President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Federal Aviation Administration is in jeopardy after a Democratic-led Senate committee abruptly delayed a crucial vote Wednesday on his nomination amid opposition from Republicans and uncertainty over Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s position.
Phillip Washington’s nomination was first announced by Biden eight months ago and has since faced continued resistance from Republican members of Congress over a number of issues, including his slim aviation-related credentials and his potential legal entanglements.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation was scheduled to hold a Wednesday vote to move Washington’s nomination forward, but Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, the committee’s chairwoman, announced that morning that the vote was “moving to a future date pending information that members have been seeking.” She also underscored that the committee “will have this debate in the future,” contending that Washington is qualified for the job.
But a Republican Senate aide, responding to Cantwell’s characterization of Washington’s situation, told CNN, “He was pulled because they don’t have the votes to report him out of committee. This isn’t about more information.”
The GOP aide said that because Republicans remain unified in their opposition to Washington’s prospective leadership, “his nomination is on life support.”
“No member … wants to be the deciding vote for an unqualified FAA administrator and risk an aviation disaster occurring on his watch,” they added.
While the Democrats on the committee said they support Washington, his future could hinge on Sinema – an independent who caucuses with Democrats but won’t say if she supports or opposes the FAA nominee.
After his nomination stalled out in the Senate committee, which Democrats control by a 14-13 majority, an aide to Sinema said that her office won’t preview how the senator will vote on matters. Sinema, who is up for reelection in Arizona, remained silent when asked by CNN if she is concerned about Washington’s lack of aviation experience.
It’s unclear just how much opposition there is to Washington throughout the rest of the Senate.
But given the chamber’s narrow Democratic majority and recent absences among senators – including California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. John Fetterman and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin – Democrats would need just about unanimous support in order to advance the nomination.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the leading Republican on the Senate Commerce committee, said during the panel’s executive session Wednesday, “I am glad to hear that the committee is considering delaying consideration of the nomination of Phil Washington. Phil Washington has been before this committee for some time now. And I think every member of this committee knows that Mr. Washington is not qualified for the position for which he is nominated.”
The White House is continuing to stand behind Washington following the vote delay.
“He has the qualifications and experience for this role. The president believes that and that’s what our administration believes as well,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told CNN’s Jeremy Diamond during Wednesday’s press briefing. “We’re going to continue to urge the Senate to move swiftly on his confirmation, and … Sen. Cantwell … has made clear that Phil Washington’s nomination will receive full – full – consideration from the committee.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s scrapped vote, a steady stream of groups lined up for and against Washington.
Aviation worker unions, former transportation secretaries on both sides of the aisle, Denver-based Frontier Airlines and the family members of crash victims who died on Ethiopian Air Flight 302 all endorsed Washington.
Former Department of Transportation officials who served at the agency during the Trump administration signed onto a letter to the president expressing their opposition to Washington’s confirmation.
Cruz and Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, have both expressed their opposition to Washington’s nomination.
The FAA has been operating without a permanent administrator for a year.
In that time, the agency has contended with several problems that have plagued travelers and the airline industry, such as recent near-collisions involving airliners, crucial staffing shortages and malfunctions of aging technology that have cause major air travel disruption.
While Democrats largely seemed supportive during Washington’s confirmation hearing earlier this month, he was grilled by Republican senators on issues that have emerged since he was named as a prospective administrator last summer.
Washington, the current CEO of the Denver International Airport, has held leadership roles at municipal transit organizations, including in Denver and Los Angeles, focused on bus and rail lines. He also led the Biden-Harris transition team for the Department of Transportation. Prior to his work in transportation, Washington served in the military for 24 years.
While Washington has worked in transportation-related positions since 2000, he had no experience in the aviation industry prior to joining the Denver airport in 2021 – a major concern among committee members.
Since being nominated, Washington has also faced questions about being named in a search warrant issued as part of a political corruption investigation in Los Angeles, along with other potential legal entanglements. Republicans have also questioned whether Washington, an Army veteran who left the military in 2000 after more than 20 years of service, would be statutorily considered a civilian – a requirement in order to serve as the FAA chief.
If he’s not considered a civilian, he would need a waiver from Congress permitting him to lead the agency. And Republicans in both the House and the Senate do not support granting Washington a waiver.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.
CNN’s Ted Barrett, Manu Raju and Greg Wallace contributed to this report.