Trump NHTSA pick's vote postponed

Keith Laing
The Detroit News
Heidi King

Washington — The nomination of President Trump’s pick to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is facing signs of trouble after a Senate committee postponed a Tuesday vote on whether her nomination should move forward. A senator on that committee expressed concern over her earlier testimony.

Consideration of NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King, who was tapped by Trump after seven months as the de-facto chief of the agency, has been removed from the agenda for a U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee meeting.

Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for Democrats on the Commerce Committee, told The Detroit News on Monday evening that the vote to advance King's nomination to a vote by the full Senate was pulled back "in part due to lingering concerns expressed by (U.S. Sen. Bill) Nelson (D-Fla.) regarding King's lack of sufficient answers on NHTSA's handling of Takata recalls."   

The spokeswoman for Republicans on the panel did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Despite the concerns that have been raised by Democrats and safety advocates, King is expected to win support from Republicans on the Senate committee, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 14-13 margin. 

King was questioned in a hearing last Wednesday about NHTSA’s handling of the Takata air bag recall, plans by the White House to relax stringent emission standards for new cars – and what the safety agency is doing to prepare for self-driving cars.

“A report done by the minority staff on this committee issued just last Friday shows that there are still 1.3 million vehicles out there with those defective Takata air bags, which is nothing more than a ticking time bomb,” Nelson said then. “Just in the state of Florida, three people are dead. Eighty-three people are injured. And that’s just one state.”

Exploding Takata air bag inflators have been linked to at least 15 deaths and more than 275 injuries in the United States. At least twenty-two have died worldwide.

Nearly 50 million Takata inflators have been recalled in the U.S., making it the largest automotive safety recall in U.S. history. Another 20 million faulty air bags in newer cars are expected to be called back in the next couple of years. NHTSA has said only 22.9 million of the 50 million air bags recalled by March 30 have been repaired.

King, who came to NHTSA with a private sector background as global director of environmental health and safety risk at GE Capital, told lawmakers Wednesday that she questioned whether NHTSA will have the legal authority to compel carmakers to release public plans for fixing faulty air bags, nothing that some of the information about fixes for specific models could be proprietary.

Nelson pushed back on that answer, saying, “Why is that such a difficult question for you to say ‘Yes, I’m going to ask them? I’m going to ask them, I'm going to commit to push them to come out with a public plan to finish up these 1.3 million bags.’”

Safety advocates have raised questions about King's fitness for the NHTSA job. The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety came out against her nomination Monday.

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety said, "In her seven months on the job, perhaps the only thing that is clear about Ms. King's performance is a commitment to deregulation in the face of pressing safety and environmental concerns.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing