- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2023

President Biden’s embattled nominee to helm the Federal Aviation Administration is facing a contentious vote this week in the Senate Commerce Committee.

Despite Democrats controlling the Senate, Mr. Biden’s would-be FAA chief Phil Washington is by no means assured to advance through the committee. That’s because at least three senators from the panel’s majority — Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, Jacky Rosen and Jon Tester — are undecided.

Ms. Sinema, an Arizona independent, expressed concern about Mr. Washington’s lack of aviation experience at a commerce committee hearing earlier this month. 

“The FAA has a $24 billion budget, about 45,000 employees, and the responsibility to oversee the most complex aviation system in the world,” said Ms. Sinema. “Aviation experience is important for this position and the federal law listing the requirements for the FAA administrator states the ‘nominee must have experience in a field directly related to aviation.’” 

Mr. Washington is not a pilot but has served as the CEO of the Denver International Airport since 2021. Between 2015 and 2020 he led the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority which is responsible for operating the city’s bus and subway lines.

Republicans have been quick to note Mr. Washington’s lack of aviation experience when urging the president to withdraw the nomination.

SEE ALSO: Congress’ GOP pilots call on Biden to withdraw FAA nominee

“His aviation experience is limited to working at the Denver airport for less than two years,” 14 GOP lawmakers wrote the president last week. “In that role, Mr. Washington is primarily responsible for non-aviation matters, such as the airport’s shops, restaurants, parking, and buildings.”

If confirmed, Mr. Washington would not be the first FAA administrator without a direct aviation background. Presidents Clinton and Obama appointed individuals to the post who had served in the transportation sector but were not licensed pilots.

Still, some Senate Democrats also have reservations about Mr. Washington’s experience. Mrs. Rosen, Nevada Democrat, argued last month that “it is critical to have an FAA administrator with deep experience promoting safe, efficient air travel.” 

Mr. Tester has not publicly addressed Mr. Washington’s qualifications. The Montana Democrat, who is up for reelection in 2024, is facing local pressure back home to oppose. 

The Montana Pilots Association is lobbying against Mr. Washington ahead of the Commerce Committee vote. 

“Having read his resume, we noted no aviation or aeronautical experience whatsoever, and no indication that he is at all familiar with the myriad functions of the FAA, especially aviation safety,” wrote Michael Vivion, the group’s president, in a letter to the panel.

If Mr. Washington loses one Democratic vote on Wednesday, the committee would deadlock. In that case, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, would have to hold a full Senate vote on bringing the nomination to the floor. With a narrow 51-49 Senate majority and two Democrats out because of health issues, Mr. Schumer cannot afford to lose any of his members on Mr. Washington’s nomination. 

“This is a big test vote,” said a senior GOP aide. “If he can’t get the votes from Democrats in committee, he can’t get the votes on the floor.”

Mr. Washington was nominated by the White House for the FAA post in July 2022. His nomination stalled amid opposition from Republicans.

Apart from Mr. Washington’s lack of a pilot’s license, the nominee is facing questions about his management abilities.

Mr. Washington was previously named in two other lawsuits alleging general discrimination and whistleblower retaliation during his tenure as CEO of Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Transportation Authority. A recently filed federal lawsuit by an employee of the Denver Airport alleges that under Mr. Washington’s leadership, he was subject to “threats” and “intolerable” working conditions.

Mr. Washington has denied wrongdoing and said the allegations are false.

• Haris Alic can be reached at halic@washingtontimes.com.

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