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Obama signs temporary FAA extension; furloughed workers to return Monday

August 05, 2011|By Christine Mai-Duc
  • Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood lobbies Congress on FAA funding legislation during a White House media briefing. Obama signed a funding extension Friday.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood lobbies Congress on FAA funding legislation… (Jason Reed / Reuters )

President Obama signed a temporary funding extension for the Federal Aviation Administration on Friday, ending a two-week impasse that left the agency in a partial shutdown. The move allows roughly 4,000 FAA employees to return to work Monday.

The measure, passed by the Senate on Friday morning, also puts an estimated 70,000 construction workers back to work on a number of stalled airport projects, and reauthorizes the FAA to collect airline ticket taxes.

The bill, which extends funding for the FAA until Sept. 16, was passed quietly on a near-empty Senate floor through a procedural maneuver known as unanimous consent.

Most members of Congress have left town for summer recess and are not due back until after Labor Day. The procedure allows a bill to be passed with just a couple senators present, provided there are no objections filed. The entire process took less than a minute.

The president, who put pressure on congressional leaders to resolve the issue by the end of the week, expressed relief. “This impasse was an unnecessary strain on local economies across the country at a time when we can’t allow politics to get in the way of our economic recovery,” he said in a statement.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who spent much of the last two weeks cajoling Congress to act, said he would work with lawmakers to provide back pay to furloughed employees. “I’m thrilled for our dedicated FAA employees who will be able to go back to work on Monday,” wrote LaHood on his blog, Fast Lane.

As part of the agreement, the Senate agreed to the House-passed version of a temporary extension, which included a rider provision that would cut government subsidies to 13 rural airports. LaHood could issue waivers to those airports, allowing the subsidies to continue. “I have received assurances from Secretary LaHood that the rural communities whose economies rely on air service will be protected,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in a statement.

For Lew Fisher, a financial analyst at the FAA, the announcement was “a huge relief, my mood was lifted.” For two weeks, Fisher has religiously checked the FAA’s internal website and news sites for updates on the stalemate. Fisher applied for unemployment in the meantime, while his family has had to dip into their savings.

But while the latest move brings relief, congressional leaders acknowledged the stopgap measure does not solve any of the thorny issues underlying a larger fight over a longer-term aviation bill.

Since the last reauthorization expired in 2007, leaders have tried to smooth out differences in a multi-year FAA bill. A handful remain, including the rural airports subsidies and a contentious new rule that allows airline and rail workers to unionize by a simple majority vote. 

The political barbs coming from both sides in recent weeks showed no signs of abating, even after the extension deal was passed.

 “If the Senate refuses to negotiate on the few remaining issues, they can be assured that every tool at our disposal will be utilized to ensure a long-term bill is signed into law,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) in a statement.

Reid responded in kind, accusing Republicans of “holding their jobs hostage to try and jam through a favor for the CEO of one airline.”

Reid was referring to Delta Airlines, whose workers are not unionized and which stands to benefit if the labor rule were overturned. “Republicans like Rep. John Mica are already threatening to force these 74,000 Americans out of their jobs again when this extension expires on Sept. 16th,” Reid said.

Fisher, who says he’ll continue to plan for another possible furlough,  believes there’s enough blame to go around. “They’re all culpable in my mind. They should get their act together and work it out.”

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