Senate progress on FAA legislation this week looked more uncertain today as discussions continue behind the scenes on addressing Republican opposition to highway infrastructure dollars and other nonaviation language in the bill. Republican leaders and the White House are balking at reimbursements to the highway trust fund for money spent for emergencies since 1998, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Opposition is also directed at rail infrastructure tax bonds and the doubling of an oil spill tax, from 5 cents to 10 cents a barrel, which would raise $3.5 billion.
Senate Majority Leader Reid offered a parliamentary move on the floor today, sending the bill back to the Finance Committee for a minor change, to buy more time to reach a compromise. "It's a delaying tactic," a spokesman for Senate Commerce Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said. Senate Finance ranking member Charles Grassley said a compromise is possible. "I think we can work those things out," he said.
Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus and Grassley stood with highway industry officials today and said the highway trust fund reimbursements are needed to fill a shortfall in the trust fund and preserve construction and other jobs. Baucus called that and other pay-fors in the bill "responsible." A White House Statement of Administration Policy said the FAA bill "attempts to justify a departure from this principle by retroactively deeming costs from past emergencies as requirements to be borne by the General Fund. But the result is both a costly gimmick and a dangerous precedent that shifts costs from users to taxpayers at large." Commerce Aviation Subcommittee ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, has said these "extraneous tax provisions that have nothing to do with aviation" would kill the bill.
Reid today said Republicans wanted the bill to die. The White House has threatened to veto the FAA bill in part due to the lack of Bush administration's preferred provision of user fees and other means of financing the modernization of the air traffic control system. Baucus said he does not think Bush will actually veto the bill because it is needed to help aviation and highway infrastructure. Republicans have opposed Reid's "filling of the amendment tree," which means he has control over what amendments will be offered. Minority Leader McConnell threatened to successfully filibuster the bill unless a compromise is reached. Reid today said he has not made a decision on whether to file today to limit debate on the bill.
Negotiations continue on language Baucus and Grassley support that prohibits airlines from counting past contributions in properly funding defined-benefit plans. After Wednesday was dominated by gridlock over an amendment filed by Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Hutchison to remove that language from the bill, Reid backed a move by Rockefeller to substitute the bill with one that did not include the Finance-backed pension language. That Rockefeller substitute is what is pending and amendments can be offered to it. Grassley said "there's some middle ground" on the pension issue. Durbin said that while the two sides are still talking, the pension issue will not hold up the larger FAA bill in the end.
This article appears in the May 3, 2008 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.