Senate committee punts vote on Biden's pick to head up FAA

·3 min read
Seth Wenig/AP Photo

President Joe Biden's embattled pick to head the Federal Aviation Administration was dealt another blow Wednesday, as the Senate committee that has been vetting his nomination abruptly postponed a vote that would have moved him forward.

It's the latest setback for the Biden administration in what has become a partisan slugfest that's dragged on for months amid a spate of near misses on runways across the country. The post has not had a Senate-confirmed chief for almost a year.

The nomination for Phil Washington, who is currently CEO of Denver International Airport, has been in question since he was first nominated last year, with some Republicans arguing that he lacks relevant aviation experience. Soon after his nomination, reports emerged that Washington had been caught up in a politically tinged corruption probe out of Los Angeles County related to his time at Los Angeles' transit agency. The California attorney general eventually halted that investigation, but questions have lingered since.

Moments before the committee was set to vote on the nomination, Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said from the dais that his nomination will be considered "at a later date." She gave no further explanation.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said the vote was postponed due to "one person," but would not say who.

Democrats hold a one-seat majority on the committee. Three senators who caucus with Democrats — Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) — had not taken a public position on Washington's nomination ahead of the vote.

A Democratic aide said Rosen was prepared to vote in favor of Washington's nomination on Wednesday. A spokesperson for Tester said he is still considering the nomination. Sinema did not respond to a request for comment.

Other Democrats on the committee would not confirm if Tester or Sinema were potentially the reason for the postponement.

"I know things, but I'm not going to tell you," said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). "All I can tell you is that we're working on it."

Cantwell said "people wanted some more information" about Washington before holding a vote, though she declined to name any holdouts. She said senators were interested in hearing more about Washington's plan to keep the flying public safe before proceeding with a vote.

"I'm not going to be specific but these are important nominations and people wanted more time so we gave it to them," Cantwell said.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), a major backer of Washington's nomination, said he hopes that the committee holds a confirmation vote next week. Hickenlooper said "I think we need someone from outside the machine to come in and really transform the culture" at FAA.

Recently, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the top Republican on the committee, has pummeled Washington repeatedly, not only for his past and his level of experience, but also because the law requires that the head of the FAA be a civilian. Washington is an Army veteran. In the past, veterans have received waivers from Congress to serve, though the last one was issued under the Bill Clinton administration.

In response to Cruz, the FAA's general counsel issued a letter earlier this month saying that Washington, who is retired, is clearly now a civilian and asserted that past administrators who received a waiver for military service didn't really need one.

"I’m glad to hear the committee is delaying consideration of the nomination of Phil Washington," Cruz said Wednesday. "I think every member of this committee knows that Mr. Washington is not qualified for the position to which he was nominated."

Cruz pushed the committee to elevate acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen for the top job instead. In response, Cantwell said she will continue to push for Washington's nomination.

"We will have this debate in the future. Mr. Washington is qualified," Cantwell said Wednesday.