WASHINGTON Two Democratic U.S. senators on Thursday formally blocked the nomination of Robert Sturgell, a former Navy fighter pilot and airline pilot, to lead the Federal Aviation Administration.
Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, both of New Jersey, placed a hold on the nomination, preventing any attempt on the Senate floor to confirm him.
Although technically alive, aviation sources familiar with the Senate process believe election-year politics now will prevent Sturgell's nomination to the 5-year post from ever moving forward. Sturgell is currently the agency's acting administrator. Before that, he was deputy administrator.
The Democratically controlled Congress has been wrangling with the Republican-controlled White House over nominations, especially for long-term or politically sensitive positions. The fight has intensified with the presidential campaign in full swing and a change in administrations less than a year away.
The FAA runs the nation's air traffic control system at more than 400 commercial airports and is responsible for aviation safety oversight. Some lawmakers and industry officials partly blame worsening flight delays in 2007 on an antiquated air traffic system and other FAA shortcomings.
President George W. Bush, in remarks urging Senate confirmation of Sturgell and other nominees to various posts, said the FAA nominee's experience and skills were strong qualifications.
"It's important for the country that he be confirmed," Bush said. "If they don't like him, vote him down, but at least give a vote as soon as possible."
A Transportation Department spokesman said they are still working on senators over the nomination.
But Menendez and Lautenberg both expressed dissatisfaction with FAA safety oversight, particularly that the agency is not doing enough to prevent near collisions on runways.
They are also concerned with the FAA's handling of claims by air traffic controllers that their facilities are understaffed and their ranks overworked.
Controllers are waging an aggressive lobbying campaign to reopen contract negotiations after the Bush administration imposed employment terms despite their objections.
Sturgell was nominated to replace Marion Blakey, whose term ended in September. She now heads the aerospace industry's top trade group.
Airlines support Sturgell's nomination.
(Reporting by John Crawley; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)