WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama urged Congress on Wednesday to end the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, which began nearly two weeks ago because of a partisan standoff over air service to rural communities and union organizing.
Obama noted that nearly 4,000 FAA workers have been furloughed, another 70,000 workers involved in airport construction projects are affected and the country stands to lose more than $1 billion in revenue from uncollected airline ticket taxes during the shutdown if Congress leaves the problem hanging until lawmakers return in September.
"So this is a lose-lose-lose situation," he said.
Republican leaders responded that the whole problem can be resolved almost immediately if Senate Democrats will only accept a mere $16.5 million in air service subsidy cuts that the House attached to a bill to extend FAA's operating authority last month.
"The only reason so many jobs are at stake is Senate Democratic leaders chose to play politics rather than pass the House bill," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
But Democratic leaders, speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference, said the cuts are a sham. The real issue, they said, is that Republicans are provoking crisis after crisis to get Democrats to accept policy changes that the GOP wouldn't be able to achieve through normal legislative negotiations.
That strategy was successful during the debt limit negotiations, but Democrats said they are drawing a line on the FAA shutdown.
"When you look back at their (Republican) threats to shut down the entire government — remember that? — unless they got tax breaks for the rich, followed by holding the full faith and credit of this government hostage, to their desires to cut government spending. And now here we are a third time ... I hope the American people wake up. This is their modus operandi: government by crisis that they make up," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Democrats offered bills in the House and Senate to extend FAA's operating authority with no strings attached, but action on the measures was blocked by Republicans. It's still possible for Congress to pass those bills by unanimous consent without lawmakers returning to work if the leaders of both parties agree, Democrats said.
Obama also noted Congress has a procedural way of ending the shutdown without coming back.
"And they can have the fights that they want to have when they get back" in September, he said. "Don't put the livelihoods of thousands of people at risk, don't put projects at risk, and don't let $1 billion at a time when we're scrambling for every dollar we can, get off the table because Congress did not act."
The president said his "expectation, and I think the American people's expectation is that this gets resolved before the end of this week."
If Congress doesn't work on a deal, White House spokesman Jay Carney said "we will look at the measures the president may be able to take."
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told The Associated Press that House GOP leaders will only agree to their own bill with $16.5 million spending cuts to subsidies for air service to rural communities.
But Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Mica's counterpart in the Senate, said Boehner told Democrats several days ago that House Republicans would agree to an FAA with no subsidy in exchange for Democratic concessions on changing a labor rule to make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize. He said Democrats refused to accept that condition.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid added: "The issue is the labor issue: an anti-worker agenda of one airline, Delta Airlines. That's what this is all about."
Republicans want to overturn a National Mediation Board rule approved last year that allows airline and railroad employees to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn't vote were treated as "no" votes.
Democrats and union officials say the change puts airline and railroad elections under the same democratic rules required for unionizing all other companies. But Republicans complain that the new rule reverses 75 years of precedent to favor labor unions. Delta is the largest airline whose workers aren't primarily union members. Unions have made four recent attempts under the new rule to organize workers, but haven't been successful.
Obama also raised the specter of safety being compromised, even though Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has repeatedly offered reassurances that safety workers like air traffic controllers and maintenance crews were on the job. Forty airport safety inspectors were supposed to be furloughed but have volunteered to continue to work without pay and pick up their own travel expenses, although officials expected them to be compensated when the shutdown is over. The shutdown hasn't affected air traffic controllers, who are paid from a different pool of funds.
Pressed on what options Obama had if Congress doesn't act, Carney said fixing the crisis was Congress' job.
"We are intently interested in assuring that these 74,000 Americans who had jobs get them back," he said. Because they were essentially "thrown out of work by a failure of Congress to act," the simplest solution was for lawmakers to come back to Washington and fix the problem.
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