Obama signs FAA bill, ends standoff
Employees could be back to work by Monday
The Associated Press
Posted: Aug 5, 2011 12:20 PM ET
Last Updated: Aug 5, 2011 7:07 PM ET
The U.S. Senate approved legislation Friday ending a two-week partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. President Barack Obama signed it into law, clearing the way for thousands of employees to return to work.
Employing the so-called unanimous consent procedure, which took less than 30 seconds, two senators were present to approve a House-passed bill extending the FAA's operating authority through mid-September. The remaining members of Congress began their August recess earlier this week.
Obama's signature means nearly 4,000 furloughed FAA employees can return to work as soon as Monday. The shutdown has cost the government about $400 million in uncollected airline ticket taxes and idled hundreds of airport construction projects.
"This impasse was an unnecessary strain on local economies across the country at a time when we can't allow politics to get in the way of our economic recovery," Obama said in a statement.
A bipartisan compromise reached Thursday cleared the way for Senate passage of the House bill, which includes a provision eliminating $16.5 million in air service subsidies to 13 rural communities. But the bill also includes language that gives Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood the authority to continue subsidized service to the 13 communities if he decides it's necessary.
Republicans had insisted on the subsidy cuts as their price for restoring the FAA to full operation. Democrats said they expect the administration to effectively waive or negate the cuts.
Deal puts 74,000 back to work
The shutdown began when much of Washington was transfixed by the stalemate over increasing the government's debt limit. During that time, the FAA sent home some workers in what's called a furlough, but kept air traffic controllers and most safety inspectors on the job.
Forty airport safety inspectors worked without pay, picking up their own travel expenses. Some 70,000 workers on construction-related jobs on airport projects were idled as the FAA couldn't pay for the work.
But airline passengers in the busy travel season hardly noticed any changes. Airlines continued to work as normal, but they were no longer authorized to collect federal ticket taxes at a rate of $30 million a day. For a few lucky ticket buyers, prices dropped. But for most, nothing changed because airlines raised their base prices to match the tax. Some passengers will now be eligible for tax refunds.
As the debt ceiling crisis passed and Congress began to leave town without resolving the standoff, Obama spoke out Wednesday and LaHood urged Congress to return to Washington to deal with the issues. Obama expressed dismay that Congress would allow up to $1.2 billion in tax revenue to go out the door — the amount that could have been lost by the time legislators would have returned in September.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid announced the deal Thursday afternoon, saying it would put 74,000 transportation and construction workers back to work.
The partisan standoff that led to the shutdown began last month when Representative John Mica, a Republican from Florida and the chairman of the House transportation and infrastructure committee, signalled his intention to attach the subsidy cuts to a bill to extend the FAA's operating authority through mid-September. The agency has been operating under a series of 20 short-term extensions since 2007, when the last long-term FAA funding bill expired.
Senate Democrats complained that Republicans were breaking with precedent by using an extension bill to enact policy changes that hadn't been agreed upon. Even Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas called the measure a "procedural hand grenade." Senators refused to pass the House bill, saying to do so would be giving into legislative blackmail and inviting Republicans to up the ante on the next extension bill.
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