President Joe Biden’s choice to run the Federal Aviation Administration has withdrawn his nomination, a blow to the administration after Denver International Airport CEO Philip Washington lacked enough support in the closely divided Senate.
“Unfortunately, baseless Republican attacks on Mr. Washington’s service and experience irresponsibly delayed the process, threatened unnecessary procedural hurdles on the Senate floor and ultimately led him to withdraw his nomination today,” a White House official said Saturday night. “Despite Senate Republicans’ months-long, relentless campaign to sink the nomination of a qualified military veteran, our administration believes service in uniform is an asset.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg confirmed Washington’s withdrawal in a tweet Saturday night, calling him “an excellent nominee” and blaming unsolicited and partisan attacks.
“The FAA needs a confident administrator, and Phil Washington’s transportation and military experience make him an excellent nominee,” Buttigieg tweeted. “The partisan attacks and procedural hurdles he has faced are undeserved, but I respect his decision to withdraw and am grateful for his service.”
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Republicans united in opposition to Washington, calling him incompetent due to his limited aviation experience. Democrats and independents in the coalition could still push the nomination, but key senators from their party refused to endorse Mr. Biden’s pick.
Washington’s fate was sealed when Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell of Washington abruptly canceled a scheduled vote last Wednesday — a sign that she lacked enough votes to remove the nomination from the committee. He said some senators wanted more information about Washington.
Sen. Kirsten Cinema of Arizona, who was a Democrat until becoming an independent in December, and moderate Democrat Jon Tester of Montana declined to say how they would vote. A person familiar with the matter told The Associated Press that Sinema has withheld the nomination and signaled 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 seek assurances of support from senators, testers and other moderates.
The FAA has lacked 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 is also battling aging technology that failed in January, briefly canceling all takeoffs across the country. And it’s still trying to repair its reputation after sanctioning the crashed Boeing planes in 2018 and 2019.
“The FAA needs a confident administrator, and Phil Washington’s transportation and military experience make him an excellent nominee,” Buttigieg tweeted Saturday night. “The partisan attacks and procedural hurdles he has faced are undeserved, but I respect his decision to withdraw and am grateful for his service.”
Washington runs transit agencies in Denver and Los Angeles, but his only aviation-related experience is as CEO of the Denver airport for less than two years. He has strong ties to the administration, however — he led Mr. Biden’s 2020 transition team for the Transportation Department, which includes the FAA.
Mr. Biden nominated Washington in July 2022, but he did not receive a committee hearing for eight months. Republicans attacked his resume and seized on disclosures about his name appearing in search warrants related to corruption investigations in Los Angeles. Washington says he has done nothing wrong and has not been contacted by law enforcement.
The organization is headed by one Acting Administrator, Billy Nolen, a pilot who has held security jobs with three airlines and the FAA. Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who has led the opposition in Washington, said Nolen could win bipartisan support.
In a statement Saturday night, Cruz said Washington lacks the necessary experience.
“Given the significant challenges facing the FAA, this was not the time for an administrator who needed on-the-job training,” he said. “The Biden administration must now quickly name someone to head the FAA who has a broad aviation background, can garner broad bipartisan support in the Senate, and will keep the flying public safe.”