Senate passes measure to end airport delays

The Senate passed a bill on Thursday evening to end air traffic controller furloughs caused by the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester that have been blamed for mounting flight delays across the country.

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The passage of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Susan CollinsSusan CollinsSwing-state Republicans play up efforts for gun control laws Reid knocks GOP on gun 'terror loophole' after attacks GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase MORE (R-Maine), capped a day of scrambling that saw lawmakers alternate between trying to pass a quick legislative fix for the air traffic controllers' furloughs and point fingers at each other for the flight delays they caused.

Collins's bill, which was passed by unanimous consent on Thursday evening, gives the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) more flexibility to keep essential workers on the job.

Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOvernight Defense: US attempted hostage rescue in Afghanistan | Defense hawks brace for spending fight | Trump slams 'lies' about Iraq war stance Senators want military separation policy to address trauma-related behavior Senate Dems reignite fight for hearing on SCOTUS nominee MORE (D-Minn.), John HoevenJohn HoevenOvernight Defense: White House threatens to veto Gitmo bill GOP senators fight female draft in defense bill Majority of GOP senators to attend Trump convention MORE (R-N.D.), Jay RockefellerJay RockefellerLobbying world Overnight Tech: Senators place holds on FCC commissioner Overnight Tech: Senate panel to vote on Dem FCC commissioner MORE (D-W.Va.), John ThuneJohn ThuneFive takeaways from the new driverless car guidelines Overnight Tech: Pressure builds ahead of TV box vote | Intel Dems warn about Russian election hacks | Spending bill doesn't include internet measure Sen. Thune slams Dems for protecting Internet transition MORE (R-S.D.) and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Senate Dems call for investigation into Wells Fargo's wage practices Fears mount that Obama will change course on Israel in final months MORE (D-N.Y.) all offered legislation that would have addressed the air traffic controller furloughs.

The Gillibrand bill would have provided money to pay for ending the air traffic controller furloughs by raising taxes on corporate jet owners, making it a likely nonstarter with Republicans.

The Klobuchar-Hoeven bill, which was similar to the Collins bill that was eventually approved on Thursday, would have given the Department of Transportation flexibility to make adjustments to its agency budgets that the FAA has insisted it does not currently have.

Senators failed earlier on Thursday evening to add an FAA bill as an amendment to an online tax measure, which advanced as a stand-alone measure.

Hoeven told The Hill Thursday that he had fought for his bill to be added as an amendment to the online sales tax measure.

“We are working to get a vote on it as a free-standing bill too … that may make it easier to get it over to the House.”

Collins’s version of the bill to end the air traffic controllers’ furlough allows the FAA to transfer airport improvement funds to eliminate the agency’s budget shortfall.

Hoeven said Thursday afternoon that the White House was “working” with the senators on the solution.

“I don’t want to overstate it ... they are informed,” he said.

“I talked to [Transportation Secretary] Ray LaHood yesterday, talked to [White House chief of staff] Denis McDonoughDenis McDonoughObama: I curse more than I should The Hill's 12:30 Report Benghazi Report and Hillary: What it means for Philadelphia MORE today,” Hoeven continued. “There was positive reaction from LaHood.”

Lawmakers in the House said prior to the Senate’s vote Thursday evening that they would consider bills to stop the furloughs, even as they questioned the necessity of a legislative fix.

“I continue to believe that the FAA has ability ... without passing a law to move money around within that organization to not have these furloughs occurring to the people that provide safety to the flying public,” House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said.

“We’re willing to look at what the Senate is going to propose, but I believe we don’t need to pass legislation,” Shuster continued.

The White House said on Wednesday that President Obama would be “open” to considering legislation specifically addressing the air traffic controller furloughs.

The lurch toward a legislative fix to the mounting flight delays came as airlines reported Thursday that 16,000 people had sent comments to Congress and the Obama administration calling for a resolution to the air traffic controller furloughs.

The comments were logged on a website called DontGroundAmerica.com, which some passengers have been directed to at airport gates and aboard delayed airplanes.

The FAA said Thursday that another 876 flights were delayed on Wednesday because of the sequester.

The overall number of flights that have been delayed since the FAA began instituting the furloughs on Sunday has neared 3,000. The agency has instituted a “traffic management” plan that requires flights to be held when air space over airports gets too congested for the FAA to manage with reduced staff.

The FAA employs about 15,000 air traffic controllers out of a total workforce of 47,000. The agency says it has been operating with a staff reduced by about 10 percent this week because of the sequester.

The automatic budget-cutting law requires the FAA to reduce its spending for the rest of the 2013 fiscal year by $600 million.

Republican lawmakers on Thursday accused the Obama administration of purposely delaying flights to score political points.

“This is happening because of the way that the president and the FAA have chosen to implement the sequester,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersIvanka sells Trump childcare to Capitol Hill Ivanka Trump to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill Trump calls congresswoman to stage at child care policy speech MORE (R-Wash.) said.

Democrats blamed the sequester — and the flight delays it has spawned — on Republicans’ unwillingness to compromise on budget issues, however.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that passing a bill to allow the FAA to move around its reduced level of spending would not solve the overall budget problems. Pelosi also said shifting money in the FAA could affect safety.

“A real solution is to go to the table and to have a reconciliation of the budget,” Pelosi said.

--This report was originally published at 5:27 p.m. and updated at 8:57 p.m.