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FAA Furloughs: Senators Call Airport Delays Political (UPDATE)

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WASHINGTON -- Senators moved Tuesday to give President Barack Obama options to ease growing air travel delays sparked by Congress' budget sequestration, charging that allowing the slowdown to hit the public is largely a political move.

The Federal Aviation Administration began furloughing flight controllers Monday to help save its share of the $85 billion in across-the-board cuts mandated by 2011's Budget Control Act, and delays have started spreading across the nation.

On Tuesday, the FAA issued a statement that "more than 1,200 delays in the system were attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough," as compared to about 1,400 delays resulting from weather or other factors.

Republicans charged Tuesday that the delays were unnecessary and that the White House wants the public to feel the pain of the congressional budget cuts.

"As a result of the administration's poor planning and, I would argue, political motives, thousands of people were stuck on tarmacs over the past few days," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "The FAA's mismanagement of this issue is a source of bipartisan frustration. Our goal here shouldn't be to score political points on the backs of weary travelers, it should be to fix the problem."

McConnell spoke on the Senate floor shortly after Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Republican Sen. Jerry Moran (Kansas) rolled out a bill to deal with another part of the FAA sequestration: looming cuts that would close nearly 150 air control towers at smaller landing fields in June.

The bipartisan pair wants the administration and the FAA to shift some money from one account to another to pay for the more vital services. And while they contend the White House already has the authority to do so, the administration has said it does not.

Moran said he has not gotten a good explanation for why not, and therefore suspects politics.

"It certainly has led to the speculation by many -- Republicans and Democrats -- that there is an effort afoot to try and demonstrate that the sequestration is something that is so painful that it cannot be accomplished without causing dramatic consequences," Moran said.

"It lends itself to the belief that there is something else afoot here -- trying to demonstrate in a political sense that sequestration is something the country cannot afford," Moran said. "Hard to attribute motive, but I would say that's the best explanation I have heard. I have no other."

Blumenthal said he takes the White House at its word, even if he thinks it can act.

"My hope is the administration will do administratively what we think it has the legal authority to do anyway," Blumenthal said. But he added that in case it can't act, his and Moran's legislation would help avoid a situation that he called "penny wise and pound foolish" because of the economic damage it could do.

"It is, long-term, a cost to the nation, and I think that all we're doing is enabling the administration to do what we think it can do right now, but says it can't," Blumenthal said.

He noted that if the smaller control towers are closed, it would put an additional burden on the larger towers where the FAA is furloughing workers and cutting back on shifts.

UPDATE: 5:10 p.m. -- More Republicans used a weekly press conference to hammer the furlough-caused airport delays again, calling them "intentional mismanagement" and a "manufactured crisis" akin to the ending of White House tours around spring break.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called out the GOP moments later, coming to the same mics to say there was an easy way to ease sequestration for the next five months -- by using the savings from winding down military operations overseas. Reid noted that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had offered such an idea before.

"We should do what was in one of the Ryan budgets. That is, use the overseas contingency fund to delay the implementation of sequestration," Reid said. "We're going to move to that later this afternoon."

Watch Reid and the Republicans below.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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