Senate Majority Leader Reid plans to bring up Monday a four-year bill to help modernize the nation’s air traffic control system, giving committee Democratic leaders a fixed deadline for finishing their months-long discussions. Reid will hold a vote to limit debate on a motion to proceed to the FAA reauthorization bill, which has been stalled by a dispute between the Finance and Commerce committees over providing consistent funding to help begin transferring from a ground-based to a satellite-based air traffic control system.
Commerce Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said today that senators are “close but not done.” He and Finance Chairman Max Baucus have traded proposals but have not yet reached an agreement, Rockefeller said. He said they will need time to also reach a consensus with other committee members as well as the aviation industry. “You’ve got major interests to sign off or to be rolled over,” he said. Rockefeller said he was worried that a deal would not be reached in time. “The leader has a train to run, I understand that,” Rockefeller said. “And one way to get this moving is to schedule votes.” Baucus, who like Finance ranking member Charles Grassley is enveloped in farm bill discussions, said he and Rockefeller took note of Monday’s cloture vote. “I think we’ll have an agreement,” Baucus said.
A Commerce Committee plan would impose a $25 per flight surcharge in an effort to bridge the gap between what airlines and general aviation would be providing toward the modernization effort. Rockefeller is open to ditching that surcharge for something else as long as there is another way to earn the same $400 million in guaranteed annual funding that he estimates would come from that user fee. “I’ve made significant concessions,” said Rockefeller, who has pledged that general aviation will be paying more either through a user fee or taxes.
The Bush administration and airlines have embraced user fees, while general aviation groups oppose them. The Finance Committee had proposed to rely on aviation taxes. A House-passed bill last September raises general aviation taxes but does not change those for airlines. General aviation groups supported the bill because it left the current tax structure in place and rejected user fees. Congress has agreed to several short-term extensions of aviation excise taxes since they initially expired Sept. 30. The Commerce Committee approved its plan last May, while the Finance Committee and the full House approved bills in the fall.
This article appears in the April 26, 2008, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.