President Joe Biden’s choice to lead the Federal Aviation Administration has withdrawn his nomination, a setback for the administration that comes after Denver International Airport CEO Phillip Washington appeared to lack support in the tightly divided Senate.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg confirmed Washington’s withdrawal in a tweet on Saturday night, calling him a “great candidate” and blaming undeserved and partisan attacks.
Republicans were united against Washington, calling him unqualified because of his limited aviation experience. Democrats and allied independents might still have pushed through the nomination, but leading senators on their side have been reluctant to back Biden’s pick.
Washington’s fate appeared settled when Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., abruptly canceled a vote scheduled last Wednesday – a sign that she lacked the votes to withdraw the committee’s nomination. She said some senators wanted more information on Washington.
Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who was a Democrat until she became an independent in December, and moderate Democrat Jon Tester of Montana declined to say how they would have voted. A person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press that Sinema was delaying the nomination and had indicated his opposition. The person was not authorized to discuss the process publicly and insisted on anonymity.
Before the White House announces a new nominee, it will likely want assurances of support from Sinema, Tester and other moderates.
The FAA has not had a Senate-confirmed administrator since March 2022. The agency is trying to reassure Americans that air travel is safe despite an increase in close calls between planes this year. It’s also grappling with aging technology that failed in January, briefly canceling all takeoffs across the country. And he’s still trying to fix his reputation after approving Boeing planes that crashed in 2018 and 2019.
“The FAA needs a senior administrator, and Phil Washington’s military and transportation experience made him a great fit,” Buttigieg tweeted Saturday night. “The partisan attacks and procedural obstruction he has faced are undeserved, but I respect his decision to stand down and am grateful for his services.”
Washington ran transit agencies in Denver and Los Angeles, but his only aviation-related experience was serving as CEO of Denver Airport for less than two years. He does, however, have close ties to the administration — he led Biden’s 2020 transition team for the Department of Transportation, which includes the FAA.
Biden nominated Washington last July, but he did not get a committee hearing for eight months. Republicans have attacked his resume and seized on revelations that his name appeared in search warrants related to a corruption investigation in Los Angeles. Washington said he did nothing wrong and was not contacted by law enforcement.
The agency is headed by an acting administrator, Billy Nolen, a pilot who has held security positions at three airlines and the FAA. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who has led the opposition in Washington, said Nolen could win bipartisan support.
In a statement Saturday night, Cruz said Washington’s lack of necessary experience was evident.
“Given the significant challenges facing the FAA, now was not the time for an administrator who needed on-the-job training,” he said. “The Biden administration must now quickly appoint someone to head the FAA who has extensive aviation experience, can win broad bipartisan support in the Senate, and will keep the flying public safe.”
Koenig reported from Dallas. Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington contributed to this report.