The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday advanced President Joe Biden’s nominees to head the Federal Aviation Administration and sit on Amtrak’s board of directors, charting a path for key transportation positions that lawmakers had previously blocked.
The panel approved by voice vote Mike Whitaker, a former United Airlines executive with experience in the FAA, for the agency’s top job. The FAA hasn’t had a permanent, Senate-confirmed leader since March 2022.
Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she is hopeful that Whitaker has the support to quickly advance through a floor vote before acting FAA Administrator Polly Trottenberg has to step down on Oct. 26 under the statute that limits the term for acting officials.
“We would think that strong, bipartisan support here merits that kind of consideration,” Cantwell said in an interview, referring to a quick floor vote on Whitaker’s nomination. “But we’ll have to see what happens on the floor.”
The administration initially nominated Denver International Airport CEO Phillip Washington to head the agency, but Washington withdrew from consideration in March after Commerce ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said he would oppose his confirmation because Washington lacked the necessary experience.
The FAA’s acting administrator, Billy Nolen, stepped down in mid-June. Biden nominated Whitaker in September.
“Mr. Whitaker’s confirmation will bring an end to what was an avoidable 18-month gap in FAA leadership,” Cruz said during the markup. “It is unfortunate that the president took so long to heed my advice to nominate someone with aviation expertise.”
Whitaker promised senators in an October hearing that he would focus his priorities on building aviation safety, modernization of FAA systems and the aviation workforce.
“His extensive aviation experience makes him well-suited to lead our nation’s largest transportation safety agency, and he has pledged to focus on aviation safety, the FAA’s primary responsibility,” Cruz added.
Both Cantwell and Cruz said they hoped a quick confirmation of Whitaker would allow the Senate to move forward with the FAA reauthorization bill, which has remained stalled since July, when disagreements broke out over pilot training language. Cantwell said she expects Whitaker to join ongoing FAA reauthorization discussions.
“I’m hoping that he can join this conversation very quickly and resolve any differences,” she added.
The vote to advance the three Amtrak board nominees — Anthony R. Coscia, Christopher Koos and Joel Matthew Szabat — also came by voice vote.
The action breaks a monthslong blockade from Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and committee Republicans over concerns that the Amtrak slate lacks geographical diversity.
Tester and Republicans led by Cruz vowed in April to block all six of Biden’s Amtrak nominees, who also include David Michael Capozzi, Samuel E. Lathem and Robin Lee Wiessmann. They cited a mandate in the 2021 infrastructure law that limits the number of board members from the Northeast Corridor to four.
Coscia, Szabat, Capozzi, Lathem and Wiessmann all hail from Northeast Corridor states — statutorily defined as Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia — making the slate of nominees noncompliant with the infrastructure law.
With the panel’s slight 14-13 Democratic majority, Tester’s support was key for the nominations to advance. According to a congressional staff member familiar with the nominations, Biden has vowed to withdraw and replace a nominee with a candidate from outside the corridor, leading Tester to lift his blockade.
Although Cruz and Tester allowed the three Amtrak nominees to advance, they made it clear that they intend to hold the nominations up once they reach the floor if the deal isn’t upheld.
“Whether I support floor consideration of the Democrat’s nominees will be up to President Biden and the DOT,” Cruz said.
Tester added in an interview that he plans to “continue to put pressure on the administration” and if they don’t nominate a candidate who has experience with Amtrak’s long-distance rail, he will “act accordingly.”
The Biden administration has yet to announce which nominee will be withdrawn or name a new candidate.
Tester said the administration has run a few names past him, but he felt they couldn’t handle the extra workload required of an Amtrak board member. He added that he doesn’t have a suggestion for who should serve in the role.