Updated: A tentative deal has been reached in Senate, see our new story.
The Senate halted efforts to legislate an immediate end to furloughs of air-traffic controllers, as delays blamed on staffing shortages continued at some of the largest U.S. airports.
The Senate won’t take up legislation before going on a recess that ends on May 6, said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Swelling flight delays since controllers began to be furloughed on April 21 have become the focus of the debate on mandatory spending cuts known as sequestration and fueled calls from airlines and airport operators for a solution.
Related: Check out all of Skift’s sequester coverage, here.
“Common sense tells all of us that this can’t go on,” Southwest Airlines Co. Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said in an interview today. “It does need a quick resolution.”
Senators Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, and Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, introduced a bill today to let the Federal Aviation Administration use airport-improvement funds to pay air-traffic controllers, as efforts accelerated to end flight delays caused by forced budget cuts.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, and South Dakota’s John Thune, the panel’s ranking Republican, worked on another proposal today that would have given the FAA more authority to move money around within its budget.
Jentleson said there isn’t enough time for lawmakers to complete their work before the recess, or for leaders of both parties to forge agreement on when to move it through.
“There’s not yet an agreement on which to vote, and a consensus on when to vote,” he said today.
The Senate is leaving Washington tonight and won’t return for more than a week.
The efforts to free up more money for the FAA comes as it and other government programs are being cut under the automatic budget cuts.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development is losing $938 million in its Housing Choice Voucher program, which will deny assistance to an estimated 140,000 low-income families seeking temporary housing, according to the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Head Start, an educational assistance program for poor children funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, is scheduled to cut 70,000 slots for preschoolers, the agency said. That’s triggered lotteries in Indiana for remaining positions in the program.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney yesterday said the Obama administration is willing to consider resolving the FAA’s budget woes separately from other agencies.
“If Congress wants to address specifically the problems caused by the sequester with the FAA, we would be open to looking at that,” Carney told reporters. “But that would be a Band-Aid measure.”
Collins said she’d discussed her approach with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who, she said, called it “an effective, workable solution.”
LaHood’s spokeswoman, Sasha Johnson, declined in an interview today to discuss the secretary’s conversations with lawmakers because they were private.
The House’s transportation leader said during a press briefing today he’s been “resisting” the Senate’s approach.
“We don’t need to spend one more penny on the FAA,” Representative Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said.
The FAA has the authority it needs to shift funds to limit controller furloughs, Shuster said.
“If the Senate produces something, we’ll take a look at it,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.
Thune, in an interview with Bloomberg Television, wouldn’t predict whether a bill would move in the Senate.
“We have put together what we think would be a solution to this problem, at least in the near term,” he said.
The proposal would give the FAA more authority to use other accounts to pay for air-traffic controllers, Thune said. Senators John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, and Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, have proposed similar legislation.
Of about 3,000 flight delays reported yesterday, at least 863 were due to staffing reductions in airport towers and regional facilities, the FAA said today in a statement. Among the cities affected were New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Dallas.
Some departures at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport were being delayed as much as 45 minutes because of staffing as of 4 p.m. local time, according to the FAA’s travel website.
“Other/staffing” was also cited at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty as some inbound flights were delayed an average of 2 hours, 18 minutes, and at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, where some arrivals were running about a half-hour late, the website showed. Late-afternoon delays at New York’s LaGuardia stemmed from wind and weather conditions, the FAA reported.
Other major U.S. airports were operating normally, according to the FAA website, which showed earlier today that staffing shortages slowed landings at Chicago’s O’Hare International, the nation’s second-busiest airport.
The American Association of Airport Executives, an Alexandria, Virginia-based trade group representing more than 5,000 airport operators and businesses, said today it would object to any plan that takes funds from airports to make up for budget cuts.
“AAAE is supportive of ending the controller furloughs caused by sequestration, but not by raiding the FAA’s capital account to pay for operating expenses,” President Todd Hauptli said in an e-mail.
The FAA gave $3.5 billion in grants to airports in its 2012 budget. That money, which comes from taxes on airline tickets and aviation fuel, is exempt from budget cuts under sequestration.
Huerta yesterday defended his decision to furlough about 10 percent of U.S. controllers, telling House appropriators he had no choice under government-wide budget cuts and that there will be “no effect on safety” for airline passengers.
“This is government not working when we’re sitting here holding the traveling public hostage in the midst of sequestration,” JetBlue Airways Corp. Chief Executive Officer Dave Barger said today, adding that he’s “encouraged” by efforts to resolve the issue.
Huerta testified that he must look to controller salaries as the FAA seeks $637 million in cuts. Seventy percent of the agency’s operating budget is in payroll, and 40 percent of that amount goes to air traffic controllers, he said.
Asked whether he could concentrate furloughs at less- congested airports, Huerta said the FAA has to avoid picking “winners and losers” among airlines by sparing larger hubs.
–With assistance from Mary Jane Credeur in Atlanta , Alan Levin, Kathleen Hunter, Peter Cook, Ellen Uchimiya and Bernard Kohn in Washington and Mary Schlangenstein and Ed Dufner in Dallas. Editors: Bernard Kohn, Elizabeth Wasserman
To contact the reporter on this story: Laura Litvan in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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