LaHood’s effort fails to end FAA furloughs

A last-ditch effort to avert a monthlong, partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was grounded before it could take off Tuesday, despite efforts from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

LaHood, in a marked shift from his earlier pronouncements on the FAA shutdown, tried to convince the Senate to accept a House version of a short-term funding bill for the agency.

{mosads}With the House having adjourned for its August recess, LaHood said the Senate should take what it could get.

But Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) put a stop to those plans when he insisted on a “clean” bill from the House, which will not return to Washington until Sept. 7.

“Today, Republicans once again objected to a simple, fair request — a ‘clean’ extension of funding that would maintain operations into the fall,” Rockefeller said in a statement.

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“Now the victims of that GOP ploy are the passengers, airport safety and construction projects, 4,000 furloughed workers and more than 70,000 construction jobs around the country that are on hold until the Republicans realize that they can’t use extortion to get their way on this,” he continued.

The shutdown is estimated to be costing the federal government $30 million per day;  unless Congress authorizes the FAA, the agency cannot collect taxes that would normally be paid on airline ticket purchases and deposit them into the Aviation Trust Fund.

During the shutdown, money has not been deposited into the trust fund, which pays for both construction projects and the FAA workers, for more than a week, putting safety inspectors, researchers and designers and other staff on furlough.

The House had passed a short-term extension that eliminates some subsidies for rural air service through the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. A longer-term bill has been bogged down by a House effort to undo rules on unionization of railroad and airline employees that would make it harder for them to vote to bargain collectively.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) joined LaHood in trying to persuade the upper chamber to take action before leaving for its August break and, for some time Tuesday, it looked like the Senate might be willing to consider the short-term House funding bill it has railed against for two weeks.

Reid indicated he would be OK with the Senate passing the House FAA bill, although one of three airports targeted in the EAS cuts is in his home state of Nevada.

“We learned with this big [debt] deal we’ve just done sometimes you have to step back and find out what’s best for the country and not be bound by some of your own personal issues,” he said. “And I’m willing to give that up. I hope the other senators will do the same.”

But Reid also told senators they could start going home, meaning he would need unanimous consent to take up the legislation. It only takes one senator’s objection to stop that process.

The last-minute push from LaHood to get the Senate to take up the House bill marked a clear shift for the Transportation secretary. Up until Monday, the ex-Republican congressman was pushing his former colleagues in the House to adopt a “clean” bill that did not have cuts to subsidies for rural air service the Senate had resisted passing.

But the House adjourned Monday evening for almost a month, leaving LaHood to focus Tuesday on the politics of the possible.

“We need the Senate to pass the House bill, before they go on their vacations, to put 4,000 people back to work and 70,000 construction workers,” LaHood said on a conference call.

LaHood said that if the Senate passed the House bill before it went home, President Obama would sign it, ending the 11-day impasse.

Rockefeller’s office initially would not comment on the possibility of the upper chamber accepting the House FAA bill. But neither would the senator’s office rule it out, which by itself had been a big change in posture since before the shutdown began. 

Perhaps sensing a window of opportunity, LaHood took it a step further, saying outright that it was “time for the Senate to take action, which they can do today, and the president will sign it.”

“The only legislative fix at the moment, given the fact that the House has gone home, is for the Senate to pass the House bill,” he said.

It was all for naught, however, because Rockefeller quickly returned to calling the Republican position on the FAA bill “a stunning display of politics over people.”

“The House brought about a partial shutdown of the FAA on July 23, and their stubborn adherence to that partisan stance led us to this point,” he said.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) remained quiet about the FAA furloughs throughout the day. Late Monday evening, however, he blamed Democrats for the furloughs at the FAA that have already taken place, and the possibility they could be extended for a month.

“After waiting weeks and doing nothing but complaining about the process and blaming everyone but themselves, Senate Democrat leaders failed again today on a last-ditch effort to approve an extension of FAA programs,” Mica said in a statement. “Apparently, protecting outrageous airline ticket subsidies is more important than putting 4,000 furloughed FAA employees and thousands of airport construction workers across the country back to work.”

Democrats in the House were just as eager to cast blame for the FAA shutdown on Republicans.

“House Republicans decided to go on vacation early when we should have stuck around to solve this senseless shutdown,” Rep. Nick Rahall (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement Tuesday.

The president weighed in too, calling the FAA shutdown “another Washington-inflicted wound on America.”

Tags Harry Reid Jay Rockefeller Nick Rahall

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