Senate leaders reach deal to avert another FAA shutdown

Senate leaders struck a last-minute deal Thursday to avert the second partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration in as many months.

A bill that extended funding for the FAA and for highway and transit projects bogged down unexpectedly this week when Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) objected to a mandate that states spend 10 percent of their federal funding on landscaping, pedestrian safety and bike paths.

Under a compromise reached Thursday night, Senate leaders promised Coburn that the mandate would be dropped from a long-term highway funding bill expected next year.

“All we are saying is, if a state wants to continue to spend money on something other than safety and bridges and roads, fine, it can, but don’t make those of us who already have a big problem with safety have to spend money on something that doesn’t protect our citizens, doesn’t enhance their highways, by spending money on something that is called an enhancement but doesn’t enhance their safety or their ability to commute,” Coburn said Thursday on the Senate floor.

Once he was appeased, the Senate approved the extension bill, ending the threat of another partial shutdown of the FAA at midnight Friday. The House passed extensions this week.

An extension stalemate that began in July led to the two-week furlough of nearly 4,000 FAA workers, stalled construction projects and cost the Treasury more than $300 million in lost ticket tax revenue.

Congress has been struggling over transportation funding for years. The last long-term FAA funding bill expired in 2007. The last long-term highway bill expired in 2009. Funding has been extended at current levels ever since.

Both houses passed new FAA reauthorization bills this year, but the House has not named a conference committee to resolve significant differences.

The House bill would allocate about $15 billion per year for each of four years; the Senate bill has an average of about $17.3 billion per year for each of two years.

The issues that have proved to be major obstacles involve a controversial labor ruling, the number of flights that should be added at Reagan National Airport and federal subsidies for commercial services to small airports.

Both the House and the Senate this summer presented plans for a long-term highway bill, but no bill has been formally introduced in either chamber.

Even when Democrats controlled both houses, efforts to craft a highway bill bogged down because the primary source of federal transportation funding, the gas tax, no longer produces enough revenue. Money from the general fund supplements gas tax revenue.

The House, which is committed to a spending plan based on gas tax revenue, has talked of a six-year plan to provide about $35 billion a year, a sum that House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.) says can be used to leverage double that amount through public-private partnerships. The Senate proposal would provide about $109 billion spread over two years.

Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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