Reporting From Washington — A Senate squabble threatened to put about 80,000 Federal Aviation Administration employees and airport construction workers back on indefinite paid leave Saturday, but negotiators were hopeful the Senate would agree to at least extend FAA funding by Thursday.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) held up the expected passage of an FAA and highway projects funding extension bill, which passed unanimously in the House on Tuesday. FAA funding will expire Friday unless a compromise is reached.
Coburn said on the Senate floor that he would approve a separate bill for FAA funding, but refuses to pass the legislation without amending the highway funding portion of the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called Coburn a "dictator" for delaying passage of the short-term funding extension, which would last through January.
Less than two months ago, those same FAA jobs were on furlough for two weeks before senators compromised. In addition to putting people out of work, the Senate's previous stalemate kept the FAA from collecting at least $350 million in taxes from airline carriers.
Coburn wants to amend the bill to eliminate a provision that forces states to spend 10% of their federal highway trust money on "transportation enhancements" for bike paths, landscaping and similar projects. He said he isn't against states spending money on such projects, but opposes compelling them to do so.
"One in four bridges in California are in jeopardy and we're looking at aesthetics?" Coburn said. "I know my own senior senators may not like what I'm doing, but it is absolutely the right thing to do."
For the last six years, the highway trust fund has not made enough money from the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax, forcing Congress to take increasing amounts of money from the general Treasury. This year the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the highway trust fund will run a $7-billion deficit, which is predicted to double by fiscal year 2012.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood lauded the House's passage of the bill, but noted that repeatedly extending funding for programs right before the money dries up puts workers on edge.
A letter to Congress from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also supported the bill while reiterating the need to end the string of stressful, short-term funding extensions.