Delays at airports mount as furloughs enter second day

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday the Senate will consider a replacement for most of the $85 billion sequester as public concern mounts over airport delays attributed to the automatic spending cuts.

Reid said Senate Democrats will move a bill to replace the sequester cuts using money saved by moving troops out of Afghanistan.

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The Pentagon’s savings — an estimated $81 billion in fiscal year 2013 — would have been spent on the war if not for President Obama’s decision to reduce the U.S. troop presence.

“So I think we should do something about sequestration. It’s important we do,” Reid said.

“We should do what was in one of the Ryan budgets — that is, use the overseas contingency fund to delay the implementation of sequestration. We could do it for five months.”

Reid laid out his plan as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Tuesday said airline passengers will likely face delays throughout the summer as air traffic controllers are furloughed because of the sequester.

The FAA said Tuesday that it was instituting a “traffic management” plan for flights to deal with an approximately 10 percent reduction in its workforce between now and the end of the fiscal 2013 in September.

The agency is furloughing its more than 14,000 air traffic controllers for a day during each two-week pay period, resulting in a loss of 11 days per worker.

On Tuesday, airports in New York, Los Angeles and Dallas reported delays they said were related to staffing issues.

In some cases, passengers at New York-area airports were delayed as long as two hours because of a combination of airplane traffic congestion and windy weather conditions.

The FAA said Tuesday that airline passengers could expect problems to continue until at least the end of September.

“As a result of employee furloughs due to sequestration, the FAA is implementing traffic management initiatives at airports and facilities around the country,” the agency said in a statement.

“Travelers can expect to see a wide range of delays that will change throughout the day depending on staffing and weather-related issues.”

The across-the-board sequester cuts went into effect March 1 after the White House and Congress could not agree on a replacement. The White House insisted on tax increases while Republicans refused.

Republicans were already lining up Tuesday to reject the war-savings approach.

“We need a long-term solution that will fix these damaging sequestration cuts and provide more stability in the budgets for critical federal programs,” said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).

“Continual, temporary Band-Aids and political posturing such as this simply compound the real problem and bring us no closer to finding meaningful solutions,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) office rejected the approach but said Reid’s call for a replacement based in spending cuts is significant.

“It’s big news when the [Democratic] Senate majority leader rejects the president’s demand that air travelers be held hostage to tax hikes,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said. “Sen. Reid is rejecting that ransom and making clear that Democrats in the Senate are willing to replace the spending cuts in the sequester with other spending cuts. Sadly, the ‘cuts’ he’s chosen aren’t real and have been widely criticized as a budget gimmick.”

The FAA acknowledged the furloughs of air traffic controllers were causing delays for flights.

Flights have routinely been delayed because of mechanical and weather-related issues, but in some cases now, passengers are being told at their gates that their airplanes are being delayed because of the sequester.

Airlines have tried to convince passengers to train their frustration with the delays on lawmakers and the Obama administration. They launched a website called DontGroundAmerica.com to pressure Congress to roll back the air traffic controller furloughs.

The FAA has insisted that the furloughs cannot be avoided because the agency must reduce its budget by $600 million through the end of the fiscal year.

Republicans remained skeptical on Tuesday, however, arguing that the agency was choosing to delay flights to inconvenience passengers and score political points.

“This is a willful choice being made by this administration in order to inflict as disruptive a process as possible on the American public and on our economy all to further a political agenda,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said on the Senate floor. 

“And the political agenda is to try to convince the American people that there are no circumstances under which we can ever cut spending at all.”

Democrats pushed back on the assertion, arguing that it was the GOP that was playing politics with the potential for flight delays.

“It’s ridiculous. It’s just a fantasy to think that you can cut money and not have it affect people, and so this is just going to get worse,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Tuesday.

Murphy said the flight delays have become so contentious because they are among the most visible effects of the sequester so far.

“You see it at the airports, but you don’t necessarily see it when thousands of kids are going to be kicked off Head Start,” he said.

“There’s going to be enormous ripple affects on our economy, you know. They should stop pretending that you can cut money, and it will have no impact.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday that the GOP was wrong to suggest that the FAA could cut its budget in other ways to avoid furloughing air traffic controllers.

“The FAA did take action — all the action it could under the law — to produce savings,” Carney said during the White House press briefing. “Furloughs are the only option available to the FAA at this time.”

If Congress does not like the air traffic controller furloughs, Carney said, lawmakers should pass legislation to prevent them.

“If Congress wants to address this matter, then they should act, but this is something only they can do,” he said.

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association told The Hill on Tuesday that the furloughs would be evenly distributed so that some air traffic controllers are prevented from working each day.

The FAA said 1,200 flights were delayed on Monday due to “staffing reductions resulting from the furlough.”

Another 1,400 flights were delayed because of weather and other factors, the agency said.

Jonathan Easley and Justin Sink contributed to this report.

--This report was originally published at 1:21 p.m. and last updated at 8:35 p.m.