House passes bill to end air traffic furloughs in victory for the GOP

The House on Friday passed legislation that would let the government redirect millions of dollars to air traffic controllers' salaries and expenses in a bid to end sequester-related furloughs that have caused flight delays around the country.

Members approved the Reducing Flight Delays Act in an overwhelming 361-41 vote, just a day after the Senate approved the same bill by unanimous consent. A two-thirds vote was needed, as House leaders called it up as a suspension bill.

The bill was sent directly to the White House for President Obama's signature.

The vote is a victory for House Republicans, who had been pushing for a restructuring of the $600 million sequester cut to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to avoid air traffic controller layoffs. In contrast, Democrats were looking for a broader solution to the sequester that included new taxes.

But Democrats abandoned that line as passengers filed thousands of complaints about delayed flights. By mid-week, the FAA said hundreds of flights were being delayed each day, and talk quickly turned to a legislative solution.

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On Wednesday, the White House said it was "open" to a legislative fix for air traffic controllers, even though the president had previously rejected greater flexibility as a fix for the sequester. In February, he argued that there would be "no smart way" to carry out the cuts.

"You don't want to have to choose between, let's see, do I close funding for the disabled kid, or the poor kid? Do I close this Navy shipyard or some other one? When you're doing things in a way that's not smart, you can't gloss over the pain and the impact it's going to have on the economy," Obama said Feb. 26.

On Friday morning, Republicans blasted Democrats for rejecting the idea of reorganizing the cuts, and cast the bill as a necessary legislative fix.

"I think we all agree the FAA and the administration has handled the sequester poorly," Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) said. "The FAA has negotiated in bad faith with the FAA employees, the airlines, the flying public and the Congress, and the administration has played shameful politics with sequestration at the cost of hard-working American families.

"We are taking this action to end the administration's political games that threaten our passengers rights and their safety."


Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said that while he still believes the administration has the power to adjust the sequester cuts, the bill provides a "fig leaf" for the administration.

Democratic leaders and some rank-and-file Democrats said they oppose the bill because it only deals with the FAA, and not the other social programs that are also seeing cuts because of the sequester. They opposed what they called a piecemeal approach, even though passage of the bill seems to open the door to other narrow tweaks to the sequester.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the FAA bill "would be good news" for travelers. But he called the legislation "just a Band-Aid solution" in fixing the overall sequester. 

The bill is "no more than a temporary Band-Aid that fails to address the overarching threat to our economy posed by the sequester's mindless, across-the-board cuts," Carney said.

"The president would sign this if it's passed," Carney added, moments before the House voted on the legislation. "This is causing unnecessary harm to travelers around the country."

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the bill up today fails to address sequester-related cuts to Head Start, Meals on Wheels, federal housing aid, unemployment insurance, food inspections at the Food and Drug Administration and other programs.

"We ought not to be mitigating the sequester's effect on just one segment, when children, the sick, our military and many other groups who will be impacted by this irresponsible policy will be left unhealed," Hoyer said.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) agreed, and called the bill a Republican "hostage-taking." She unsuccessfully asked the House to take up a bill terminating the entire sequester.

But the easy unanimous consent vote in the Senate belied these complaints, as did the 159 Democrats who voted with Republicans to pass the bill in the House.

Just before the vote, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) hailed the Senate vote as a win for Republicans, and said the administration now seems to see the value of cutting less critical programs.

"Consider that the Democrats' opening position was they would only replace the sequester with tax increases," Cantor wrote. "By the first of this week Senator [Harry] Reid proposed replacing the whole sequester with phony war savings. And by last night, Senate Democrats were adopting our targeted 'cut this, not that' approach.

"This victory is in large part a result of our standing together under the banner of #Obamaflightdelays," Cantor added.

Under the legislation, the Department of Transportation would have the explicit authority to immediately move up to $253 million to ensure the FAA can pay salaries and expenses of air traffic controllers. The money would come from a grant program used for airport improvements around the country.

But the bill only allows this money to be moved to pay for air traffic controller salaries and expenses in fiscal 2013.

Late Thursday, the Senate passed its version of the bill, S. 853, by unanimous consent. The bill was offered by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

The Senate-passed bill was a revenue measure, which must normally start in the House. However, the Senate approved the bill in such a way that House passage of identical language will trigger automatic Senate passage of the same bill.

The House passed a version, H.R. 1765, that is very similar, but not identical, to the Senate bill. Offered by Latham, it includes language saying that no funds can be moved until the secretary of Transportation notifies the House and Senate. It was not immediately clear whether that small change would allow the Senate to pass it automatically, or whether it would have to meet again to pass it.

Amie Parnes contributed.

This story was updated at 1:27 p.m.