WASHINGTON -- The Senate narrowly averted another shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration Thursday, passing a temporary funding bill that Democrats saw as evidence Republicans are feeling heat from the public over obstructionist tactics.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) had threatened to block the bill after the GOP-led House added it to a larger temporary extension of highway funding that was set to expire on Friday.
Coburn argued that the part of the highway bill that funds road beautification was wasteful pork, and wanted it stripped. Ultimately, he settled for an agreement to let states shift that money to nuts and bolts repair projects when the long-term highway bill comes up. The short-term bill passed easily, 92 to 6.
If he hadn't backed down, it could have brought flashbacks to the unpopular three-week FAA closure last month that halted numerous construction projects and put some 70,000 people out of work. It also cost the government about $200 million a week in lost tax revenue -- and that was all after the public was already angry over the the near default brought on by the battle over raising the nation's debt limit.
A Bloomberg poll released Thursday found that the public is laying the bulk of the blame for such governmental gridlock on the GOP, with some 45 percent of Americans saying so.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) argued that GOP leaders were beginning to understand that.
"The public sent a message after the debt-ceiling debate. They said they didn't want brinksmanship. We're beginning to see that," Schumer said, noting that the House sent the FAA and highway bills over without adding any poison pills or dramatic cuts.
"The American public has said stop fighting all the time," Schumer said before the vote. "This is a classic example of what they don't like."
Although Coburn backed down, Schumer argued that GOP leaders need to do a better job reining in lawmakers like Coburn and Tea Party leaders like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
"If the Republican leader were to say to Tom Coburn, 'I am not giving you the votes, you don't have 40 other colleagues to go with you,' he would stop doing these things," Schumer said. "But every time a Sen. Coburn or a Sen. DeMint wants to hold everything up, they have the tacit backing of his party and his leadership, so they're all holding this up in a certain sense."
"The brinksmanship that they exercised on the debt ceiling and the negative reaction to it seems to have given them second thoughts," he added.
Some Republicans, including Sen. Kay Baily Hutchinson (R-Texas), had already complained about the cantankerous Oklahoman, arguing that Coburn could not require all 99 other senators to accept his personal objections.
A spokesman for Coburn argued that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) should have taken Coburn up on his proposal to split the FAA bill from the highway measure.
"Sen. Reid just objected to a clean extension of the FAA bill Dr. Coburn offered," spokesman John Hart said. "Reid alone has decided to use the FAA bill to guarantee funding for ludicrous transportation enhancements in Nevada and other states that divert funds away from bridge repair and public safety."
"Reid is forcing drivers in his state to cross 208 structurally deficient bridges while protecting funding for squirrel sanctuaries, coffee pot museums and other beautification projects that have nothing to do with public safety," Hart said.
However, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) noted that separating the bills would require the House to pass them again, and that would have missed the deadline, sparking another ugly shutdown.