08/11/2011 05:31 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2011

FAA Funding Hinges On Partisan Fight Over Unions

WASHINGTON -- The clock is ticking for Congress to come up with a way to prevent another embarrassing shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Lawmakers have more than a month to go until funding runs out for the FAA. But with Congress only in session for one week of that month, and with lawmakers no closer to overcoming the same political disputes that partially closed the agency in July and left tens of thousands without paychecks, some Hill aides are starting to get nervous about the prospect of another shutdown.

"The FAA is going to expire on Sept. 16. That's in four weeks. The next three weeks are vacation," said a senior Democratic aide close to FAA negotiations. "We definitely have a problem."

Despite months of talks, House and Senate negotiators last month failed to reach a deal to continue FAA funding, a debacle that left 4,000 FAA employees furloughed and 70,000 construction workers without work for nearly two weeks. The government also lost about $360 million amid the ordeal, as the FAA was unable to collect tax revenue on airline tickets. Congressional leaders ultimately came up with a temporary fix to keep the agency fully running through Sept. 16, a deadline that lands roughly a week after lawmakers return from their month-long recess on Sept. 7.

Talks have been taking place quietly during the recess, aides say, but they have yet to yield any movement. And while a handful of disputes have dogged progress on a deal -- among them, subsidies for rural airports and whether to add more slots for long-distance flights to Washington Reagan National Airport -- at this stage, the real impasse boils down to one issue: unions.

"If that could get resolved, everything else would fall into place," said a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

Essentially, Republicans are pushing for language in the bill that would reverse new rules by the National Mediation Board (NMB) regarding the way aviation workers' votes are counted in union representation elections. The only real effect of the GOP language would be that one airline, Delta, would be able to prevent its employees from unionizing. Unlike Delta, most other major airlines are already unionized and wouldn't be impacted by the provision.

Democrats say the union issue has nothing to do with FAA reauthorization and warn that President Barack Obama has already said he would veto the bill if it includes the provision.

“This FAA bill would be done and signed into law by now if the House was willing to actually negotiate and had an interest in reaching a deal," said Vincent Morris, a spokesman for Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

"We’ve found common ground on hundreds of differences and can easily sort out the few remaining sticking points we have on funding levels, slots and rural airports," Morris said. "But clearly the NMB issue should be off the table, partly because it is totally unrelated to the aviation industry, but also because it can’t pass the Senate and the White House has made it clear that undermining worker rights is not good policy. I wish the House wanted to get this done."

House Republicans maintain that the union provision, along with a handful of less toxic issues that still need resolution, must be on the table in negotiations or there will be no deal.

"I would hope that everyone in Congress would not say something can't be done because of the president's position," said Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

"The chairman would rather that everyone work together to try to resolve the issues, including that one," Harclerode said. "He's been willing to work on every single pending issue."

Harclerode also pushed back on the idea that the union provision is solely for the benefit of Delta.

"The airline may support the House position, but it was not done for Delta," he said. Mica and other House Republicans said they think the NMB rules change was "far-reaching" and it "falls under purview of Congress" to reverse it.

As the union fight drags out, FAA funding continues to hang in the balance. And frustrations over the failed state of negotiations are clearly running high.

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats fired off a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), blaming his unwillingness to appoint House conferees to negotiate with the Senate as the "main obstacle" to a deal. By contrast, the letter states, the Senate named its negotiators more than 120 days ago.

"These Senators are eager to negotiate in earnest, but their House counterparts have not been named more than 4 months after the House passed their FAA bill," reads the letter. "The lack of conferees from the House is the main obstacle standing in the way of Congress' ability to produce a bipartisan, long-term, extension of the FAA."

"We encourage you to use your authority to appoint House conferees during the pro-forma session so that we may resolve our issues and put Americans back to work," the letter concludes.

Democrats who signed the letter include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Sens. Rockefeller, Max Baucus (Mont.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Maria Cantwell (Wash.).

A Boehner spokesman countered that the solution isn't about conferees, but about Democrats not being willing to compromise on the mix of policy provisions Republicans want in the bill.

"The main obstacle to completing work on a long-term FAA bill is the unwillingness of Senate Democrats to find consensus on a small host of issues, not the appointment of conferees," said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck.

"Despite ongoing discussions for months," he said, "Senate Democrats have refused to negotiate in good faith and find middle ground on which all parties can agree."