Passengers wait to be screened at National Airport in Arlington, Va. Since… (Jim Lo Scalzo, European…)
WASHINGTON — Congress approved a quick fix Friday to end the flight delays snarling the nation's airports, and President Obama will sign the bill when it reaches the White House, showing how swiftly compromise can be found when powerful interests demand it.
The speedy resolution came after airlines and businesses warned of lost earnings, and travelers — including lawmakers leaving the capital for a weeklong recess — complained about the waits.
Since Sunday, up to 1,000 flights a day have been delayed as the Federal Aviation Administration began furloughing air traffic controllers to cover its share of the across-the-board federal budget cuts that have been rippling, mostly quietly, across the economy.
The flight delays prompted the first public outburst over the cuts. But critics decried Friday's deal to relieve airline passengers, complaining that it does nothing to help less influential recipients of federal tax dollars.
Up to 70,000 preschoolers are being forced out of Head Start programs and 4 million Meals on Wheels deliveries for senior citizens are ending because of the so-called sequester budget cuts. And the reductions at the Pentagon, once denounced as dangerous to the nation's security, also remain.
The National Air Traffic Controllers Assn., which represents most of the employees affected by the furloughs, had not learned by late Friday when its members would return to work, a spokesman said.
The three-page bill approved Friday, called the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013, would allow the FAA to transfer $253 million from infrastructure improvement funds, which had been protected, to put furloughed air traffic controllers back to work. Senate officials said the bill would also prevent closures at 149 control towers, many in rural areas, that rely on contract air controllers.
The House easily passed the measure, 361 to 41, with opposition from a few dozen conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. The Senate gave unanimous approval late Thursday without a recorded vote.
The White House had warned of exactly this type of suffering as it pressed for a deficit reduction deal two months ago. But it saw little choice other than accepting what it called a "Band-Aid solution."
The administration argued that putting air traffic controllers back to work was a "specific case" because Congress was shifting a relatively small amount of money from one FAA account to another. But each time Obama allows Congress to alleviate some pain, he trades away leverage he could use to force Congress to reach an agreement.
"What I'm saying is that this is not the answer," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
Lawmakers are among the nation's most frequent fliers, and Carney suggested the fact that the measure flew through Congress might have something to do with "members of Congress who need flights home."
Ohio Republican House Speaker John A. Boehner's flight from New York was 15 minutes late landing in Washington this week for undisclosed reasons, an aide said.
"I've been subject to it myself," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who nevertheless called it "shameful for us to make allowances for the FAA while doing nothing to stop the draconian cuts that are decimating our military."
The $85-billion sequester reductions in federal spending for the fiscal year that runs through September went into effect March 1. The cuts had once been considered so unsavory that they would force Democrats and Republicans to compromise on a deal. That never happened despite on-and-off talks that began in 2011.
Already, however, Congress has made adjustments to protect powerful interests and pet projects.
The meat industry persuaded lawmakers to scale back furloughs for plant inspectors to prevent a shortage of steaks in grocery coolers. And a tuition assistance program for military service members was spared because it was seen as an embarrassment.
The White House conceded that lawmakers may seek to undo cuts piece by piece. Carney did not say Friday that the president would attempt to block that approach.
Lawmakers tried Friday to place blame for the cuts on anyone but themselves.
"The administration has played shameful politics with sequestration at the expense of hard-working American families," Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) said in leading the floor debate in the House. "We're taking this step because of the gross mismanagement."
The No. 2 Democrat in the House, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, whose Maryland district includes many federal workers who are being furloughed, argued that preschool children, senior citizens, food safety inspectors and people relying on housing vouchers should also be spared. "Nothing in here for them," he thundered before voting against the deal. "We ought to help everyone else as well."
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), who stayed behind after lawmakers left Washington, suggested that Congress needed to repeal the sequester "not just for the air travelers but everybody around the country."
A Head Start center in her state has announced that it will have to shut down, she said.
Wes Venteicher in the Washington bureau and Times staff writer Hugo Martin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.