Deal ends partial shutdown of FAA, for now

Senate to vote on plan today; standoff had idled thousands

‘I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its difference,’ Senator Harry Reid said. ‘I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its difference,’ Senator Harry Reid said.
By Edward Wyatt
New York Times / August 5, 2011

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WASHINGTON - The Obama administration has reached a patchwork agreement with congressional leaders to end a 13-day partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said yesterday.

The agreement signals an end, at least for a few weeks, to a standoff over policy issues that had left 4,000 agency employees out of work, idled tens of thousands of workers at hundreds of airport construction projects and cost the federal government more than $350 million in lost taxes on airline tickets.

Congressional officials said the deal arranges rubber-stamp passage by the Senate today of a bill that was approved by the House last month, extending the aviation agency’s operations through Sept. 16.

Only a few senators need to be present when the Senate convenes at 10 a.m., and if no one objects to the request for unanimous consent to pass the House bill, the impasse will officially be over.

“This agreement does not resolve the important differences that still remain,’’ Reid said. “But I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its differences, and this agreement will do exactly that.’’

The agreement, in the aftermath of a nasty and protracted battle over the debt ceiling, was worked out as both the White House and Congress were beginning to feel pressure from voters who said they have grown tired of political fights that hurt working Americans and the economy.

Official Washington has been peppered in recent days by appeals from labor unions representing furloughed FAA employees and construction workers and letters from trade groups representing airport executives and business groups. Together, they expressed outrage that Congress left this week on a five-week vacation without resolving the FAA issue, letting $30 million a day in airline ticket and fuel taxes go uncollected because of a dispute over $16.5 million in annual cuts to rural air service.

“This shutdown is putting thousands of critical employees out of work,’’ a coalition of labor unions said in a statement, before the deal was reached. “Every day this impasse continues is another day that major airport projects are delayed and work is stopped’’ on upgrades of airport safety and aviation navigation systems.

President Obama said he was “pleased that leaders in Congress are working together’’ to put tens of thousands of Americans back to work. “We can’t afford to let politics in Washington hamper our recovery, so this is an important step forward,’’ he said.

Senate Democrats had previously refused to pass the House bill because it contained cuts in the Essential Air Service, a subsidy program that helps to pay for commercial airline service to rural airports.

The breakthrough came yesterday when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told congressional leaders that he has the authority to issue waivers for the communities affected by the cuts in rural air service contained in the House bill. The White House had been coordinating discussions for days involving House Speaker John A. Boehner, Reid, LaHood, and others.

Congressional officials said LaHood had indicated that he would review the affected rural communities for waivers that would postpone the cuts, but added that he had not promised any specific action.

In a statement, LaHood said: “This is a tremendous victory for American workers everywhere. From construction workers to our FAA employees, they will have the security of knowing they are going to go back to work and get a paycheck - and that’s what we’ve been fighting for. We have the best aviation system in the world and we intend to keep it that way.’’

The agreement does not address differences over labor issues that Senate Democrats said were the real reason Republicans were trying to press for the cuts to rural air service. Democrats had embraced some of those changes in their own long-term FAA reauthorization bill, which was passed earlier this year by the Senate.

The House also passed a long-term FAA bill that included a measure to repeal a rule of the National Mediation Board, which oversees union and labor issues in the airline and railroad industries. The new rule, which passed after Obama appointed two of the board’s three members, reversed a 76-year-old rule and made it easier for unions to win a representation election. Under the old rule, workers who did not vote were counted as “no’’ votes; under the new rule, only those voting were counted. top stories on Twitter

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