Congress passes plan to ease flight delays

WASHINGTON Fri Apr 26, 2013 4:43pm EDT

1 of 2. A long line of people line up for security at checkpoint before boarding their aircraft at Reagan National Airport in Washington, in this April 25, 2013 photograph. The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday unanimously approved a Senate plan to ease nationwide air-traffic delays caused by automatic federal spending cuts, seeking to calm an irritated traveling public as lawmakers themselves flew out of Washington for a week-long recess.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress on Friday approved a plan to ease nationwide air-traffic delays caused by federal spending cuts, seeking to calm irritated travelers but sparking a backlash from groups still being hit by budget cuts.

The Senate unanimously voted for the plan late Thursday and the House of Representatives approved it Friday by a 361-41 vote. White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama intends to sign the bill.

The legislation will give the Department of Transportation flexibility to use about $250 million in unspent funds to cover immediate salaries of air traffic controllers and other essential employees at the Federal Aviation Administration who had been furloughed.

Lawmakers hurried the bill through, eager to stem the growing wrath of the traveling public, which had dealt with significant take-off and landing delays since the furloughs started on Sunday.

They also had faced anger from airline CEOs whose companies had mounted a grassroots campaign through a website called dontgroundamerica.com, encouraging Americans to send messages to Congress and the White House.

Congressional approval of the air travel bill, barely four pages long, came as lawmakers prepared to fly out of Washington for a week-long recess. It was not clear how quickly the air delays would ease once the bill is enacted.

Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland chided fellow lawmakers for frantically pushing the bill through just before the break, making their upcoming travels easier. "They will pat themselves on the back and say job well done," said Van Hollen, who wanted to address more than just FAA furloughs.

The union representing the controllers was relieved. "After just one week of furloughs, it is abundantly clear that a fully staffed air traffic control workforce is necessary for our national airspace system to operate at full capacity," the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said.

BIPARTISAN WORK

The quick legislative action marked a surprising bipartisan effort, especially after many Republicans had accused the Obama administration of manipulating funds to maximize the impact of the broad budget cuts and thus make Republicans look bad as they pursue an aggressive deficit-reduction agenda.

The cuts, known as "sequestration," were originally hatched by Washington in 2011 as a way to force the White House and Congress to find an alternative budget deal rather than have spending cuts kick in automatically. But policymakers failed to reach such a deal earlier this year and the cuts went into effect on March 1.

Unless Congress comes up with a better spending plan for the next fiscal year, air traffic controllers potentially could find themselves back on furlough sometime after October 1, when a new round of automatic spending cuts is scheduled.

Nicholas Calio, head of Airlines for America representing the leading U.S. airline companies, praised Congress' action, adding, "The winners here are the customers who will be spared from lengthy and needless delays."

The companies might consider themselves winners, too, as they faced potential losses that could have climbed to millions of dollars a day in a worst-case scenario.

The move comes with the risk, though, of igniting lobbying campaigns to ease other program cuts triggered by sequestration.

Democrats complained the FAA legislation fails to prevent 70,000 poor children from losing pre-school education, 4 million fewer meals from being delivered to poor, elderly people and stop the grounding of some military air combat units.

"Let's deal with all the adverse cuts, not just those that affect the affluent traveling sector," said Representative Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat.

INTEREST GROUPS COMPLAIN

But conservative House Republicans have rejected moves to repeal or replace the automatic spending cuts. Earlier this week, Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, told reporters that those cuts marked "the first time we've saved money in Washington, D.C."

The cuts aimed to trim a total of $109 billion from federal spending through September of this year and affect a broad range of programs, from early education to medical research.

Some interest groups immediately cried foul at the FAA fix.

Cynthia Pellegrini, an executive at March of Dimes, a nonprofit that advocates for the health of mothers and babies, said she was troubled by Congress acting on a case-by-case basis.

"Over the next several months we feel there are going to be significant impacts on women, children and families," Pellegrini said in an interview. "This may not be as visible as longer lines at the airport. You can't see that a child's belly is emptier because her family couldn't get food assistance."

The U.S. Travel Association on Friday said it appreciated Congress' swift action but expressed concern that funds could be diverted from critical projects to upgrade airports.

The furloughs of air traffic controllers began this week, prompting traveler backlash at major hubs like those in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

Without the legislation, the FAA said it would have to furlough 47,000 employees for up to 11 days through September 30 in order to save $637 million that is required by the sequestration.

Of those 47,000 workers, almost 15,000 are full-time air traffic controllers or trainees.

While supporting the legislation, the White House on Friday said it falls short of broader action needed to address sequestration. "It would be good news for America's traveling public if Congress spares them the unnecessary delays," he told reporters.

Carney said lawmakers need to take additional steps to alleviate the impact felt beyond the airline industry from the cuts, such as among poorer elderly people, defense industry workers and others brought on by sequestration.

That, Carney said, could be accomplished through a long-term budget deal "that would replace the sequester altogether."

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Doug Palmer, Susan Heavey, Karen Jacobs and Alwyn Scott; Writing by Karey Van Hall; Editing by Bill Trott)

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Comments (29)
50cal wrote:
Your are the ones that caused it morons.

Apr 26, 2013 10:28am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Harry079 wrote:
“Carney said lawmakers need to take additional steps to alleviate the impact felt beyond the airline industry from the cuts, such as among poorer elderly people, defense industry workers and others brought on by sequestration.”

So Congress passes a bill and the President signs it that says if the Congress doesn’t act to pass a budget bill 18 months from the signing certain cuts will automatically go into effect and you can’t borrow any more money either.

The 18 months go by and Congress spends the entire debt increase and doesn’t pass a budget and the automatic spending cuts that THEY PASSED go into effect.

So what did Congress do to deal with their inaction? They temporarily suspended the debt limit until May 17. They AGAIN sign a Continuing Resolution to keep the government running. They passed the Budget Control Act of 2013 which AGAIN states that if they don’t pass a budget for 2014 that the President signs the Treasury can’t borrow any more money.

May 17th is right around the corner and most believe the Treasury can make to late July or August by using the “Extra Ordinary Measures” that Mr. Geitner used to steal up to $250 billion like on the last two or three debt limit battles.

Someone up there on the Hill should read the Budget Control Act of 2013 that they passed and the President signed because if they don’t it will make the Sequester look like an Easter Egg hunt on the White House lawn.

Apr 26, 2013 11:29am EDT  --  Report as abuse
usagadfly wrote:
I realize that inconvenient delays for business travelers and flight crews are an inconvenience, and that the Government ought to try to minimize inconvenience for its citizens. But the poor who are trying to eat on a newly reduced budget for food (via Food Stamps) and everything else with cuts throughout the direct social aid budgets, are just as inconvenienced.

What is the point of sequester if it does not hit the military, busily fighting wars without majority support for over 6 years, and planning new invasions for later this year, and the Republicans who are paying for it on the backs of the disenfranchised middle and working classes of this country? Not much of a compromise. Not much of a Government, and especially not much of a “Democratic” party.

What we need is a reasonable budget. Without any wars or foreign troop or naval deployments. And without any direct aid to hedge funds, investment banks and the otherwise unimportant depository institutions they own simply to ensure undeserved taxpayer bailout for their failed financial schemes. We do not need any tax money spent on either hedge funds or wars. We should let them both fail and cripple the institutions that placed them in lead position in our national interests. They are no friends of America, just parasites.

Apr 26, 2013 11:30am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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