting record and campaign statements about gender issues and climate science to question whether he would protect NASA employees from discrimination and the political punishment that Democrats fear scientists could face under the Trump administration.

“Your record and behavior in Congress is as divisive and extreme as any in Washington,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a former space shuttle payload specialist and the ranking Democrat on the committee that oversees NASA. Nelson said Bridenstine has “a long way to go” to prove he can be a uniting leader for the agency.

Bridenstine’s nomination eked through the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on a 14-to-13 party-line vote. Support from all Senate Republicans does not appear to be guaranteed. Sen. Marco Rubio’s office told me there was no update about whether the Florida Republican would vote to confirm. Earlier this month, Rubio told The News-Press in Southwest Florida that he was concerned about the politicization of NASA that Bridenstine could bring. Bridenstine in 2016 also endorsed the Republican primary opponent of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.  

Bridenstine’s record in Congress on cultural issues has raised special ire among Democrats. After his election to Congress in 2012, Bridenstine voted against extending the protections in the Violence Against Women Act to same-sex couples. Also in 2013, Bridenstine criticized the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of same-sex marriage and vowed to “continue the fight for traditional marriage,” which he defined as a marriage between a man and a woman.

Under grilling from Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass.; Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev.; and Cory Booker, D-N.J., Bridenstine repeated the same phrase several times: “I believe that every human being has value and every person has worth.” He said he would be “committed to ensuring there is equal opportunity” among NASA employees and would “absolutely follow the law” regarding protection of workers’ rights for their same-sex marriages.

Bridenstine was also pressed on climate change, due in part to a 2013 floor speech in which he criticized the amount of money spent on weather research compared to climate studies. He said the Obama administration’s priority amounted to a “gross misallocation” of tax dollars for which tornado-plagued Oklahoma was “ready to accept the president’s apology.”

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, asked Bridenstine whether “climate change is primarily caused by human activity,” as the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded.

Bridenstine said, “Human activity is absolutely a contributor” to climate change, but he added, “there are other contributing factors that may have more of an impact,” and “we have to keep the debate dispassionate and driven by science.”

With some lawmakers gunning for NASA to look outward, rather than Earthward, Bridenstine said NASA’s Earth Science Division has one of the agency’s “great missions.” He said NASA “is the only agency in the world that can do this kind of science.” On climate change research, he said he will “prevent the science from becoming partisan” by following the guidance of the next Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space due for release in January by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine .

Republican senators were critical of the tenor of the questions about climate change. “Let me say this about scientific consensus — it hasn’t always been right,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss.

On the Democratic side, Markey pointed to the Trump administration’s support from skeptics of climate change as a challenge Bridenstine would face if he were to become NASA administrator.

“Fear is rampant amongst our government scientists that they are going to be punished if they speak publicly about their work on climate change science,” Markey said.

Bridenstine said, “Without question, I will not punish them.”

Culture, climate wars complicate vote for NASA administrator