A vote on President Joe Biden’s choice to run the Federal Aviation Administration was delayed indefinitely Wednesday in the face of an opposition blitz by Republicans, who say the nominee lacks enough experience in aviation to lead the agency, which is under pressure to stem a surge in dangerous close calls between planes.
The Senate Commerce Committee was scheduled to vote on Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington, whose nomination has languished since Biden announced his choice last July.
Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said the vote would be delayed to gather information requested by senators. She did not detail the information or name the committee members who sought the delay.
Democrats hold a 14-13 edge on the committee, so the defection of one could derail the nomination if all Republicans oppose it. The GOP has targeted Democrats and independents from swing or red-leaning states.
One of those Democrats, Jon Tester of Montana, was vague when asked if he would vote to advance Washington’s nomination to the full Senate.
“I don’t know that we’re even (going to) vote on him, so I didn’t even have to take a stand,” he told reporters.
The FAA has not had a Senate-confirmed administrator since March 2022, when Stephen Dickson stepped down midway through his term. The agency is being led by an acting administrator, Billy Nolen.
The FAA administrator is not a cabinet-level job, but Republicans have turned the nomination into a high-profile contest with Biden and Senate Democrats.
Washington ran transit agencies in Denver and Los Angeles, but his only aviation-related experience has come since taking the top job at the Denver airport in July 2021. Washington has strong ties to the administration — he led the incoming Biden administration’s transition team for the Transportation Department, which includes the FAA.
Republicans argue, however, that he lacks experience in FAA’s core mission of aviation safety. They note that he is not a pilot.
“This is a job for someone with specialized knowledge needed to ensure the safety of the flying public,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “Phil Washington is objectively, indisputably unqualified to lead the FAA.”
Cantwell said Washington is qualified and has the support of previous heads of the FAA who also were not pilots.
The White House said the FAA needs a Senate-confirmed administrator and Washington “has the right qualifications and experience for this role … we continue to urge the Senate to move swiftly on his confirmation.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is examining six recent close calls between planes. In one, an incoming FedEx plane came within less than 100 feet of a departing Southwest jet after an air traffic controller cleared both to use the same runway in Austin, Texas.
On Wednesday, the FAA issued an alert urging pilots and others in aviation to stress the importance of following safety procedures after a “number of notable and high visibility events” this year.
“While the overall numbers do not reflect an increase in incidents and occurrences, the potential severity of these events is concerning,” the FAA said in the alert.
The FAA held a “safety summit” last week, at which Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigietg, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy and others said airlines, pilots and regulators need to learn from recent close calls to prevent accidents.
Mary Clare Jalonick and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.
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