Senate sends FAA bill to Obama's desk

The Senate on Monday approved a bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration through 2015, ending a years-long battle on Capitol Hill.

The House previously approved the measure, which will now go to President Obama's desk. The president supports the legislation.

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The 75-20 Senate vote brings an end to a series of short-term extensions that for years were used to fund the FAA.

Senators approved the legislation after a debate largely devoid of the acrimony that has marked the four years since the last FAA authorization bill expired in 2007.

Since that time, 23 short-term extensions of the agency's 2004 funding levels were passed, which aviation industry advocates said made planning for projects, like the development of a new navigation system, very difficult.

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle lauded the end of the short-term extension Monday.

"This is, in my judgment, a very good deal," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Rockefeller's Republican counterpart on the committee, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), agreed, calling the FAA compromise "a good deal and just deal."

"It's time finally we finally create some stability in the aviation sector," she said before the final vote Monday. "This bill will do that."

The compromise version of the multi-year FAA bill would provide nearly $16 billion per year to the agency through fiscal 2015.

Rockefeller warned senators that the alternative was not approving the agreement on the FAA bill with the House, and by extension re-opening negotiations with the Republican-led lower chamber. He said that risked "a nasty fight with the House."

"The House has no patience for short-term extensions, and I can't say I disagree with them," he said.

Rockefeller noted limits placed on the Essential Air Service program, which provides federal subsidies to rural airports for flight service, as being essential to the compromise. A fight over the EAS program had been cited as one of the key factors that led to a partial shutdown of the FAA for nearly two weeks last summer.

The agreement on the caps to the program were "harsh for some, but that's what brought us a compromise," Rockefeller said Monday.

Rockefeller also applauded a compromise on labor rules for airline and railroad workers negotiated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that was seen as clearing the way for the final agreement on a long-term FAA spending bill.

Under the compromise, the percentage of a company’s workforce that would have to be in favor of a vote on unionization would be increased from 35 percent to 50 percent, and the National Mediation Board would have to hold public hearings before making future rule changes in lieu of requiring them to be reviewed by judges.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), one of the lawmakers who voted "no" on the FAA bill Monday, lamented that "a few powerful airlines launched an attack" on labor unions by targeting the NMB after a 2010 decision from the panel to change the vote-counting rules for transportation union elections.

Other Democrats were enthusiastic about the Senate giving final approval to a multi-year funding bill for the FAA on Monday.

"I am thrilled we were finally able to pass a long-term FAA reauthorization,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said. "This legislation has major significance for our state in terms of construction dollars and supporting Essential Air Service and other programs.”

The most recent short-term extension of the FAA's funding is set to expire Feb. 17.

—This story was updated at 6:56 p.m.