Congressional leaders sparred publicly but made no further progress Wednesday toward resolving an impasse that has led to a partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, leaving 80,000 workers in the lurch as the Senate and House begin a five-week-long recess.
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 by rejecting a “clean” reauthorization measure in favor of one that would cut funding for a program for airports in several rural areas.
“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 at a news conference.
Also appearing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
“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.”
Reid called on House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to “end this” by sending the Senate an FAA funding extension that does not cut money for the rural airport program. Rockefeller called the issue “embarrassingly easy” to solve.
“It’s shamefully easy. ... A clean bill of extension says you’ll talk, but you’re not going to be told what you’re going to talk about, and that’s point one,” he said. “It’s so easy. It’s so easy.”
And yet, it wasn’t.
“All it will take to end this crisis is for the Senate to pass the House-approved FAA extension,” Boehner said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) argued that Republicans “have laid out what’s best for the country by providing a reasonable resolution, but Democrats have repeatedly objected.”
“They apparently can’t take ‘yes’ for an answer,” Hatch said. “Saying ‘no’ to this solution makes no sense to me or to anyone in America.”
The one thing both sides appeared to agree on Wednesday was that the impasse was not, in fact, over the rural airport program but instead over a longer-term FAA authorization bill that would affect collective bargaining rights for airline workers.
As the impasse entered its 12th day – and with millions of dollars already lost in uncollected airline taxes due to the shutdown -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former seven-term Republican House member from Illinois, sharply criticized Congress for recessing without resolving the FAA stalemate.
“When it comes to creating jobs, members of Congress give a lot of great speeches,” LaHood told reporters at Wednesday’s White House briefing. “We’ve heard a lot of great speeches from members of Congress about creating jobs. They talk the talk, but they have not walked the walk. Their speeches ring very hollow to 4,000 FAA employees who are furloughed.”
LaHood’s message for members of Congress: Come back to Washington and pass a clean FAA extension.
“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, Reid 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.