WASHINGTON — Republicans late Monday blocked a bipartisan Senate plan to end the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, making it increasingly likely Congress will be unable to resolve the legislative standoff before September.
Having resolved the federal debt crisis, Congress is expected to leave at the end of the week for its August recess. If that happens, lost revenue from uncollected airline ticket taxes could exceed $1.2 billion before lawmakers return to work a month later, senators said.
The Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House are at odds over proposals to cut rural air service subsidies and to change a federal labor rule to make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize. Unable to resolve their differences, the FAA's operating authority was allowed to expire at midnight on July 22.
The showdown began last month when the House passed a GOP bill to extend the FAA's operating authority that cut air service subsidies by $16.5 million. Democrats said the House was trying to impose policies that hadn't been negotiated with Senate and using the subsidies as leverage to force them to cut a deal on the labor issue. The labor provision is in a separate, long-term FAA funding bill.
On Monday, Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the committee that oversees the FAA, and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the senior Republican on the committee, floated a proposal to restore full operating authority to the FAA while cutting air service subsidies $71 million. The plan fell apart when Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said he would use parliamentary procedures to tie up the Senate in an effort to prevent a vote on the measure.
Hutchison questioned the logic of allowing a stalemate over relatively small savings in subsidy cuts to prevent the government from collecting many times that amount in revenues designated for the operation of the nation's air traffic system.
"This just does not make sense," Hutchison said.
The subsidies program was created after airlines were deregulated in 1978 to ensure continued air service on less profitable routes to remote communities. The program has grown to provide service to about 150 communities, from Muscle Shoals, Ala., to Pelican, Alaska, and costs about $200 million a year. Critics say the subsides are too high and some of the communities are within a reasonable drive from a hub airport.
Coburn told reporters earlier in the day he would block any bill to end the shutdown that doesn't eliminate air service subsidies for communities that are within 90 miles of a hub airport. The Rockefeller-Hutchison plan used a different formula for deciding which communities would be eliminated from the program.
The Rockefeller plan would spare subsidies for Morgantown, W.Va.; the GOP plan would eliminate them.
Later, Rockefeller sought a vote on a "clean" bill to end the shutdown that didn't include any subsidy cuts or other policy provisions. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, blocked the vote, saying he was concerned about the labor issue, although the bill didn't contain a labor provision.
The FAA's long-term operating authority expired in 2007. Since then, Congress has been unable to agree on a long-term funding plan. The agency has continued to operate under a series of 20 short-term extensions.
When the FAA's operating authority expired, airlines also lost their authority to collect the ticket taxes that provide the majority of the trust fund's revenue, costing the government an estimated $200 million a week.
The FAA has been forced to furlough nearly 4,000 employees and issue stop-work orders on more than 200 construction and other projects paid for with trust fund monies. Work on another $2.5 billion in airport construction grants has stopped because employees who handle the grants have been furloughed. Tens of thousands of private sector workers have been affected.
The agency has a budget of more than $16 billion this year and employs 47,000 people. Air traffic controllers have remained on the job. Administration officials have vowed that safety won't be compromised and travelers won't be inconvenienced.
But FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt revealed Monday that airport safety inspectors nationwide have been working without pay and shouldering travel expenses themselves since the shutdown began.
The 40 inspectors are in charge of regular checks covering runways, navigation aids and other systems at dozens of airports and airlines. A typical inspector may travel to five airports in a two-week period and rack up thousands of dollars in hotel and airline tickets, Babbitt said.
"We're asking for them to put the balance on their credit cards," he said. "It's not right to ask them to do that, it's just not."
Babbitt and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited New York's La Guardia airport, where work has stopped on a $6 million project to demolish an old control tower. The old tower blocks the view from a new control tower built a few hundred feet away.
Furloughed engineering technician Gerard Cook, who worked on the new tower, said the shutdown took employees off guard and many families were not prepared to go without paychecks. With a new month beginning, many will be struggling to pay their rent and other bills, he said.
"People think all government employees just sit behind a desk and push a pencil," said Cook, 40. "They don't realize we're out here in the manholes and the mud and the heat and the bugs, working hard."
Also Monday, Delta Air Lines said it will refund the ticket taxes charged for travel during the shutdown, although it's not yet clear when travelers will see the money.
The refunds will apply to people who bought their ticket before the shutdown began, but who traveled during the shutdown. People who bought their ticket after the shutdown began didn't pay the taxes anyway – although they paid higher fares instead.
Associated Press writer Chris Hawley in New York and AP Airlines writer Joshua Freed in Minneapolis contributed to this report.