Phil Washington, the chief executive of Denver International Airport and President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Federal Aviation Administration, withdrew from consideration in the face of persistent Republican opposition, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg confirmed Saturday night.
Reuters first reported Washington’s withdrawal and Buttigieg confirmed it in a late Saturday tweet. Republicans had attacked Washington as unqualified for months and — though Washington and his supporters maintained there was no substance to the attacks — Buttigieg implied those criticisms tanked the nomination.
“The FAA needs a confirmed Administrator, and Phil Washington’s transportation & military experience made him an excellent nominee,” Buttigieg wrote. “The partisan attacks and procedural obstruction he has faced are undeserved, but I respect his decision to withdraw and am grateful for his service.”
The FAA has been without a Senate-confirmed commissioner since Steven Dickson left office at the end of March 2022. Biden nominated Washington that July.
Washington served in the U.S. Army for 24 years before retiring in 2000. He then spent another two decades in public transit, leading agencies in Denver and Los Angeles, before taking over the world’s third-busiest airport in 2021. His management and leadership experience, he and supporters said, made him well suited to lead the nation’s aviation agency.
But Republicans, especially U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that oversaw Washington’s nomination, criticized Washington for lacking aviation experience.
Cruz said he preferred acting Administrator Billy Nolen, who’d spent years as a commercial pilot before transitioning to safety executive positions.
Democratic supporters of Washington noted that past administrators nominated by presidents of both parties had experience in line with Washington’s.
Republicans also tied Washington to a local corruption scandal in Los Angeles, in which an ally of former County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl won a favorable L.A. Metro contract.
Washington was named in a search warrant, but has not been accused of wrongdoing. He said in his confirmation hearing this month that he had no influence over the contract and had no contact with Kuehl about it.
His nomination was also complicated by his former military service, with Republicans saying he would need a waiver to serve in a position that by law must be held by a civilian.
The Transportation Department’s chief legal officer said this month such a waiver would not be necessary since Washington had been in civilian life for 23 years, but Cruz disagreed and said that “a legal cloud” would hang over every FAA decision made in his tenure.
Washington received strong support from his home state senators, Colorado Democrats John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, and a handful of other Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
But a few key swing votes in the closely divided Senate remained undeclared, including Commerce Committee moderates Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, and Arizona independent Kyrsten Sinema.
A committee vote to advance his nomination last week was indefinitely postponed, with no specific reason provided.