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Washington — The top-ranking highway safety official in President Donald Trump's administration is resigning in the midst of a fight between the federal government and California over gas mileage rules that are likely to head to court.  

Heidi King, acting administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is resigning effective Aug. 31. Although she was nominated by Trump for the full-time position atop the agency in April 2018 after seven months as de facto chief of the agency, her appointment was met with resistance from Democrats in the U.S. Senate and never went before the full chamber for a vote.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said King will be replaced by U.S. DOT Deputy General Counsel James Owens, who will serve as deputy NHTSA administrator and the agency's acting chief. 

King was a central figure in an escalating fight with California over federal gas-mileage rules for cars. She has been a central face of the Trump administration's two-year push to freeze fuel-mileage rules at about 39 mpg for model years 2021 to 2026. The White House has also pushed to revoke a longstanding waiver allowing California and other states to set their own stricter auto emissions standards. 

The Trump administration announced last year its intention to ease stringent gas-mileage rules that would have required fleets averaging nearly 55 miles per gallon by 2025. The administration proposed a freeze in the mandate after 2020, touching off a fierce battle with California, which helped craft the Obama-era rules.

The two sides attempted to negotiate a potential agreement, but the White House said in February it was pulling out of the talks and moving forward with its proposed freeze. Four major automakers — Ford Motor Co., Volkswagen AG, Honda Motor Co. and BMW AG — have since reached a side agreement with California that calls for them to voluntarily increase the average fuel economy of their fleets to about 50 miles per gallon by the end of the 2026 model year.

King recently disputed reports of her imminent departure from NHTSA, writing on LinkedIn.com: "How do you know when you are working too hard? When your vacation is reported as a career change!" 

She did not respond to a request for comment on her departure.  

King, who came to NHTSA with a private sector background as global director of environmental health and safety risk at GE Capital, struggled to win support from Democrats in the U.S. Senate after safety advocates questioned NHTSA’s handling of the Takata air bag recall under her watch and environmentalists railed against the White House's plan to relax stringent emission standards for new cars.

A vote on Trump's nomination of King in the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee was delayed for nearly a year before she was approved in April on a 14-12 vote that broke down on party lines. All Republicans on the panel voted for her appointment. 

King's nomination was expected to go next to a vote of the full U.S. Senate, which is controlled by Republicans by a 53-47 margin.

A former senator, Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who blocked a vote on King's nomination due to concerns of her handling of recalls involving faulty air bags that were made by former Japanese manufacturer Takata was defeated in the November 2018 election. His defeat cleared the way for the panel to move forward with a vote on King. 

The transportation department also announced Monday that U.S. DOT General Counsel Steven Bradbury has been named Acting Deputy Secretary of the Department of Transportation in addition to his current duties, effective immediately. The agency also said Senior Counselor for Regulatory Reform Christina Aizcorbe has been named Deputy General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

klaing@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8735

Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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