WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats call it their first big employment bill of the year: a plan to create or save 280,000 jobs by spending $8 billion to modernize the nation's aging airports.
But as in past years, the legislation has stalled over a much smaller issue: how many long-distance flights should be allowed to fly in and out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Senators from the West Coast, including Democrats Maria Cantwell, from Washington state and Barbara Boxer, from California, want more long flights, even though members of
Members of Congress from Virginia and Maryland vigorously oppose the plan.
Cantwell, the new chair of the Senate's aviation subcommittee, said: "We want access to our nation's capital and we don't want to be disadvantaged just because we are regionally in a different part of the country."
The airport, which was built by the federal government and opened in 1941, is a favorite destination for many members of Congress. It's across the Potomac River from Washington, while the next closest airport, Washington Dulles International, is 26 miles to the west.
But while the location of National airport makes it popular for passengers and airlines, the federal government has restricted air traffic since the 1960s in an attempt to ease congestion and spur growth at other nearby airports.
As a result, under federal law, nonstop flights of more than 1,250 miles aren't allowed, with few exceptions. Twelve arrivals and 12 departures are allowed each day from six Western cities: Seattle, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Denver.
In 1999, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona first proposed removing the long-distance flight limits.
Critics of the plan say it would create more noise and traffic jams in and around the airport. Some say that the senators who are pushing the proposal mainly want to make their own travel more convenient.
Other opponents fear that permitting more long-distance flights at the airport would result in less business for Dulles in Virginia and the region's third major airport, Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in Maryland.
It's not just Democrats who are promoting the long-distance flights. Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas have signed on to the effort, too.
Hutchison, the top-ranked Republican on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, threatened to vote against the broader Federal Aviation Administration bill if it doesn't allow more flights in and out of National airport.
"There is one flight from Washington National to California," she said. "That is all we have, one direct flight. That is not fair. It is not fair to the people in the West."
Maryland Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin said that major companies such as Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and IBM, located themselves around Baltimore/Washington International because the airport helped create an attractive business climate. He said the state of Maryland was heavily invested in BWI's success, having spent more than $1.5 billion on the airport over the last decade.
Virginia Democratic U.S. Rep. James Moran said National airport "was not designed to be a long-haul airport." He said Congress must pass legislation "that doesn't jeopardize our investment in Dulles, overwhelm security, scheduling, baggage and parking at National or negatively impact local residents by noise from long-haul flights."
Backers of the plan have a key proponent in Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the chairman of the transportation committee. He said he was sensitive to the demands for more flights.
"It's the West that's growing in population, much more than the East," Rockefeller said. "And so getting flights out of D.C. into the Western portions of our country is extremely important."
The issue is part of a broader debate over whether to reauthorize funding for the FAA. Since the last FAA bill expired in 2007, Congress has passed 17 short-term extensions because of the impasse, and some are getting impatient with the delays.
"We can't afford another short-term fix. ... We need to create jobs," New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer said.
The Senate, which began debating the bill last week, has yet to take up an amendment offered by Oregon Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden that would add eight daily long-distance flights at National. Under their plan, flights would be allocated on a competitive basis "to best address underserved areas," and they think that Portland could be a winner.
"Portland is a major American city, and major American cities should have a direct connection to cities around the country," Wyden said.
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