Senators will avoid a week of bad headlines blasting them for a slew of air delays brought about by federal spending cuts.
Before leaving town for a week-long recess, the chamber passed a bill that allows funding transfers from airport projects to offset the cost of keeping air traffic controllers working and airplanes flying. Not getting something through the Senate before jetting off themselves would have left senators in both parties exposed to criticism from angry travelers and a slew of disgruntled industry groups.
With the agreement coming together after most senators had already made plans to leave town, leaders passed the bill with no debate and no objections.
The Senate move kicks the issue to the House, potentially pinning blame on that chamber’s GOP majority if the measure doesn’t pass on Friday. The House has a procedure in place for calling up the Senate deal, and House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., has expressed openness to such a move provided it does not increase actual spending.
“We don’t have to spend one more penny,” Shuster said, preferring a measure that would “direct the FAA to use the flexibility we believe it already has.”
Technically, the House may opt to take up an identical bill that originates in the House to avoid a pesky constitutional question about Senate-based revenue legislation. In any case, the last minute Senate deal followed negotiations that included Democratic Sens. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Mark Udall of Colorado, along with Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and John Thune of South Dakota.
In a statement Rockefeller said, “Tonight we worked together in the Senate to avoid total gridlock in our aviation system and avert the real harm that rampant delays would cause to our economy and jobs. By plugging a hole in the budget and providing the FAA with crucial funds to operate the air traffic control system, we will eliminate flight delays due to inadequate staffing and keep America moving. This does not fix all of the problems the FAA faces because of budget cuts, especially for contract towers in rural communities. And it does nothing for other essential government operations and employees that also desperately need relief. But it’s a start, and I’m committed to keep working on more solutions.”
Collins and Udall had unveiled their own bill earlier Thursday, the latest in a series of shots designed to give the Transportation Department the tools and resources to move money around in order to avoid further furloughs of key FAA personnel, including air traffic controllers.
“FAA recently announced its plans to achieve savings by implementing furloughs, the closure of contract towers, and the elimination of midnight services, among other cuts. These irresponsible cuts have already caused widespread delays to the air transportation system and are expected to get worse,” Collins said in a statement introducing the earlier bill.
Republicans and Democrats have been exchanging barbs over which side is to blame for the staffing reductions at the FAA that led to the agency having to reduce the amount of air traffic to maintain safe operations. The FAA said Thursday that at least 863 of Wednesday’s air delays could be attributed to the sequester-related personnel reductions.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized all the attention being placed on the plight of air travelers at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast Thursday, saying Congress and the media should pay more attention to the sequester-related cutbacks at the Defense Department.
“It’s criminal and scandalous that we are ignoring the effect of sequestration on our national security,” McCain said.
Still, in a sign that a deal was likely to get done, McCain and Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York said at the breakfast that in all likelihood they could at least go along with some kind of a narrow FAA sequester patch.
Nathan Hurst contributed to this report.