Senators file legislation to end air traffic controller furloughs blamed for delays

A bipartisan group of senators said Wednesday that they were introducing legislation to stop air traffic controller furloughs that have been blamed for more than 2,000 delayed flights this week.

The group, led by Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharHillicon Valley: Lawmakers target Chinese tech giants | Dems move to save top cyber post | Trump gets a new CIA chief | Ryan delays election security briefing | Twitter CEO meets lawmakers Twitter CEO meets with lawmakers to talk net neutrality, privacy GOP, Dem lawmakers come together for McCain documentary MORE (D-Minn.) and John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenGOP lawmakers want Trump to stop bashing Congress Chao names participants selected for drone pilot program Lobbying World MORE (R-N.D.), said the legislation would allow the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to move funds between its accounts to prevent furloughs for its 15,000 air traffic controllers.

The agency has said it has been forced to furlough air traffic controllers and slow airline traffic thus far because the sequester law requires it to make across-the-board cuts. The FAA is required to cut its 2013 spending by $600 million because of the sequester.

Klobuchar and Hoeven said it was critical to give the agency the ability to make its budget cuts in other ways that do not directly affect commercial airline passengers.

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“Air traffic controllers are critical to ensuring families and business travelers can get to their destinations safely and efficiently,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “This legislation will give the FAA the flexibility it needs to keep air traffic controllers working to keep passengers safe, prevent flight delays, and make sure our aviation system can continue to be the strongest in the world.”

“America’s economy runs on transportation, including air travel, and delays like we’re seeing this week are disrupting commerce and causing real inconvenience for travelers,” Hoeven added. “Our bill addresses the issue directly and in a bipartisan way by giving the secretary of transportation the flexibility he needs to prioritize his budget and put air traffic controllers back on the job for America’s traveling public.”

The Klobuchar-Hoeven legislation has been dubbed the Dependable Air Service Act. 

The flight delays at major airports that began on Sunday touched off a firestorm in Washington. 

Republicans accused the Obama administration of purposely delaying flights to inconvenience airline passengers to score political points in the fight over the sequester.

The across-the-board budget cuts are the result of the inability of Congress and the White House to reach a deal on a budget for the year. The cuts were put in place in 2011 to force lawmakers to compromise, but the White House insisted on raising taxes in a new budget deal, and Republicans refused to consider any increases.

Even in announcing a bipartisan effort to end the air traffic controllers' furloughs on Wednesday, Hoeven insisted the FAA budget could’ve been cut in other places.

“Clearly, there is room in the DOT [Department of Transportation] discretionary accounts to mitigate some of the $206 million reduction to air traffic controllers,” he said.

The White House and Democrats countered that the sequester, which was approved by both chambers of Congress, requires across-the-board spending cuts. 

"Let's be clear. The sequester was a law written by Congress. Congress wrote the law. Congress passed the law. Members of Congress should read the law," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday afternoon. 

The announcement of a potential solution to end the air traffic controller furloughs was immediately cheered by aviation industry groups.

“This piece of legislation will allow the FAA to transfer funds between areas in the Department of Transportation budget,” the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) said in a statement. “It will also help mitigate the delays that passengers have been experiencing in the last few days.”

The pilots’ association added that it was important to pass the legislation to end the furloughs to minimize the inconvenience of airline passengers.

“These delays and the subsequent passenger discontent could have deep and long-term effects on the aviation industry and the economy as a whole,” ALPA said. “We urge the speedy passage and implementation of this bill, so that our partners in aviation safety and security, the furloughed air traffic controllers, can be brought back to the control towers as quickly as possible.”

The FAA has instituted a "traffic management" plan that calls for holding some flights that would otherwise be cleared to take off or land to deal with the staffing reductions.

The agency says that it will have to operate with a staff reduced by about 10 percent from now until September because of the sequester.

The bill to end the furloughs is cosponsored by Sens. John CornynJohn CornynOvernight Finance: House panel to take up bill toughening review of foreign deals | Trump acknowledges Cohen payment on disclosure form | Officials set for new round of China trade talks Groups urge Senate panel to reject Trump's pick for Louisiana-based appeals court House panel will consider bill to boost foreign investment review powers next week MORE (R-Texas), Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by CVS Health - A pivotal day for House Republicans on immigration Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Haspel as CIA chief | Trump offers Kim 'protections' if he gives up nukes | Dem amendments target Trump military parade GOP, Dem lawmakers come together for McCain documentary MORE (D-N.H.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanWATCH: Sen. Flake: “More doubtful” North Korean summit will happen  Lobbying world Trump-backed congressman wins Ohio Senate primary MORE (R-Ohio), Mark BegichMark Peter BegichPerez creates advisory team for DNC transition The future of the Arctic 2016’s battle for the Senate: A shifting map MORE (D-Alaska), Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteThe Hill's Morning Report: Koch Network re-evaluating midterm strategy amid frustrations with GOP Audit finds US Defense Department wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars US sends A-10 squadron to Afghanistan for first time in three years MORE (R-N.H.), Jim RischJames (Jim) Elroy RischHouse passes bill to help small businesses guard against hackers Menendez admonished by Ethics panel, which says he broke the law GOP anxiety grows over Trump’s Iran decision MORE (R-Idaho) and Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsHillicon Valley: White House eliminates top cyber post | Trump order looks to bolster agency CIOs | Facebook sees spike in violent content | Senators push NIH on tech addiction | House to get election security briefing Trump picks billionaire military contractor to lead intelligence board Top Dem questions CIA campaign to secure Haspel nomination MORE (R-Ind.).