Republican leaders press wary members to back aviation spinoff

Republican leaders press wary members to back aviation spinoff
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The White House and House Republican leaders are pressuring reluctant members of the Appropriations Committee to back an overhaul of the nation’s air traffic control system.

The controversial proposal, a top infrastructure priority for President Trump, would hand over flight duties to a new nonprofit organization.


Leaders of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee are championing the idea, calling it the cure for an outdated system.

But appropriators, who wield the power of the purse, are wary of the proposed model. They want to retain their oversight of air traffic control.

Rep. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) said that even though the
measure is likely dead on arrival in the Senate, House GOP leaders are determined to pass the bill in a show of support for Trump. That’s left some appropriators in a difficult position.

“The appropriators are very, very torn,” said Russell, who opposes the proposal over national security concerns. “They don’t want to go against their colleagues.”

The behind-the-scenes battle over air traffic control has been intensifying in recent weeks, with supporters anxious to bring the bill to the House floor before the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) legal authority expires at the end of September.

Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), whose term atop the committee is expiring next year, is aggressively pushing the bill in hopes of making it a signature policy achievement.

A vote on the issue has already been delayed at least once, and a similar overhaul effort stalled on the House floor last year because it lacked enough votes to pass.

This year, however, Shuster has had some reinforcements from the White House.

One Republican staffer told The Hill that Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine ChaoSaluting FOIA on its birthday House passes bill to strengthen authority of federal watchdogs Biden at Sen. John Warner's funeral: He 'gave me confidence' MORE and officials from the administration have been directly reaching out to, and meeting with, wavering lawmakers in an effort to sell them on the idea.

“They’re doing an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing,” the staffer said.

The plan would transfer the country’s air navigation system from the FAA to a nonprofit corporation, which would be governed by a board of directors and have the power to impose user fees.

Many House Republicans support the idea of putting a private entity in charge of air traffic control instead of the government, lamenting that the FAA has long struggled to implement a multibillion-dollar modernization program. The overhaul initiative is a top priority for major U.S airlines.

But the divisive issue has put Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee at odds with their colleagues on the Transportation Committee, another influential panel that will be a major player in Trump’s upcoming infrastructure initiative.

Members on the spending panel are worried about losing congressional oversight of air traffic control if the plan is enacted. Appropriators, protective of their committee’s jurisdiction, fear that there would be no way to hold operations accountable if things went wrong.

Meanwhile, rural lawmakers are concerned that the revamp would give too much power to the big airlines and won’t adequately represent general aviation users or small airports. Democrats have generally remained united against the effort.

“There’s a lot of respect for Chairman Shuster, and he’s working very hard,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who chairs an Appropriations subcommittee, told The Hill.  “But I think tax reform and a large spending deal ... ought to take precedence over things that unite your enemies and divide your friends, and that’s what this [spinoff proposal] seems to do.”

House leadership, hoping to chip away at some of the GOP opposition, has been turning up the heat on appropriators in recent weeks, according to multiple sources on Capitol Hill and K Street.

Two targets have been Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, and Rep. Rodney FrelinghuysenRodney Procter FrelinghuysenBottom line Republican lobbying firms riding high despite uncertainty of 2020 race Ex-Rep. Frelinghuysen joins law and lobby firm MORE (R-N.J.), chairman of the full spending panel.

Diaz-Balart oversees the FAA’s budget and has been one of the most vocal critics of the air traffic control overhaul, while Frelinghuysen angered some members of his own party for coming out in early opposition to House Republicans’ health-care plan.

Now, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — who sat front row at the White House when Trump formally endorsed the plan in June — is pressing Frelinghuysen not to work against the spinoff proposal, according to one senior appropriations source.

“It’s a power grab” by the Transportation Committee, the source said. “What I’m told is that McCarthy wants to do this. And that he told Frelinghuysen, ‘You can’t whip your appropriators against this.’ “

One Republican lawmaker thinks Frelinghuysen is under pressure to be a team player on this issue because he defied leadership on the health-care bill, though he later supported a revised version.

“They basically encouraged him, particularly because of the health-care thing, ‘Don’t get out there and do this again,’ ” the GOP member told The Hill. “You can threaten people all you want, but it doesn’t work very well. Usually you have to persuade them.”

McCarthy’s spokesman said that the whip’s office has been taking the lead on the air traffic control effort.

Shuster has also been working with leadership to educate members and answer any questions about the proposed new system, according to his spokesman.

“There’s a lot of misleading information that continues to be spread by reform opponents to both Republican and Democratic members,” the spokesman said. “We have great support from appropriators and continue to correct the record where necessary.”

About the internal advocacy effort, one GOP staffer pointed out that opponents of the overhaul plan “are working just as hard against the bill as Shuster is for it.”

Indeed, Russell and Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.), who oppose the spinoff proposal over national security and general aviation concerns, have been openly trying to torpedo the measure by urging fellow Republicans to oppose it.

The duo plans to sit down with McCarthy when House lawmakers return to Washington next week to further voice their concerns over the idea.

“It’s a fight to the finish,” Abraham said.

Scott Wong contributed.