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Updated: 6:31 p.m.
Congress moved no closer to ending a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday, with frustrations boiling over from the White House to the Capitol and the majority of lawmakers away on August recess.
The finger-pointing — by Senate Democrats, House Republicans and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — played out like a bizarre epilogue to a months-long, sometimes vitriolic debate over extending the nation’s debt ceiling. At a news conference Wednesday, Senate Democrats bemoaned being “held hostage” by House Republicans in the standoff over extending the FAA’s authorization, which expired July 22.
The Democrats accused House Republicans of promoting special interests over nearly 4,000 furloughed FAA employees, and the media availability ended awkwardly after a television reporter asked a series of pointed questions as to why the Senate wouldn’t simply pass a bill that has already made its way through the House.
“It’s as if someone puts a gun to your head and says, ‘Give me your money,’ and then you say, ‘Why won’t you give them their money?’ You leave out the whole context that there’s a gun being held to your head, and that is not fair and that is not right. And yet ... we keep getting that situation,” Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said shortly before all but one lawmaker stormed off stage.
The impasse has resulted in a nearly two-week partial shutdown that has also halted about 70,000 construction jobs across the country. It centers on a House-passed, multiyear reauthorization that would make it harder for airline and railroad workers to unionize, a nonstarter for Senate Democrats. Just two days before the current authorization's expiration, the House passed another extension that would last only through Sept. 16. It left out the union language, but included $16.5 million in cuts to a rural air service program that would fall heavily on Nevada, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D).
Republicans say that they've sent a reasonable bill to the Senate and that Democrats, who are seeking a "clean" extension, are the ones perpetuating the shutdown.
If no extension is passed until Congress returns in September, the government could lose up to $1 billion in uncollected airline ticket taxes, according to the Transportation Department.
From the White House briefing room Wednesday, LaHood called on Congress to return to work and pass a clean extension. Both the House and Senate will have multiple pro forma sessions during the August recess, meaning they could approve the extension by unanimous consent during the recess, send it to President Barack Obama’s desk and end the standoff.
“Congress needs to come back, resolve their differences, compromise and put our friends and neighbors and colleagues back to work. They should not leave 74,000 people hanging out there without jobs, without a paycheck until September,” said LaHood, who formerly served as a Republican House Member from Illinois. “For Members of Congress to give speeches about jobs and then go on their vacations while construction workers have vacated their jobs rings very hollow.”
Senators have tried multiple times this week to pass an extension by unanimous consent. On Monday, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) blocked an attempt to pass an amended version of the short-term House bill that was supported by Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). The next day, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) tried to pass a clean extension of the FAA authorization, but she ran into an objection from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). He then offered his own unanimous consent agreement to pass the unchanged short-term House bill, only to be blocked by Boxer.
Reid had indicated Tuesday that he would be open to accepting the rural air service cuts and passing the short-term bill to tide over the FAA until Congress reconvenes. But by Wednesday afternoon he was insisting that Speaker John Boehner approve a clean short-term extension as soon as possible.
"We must resolve our differences through the normal legislative process. In the meantime, we need a clean, short-term extension to get these people back to work," Reid wrote in a letter to the Ohio Republican.
House Republicans, including Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), were quick to point out that Rockefeller and Reid have a home-state interest in the authorization standoff, and particularly in the rural air service issue. The Essential Air Service program provides subsidized air travel to rural communities, including in West Virginia and Nevada.
“Powerful Senate Democrats have chosen to protect an airline ticket subsidy program on the backs of thousands of FAA employees and airport construction workers. Now they plan to engage in a personal and political media bludgeoning of folks who disagree with them,” Mica said in a statement Wednesday.
Boehner dug in further.
“The only reason so many jobs are at stake is Senate Democratic leaders chose to play politics rather than pass the House bill,” Boehner said Wednesday. “I respect the fact that Senators have certain objections, but they have had two weeks to respond to the House bill and done nothing, leaving tens of thousands of workers in limbo.”
The Senate and its leaders have been consumed over the past two weeks by negotiations to raise the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit before Tuesday, when the nation was projected to default on its loans. The House passed the final deal Monday evening, then promptly left for recess, with the Senate following suit the next day.
White House press secretary Jay Carney repeatedly expressed the administration’s frustration with Congress — not a particular party — and the impasse that is keeping 74,000 people out of work nationwide. But his cool demeanor stood in stark contrast to LaHood’s angry demand that lawmakers get their acts together and pass something.
“Congress should have passed a clean bill, could have passed a clean bill; I urged them to pass a clean bill,” LaHood said. “They can still do it. Congress can still do it.”