Two days before the funding for the Federal Aviation Administration is set to expire, the White House is protesting that the 21st stopgap measure currently being debated in Congress could threaten 4,000 federal jobs and cut off grant aid for airports.
The House passed the stopgap, 243-177, over the protest of Democrats who said House leaders have failed to begin a formal conference committee with the Senate to finally resolve the issue for the next several years. Both bodies passed versions of an FAA reauthorization earlier this year, but the negotiations on merging the two have snagged over several controversial issues, including a dispute about how aviation and rail workers can vote to unionize. President Obama has threatened to veto any FAA bill that includes the language in the House bill that would count nonvoters in a union election as "no" votes.
House Democrats said on Wednesday that the Senate won't accept the House's stopgap funding measure. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., sent a letter to House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., on Tuesday saying he was "puzzled" that the FAA extension included Senate language on airport subsidies. "This surprise maneuver is a complete reversal from the discussions we have been having for several months, and strongly suggests you have not been negotiating in good faith," the letter said.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Rockefeller said the Senate would “ignore” the House’s “trick” and pass a clean extension without policy riders before Friday. That would put the House in the position of voting again on an FAA stopgap. If it passes, they could be viewed as backing down on the policy rider. If it fails, the blame game would then begin.
Failure to pass an extension before Friday evening would mean that several of the FAA's core functions would no longer be funded.
Stopping short of a veto threat, the White House’s statement of administration policy on Wednesday said that it is essential to pass a clean extension while House and Senate lawmakers hammer out the details of a final bill. The House and Senate have done so 20 times in the past. The last full reauthorization expired in 2007.
The FAA bill (H.R. 2553) passed by the House is not such a clean extension. While it would allow funding for the FAA until September 16, it also would cut money for some “essential air services” that provide subsidies for airports in rural areas. That language has already been approved by the Senate in its broader FAA reauthorization measure, but the cuts were part of a slate of agreed-upon provisions that updated the GPS-based NextGen air traffic control system, among other things.
Mica couldn't contain his frustration over the impasse during floor debate. "Don’t come here and tell me that we don’t legislate on extensions. The other body put an entire regional safety bill on one of the past 17 extensions," he said. "I may not be the most powerful member. I may not be the smartest member. I may not be the highest-ranking member. But I am a persistent member.… We'll get this done."
House Transportation Committee ranking member Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., admitted that the policy rider on airport subsidies was an improvement over language in the original House reauthorization bill, which would have phased out the program completely. But, he added, the House should be making this trade-off in a conference negotiation, not as part of a must-pass spending extension.
Rahall and other committee Democrats sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner earlier this week protesting that no movement had been made for a formal conference committee on the FAA bill despite the Senate's request for one in April. Staffers in both bodies have been negotiating the less controversial differences between the two bills, but the impasse over the labor provision and overall funding levels remain untouched.
If Congress fails to act on a clean extension, the White House said all of FAA’s capital accounts -- which includes research and development, grant aid, and facilities and equipment -- would be shut down. NextGen testing and federal grants for airport improvements would stop as well.
This article appears in the July 20, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.