Senate restores FAA funding, ending partial shutdown of agency

The Senate cleared a funding extension for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Friday, ending a partial shutdown of the agency and putting about 74,000 furloughed construction workers and federal employees back to work. 

The passage of the measure was unusual in that it took place in a nearly empty chamber during one of the 10 pro forma sessions the Senate is scheduled to hold during the summer recess.

President Obama signed the bill into law on Friday afternoon.

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The vote took place under an agreement reached by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on Thursday that provided for passage of the House Republicans' FAA funding bill in the Senate. The bill includes controversial cuts in subsidies to rural flight service to airports in Nevada, West Virginia and Montana that cost the federal government about $16 million annually.

Some Democrats objected to those cuts, pointing out they affected the districts of top Democrats Reid, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). But Republicans denied that the cuts were included to target those Democrats. 

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who fought for the cuts in the Senate, maintained a standing threat to hold up any legislation in which the cuts were not included.

Under the agreement, Republicans will allow Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to issue waivers to rural airports if they make a compelling argument for why they still require the subsidy.

The agreement also allowed the passage of the bill without calling back the entire Senate to Washington.

The bitter fight over FAA funding broke out earlier in the year after the House and Senate adopted drastically different authorization measures for the agency. 

The House version included changes to labor rules that were adopted by the National Mediation Board to make it easier for railroad and airline workers to unionize. 

In announcing the agreement on Thursday, Reid noted that since the bill only extends into September, the dispute over FAA funding is far from over. 

“This agreement does not resolve the important differences that still remain,” said Reid. “But I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its differences, and this agreement will do exactly that.”

In the pro forma session, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) brought up the bill, H.R, 2553, or the Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2011, and asked for passage. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) gaveled the session, which lasted about 30 seconds. 

—Keith Laing contributed. Updated at 3:19 p.m.