As more commercial airline flights were delayed on Wednesday, members of both parties in the Congress urged an end to the furloughs of air traffic controllers, as Senate Democrats and the Obama Administration indicated support for some kind of fix at the FAA.
“If Congress wants to address specifically the problems caused by the sequester with the FAA, we would be open to looking at that,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
“There are too many delays,” acknowledged Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who met with key Senators about the issue, and reportedly apologized to lawmakers for how the furloughs have been handled, signaling a distinct change by the White House, which just last month opposed a bipartisan bid in Congress to give the FAA more budget flexibility.
“Why is a 4 percent cut in FAA spending causing delays to 40% of flights?” asked Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), as Republicans spent yet another day on the attack, again arguing that cuts can be made in other areas than air traffic controllers.
The lead paragraphs of the day’s story from the Associated Press showed that the political impact of these sequester-induced flight delays did not seem to be breaking clearly in favor of the President:
Under pressure, the White House signaled Wednesday it might accept legislation eliminating Federal Aviation Administration furloughs blamed for lengthy flight delays for 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, possibly by loosening restrictions on agency spending.
In a further reflection of congressional concern, the senior members of the Senate Commerce Committee met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta to consider possible ways to eliminate the delays.
In Congress, some rank-in-file Democrats were already moving ahead with their own three page bill to end the threat of further flight delays by giving more budget leeway to the FAA, but not addressing the rest of the sequester.
“It is better to do a big deal,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) of the sequester. “But as we work toward it, we have to admit that some things are very problematic,” referring to the flight delays.
The plan unveiled by Klobuchar and other Senators from both parties, known as the “Dependable Air Services Act,” would allow the FAA to get an infusion of money from within the Department of Transportation, which is the umbrella agency for the FAA; the plan would simply allow money to be transferred from other DOT programs to the FAA to reduce or eliminate furlough days entirely.
That exact idea had been suggested earlier in the day at a hearing with the FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who repeatedly stood his ground as Republicans made clear the FAA had never asked for any budget help to avoid these furloughs.
Huerta sparred several times with Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), the Chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, who mocked the insistence of the FAA chief that everyone should have known these flight delays were coming.
“We told them that they should expect significant impacts at major hub facilities,” Huerta said.
“Well, la te da,” Rogers replied dismissively. “Everybody knew that,” as Rogers raked Huerta over the coals for not even giving Congress advance notice that the furlough plans for air traffic controllers were beginning on Sunday.
“You didn’t forewarn us that this was coming,” said Rogers, who as Appropriations Committee Chairman, is not exactly the guy you want to make into an enemy.
Later on, Rogers got the FAA Administrator to admit that the details of furlough plans for air traffic controllers weren’t even relayed to airlines and airports until just last week; Huerta admitted the airlines were not pleased.
“They expressed great concern,” said Huerta.
If the Congress is going to act to ease furloughs for air traffic controllers, it probably has to wait until May, because the Congress is on break next week.
Finally, as with the fight over the sequester from back in late February and early March, there is no sense in the halls of Congress that Republicans are cracking under political pressure over these automatic budget cuts.
Instead, there is the distinct feeling that Republicans are very comfortable with their argument that something needs to be cut, that there must be priorities in the federal budget.
That was clear in another Wednesday hearing, this one on the agency that is responsible for implementing the Obama health reform law, as the official in charge was asked whether he was facing any furloughs.
The answer was no – and it didn’t please Rep. Gregg Harper (R-MS).
“This administration is furloughing air traffic controllers, vital to public safety in this nation, and yet – you’re not furloughing anyone in your agency?” Harper asked with more than enough disgust in his voice.
When the answer was that the office was still facing a hiring freeze, Harper quickly jumped back in the conversation.
“That’s not the same,” he said.
It was just another example of how the automatic budget cuts have hit differently at just about every federal agency and department.