Jim Bridenstine has a problem.
The Oklahoma congressman and President Donald Trump's nominee for NASA administrator really wants the job, but he may not get it, and not for the reasons you might think.
On Wednesday, during Bridenstine's confirmation hearing before the Senate's Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee, the congressman was hit hard by Democrats serving on the committee who were questioning his beliefs on climate change, partisan politics, and social issues.
While Bridenstine seemed to weather the storm of questions well for the most part, his views and record when it comes to LGBTQ rights are coming back to haunt him in a big way.
Multiple senators questioning Bridenstine were critical of his positions on LGBTQ rights over the years.
Image: Sue Ogrocki/AP/REX/Shutterstock
"Your recent public service career does not instill great confidence about your leadership skills or ability to bring people together," Senator Bill Nelson said in his opening statement during the hearing.
Bridenstine has railed against rulings affirming same-sex marriage and gave a speech on the floor of the House against allowing the Boy Scouts to admit gay members.
He also came out against former President Barack Obama's order allowing transgender students to use the bathrooms corresponding with their gender identities, not just their birth certificates. Bridenstine also co-sponsored a bill that would have defined marriage as between a woman and a man.
"You have advocated for discriminatory policies toward the LGBT community, which runs contrary to the civil rights of these Americans and poisons our national discourse," Nelson, who flew to space with NASA aboard the space shuttle, added.
At first blush, it may seem like this line of questioning is irrelevant for the head of an agency focused on exploring space and learning more about our own planet.
But the fact is that NASA is a huge agency with about 18,000 diverse employees, and if the administrator of that agency is biased against whole swaths of the population, that could present quite a problem.
Science is performed by scientists, and scientists are people.
When people feel unsafe or unwelcome, it makes it harder to do a job well and do it right. NASA — and the sciences at large — are no different.
Senator Patty Murray penned a letter against Bridenstine's nomination, citing his views on LGBTQ people as a major reason he shouldn't be NASA administrator. Murray said:
Murray added that Bridenstine also "has a history of supporting anti-Muslim groups," and he "voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act" in 2013.
Senator Maggie Hassan questioned Bridenstine about his past remarks defending statements about assaulting women Donald Trump made in the Hollywood Access tape surfaced during the 2016 election. Hassan drew a line between those statements and sexual harassment and assault in the sciences, a topic that has come up with increasing frequency in the past few years.
Bridenstine responded that he would work to make sure that everyone at NASA knows "what sexual harassment is and to not even get close to it." He also seemed to express regret for his defense of Trump's statements.
That regret may not be enough for some of the senators who will eventually vote on Bridenstine's confirmation.
If Bridenstine is confirmed he will be the leader of an agency tasked with inspiring young people perhaps more than any other government agency today, Senator Cory Booker said in his emotional statement during the hearing.
"You're going to be in a position not just managing people, but at least in my eyes, you're up for an office to be one of the most inspiring leaders in America, where children will look to you," Booker said during the hearing.
"...Tell me how you think a child will view a leader who thinks they are immoral or engaging in immoral acts."
Bridenstine responded: "I believe that every person has dignity and worth. Every person has value. The personal views I have on sexual morality are my personal views. As a leader, should I be confirmed to be the NASA administrator, certainly I can tell you that NASA is unique in its ability to inspire and educate young folks."
But Booker wasn't satisfied.
The New Jersey senator continued to press the nominee, asking Bridenstine what he would say if asked about his views on sexual morality.
Bridenstine dodged that question as well.
"I want to see everybody who works at NASA be able to excel based on the merits of their work exclusively," Bridenstine said in response.
Booker explained that he's not sure if Bridenstine will be confirmed, but that if he is, he needs to work to affirm "the dignity and the worth of all folks," something that Bridenstine hadn't done when it came to LGBTQ issues in the past.
"It is critically important, should you have the privilege of serving in this position that is about inspiration, that is about elevating the potential and possibility of all human beings," Booker said.
"It is very, very important that you are not seen as someone who stands in judgment of people because of who they are, and that, in fact, [you] can speak to the aspirations of all folks whether they are gay, straight, black, or white or what have you."