WASHINGTON — In the impasse over funding the Federal Aviation Administration, which had idled more than 4,000 FAA employees and 70,000 construction workers for nearly two weeks, only one Republican sided with the Democrats: Texas' Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
And in the end, Hutchison, the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, was given credit for helping to work out a deal, announced Thursday, that will settle the dispute.
"She has played an extraordinary leadership role," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, himself a former Republican congressman who's now serving a Democratic administration. "I compliment her on her leadership."
Hutchison hailed the agreement.
"This is very welcome news, and I look forward to the FAA once again resuming regular operations, which will benefit travelers, airports, affected businesses and, most importantly, allow furloughed FAA employees to get back to work," Hutchison said in a statement.
Hutchison proved to be an important bridge to Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives, and she continued to work the phones even after she left Washington earlier in the week.
"She was a very important player in this," said an administration official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The deal was cobbled together after LaHood met with Hutchison and the commerce panel's chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., in the last week as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who ultimately brokered the deal.
Under the deal, Republican senators will join Democrats in unanimously approving a House-passed funding bill. LaHood then will use his authority to restart construction projects at airports that had been stopped when the authority for them expired and wasn't renewed.
Passage of the law also will reinstate ticket taxes that the federal government hasn't been able to collect since the FAA authority expired July 23.
The deal wasn't a complete victory for the Democrats: The House-passed bill cuts $16 million in subsidies to 13 small airports, something they opposed.
Still to be resolved is a Republican proposal that would overturn a National Mediation Board decision that made it easier for airline and rail employees to unionize.
Hutchison was able to persuade her fellow Republicans to set aside that battle for a future date because she agreed with them on the issues — but insisted that the process had to be clean.
"For the House to try and push something on the Senate that hasn't been discussed is just wrong," Hutchison said in an interview before the agreement was reached.
The senior Texas senator had stood alongside Rockefeller on the Senate floor in three attempts to move a so-called "clean" FAA authorization. Each failed when a Republican senator objected.
Among Hutchison's reasons for pushing the bill: 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 just ended a bruising debate on fiscal responsibility.
"I am a fiscal conservative, and I am trying to make the cuts that are necessary, trying to do the things that are right," she said. "But I have to question those who are saying we are going to not be for essential air service, which has a total budget of about $200 million, but we are going to waste $1 billion to not let a bill go through that keeps the aviation trust fund and the FAA going. That just doesn't add up."
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