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Biden’s FAA nominee withdraws after Sinema scuttles committee vote

By Michael Laris Washington Post

President Biden’s nominee to head the Federal Aviation Administration has withdrawn after Republicans assailed his selection and Sen.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-Tex., 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 some former agency leaders who similarly came from careers largely 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.”

In a statement Monday, Washington said he is confident he could have been a transformative leader, but “no longer saw a respectful, civil, and viable path forward to Senate confirmation.” He blamed “cheap and unfounded partisan attacks” and obstruction tied to his military career that he said would prolong an already delayed process of confirming a permanent leader.

“I decided that for the good of the FAA and the country, I would withdraw my name,” Washington wrote. “I wanted to put the country first.”

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.

The White House said in a statement that Washington leads one of the busiest airports in the world, had managed large safety-focused transportation agencies and had been a command sergeant major in the Army, the highest noncommissioned officer rank for an enlisted service member. It blamed Republicans for prompting Washington’s withdrawal.

“An onslaught of unfounded Republican attacks on Mr. Washington’s service and experience irresponsibly delayed this process,” the White House said. “Despite Senate Republicans’ months-long, relentless campaign to sink the nomination of a qualified military veteran, our Administration believes that service in uniform is an asset.”

Republicans had argued that Washington’s military service would require an extra vote in the GOP-controlled House, where Republicans say they would have blocked his nomination.

Cruz said Washington is not a “civilian,” which the FAA administrator must be under federal law, and pointed to previous cases in which Congress voted to approve waivers for retired military personnel to serve at the agency.

The Transportation Department’s chief counsel had responded that those previous waivers were unnecessary and Washington, who retired from the Army in 2000, “fits the plain and widely understood meaning” of the word “civilian.”

At his nomination hearing March 1, Washington struggled, at times, to effectively fend off Republican attacks, according to two former Transportation Department officials. When pressed by Sen. Ted Budd (N.C.) to answer rapid-fire technical questions, Washington repeatedly said he did not know the answers.

“You know, the FAA can’t afford to be led by someone who needs on-the-job training,” Budd said.

In a social media video promoting the nomination, a key ally, Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), mocked Republicans’ contention that Washington wasn’t properly credentialed.

“They’re now saying Phil couldn’t possibly lead the FAA, because, get this, he’s not a pilot or an airline executive, as if the top job at the FAA should just be some revolving door for the industry to regulate itself,” Hickenlooper said.

Washington told senators his experience in the Army, overseeing large transit operations and managing the world’s third-busiest airport prepared him for the role.

“Leadership is a real thing. It is a real skill,” Washington said. “Motivating people, inspiring people, getting people to do what they otherwise may not do, is a real skill.”