Trump NHTSA pick clears Senate committee in party-line vote

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News


Heidi King

Washington — President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cleared the first hurdle in the path to winning confirmation from the U.S. Senate.

The U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee voted 14-13 Wednesday to move forward the nomination of NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King, who was tapped by Trump after seven months as the de-facto chief of the agency.

No Democrats voted in her favor. 

The approval came after a vote on King scheduled for late May was postponed when a senator on the committee expressed concern over her earlier testimony.

King’s nomination will go next to the full U.S. Senate.

Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for Democrats on the Commerce Committee, told The Detroit News last month that the original attempt 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-Florida, regarding King's lack of sufficient answers on NHTSA's handling of Takata recalls.

Nelson reiterated those concerns on Wednesday before voting against King.

Nelson said he'd repeatedly asked King to demonstrate she'd take the issue seriously and that she "finally" sent him a letter Tuesday with a "minimal" plan of action to improve Takata recall completion rates.

"I certainly appreciate this as a step in the right direction, but the long delay in coming up with a plan like that indicates that she lacks the fire in the belly needed to protect consumers from something that's killing consumers," Nelson said. 

"An air bag exploding in your face is not a trivial matter." 

King came to NHTSA with a private sector background as global director of environmental health and safety risk at GE Capital. 

She told lawmakers in her May testimony 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.

Exploding Takata air bag inflators have been linked to at least 15 deaths and more than 275 injuries in the United States. NHTSA has said only 23.2 million of the 50 million air bags recalled by April 27 have been repaired.

King also was questioned about 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.

Despite the concerns that have been raised by Democrats and safety advocates, King is expected to win support from Republicans in the Senate, where Republicans are in the majority.