A dispute over funding for the Federal Aviation Administration has left an estimated 74,000 people out of work for a dozen days and tossed Congress into the throes of yet another interparty battle.
Now, with lawmakers leaving town or already on recess, there seems to be little hope of a resolution on the horizon.
Lawmakers allowed funding for the FAA to expire July 23, leaving 4,000 agency workers on furlough and 70,000 people in construction-related jobs out of work, possibly until September, when Congress will reconvene.
On Wednesday, party leaders blamed each other for the deadlock, and President Obama said Congress had “decided to play politics” and put the the nation’s fragile economic recovery at risk. He said he expects a resolution of the issue by the end of the week.
But a handful of furloughed workers discovered that the chances for a quick solution were dim when they trekked to the Capitol and had trouble finding anyone to hear their pleas. The House left town on Monday, and most senators were gone by Wednesday.
“We’re staring at a possible six weeks without pay, and they’ll all get nice suntans on their vacations,” said Dan Stefko, a furloughed FAA engineer who flew in from Pittsburgh.
“Nobody believed they would actually walk away from this,” added Bob Aitken, an engineer from Chicago, as the group made the rounds, meeting with a handful of lawmakers and staff members.
Though the impasse may cost $1.2 billion in lost ticket-tax revenue if it stretches into September, it will have no apparent impact on air travel. Air traffic controllers are remaining on the job.
With most of the American public emerging from debt-ceiling-debate overload, the facts of the funding stalemate seemed bewildering. Unlike the debt talks, in which trillions of dollars were in play, the FAA funding has been stalled by matters that hold greater importance to members of Congress than to the majority of the flying public.
Primary among them is a partisan split over the rules that govern union efforts to organize airline workers.
There have been 20 short-term funding bills for the FAA since September 2007. Even when Democrats controlled both chambers, agreement on long-term funding was elusive. When the Republican-led House passed the 21st extension last month, it tacked on provisions about rural airports intended to cause discomfort for Senate Democrats.
This, said House transportation committee Chairman John L. Mica (R-Fla.), was done in the hope that an unpalatable extension might motivate senators to settle the differences between the long-term FAA funding bills passed by the House and the Senate this year.
But the Senate balked, demanding a “clean” bill.
That brought to the fore the more contentious issue: The House’s long-term funding bill seeks to undo a new rule that makes it easier for unions to organize airline employees.
It is on that issue — which is not even included in the House extension bill — that Mica, Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and other House Republicans are standing fast.
Even lawmakers who carried the debate to the Senate floor last week conflated and confused the issues and the different bills, so much so that aides more than once passed slips of paper to them so they could make corrections mid-debate.
The wrangling continued Wednesday, sounding like an aftershock of the debt-ceiling negotiations.
“Hope is dim at the moment,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “I guess we can always be hopeful, but the light of hope is about ready to flicker out.”
There was nothing about the demeanor of congressional leaders on Wednesday to suggest that, having taken the nation to the brink of one potential disaster, they were ready to rescue it from another crisis.
“The only reason so many jobs are at stake is Senate Democratic leaders chose to play politics rather than pass the House bill,” Boehner said.
“This is their modus operandi,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) fired back at Republicans. “Government by crisis that they make up, government by hostage-taking, government by threat.”
Senate Democrats insisted that the House pass a funding extension free of any additional provisions, saying privately that they if they agreed to pass the current extension, it would embolden the House to repeat the process when that bill expired next month.
House Republicans say the Senate should pass the extension and negotiate with greater purpose on resolving the long-term funding bills. The Democrats counter that the House has yet to appoint a conference committee to reconcile the bills, leaving things primarily to staff members.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that congressional leaders “could take care of this in a second” because both chambers will meet in pro forma session in the coming weeks — meaning that while most lawmakers are back in their home states, leaders could act on an FAA bill.
But the rhetoric Wednesday did not suggest that option was in the offing.
Senate commerce committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), one of the key combatants, lamented Wednesday that the issue is “embarrassingly easy” to solve.
“It’s shamefully easy,” he said, calling for the House to pass a “clean” funding extension.
But Mica said that “Senate Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for this partial shutdown of FAA programs and airport projects.”
“There are no labor provisions in the House-passed extension,” Mica said. But in the long-term bills, “there are a number of unresolved issues in negotiations with the Senate, including the . . . labor provision. We have been willing to compromise, willing to negotiate, find common ground.”
He accused “powerful Senate Democrats” of “bludgeoning folks who disagree with them.”
Mica on Wednesday also heard the wrath of the man who sits next to him on the House transportation committee, ranking Democrat Nick J. Rahall II (W.Va.).
“House Republican leaders had the ability to end this shutdown but refused to budge from their stubborn ‘my way or the runway’ approach to negotiating,” Rahall said. “Instead of coming together to seek a solution, they attached a policy rider to the FAA extension bill to try to force the Senate to adopt its anti-worker agenda. Forcing the FAA to shut down to score a few political points for tea party extremists comes at a great cost to American jobs and our economy.”
Mike MacDonald, and FAA engineer who flew in from Boston to confront Congress, said he didn’t have to choose which party to blame.
“We blame the whole institution of Congress that has failed us,” he said.
Staff writers David Nakamura, Lisa Rein and Steve Vogel contributed to this report.