By Richard Cowan
(Reuters) – U.S. Senate leaders are looking at ways to alleviate widespread airline flight delays – brought about by last month’s automatic federal spending cuts – with legislation that could be voted upon as early as Thursday, a Senate aide said.
The legislation could be attached to an unrelated Internet sales tax bill currently being debated in the Senate, according to the aide. One possible approach could be a measure that would give the Federal Aviation Administration flexibility to transfer existing funds within the agency’s budget so that air traffic controllers’ salaries can be fully paid.
That would eliminate the need for furloughs of controllers, which have begun due to automatic spending cuts that started in March. Any Senate legislation also would have to be passed by the House of Representatives, where its prospects are uncertain.
According to the Senate aide, the White House is open to Congress dealing promptly with the FAA’s funding problem. But the aide said that no decisions had yet been finalized on how to move an FAA measure forward quickly.
The House will await action in the Senate before deciding on how it would handle any legislation to avert further airline delays, according to a Republican leadership aide.
The early Senate plan adds to other legislative proposals that have been floated in the past week as the furloughs started and passengers grew increasingly irritated with delays at major hubs like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Lawmakers, the White House, airlines, and the FAA have all engaged in finger-pointing, and some are scrambling for a fix ahead of next week’s congressional recess.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday proposed replacing the budget reductions by claiming savings from the decrease of war spending, but congressional Republicans have rejected the proposal, saying counting war savings is an accounting gimmick.
Senators John Hoeven, a Republican from North Dakota, and Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, and a handful of other senators on Wednesday introduced their own legislation that would give the Department of Transportation the flexibility to move around funds to pay air traffic controllers. It is not clear how much support that bill will get.
Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine on Thursday said she and Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado are introducing what appears to be similar legislation.
While Republicans are joining the effort for a quick fix for the air traffic controllers, many have been skeptical about whether the White House and FAA are taking advantage of flexibility they already have.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of maximizing the disruptions to try to shift budget blame on Republicans – an allegation the administration has denied.
A congressional aide involved in the original automatic spending cut legislation that was enacted in August 2011 told Reuters that the administration cannot under the law shift money from outside accounts to fund the air traffic controller account.
The FAA has said it will 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,” automatic spending cuts that started on March 1 for most federal agencies.
Of those 47,000 workers, nearly 13,000 are air traffic controllers.
Airlines, many of which are reporting earnings this week, have pushed the government to quickly ease the flight delays caused by the furloughs.
Jeff Smisek, chairman and chief executive of United Continental Holdings Inc, said that in the meantime, his company’s network operations center is working around the clock to minimize the impact of fewer controllers.
“We are disappointed that the FAA chose this path, that maximizes customer disruptions and damage to airlines instead of choosing a less disruptive method to comply with the budget obligations,” Smisek said on a conference call on Thursday.
The top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee met on Wednesday with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to discuss what steps Congress could take to provide the FAA with the flexibility it needs to cancel the furloughs.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, and Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, are currently considering “a few options” that came out of that conversation, but are not ready to discuss details yet, a congressional aide said.
If a fix were to pass the Senate, it is not clear how the House would respond, especially if it is attached to the Internet sales tax bill, which has faced fierce opposition from many online merchants, including eBay Inc and Overstock.com Inc.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte has expressed reservations with the Internet sales tax bill and some conservatives have called for hearings. His panel has jurisdiction over the measure.
The House potentially could vote on an FAA budget fix in a different way, however, unrelated to the Internet sales tax bill.