U.S. Senate committee postpones vote on Denver airport chief’s nomination to lead FAA

By: - March 23, 2023 1:16 pm

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The U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee postponed a scheduled vote Wednesday on Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington’s nomination to lead the Federal Aviation Administration.

The panel’s chairwoman, Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, said the vote would be held at an unspecified future date and offered few details about why it was pushed. The Denver airport chief has been a target of Republican criticism for months, delaying his confirmation and leaving an acting administrator in charge of the FAA for nearly a year.

“We will not be considering the nomination of Phil Washington,” Cantwell said. “We are moving that to a future date, pending information that members have been seeking.”

The committee’s ranking Republican, Ted Cruz of Texas, has been a consistent critic of Washington and he cheered the postponement Wednesday.

“I think every member of this committee knows that Mr. Washington is not qualified for the position for which he is nominated,” Cruz said. “Mr. Washington has never flown a plane. He was never a military pilot. He was never a commercial pilot. He’s never worked at an airline. He’s never worked at the FAA. He’s never worked as an air traffic controller.”

Cruz has led a Republican campaign against Washington, objecting to his relative lack of experience in aviation, ties to a Los Angeles corruption scandal and military experience.

Washington has led the third-busiest airport in the world, according to the industry group Airports Council International, since 2021, but before that worked for two decades in public transit.

At his confirmation hearing, Washington said his roles as head of the Denver and Los Angeles transit agencies were relevant experience that demonstrated his management and leadership skills. Previous FAA administrators — nominated by recent presidents of both parties — have also lacked major aviation experience.

Republicans have also noted Washington was named in a search warrant related to an ongoing corruption investigation in Los Angeles County. He is not the target of the investigation and has denied wrongdoing.

Washington also served 24 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a command sergeant major in 2000. Cruz has said that experience disqualifies him from taking an FAA position that is required by statute to be held by a civilian.

The top lawyer at the U.S. Transportation Department said this month that Washington had been retired for 23 years and should be considered a civilian.

Cruz has repeatedly said that Washington does not have sufficient support to be confirmed. Democrats and independents who caucus with Democrats hold a slim 51-49 majority in the Senate and a 14-13 edge on the committee.

While Democrats generally gave Washington a positive reception during his confirmation hearing earlier this month, not all Democrats on the panel have said they will vote for him.

Harry Child, a spokesman for Montana Democrat Jon Tester, a moderate up for reelection in an increasingly Republican state, said Wednesday that Tester is still considering the nomination but did not ask for the committee vote to be delayed.

Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona independent who caucuses with Democrats, has also not said how she will vote on the nomination. Sinema’s office did not respond to a message Wednesday, but typically her aides do not preview the senator’s positions on upcoming votes.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.