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Senate fails to fund FAA, leaving 4,000 on unpaid furlough

'Essential' workers such as airport safety inspectors have been asked to work without pay and put expenses on personal credit cards. The FAA insists that safety is not affected.

August 03, 2011|By Christine Mai-Duc, Washington Bureau
  • Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, left, talks to FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt during a Monday news conference to discuss the interruption of federal funding for airport construction projects and contractors.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, left, talks to FAA Administrator… (Henny Ray Abrams, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — Despite an appeal from President Obama, the Senate recessed without funding the Federal Aviation Administration, leaving nearly 4,000 "nonessential" workers on unpaid furlough and other "essential" employees on the job without pay at least through Labor Day.

Airport safety inspectors, who enforce compliance with federal rules and are considered essential, have been asked to keep working and put expenses on personal credit cards. But the FAA insisted that safety is not affected because air traffic controllers, who are paid with separate funds, remain on the job.

Obama called Congress' failure to resolve the situation "another Washington-inflicted wound on America."

The standoff also is costing the government money. Without an FAA funding bill, airlines are not required to turn over ticket taxes, which add up to $250 million a week. A month without those taxes costs the U.S. $1 billion.

The FAA's funding authority expired in 2007, forcing the agency to get by on a succession of temporary extensions. In all, 20 extensions have been passed while Democrats and Republicans attempted to hammer out a deal over other facets of the bill. The most recent extension expired more than a week ago.

The House approved a temporary extension in mid-July, but added a rider that would eliminate subsidies to 13 rural airports — including in home states of key senators. One airport in Nevada — home to Majority Leader Harry Reid — receives subsidies of more than $3,500 per passenger. Because of the rider, the Senate refused to pass the extension.

The subsidy issue may be a bargaining chip, however. In the background is another point of contention: Republicans want to make it harder for air and rail employees to unionize. Eliminating rural airport subsidies dear to several key senators was seen as a pressure tactic to achieve that goal.

Republicans want to overturn a National Mediation Board rule that allows airline and railroad employees to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Republicans want those who don't vote to count as "no" votes.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said the labor issue was crucial.

"What is important here — and it's not some itty-bitty little thing — is that you have labor regulators out of control," he said.

The legislation also funds airport construction projects. Until it passes, thousands of employees of private contractors are out of work too.

"We are smack dab in the middle of the construction season," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday. "In Congress we've heard many grandiose speeches about putting people to work. This isn't the way to do it."

House Democrats highlighted the jobs issue.

"There is little that's any more important to job creation in rural communities than these small airports," Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) said at a news conference with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

Earlier in the day, the stalemate had seemed to be softening. Reid indicated that he could be open to eliminating airport subsidies in his state. "I do my best to protect the state, but sometimes you have to be reasonable ... and not be bound by some of your own personal issues," he told reporters.

But later, his spokesman clarified that Reid did not support taking up the House-passed version of the FAA bill before the Senate left for its summer vacation and accused Republicans of trying to "jam through a policy ... just because they are not getting their way."

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