Two House Republicans are actively working to torpedo President Trump’s effort to separate air traffic control from the federal government, which would deliver a major blow to one of the administration’s chief infrastructure priorities.
Reps. Steve Russell (R-Okla.) and Ralph Abraham (R-La.), who say they agree with Trump about the need to modernize the country’s air navigation system, told The Hill on Tuesday that they have been explaining their concerns over the spinoff plan to colleagues, pointing out contentious bill language and trying move skeptical GOP lawmakers into the “no” column.
House leadership began whipping members last Thursday on a long-term reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which includes the privatization plan endorsed by Trump. A similar effort stalled last year amid opposition from both parties and was never brought to the House floor.
Similarly, GOP leaders are unlikely to bring it up this year unless they are confident it has enough votes to pass. A vote has not yet been scheduled, though amendments were due Monday.
“They were going to try to run it this week,” Russell said in a joint interview with Abraham in the Speaker’s lobby. “We were able to raise enough concern, just by showing [other lawmakers] language in the bill, that when they whipped the bill, they did not have enough votes to put it on the floor.”
It’s unclear how many Republicans oppose the plan at this point. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), an appropriator, and Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, are among those who have publicly come out against the idea.
Russell said he and Abraham have been lobbying colleagues to vote against the measure during in-office visits and vote series.
“We’ve not tried to unleash any midnight surprise. We’ve been very open and out front on where our positions were,” he said. “We tried to raise these concerns weeks ago. We had asked for a pause to address some of our issues. We asked the chairman, we asked leadership.”
“While they are appreciative and understand our concerns, they said, ‘We’re going to move on,’” he added.
Proponents of the spinoff proposal, meanwhile, are also scrambling to bring over lawmakers to their side.
Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) has been trying to whip up support during vote series; his office has been blasting out “dear colleague” letters and fact sheets about the plan; and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), a pilot, has been trying to assuage lawmakers worried about protecting the general aviation (GA) community.
The White House has also been doing outreach on Capitol Hill, which has involved making phone calls and sending high-ranking officials to sell wary members on the proposal.
Lawmakers are up against the clock, as the FAA’s legal authority expires at the end of September and the House is scheduled to leave town for the August recess at the end of next week.
There is a lot at stake for supporters of the spinoff plan.
If the full House votes on the legislation, it will be the first time that the majority of the chamber will be going on the record on the issue. A strong vote could send a clear message to the Senate, where lawmakers are moving ahead without the spinoff plan.
But a failure to bring the measure to the floor could doom the effort this year. The lower chamber is seen as Trump’s best shot for passing the proposal, as the Senate has remained largely opposed to the idea.
There is a broad range of opposition to the proposal, which would transfer the country’s air navigation system to a private, nonprofit corporation governed by a board of directors while keeping the FAA in charge of safety oversight.
Supporters say it will help speed up long-stalled modernization efforts at the agency, which still uses paper strips to track flights in some towers.
For Abraham, a pilot and rural lawmaker, his main concern is that general aviation users and small airports could loose access to the airspace, face higher fees or be inadequately represented under the spinoff model.
Graves, who voted against the proposal last year, worked with Shuster on legislative changes designed to better support the GA community, such as exempting all GA users from the new entity’s fees and ensuring a more diverse makeup on the board.
But Abraham said there was no guarantee that board members would vote to protect GA interests.
“They did a little, but not enough to really matter,” Abraham said. “This is the taxpayer’s airspace. We’re going to take that away and give it to a private corporation?”
Russell, who has a military background, said he maintains serious national security concerns about putting a nongovernmental agency in charge of air traffic control and removing it from congressional oversight.
“There are a few things that you would never let go: National defense, national intelligence and our national air space,” he said.
But Shuster’s office has emphasized that the federal government would still maintain responsibility over those areas, and pointed out that Defense Secretary James Mattis has even supported the effort.
“The new entity will provide a service, nothing more,” a backgrounder says.