The Senate on Wednesday narrowly advanced the nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine to be the new administrator after a long, drawn-out roll call in which Sen. Jeff Flake switched his vote.
The final tally was 50 to 48 to cut off debate and move forward toward a final confirmation vote. A majority was needed to advance the nomination.
Wednesday’s procedural vote fell along party lines after some drama in which the Republican senator from Arizona initially opposed advancing the nomination, only to switch later to support it.
Flake's switch saved Senate Republican leaders an extra headache of having to hold a second procedural vote to advance Bridenstine, since Vice President Mike Pence was not available Wednesday to break the initial tie vote.
A Naval Reserve pilot who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma, was first tapped to be NASA administrator late last year. But his nomination stalled amid questions about his qualifications to lead the sprawling space bureaucracy.
Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, led the charge against the conservative lawmaker.
A former astronaut, Nelson slammed the embattled nominee as unqualified and divisive on the Senate floor ahead of Wednesday’s procedural vote.
“The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional, that’s what this senator wants,” Nelson said. “That space professional ought to be technically and scientifically competent, and a skilled executive.”
Bridenstine’s past denial that climate change is caused by humans is also “troubling,” given the agency’s research mission, Nelson added.
“What’s not right for NASA is an administrator who is politically divisive and who is not prepared to be the last in line to make that fateful decision on ‘Go’ or ‘No-Go’ for launch,” Nelson said.