The House yesterday approved a major $57 billion package of spending on airports and air traffic control, a plan that could undermine GOP hopes of maintaining budget discipline and scotch the already fading hopes for a tax cut this year.
The bill, approved 316 to 110, would increase spending roughly a third for airport construction and air traffic control facilities over the next five years and double, to $6 per passenger, what an airport could charge for improvement projects.
It also authorizes six additional flights daily at Reagan National Airport, part of what proponents say is an effort to extend service to underserved regional markets. That sets the stage for a likely clash with senators who have urged a far more dramatic increase in takeoffs and landings at Reagan National. Any increase in air traffic at National would be unwelcome to area politicians and aviation officials, who warn it could worsen airplane noise and take business from Dulles International Airport.
In the long term, though, the biggest impact of the bill could be to further limit Congress's tax and spending agenda. It essentially puts airports ahead of other government priorities -- such as defense or education -- and could suck up money that many GOP lawmakers had wanted to use for a big tax cut this year.
"This bill could eliminate entirely any net tax relief for the year 2001 and force us to renege on our promise for early tax reduction at just about the same time voters head for the election booth next year," Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) warned House members before yesterday's vote.
But Archer and other House barons were steamrolled by another aggressive lobbying campaign from Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), the powerful and enterprising chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Employing the kind of tactics that worked last year to secure passage of a larger highway bill, Shuster dangled the promise of billions of dollars of increased funds for airport construction and remodeling projects in members' districts to win bipartisan support for his plan.
"This guy is a power unto his own," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a member of the transportation committee. "Almost every member has an airport in his district that needs improvement or needs infrastructure . . . and they're not going to vote against Bud Shuster."
But Shuster still faces significant obstacles: Senate leaders have expressed opposition to his approach to airport spending, and the White House has threatened to veto the measure.
The critical vote yesterday came on a plan by Shuster to wall off revenue collected from airline ticket taxes for anything but aviation spending. Until now, a portion of this money has gone for other government programs. The plan would essentially free up an additional $14 billion for airport programs over the next five years.
Shuster said that it was "morally wrong" for Congress to use these funds for anything other than aviation, and that the funds should finance badly needed airport expansion and upgraded security and safety efforts.
"If you knock [this] provision out, there ain't no beef left in the hamburger," he said.
But other lawmakers said they are already struggling to stay within tough spending limits, and by losing access to that $14 billion they would face much greater difficulty living within those limits over the next five years. As a result, fiscal leaders said, they would have to cut more deeply into other programs to adhere to the spending strictures.
"We have got to maintain fiscal discipline within this House," said Appropriations Committee Chairman C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.).
But by a vote of 248 to 179, the House affirmed Shuster's plan to keep the aviation money "off budget," with 108 Republicans, 139 Democrats and one independent in support. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who indicated support for Shuster, did not vote.
Critical to Shuster's success was a deal he cut with lawmakers from New York and Illinois that postpones plans to eliminate restrictions on takeoffs and landings at Chicago's O'Hare and at La Guardia and John F. Kennedy International airports in New York.
New York's two airports would be spared major increases in flights until 2007, while the restrictions would not be fully lifted at O'Hare until March 1, 2002. The agreement ensured Shuster additional votes for his aviation funding bill.
The Senate Commerce Committee went in a different direction earlier this year when it approved a proposal by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to add 48 flights at Reagan National, including 24 beyond the current 1,250-mile limit. The House bill would not allow any new flights beyond the limit.
The Senate has yet to take up the measure, but McCain's proposal already has encountered opposition from fellow senators, who are battling to cut the proposed increase in air traffic by half. But even a more modest Senate proposal would go well beyond what Shuster has previously said he could accept at National, one of four U.S. airports with flight restrictions.
The House measure approved yesterday also would require the hiring of more air traffic controllers and establish procedures to quiet air tours over national parks. It would increase from $1.9 billion this year to $4.3 billion in 2004 spending under the Airport Improvement Program, which funds new runways and deals with noise pollution.
It also authorizes the Federal Aviation Administration to ban unruly passengers from flying for up to one year. Currently, the FAA may impose a fine of up to $25,000 on passengers who interfere with a flight crew or endanger the safety of the aircraft.
Staff writer Alan Sipress contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Rep. Bud Shuster lobbied hard and won bipartisan support for his plan.