WASHINGTON D.C. – The White House and Democrats in Congress argued for months against a piecemeal fix to the budget problems caused by the sequester.
But on Thursday, Democrats caved in and agreed to allow the Federal Aviation Administration to keep air traffic control towers running at close to full capacity.
All it took was a few thousand people standing in line at the airport.
The Senate approved a deal late Thursday to ease the FAA’s burden following negotiations among both parties and the White House. The House is expected to take up the bill Friday, just before the congressional weeklong recess, so President Barack Obama can sign it.
While travelers may be relieved, some Democrats worry about saving the FAA while letting other domestic programs across the government suffer under the automatic budget cuts.
â€œI doubt the most disadvantaged citizens are flying on commercial aircraft,â€ said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who called piecemeal solutions â€œsequester budget Whac-A-Mole.â€
Sounding a similar theme, top House aviation Democrat Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) lamented on C-SPAN that â€œno 3- or 4-year-old is going to call my office and say, â€˜Iâ€™ve been kicked out of Head Start, replace that money.â€™â€
Democrats admit that itâ€™s not the approach they wanted â€” but it’s one they may have to live with before thereâ€™s a revolt from the flying public.
â€œWeâ€™re just fooling ourselves if we think that we are doing the American people any favor by not finding a real solution,â€ said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was nonetheless open to a fix that would move money from other Transportation Department accounts to shore up the FAA. â€œA real solution is to go to the table and to have a reconciliation of the budget.â€
The Senate’s fix may be good news for travelers, White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement Thursday night, but it’s “no more than a temporary Band-Aid that fails to address the overarching threat to our economy posed by the sequester’s mindless across-the-board cuts.”
â€œWe hope Congress will find the same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation to help the families who have had children kicked out of Head Start, the seniors who have lost access to Meals on Wheels, the hard-working employees who have been laid off due [to] defense cuts, and the 750,000 Americans who have lost a job or won’t find one because of the sequester by acting on a balanced deficit reduction plan like the one the president has proposed,â€ Carney added.
Hope isn’t a negotiating strategy, however. And for two months, the Obama administration had been banking on public angst about gridlock in the skies to get Republicans back to the table on the across-the-board cuts that took effect March 1.
Furloughs of 15,000 air traffic controllers and shutdowns of dozens of control towers would create a â€œcalamityâ€ for air traffic, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned in a White House appearance in February, painting a scenario of flight delays and cancellations that would hit vacationing families and business travelers alike.
Those furloughs finally began hitting airports and airlines on Sunday. But Republicans say the administration was bluffing all along.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has repeatedly called the air traffic problems the administration’s own creation, said Democrats’ pressure tactics from the start were “a bad strategy.”
GOP lawmakers have charged that the FAA was implementing its cuts in a way designed to maximize the pain for the public. In a letter to LaHood on Thursday, leading House Republicans Darrell Issa and Bill Shuster alleged that â€œat least some senior FAA officials believe that the agency has both the resources and the budgetary flexibility to avoid the furloughs.â€
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) called the aviation cuts a â€œmanufactured problemâ€ intended to throw cold water on attempts to rein in spending.
The administrationâ€™s strategy was â€œdesigned to send a message to the American people that they better beat on the doors of their congressmen and women and say, â€˜We canâ€™t afford to reduce the increase in spending,â€™â€ Moran said. Moran had unsuccessfully pushed an amendment in March that would have prevented air traffic control towers from being closed, but he said LaHood told him the administration was opposed to such a one-off deal.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) told POLITICO that he thinks the administration’s apparent change of heart is because of “the pressure of the American people that are inconvenienced.”
“I think this actually is good that we might be able to find a resolution on this one piece,” he said.
Complicating the Obama strategy, the effects of the cuts took longer to reach the airports than the administration had foretold. Airlines didnâ€™t start to suspend or cancel flights â€œwithin the next 30 days,â€ as LaHood had predicted Feb. 22, and little evidence emerged to back up Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitanoâ€™s statement March 4 that security lines at some international ports of entry were already â€œ150 to 200 percent as long as we would normally expect.â€
Even after the FAA began furloughing air traffic controllers on Sunday, the immediate results were less than the doomsday scenario that LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta had rolled out last week â€” that each day would see approximately 6,700 flights delayed, even in clear weather. That figure is more than twice as bad as the worst day in 2012.
Instead, the FAA said 1,200 flights were delayed because of budget cuts on Monday, falling to 1,023 on Tuesday and an estimated 900 on Wednesday. That could tick up again, considering that Friday is another typically busy travel day â€” and LaHood and others warn that the worst is yet to come as the busy summer travel season approaches.
But the industry group Airlines for America has suggested that the FAA may be underestimating the full impact of the sequester-related work shortages. On Wednesday night the group issued a terse statement with its own delay figures, saying the agency is making a subjective judgment about which delays are resulting “substantially” from staffing as opposed to normal factors like weather.
Delays at major airports have mainly struck the New York area as well as some other pockets in the country, including sporadic reports of hour-long waits or longer in the Washington, D.C., area, as well as Philadelphia, Miami, Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicagoâ€™s Oâ€™Hare, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Sunday nightâ€™s delays were a reported three hours or longer at LAX, though those were also worsened by bad weather.
On the other hand, Coburn questioned how bad the cuts really are, saying in a letter to LaHood that the FAA appears to be “doing its best to ensure that sequestration is the scapegoat for every flight delay for the rest of the year.” He pointed out that on Monday, reports of furlough impacts were “mixed. Some found drastic flight delays; however, National Public Radio reported that there were no noticeable delays.”
On Monday and Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was still insisting that any deal should replace all the budget cuts, and he explicitly said he did not want a piecemeal solution.
He introduced a bill that would â€œbuy downâ€ the first five months of the sequester by using money saved from drawing troops out of Afghanistan. That bill is still pending, though it would likely require a cloture vote to move forward.
The deal the Senate approved Thursday night looked much different from what Reid had proposed. The bill would allow the Department of Transportation to shift $253 million in funds to the FAAâ€™s operations account to prevent the worst of the sequesterâ€™s aviation pain, at least until the next fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
â€œTonight we worked together in the Senate to avoid total gridlock in our aviation system and avert the real harm that rampant delays would cause to our economy and jobs,â€ said Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who worked with Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) to hammer out the compromise measure that cleared the Senate by unanimous consent around 8:30 p.m. Thursday.
Rockefeller and Thune had spent the day trying to work out a deal that would also have offered relief for 149 air traffic control towers that are set to lose their federal funding June 15. But that part didn’t make it into the bill.
â€œThis does not fix all of the problems the FAA faces because of budget cuts, especially for contract towers in rural communities,” Rockefeller said. “And it does nothing for other essential government operations and employees that also desperately need relief. But it’s a start, and I’m committed to keep working on more solutions.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cheered the bill for its exclusion of any tax increases or what the GOP would consider budgetary shenanigans.
â€œRepublicans have long said that the way to address these issues is through smarter cuts â€” not tax hikes or phony savings. And thatâ€™s what this legislation does,â€ McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said.
The deal didn’t address Democratsâ€™ larger demands about preserving the safety net or making the rich pay more. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has warned that the sequesterâ€™s cuts could wipe out 750,000 jobs by the end of the year.
Before the deal came together, some Democrats appeared to be of two minds about a compromise.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations panel in charge of transportation, said she was â€œwilling to listen to people that are concerned about the immediate impactâ€ of the sequester, including those related to flight delays. But she reeled off a list of other people sheâ€™s encountered who are burdened by the cuts, including Head Start families â€œwho have lost their slots and are in tears,â€ and furloughed workers who â€œdonâ€™t know how they are going to pay their mortgage.â€
â€œIf we try to manage this crisis by crisis, somebodyâ€™s going to be left out and we are not going to solve the bigger problem,â€ Murray said.
“We’re not going to be able to keep doing” piecemeal fixes, said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). She added, “These things are going to keep coming up. But at some point we have to admit the best thing is to find another $2 trillion or whatever it is in debt reduction by working on revenue and closing some loopholes.”
Adam Snider contributed to this report.