In a shift, first the White House and then senior Democratic lawmakers have signaled a willingness in the past two days to support legislation that alleviates the budget crunch at the FAA, while leaving the balance of the $85 billion to remain in effect.
Obama favors a comprehensive agreement that replaces the entire $85 billion in across-the-board cuts as part of a broader deficit-reduction deal that includes higher taxes and spending cuts.
One Senate Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, noted that without the type of comprehensive deficit deal that Obama favors, a bill that eases the spending crunch at the FAA would inevitably be followed by other single-issue measures. She listed funding at the National Institutes of Health as one example, and cuts that cause furloughs of civilians who work at military hospitals as a second.
At the same time, Democratic aides said resolve had crumbled under the weight of widespread delays for the traveling public and pressure from the airlines.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., involved in the discussions, said the issue was big enough so “most people want to find a solution as long as it doesn’t spend any more money.”
Officials estimate it would cost slightly more than $200 million to restore air traffic controllers to full staffing, and another $50 million to keep open smaller air traffic towers around the country that the FAA has proposed closing.
Across the Capitol, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., said, “We’re willing to look at what the Senate’s going to propose.”
He said he believes the FAA has the authority it needs under existing law to shift funds and end the furloughs of air traffic controllers, and any legislation should be “very, very limited” and direct the agency to use the flexibility it already has.
In a reflection of the political undercurrents, another House Republican, Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma, said FAA employees “are being used as pawns by this (Obama) administration to be able to implement the maximum amount of pain on the American people when it does not have to be this way.”
The White House and congressional Democrats vociferously dispute such claims.