Congress acts to stop air traffic controller furloughs

In the first big legislative battle over $85 billion in automatic budget cuts from the sequester, the Senate on Thursday night approved a plan to stop furloughs of air traffic controllers, as lawmakers in both parties joined to make sure air travelers weren’t slowed by long delays in the skies.

“Something rare has happened in Washington,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), “the Senate came together on a bipartisan basis.”

“We should not allow sequestration to cripple travel, tourism, business and commerce,” said Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), who joined in backing a plan that gives more budget flexibility to the FAA.

The three page bill, which can be seen here, gives the Secretary of Transportation more leeway to move money around for the FAA.

The plan allows no more than $253 million to be shifted into the FAA Operations budget, to end furloughs of air traffic controllers – but this plan evidently will not keep open 149 air traffic control towers at smaller airports that had been targeted for closure.

The FAA has said the controller furloughs would save $220 million through the end of September.

An important point to reinforce here – the end of the air traffic controller furloughs would be achieved by moving around existing resources in the Department of Transportation, not by spending new money.

“It’s nice to know that when we work together we really can solve problems,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).

While approval of the plan was certainly a victory for bipartisanship in the Senate, it also seemed like a setback of sorts for Democratic leaders in Congress and the White House on the sequester.

For months, Democrats have been warning of how automatic budget cuts would cost thousands of jobs and cause economic havoc, while Republicans have argued that federal agencies just need to prioritize their budgets more and cut elsewhere to save high profile programs.

And so, instead of watching Republicans buckle under the pressure of long flight delays this week, it was Democrats who went – in just a few days – from ruling out any budget changes for the FAA to rushing a plan through the Senate before lawmakers left on a one week vacation.

“We cannot and we should not only address the FAA cuts,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declared on Monday, echoing the White House call to deal with all of the $85 billion sequester, not just one piece.

But three days later, Sen. Reid was back on the Senate floor making sure this FAA fix was approved.

As for Republicans, they seemed emboldened by this week’s battle over the sequester, as they argued that the furloughs of air traffic controllers were a concerted effort by the Obama Administration to show that automatic budget cuts were finally causing problems.

On Thursday, GOP lawmakers doubled down on their accusations, saying they had whistleblowers inside the FAA who would testify that it was a political effort to cause delays, and that there was plenty of money to move around to prevent furloughs for air traffic controllers.

Basically – this plan approved by Senators is what members in both parties wanted to do six weeks ago on FAA funding, but it was opposed by the President, who threatened to veto it.

Also figuring into the mix was that while the delays prompted a lot of concern in the Congress, the actual number of delayed flights shrank each day.

On Monday, the FAA said there were over 1,200 delays; that dropped to over 1,025 on Tuesday, and then to 836 on Wednesday.

Most of the airports hit by the delays this week were in urban areas that have more Democratic votes, like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago.

The outcome was also another signal to the White House and Democrats that Congress seems very unlikely to wipe away the sequester before the 2014 budget year kicks in.