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Debt crisis averted, all eyes now on FAA impasse

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With the bitter debate on raising the debt ceiling at last behind it, Washington turned its sights Wednesday to matters that had gone little-noticed in the months-long furor over the federal borrowing limit.

Chief among them: a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration that has led to the furloughs of tens of thousands of workers and is costing the federal government $30 million a day.

As the FAA impasse supplanted the debt crisis as the main object of the country’s attention for the first time since the shutdown began 11 days ago, the White House, congressional leaders and industry workers scrambled to weigh in on the issue.

“This is a lose-lose-lose situation that can be easily solved if Congress gets back into town and does its job,” President Obama said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference at the White House before meeting with members of his Cabinet, including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Calling the impasse “a self-inflicted wound that is unnecessary,” Obama said he had personally called on congressional leaders to resolve the FAA stalemate before the end of the week by approving a temporary funding extension — after which lawmakers could “have the fights that they want to have when they get back.”

Both chambers of Congress began a five-week recess Tuesday after passing the debt-limit compromise.

“Don’t put the livelihoods of thousands of people at risk,” Obama said. “Don’t put projects at risk. And don’t let a billion dollars, at a time when we’re scrambling for every dollar we can, get left on the table because Congress did not act.”

At the center of the deadlock is a $163 million program providing air service subsidies for some rural airports. House Republicans favor an FAA extension that cuts some of that funding, while Democrats are opposed to such a move.

But beyond the rural air service program, the dispute is also a broader one between the parties about their political leverage: Democrats argue that if they agree to the temporary FAA reauthorization passed by the House, Republicans will be emboldened to move forward on a longer-term extension that limits workers’ collective-bargaining rights, a measure that Democrats oppose.

Since it began July 23, the partial shutdown of the FAA has cost the country $30 million a day, as the agency has been unable to collect the 7.5 percent-per-ticket tax on air travel. The dispute has also led to the furloughs of 4,000 workers — including 1,000 in the Washington area — as well as some 70,000 contractors.

Some workers began lobbying lawmakers and aides on Capitol Hill on Wednesday to make progress on a funding extension. And congressional leaders on Wednesday exchanged their most heated rhetoric to date on the issue.

Fred Rasche, a 49-year-old engineer who has worked for the FAA for 27 years and is among the thousands of workers furloughed, said he was shocked when Congress adjourned Tuesday without agreeing to a funding extension.

“I believe in government that works,” Rasche said Wednesday afternoon as he prepared to go with other members of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association to meet with congressional staff on Capitol Hill. “The people in my office do work, and they work hard. This Congress isn’t able to work. It doesn’t seem like government is working anymore. It’s certainly not working for us.”

Rasche and his colleagues argue that they have been caught in a pointless political spat that could have far-reaching consequences in their lives. “It’s impacting us today, and it’s impacting our future,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand what it’s over.”

Four employee unions that represent the furloughed FAA workers said in a statement Wednesday that they were “extremely frustrated and discouraged” by lawmakers’ decision to recess without addressing the FAA funding issue, and called on Congress to “immediately” pass a reauthorization bill.

“The air-traffic control system cannot wait and neither can the families of the thousands of impacted employees across the nation. To protect this country’s aviation system and secure jobs throughout the country, Congress must act now,” said the statement from the American Federation of Government Employees; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the National Air Traffic Controllers Association; and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists.

At an at-times confrontational news conference in the Senate TV studio, Senate and House Democratic leaders accused House Republicans of engaging in “the politics of hostage-taking” on the FAA issue.

“The fact is, when you look back at their threats to shut down the entire government — remember that? — unless they got tax breaks for the rich, followed by holding the full faith and credit of this government hostage to their desires to cut government spending, and now here we are a third time,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said.

“I hope the American people wake up,” Boxer added. “This is their modus operandi: government by crisis that they make up, government by hostage-taking, government by threat.”

Republican leaders shot back that the onus was on Democrats to accept the House-passed bill.

“All it will take to end this crisis is for the Senate to pass the House-approved FAA extension,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. “The only reason so many jobs are at stake is Senate Democratic leaders chose to play politics rather than pass the House bill. I respect the fact that senators have certain objections, but they have had two weeks to respond to the House bill and done nothing, leaving tens of thousands of workers in limbo. The House has done its job, and now it’s time for senators to do theirs.”

The deadlock found LaHood — a former seven-term Republican House member from Illinois — sharply criticizing some of his onetime colleagues in Congress for recessing without resolving the FAA stalemate.

“I’m calling them back,” he said. “Come back to Washington. Leave your vacations, just for a couple hours. Come back, Congress. Help your friends and neighbors get back to work.”

As he left Wednesday’s news conference, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) maintained that leaders “could take care of this in a second” because both chambers will continue to meet in pro forma session over the coming weeks — meaning that while senators and House members are back in their home states, leaders could still act on an FAA bill.

But didn’t it reflect poorly on Congress that members were leaving town without resolving the issue, and while thousands of workers remain furloughed?

“The answer is yes,” Reid said.

Reid sent a letter Wednesday to Boehner calling for Republicans to pass a clean, short-term FAA reauthorization:

“We must resolve our differences through the normal legislative process,” Reid wrote. “In the meantime, we need a clean, short term extension to get these people back to work. There is bipartisan support for this position.”

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