Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Thursday a deal has been struck in the protracted dispute between Democrats and Republicans over the Federal Aviation Administration.
"I am pleased to announce that we have been able to broker a bipartisan compromise between the House and the Senate to put 74,000 transportation and construction workers back to work," Reid said in a statement.
"This agreement does not resolve the important differences that still remain. But I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its differences, and this agreement will do exactly that.”
Senate aides said they were told Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will use his authority to waive the “EAS provisions” or cuts to rural airport funding, in the bill affecting rural communities. That removes the main objection Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Senate Democrats had to the House stopgap.
The Senate will likely pass the House bill by unanimous consent on Friday. The deal does not affect the continued impasse over a long-term FAA reauthorization bill.
While the agreement will permit 4,000 FAA workers to return to the job, it leaves unsettled the question of back pay for the days they were furloughed. Rockefeller, along with Maryland Democrats Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin, are supporting a separate bill that will pay them for the days they missed since July 23.
“I think we have a pretty good chance of getting that bill passed,” said Vince Morris, a spokesman for Rockefeller. But, he added, “It won’t get done until September. We expect it to be bipartisan and with luck, it won’t be a big fight.”
But one Republican has vowed to oppose it. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., told Federal News Radio that his position is “philosophical.” He explained, “When people aren’t working, they are not producing. I agree it is not their fault. But the fact is they didn’t produce anything of value and I don’t think we should reward that.”
The FAA dispute has cost the U.S. government an estimated $200 million a week in uncollected airline taxes and put the agency in a partial shutdown with 4,000 workers furloughed -- 1,000 of them in the greater Washington, D.C. area.
The impasse differs from the spending fights that this year threatened a government shutdown and the risk of a federal default. It involved not a wave of newly elected ideologues in a broad partisan clash, but a policy-based and somewhat personal clash between two idiosyncratic committee chairmen.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., and Rockefeller, whose panels have jurisdiction over FAA, have been in a standoff for months over dueling long-term FAA reauthorization bills passed by the House and Senate.
Rockefeller earlier this week said that Mica is willing “shut down the FAA” over an ideological issue,” that was ultimately about "bullying," and he called the dispute “a tragedy that never had to happen.”
In a statement on Wednesday, Mica said, “Senate Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for this partial shutdown.”
Since the 2007 expiration of the last long-term FAA bill, Congress has passed 20 short-term reauthorizations that extend current policy and avoid issues that have prevented passage of a longer term bill. But in the most recent extension passed by the House, Mica inserted language cutting funds for rural airports, including in West Virginia and other states of key Senate Democrats.
Rockefeller called the move an effort to force him to concede on a fight over the National Mediation Board’s rules on organization of airline unions that has blocked a deal on the long-term bill. With no agreement, the House left town on Monday night. After Reid appeared to try unsucessfully to persuade Rockefeller to accept the House stop-gap bill, the Senate left town on Tuesday.
Rockefeller and Mica have a long acquaintance as power players on transportation issues. But the FAA bill marks their first real negotiation. And although the fight has now been swept up into a broader partisan narrative, neither chairman fits that bill.
Democrats have both portrayed Mica as the culprit of the FAA shutdown and cited his tactics as a new example of uncompromising GOP extremism. House Republicans have fingered Rockefeller and Coburn as barriers to an extension.
Coburn had refused to allow the Senate to pass a “clean” FAA bill because he sponsored the rural airport cuts and wants to see them enacted. Rockefeller had refused to allow the Senate to pass the House bill because of the rural airport cuts.
In an unusual move, Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, posted pictures of Coburn and Rockefeller at a Thursday press conference in the Capitol, calling them his “two wanted” men. He said he didn’t warn the two lawmakers about his actions beforehand.
George Condon contributed