Senate leaders reach deal to end FAA stalemate

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 4, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday that leaders in Congress had worked out a deal to end a two-week-old partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration that threatened to become the capital's next partisan stalemate.

Reid made the announcement via Twitter, saying, "We have a bipartisan compromise between House & Senate."

President Barack Obama, who insisted that lawmakers work out their disagreements, praised the compromise.

"I'm pleased that leaders in Congress are working together to break the impasse involving the FAA so that tens of thousands of construction workers and others can go back to work," he said.

Congress won't return to Washington until after Labor Day, and without the agreement, nearly 4,000 FAA employees could have gone for weeks without pay, and dozens of construction projects at airports across the country would have remained in limbo.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the deal "a tremendous victory for American workers. We have the best aviation system in the world and we intend to keep it that way."

The Senate will convene Friday morning, and according to Senate staffers, will approve the House of Representatives' version of the bill within minutes, with no opposition.

The deal won't immediately address two key sticking points: a Republican provision that cuts $16 million in subsidies for commercial flights to 13 rural airports, some in the home states of top Senate Democrats, including Reid's Nevada. Another GOP proposal would make it harder for some airline workers to unionize.

But LaHood said Thursday that he had waiver authority to restore funding to the 13 smaller airports, despite White House insistence that it was Congress's job to fix the problem.

The agreement authorizes the FAA only through Sept. 16, so lawmakers will have to revisit the issue when they return.

"Republicans must now return to the negotiating table to work toward a long-term FAA reauthorization that creates jobs, spurs growth and respects workers' rights," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Barely a day after lawmakers had settled their disagreements over raising the debt ceiling earlier this week, sharp words flew across the Capitol over the FAA deadlock.

Senate Democrats accused House Republicans of "hostage taking." LaHood told members of Congress to "leave your vacations" and come back to Washington to solve the crisis.

Republicans shot back that Senate Democrats had created the crisis by blocking a House-passed bill over GOP provisions they didn't like.

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd said House Republicans picked an unwise battle to make a point about federal spending.

"If you're going to play a chip, you don't play it for $16 million," he said. "Fight the big battles first." Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who helped broker the compromise with Reid and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., had tried three times to move a "clean" FAA authorization with no conditions attached. Each failed when a Republican senator objected.

The FAA stood to lose more than $1 billion in ticket taxes that weren't being collected for the airport trust fund, at a time that Congress had been through an extended debate over fiscal responsibility.

"That just doesn't add up," Hutchison said.

Boyd said it was little wonder that the American public had such a low opinion of Congress.

"You don't leave 4,000 people out on the street, which is exactly what both sides did," he said.

(Daniel Lippman and Maria Recio contributed to this article.)

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