The Senate voted yesterday to break a five-day filibuster on a Reagan administration bill designed to transfer control of National and Dulles International airports, and Virginia senators predicted easy passage.
After a concerted weekend of lobbying by U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, former governor Charles S. Robb and Virginia's two senators, the Senate voted 66 to 32 to cut off the filibuster led by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.).
"In spite of all the rhetoric, 66 members of the Senate said 'enough is enough,' " said Sen. Paul S. Trible Jr. (R-Va.). "I'm confident this bill will finally be approved." The Senate may begin action on the bill late tomorrow, although consideration of the measure will probably be delayed until after the Easter recess, which ends April 8.
The bill would shift control of Dulles and National airports from the federal government to a regional commission, which is expected to spend millions of dollars on new parking, a new terminal and other renovations. Gov. Harry Hughes and other Maryland officials have argued that the transfer would place Baltimore- Washington International airport at a competitive disadvantage.
Despite yesterday's victory, supporters of the bill acknowledged privately that the measure faces a tougher fight than they had expected. They had originally predicted passage of the bill by the Easter recess, which is scheduled to begin tomorrow. But last Friday, an attempt to end the filibuster was defeated, to the surprise of Transportation Department officials.
Robb and Baliles began telephoning Democratic senators to persuade them that it was not purely a Republican and administration bill, saying it had significant Democratic support in Virginia.
The bill now faces a possible barrage of amendments from senators who are concerned about a wide range of issues, among them the price of the airports and representation on the regional commission. In addition, Sarbanes said he planned to offer "a number of substantive amendments."
"I think this bill's in a lot of trouble," Sarbanes said at a news conference after the cloture vote. Supporters of the transfer have said that they need a strong vote in the Senate to prompt the House to pass the measure.
The amendment that posed the greatest threat, the bill's supporters said, is one that Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) said yesterday she will offer. The amendment would reverse a Transportation Department rule, scheduled to go into effect Tuesday, that would allow airlines to buy and sell landing rights at National and four other highly congested airports.
The Transportation Department strongly supports the new landing rights rule, and administration officials said they will withdraw support for the bill if the Kassebaum amendment is attached.
Sarbanes has said that the $47 million price tag for National and Dulles is too low. Also, he says that the bill would allow revenues from National Airport to support the operation of Dulles, which is BWI's major competitor.
Other senators objected that the transfer would give local officials too much control over the airports that serve the nation's capital. Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) said he will offer an amendment that would change the composition of the airport commission to give the federal government more influence.
Some senators have expressed concern about the sale price, particularly after a British bank said last week it would seek to raise $1 billion to assist private buyers in the possible purchase of the airport. But Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) said a private sale would save no money.
"We've been able to show that every dollar added to the cost would require passengers to pay more at the gate," Warner said.