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Biden’s FAA nominee withdraws after Sinema scuttles committee vote

March 26, 2023 Updated Sun., March 26, 2023 at 8:40 p.m.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in a December 2022 photo.  (Elizabeth Frantz/For The Washington Post)
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in a December 2022 photo. (Elizabeth Frantz/For The Washington Post)
By Michael Laris Washington Post

President Biden’s nominee to head the Federal Aviation Administration has withdrawn after Republicans assailed his selection and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., scuttled a planned committee vote last week, congressional aides said.

Transit and airport executive Phillip Washington, a 24-year Army veteran and chief executive of Denver International Airport, headed Biden’s transition team for transportation after the 2020 election.

“The partisan attacks and procedural obstruction he has faced are undeserved,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted late Saturday. The FAA, which has been without a permanent leader for a year, “needs a confirmed Administrator, and Phil Washington’s transportation & military experience made him an excellent nominee.”

Republican senators, led by Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Washington lacked the aviation safety experience required for the job. They sought to tie him to local political issues in California, where he headed the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and assailed his focus on diversifying the ranks of transportation officials and contractors.

“With all respect, Mr. Washington, it gives no comfort to the flying public that their pilot might be a transgendered witch but doesn’t actually know how to prevent the plane from crashing into the ground and killing them. I believe your record is woefully lacking,” Cruz said during a Senate hearing on his nomination earlier this month. He noted Washington had been neither a pilot nor an aviation industry executive.

Unions representing 75,000 flight attendants had backed Washington’s nomination, as had several former agency leaders who similarly came from careers outside aviation and lacked piloting experience. Supporters said Washington’s role as an outsider would have been a significant benefit in seeking to reform an agency that has faced major struggles in recent years.

The FAA’s reputation was tarnished after two new Boeing 737s the agency certified as safe crashed in Indonesia in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019, killing 346 people. Congressional investigators found the agency had ceded too much of its oversight responsibilities to Boeing, and Congress passed legislation in 2020 meant to address some of the shortcomings.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that was handling his nomination, said Washington had the qualifications and experience, including a distinguished military record, to lead the FAA.

“The FAA requires strong and independent leadership from someone who will focus on safety,” Cantwell said in a statement. “Republicans chose to drum up falsehoods rather than give the flying public and the aviation industry the leadership needed now.”

Washington’s withdrawal came less than three weeks after Biden’s nominee for a key post on Federal Communications Commission, Gigi Sohn, backed out following a protracted political fight, undercutting the administration’s internet-related agenda. Opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) helped sink her nomination.

In Washington’s case, it was Sinema, a Democrat turned independent, who scuttled Democrats’ hopes of holding a vote to endorse his nomination at the Transportation Committee last week and send it on to the full Senate, according to two congressional aides. A Sinema spokeswoman had said the senator does not preview votes and declined to comment.

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