By Joan Lowy
WASHINGTON — Under growing pressure, the Obama administration signaled Wednesday it might accept legislation eliminating Federal Aviation Administration furloughs blamed for lengthy delays affecting airline passengers, while leaving the rest of $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts in place.
The disclosure came as sentiment grew among Senate Democrats as well as Republicans for legislation to ease the impact of the cuts on the FAA, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held talks with key senators.
“I think there was a meeting of the minds” on steps to remedy the situation, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said after the meeting. He said he hoped for a resolution before the Senate begins a scheduled weeklong vacation at week’s end.
Said LaHood, “There are too many delays and common ordinary citizens are being affected.”
According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which is privy to FAA data, there were 5,800 flight delays across the country for the three-day period beginning Sunday, when the furloughs took effect. Some were caused by weather. The union said that compares with 2,500 delays for the same period a year ago.
At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said that if Congress “wants to address specifically the problems caused by the sequester with the FAA, we would be open to looking at that.
“But that would be a Band-Aid measure,” he added. “And it would not deal with the many other negative effects of the sequester, the kids kicked off of Head Start, the seniors who aren’t getting Meals on Wheels, and the up to three-quarter of a million of Americans who will lose their jobs or will not have jobs created for them.”
Officials estimate the FAA furloughs will save slightly more than $200 million through Sept. 30, a small fraction of the $85 billion in overall reductions that stem from across-the-board cuts, officially known as a sequester, that took effect in March.
Neither Rockefeller nor LaHood disclosed the terms of possible legislation.
Other senators in recent days have proposed giving the FAA flexibility in the rules governing its spending. Under a different suggestion, funds would be shifted from a federal grant program for airport improvements into the account that pays for air traffic controller salaries.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the other top Democrats have consistently expressed opposition to piecemeal legislation aimed at easing the impact of the spending cuts, a position that congressional officials say reflected the administration’s position.
But support for that view among Senate Democrats has eroded in recent days as airlines reported thousands of flight delays and industry executives pressed for a restoration of full funding for air traffic controllers.
“I think it’s better to do a big deal, but as we work toward that big deal we have to admit that there are some things that are very problematic,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who helped write legislation to give the FAA flexibility to switch money between accounts and permit full staffing by controllers. At least three other Democrats support the measure, which Klobuchar co-sponsored with Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota and several other GOP lawmakers. “This is a very simple bipartisan bill that fixes the problem,” Hoeven said, adding he had informed the White House of his plans.
Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, was joined at the meeting by Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the panel’s senior Republican, as well as LaHood and Michael Huerta, the FAA administrator.
Referring to the lawmakers, LaHood said he and Huerta “offered our apologies to them for the fact that we had not kept them informed about all of the things that we had been discussing. We talked about some fixes and we’ll see where it takes us.”
Echoing Carney’s remarks, he also said he had told Rockefeller and Thune “if there were a fix, the White House would consider it.”
It was not clear whether supporters of the legislation or of similar proposals could gain a vote in the Senate before Congress begins its vacation, and if so, what the prospects might be in the House.
Nor was it clear whether any FAA-related measure might include a provision to keep open smaller towers that the agency says might be closed as a result of the spending cuts, a provision that numerous lawmakers in both parties favor.
Democrats said it was unlikely any FAA bill would be expanded to offset the impact of the cuts on Head Start or other programs that draw more support from Democrats than Republicans.
Apart from the inconvenience caused by delays, some lawmakers have criticized Huerta, saying they were blindsided by the flight delays. Republicans have been particularly vocal.
Huerta got a public tongue-lashing during the day when he appeared before the House Appropriations Committee.
“You didn’t forewarn us this was coming. You didn’t ask advice about how we should handle it. This imperial attitude on the part of this administration — you are the latest example of it — is disgusting,” Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said.
Huerta said LaHood had warned at a news conference in February that the furloughs were coming and could create flight delays of up to 90 minutes.
He also said he had testified about them at a hearing before a different committee earlier over the winter.
“It’s fair to say the thing that captured the media’s attention was the” threatened closure of small towers, he added. “The furlough problem didn’t sink in with Congress and the public until recently.”