Congress ponders way to end airport delays

The Senate took the first step toward circumventing sequestration Thursday night with a bipartisan vote that would put furloughed air traffic controllers back on the job.

The House is expected to take up the measure as early as Friday, and the White House has promised to consider any bill which it receives.

The Senate vote came in response to passengers angered this week by long delays at several major airports. If the Senate bill wins House approval and is signed into law by President Obama, the furloughed controllers are not expected to return to work before Saturday.

Although fewer flights were delayed Thursday than earlier in the week, Friday is one of the busiest travel days of the week, and most members of the House and Senate planned to fly out to spend next week in their home states.

The Senate measure would give the administration flexibility to transfer money among Transportation Department accounts, creating a level of fluidity that Republicans say the department has had all along. The White House has insisted otherwise, arguing that sequestration required the across-the-board reductions that resulted in about 1,500 air traffic controllers a day having to take an unpaid day off.

In the midst of that debate came word that the Justice Department had reversed a plan that would have required 116,000 workers to take 22 unpaid days off between now and Oct. 1. In a letter to his staff, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Wednesday that additional flexibility provided by Congress and “aggressive steps” taken by the department to cut costs allowed him to eliminate the need for furloughs.

But he said that if sequestration continues in the next fiscal year, “furloughs are a distinct possibility.”

The Obama administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) have seen the airline delays as a way to highlight the effects of sequestration for an American public less likely to be affected directly by furloughs of federal office workers and myriad other less visible cutbacks.

Their goal has been to pressure Congress to end sequestration. Even some Democrats pressing for an FAA fix acknowledged that it would undercut the party’s larger goal of replacing the sequester entirely.

“This is a practical, pragmatic answer to an immediate problem,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said of the bill to increase DOT funding flexibility. “But I hope the pressure starts mounting to get a bigger deal, because we’re not going to keep doing this.”

Federal officials had predicted that the controller furloughs, intended to save $200 million in this fiscal year, would result in as many as 6,700 flight delays each business day. Through Thursday, the number of flights arriving or departing behind schedule averaged about 2,800, with many of them attributed to weather problems in key hub airports.

The airline industry has filed suit and lobbied hard to end the controller furloughs. In announcing record first-quarter profits Thursday, Southwest Airlines’ chief executive, Gary Kelly, said “the potential effects from government sequestration” made him cautious about April revenue.

On Thursday, several senators continued to challenge the White House’s contention that the furloughs were unavoidable.

“I’m not even certain that this is a result of sequestration,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) said on Fox News. “This seems like a manufactured problem designed to send a message to the American people that they better beat on the doors of their congressmen and [congresswomen] and say, ‘We can’t afford to reduce the increase in spending.’ I’ve said from the very beginning: ‘Have a debate about sequestration. Have a debate about the levels of spending and how to pay for it. But don’t put the public at risk while we use them as guinea pigs.’ ”

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) joined Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) in introducing the bill to give the FAA wiggle room on sequestration.

“The bipartisan legislation . . . will help replace the indiscriminate effects of sequestration and give the U.S. Department of Transportation the flexibility it needs to put air traffic controllers back to work and ensure that these cuts are not a drag on our economy,” Udall said. “We need to reduce the deficit and cut federal spending, but we should not allow sequestration to cripple travel, tourism, business and commerce — all critical parts of our ongoing economic recovery.”

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
Lori Montgomery covers U.S. economic policy and the federal budget, focusing on efforts to tame the national debt.
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