Several influential lawmakers stood in the middle of a dispute over small airports, labor rules and aviation policy that partially shut the agency tasked with keeping the nation’s skies safe for travelers.
Congressional leaders agreed yesterday to reopen the Federal Aviation Administration, declaring a truce in a legislative dispute that had forced the layoffs of 4,000 agency employees and idled 70,000 workers on airport construction projects nationwide. The Senate will convene today at 10 a.m. to pass a short-term extension of the FAA’s operating authority.
“This agreement does not resolve the important differences that still remain,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement. “But I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its differences.”
Reid’s announcement capped a week of partisan finger- pointing after lawmakers left town with the short-term funding dispute unresolved. The impasse began July 20 when the House passed legislation extending FAA operations that also ends $16.6 million in subsidies for 13 rural airports. The partial shutdown prevented the FAA from collecting almost $30 million a day in airline taxes.
John Mica, the Florida Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said insertion of that language was intended to gain leverage in a House-Senate dispute over broader legislation, a multi-year authorization of FAA operations.
“There is no question it’s a negotiating tactic,” Mica said in an Aug. 3 telephone interview.
The House’s long-term FAA measure would overturn a National Mediation Board ruling that unions need win only a majority of those airline or railroad employees voting in a representation election instead of a majority of all potentially covered workers.
Republicans argue the ruling overturns 75 years of labor policy in the railroad and airline industries. Democrats say it brings union organizing policy in line with all other industries, which are governed by the National Labor Relations Board.
Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, complained that Republicans were using the small-airport subsidy issue to press an “anti-worker” agenda at the behest of Delta Air Lines Inc., which is resisting a union-organizing campaign among its flight attendants.
President Barack Obama on Aug. 3 pointed to the lost flight fees and urged lawmakers to resolve the dispute by week’s end. Reid and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood likened the attachment of the rural air service cuts to “hostage” taking.
“The hostage-takers here are not the House Republicans,” Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette shot back at a Capitol Hill news conference yesterday. He blamed senators of both parties.
The dispute over the 21st short-term extension for the FAA’s operating authority was simmering as lawmakers debated how to lift the nation’s $14.3 billion debt ceiling.
That debate sent disapproval of Congress to its highest level on record, according to a New York Times/CBS News survey. Eighty-two percent disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job, and more than four out of five said the debate was more about gaining political advantage than doing what’s best for the country, according to the Times.
House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans said Senate Democrats dawdled for two weeks without taking action on the House-passed FAA extension measure.
“Senate Democratic leaders chose to play politics rather than pass the House bill,” Boehner said in an Aug. 3 statement.
Rockefeller said the union-organizing issue isn’t germane to the FAA measure.
That “is not something the FAA discusses” and “doesn’t belong in a bill” to authorize the agency, he told reporters. “That’s between a company and union; it’s not anything to do with the federal government.”
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah blocked compromise legislation offered by Rockefeller and Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison. Rockefeller’s measure “applied to more small airports than we offered,” Hatch told CNN.
LaTourette, displaying pictures of Rockefeller and Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, yesterday said the two senators had the ability to resolve the dispute. It was Coburn who spurned an offer he delivered for Boehner on Aug. 1 to allow for a “clean extension” of the FAA, LaTourette said.
Coburn objected because his own proposal to cut the rural operating subsidies had already been agreed to by 87 senators as part of the Senate’s long-term FAA reauthorization legislation.
LaTourette also pinned blame on Rockefeller.
‘Bite This Bullet’
“Senator Reid was willing to bite this bullet and get it done and the objections came from someplace else. I am assuming it was Senator Rockefeller,” he told reporters.
Rockefeller, at an Aug. 3 press conference, said his decision to block the House-passed extension didn’t stem from a desire to protect aid to the Morgantown airport in his home state of West Virginia.
“Of course I care about Morgantown,” Rockefeller said. The House measure would cut aid to “the fastest-growing airport in the most prosperous part of the state.”
Still, “that isn’t the point,” Rockefeller said. What’s more important is resisting Mica’s “leveraging” to force a change in the labor rules.
In addition to Morgantown, the airport in rural Ely, Nevada, in Reid’s home state, could lose funding under the House measure.
Once the Senate adopts the bill and Obama signs it, LaHood may give rural airports a funding reprieve.
Existing law allows him to grant waivers from the subsidy cutoff and the secretary will consider them on a case-by-case basis, according to an administration official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
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