House and Senate leaders said on Friday that they have reached agreement on a long-awaited bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, with Republicans backing down on a controversial labor provision that had drawn a veto threat from the White House.
The deal paves the way for finalization of an FAA bill that has been years in the making. Lawmakers face a Jan. 31 deadline when the current extension will expire.
They still must draft a bill that both chambers can vote on, but that task is said to be manageable. Congressional aides said that one more extension may be necessary to allow time to complete all the details in the new bill.
Republican leaders agreed to remove the offending language in the FAA bill that would have rescinded a National Mediation Board rule set under the Obama administration that makes it easier for rail and aviation workers to unionize. The remaining disputes between Republicans and Democrats on the measure have been worked out in a gentlemen's agreement among congressional transportation gurus.
In exchange for Republicans dropping the NMB rule recission, Democrats have agreed to include a provision that would raise the threshold for rail and aviation workers expressing interest in forming a union from 35 percent to 50 percent. This would mark the first time that an FAA reauthorization included any NMB changes, which is likely to make organized labor uncomfortable. But it also appeases Republicans who were angered by the original Obama administration rule that nonvoting aviation and rail workers do not count as "no" votes in unionization elections.
Lawmakers also have agreed to public hearings for all substantial NMB rule-making and tweaks to the manner in which runoff elections will be held. (The procedural change will make it easier for a "no union" option to win.) The deal also includes several oversight reports from the Government Accountability Office.
No one wanted to pass another short-term extension of the FAA without having a deal; the next one will be the 23rd. But it wasn't clear until the Republican retreat in Baltimore, which runs through this weekend, that the House GOP was willing to drop the labor provision. They consider the Obama administration rule to be an overreach of power to placate its union constituency. However, supporters of the rule say that it simply puts rail and aviation union elections in line with all other elections -- including unionization votes governed by the National Labor Relations Board and elections for members of Congress.
Congressional leaders were happy to have agreed on something at last.
"Every issue does not have to be a fight. This is a good example of the common-sense results that Democrats and Republicans can produce when they work together and put the interests of the American people ahead of scoring political points," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Rescinding the NMB rule had been of particular importance to House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., who had sworn last year that he wouldn't allow the FAA bill to go forward without the provision. Through his spokesman Justin Harclerode, Mica was gracious about the concessions he won on NMB.
"We can now move ahead with this infrastructure bill that will help create jobs, modernize the nation’s air traffic control system, and reduce the size of government,” Harclerode said.
Dan Friedman contributed contributed to this article.