WASHINGTON -- As weary travelers endure flight cancellations and delays because of furloughed air traffic controllers, the White House signaled Wednesday that it might consider legislation that would give the Obama administration more flexibility over cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration budget while leaving the rest of the $85 billion in sequester cuts in place.
Democrats have resisted attempts to provide the administration with flexibility, saying that any cuts would be painful and that forcing President Barack Obama to decide where to slice would only set him up for blame.
Pressure increased after at least 5,800 flights were delayed in a three-day span beginning Sunday when FAA furloughs took effect. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said that compares with 2,500 delays for the same period a year ago.
Republicans on Wednesday accused the White House of manufacturing the air travel crisis for political gain. They said the administration could have prevented the furloughs but is purposely making painful cuts in order to inspire public support for increased spending.
"This recent round of furloughs is driven, not by the necessity of budget cuts, but political calculation and sheer incompetence along with the administration's desire to apparently maximize the pain on American taxpayers," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "It boggles the mind."
He said he supports allowing more flexibility that would allow the FAA to "take another look at [its] budget. Look at those piles of money that might be available to move around and avoid the furloughs and avoid the inconvenience ... to the air-traveling public."
White House spokesman Jay Carney agreed that allowing flexibility within only the FAA cuts "would be a Band-Aid measure" that would not fix other "negative effects of the sequester: the kids kicked off of Head Start, the seniors who aren't getting Meals on Wheels, and the up to three-quarter of a million of Americans who will lose their jobs or will not have jobs created for them."
Meanwhile on Wednesday, Republican Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and James Inhofe of Oklahoma reintroduced their plan to allow the president flexibility over all areas of the sequester.
"Let's give the president maximum flexibility," Mr. Toomey said. "The fact is, especially in a government that has grown this big, we can find the little tiny savings that are required in the sequester so that we don't have to do it in a disruptive way."
He said the White House rejected that flexibility and previously threatened to veto any bill that would have provided it.
Officials estimate that the FAA furloughs will save slightly more than $200 million through Sept. 30, a small fraction of the $85 billion in overall reductions that stem from across-the-board cuts, known as the sequester, that took effect in March.
Senate Democrats prefer to address all of the sequester cuts rather than look at departments one by one.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Wednesday advocated backfilling the sequester cuts with money from the overseas contingency operations account, which has a balance of about $600 billion. The funds, which are meant to be used in times of war, aren't needed because troops are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
Mr. Toomey mocked the proposal.
"Let me give an analogy. I can come down to the Senate floor and suggest I think it should be the policy of the United States that we absolutely not invade Canada and we not have a war with Canada. Imagine the money we would save if we don't go to war with Canada, so with all those savings let's go out and spend it because we've got this terrific savings," he said in a floor speech. Mr. Durbin's proposal "is absolutely no more meaningful than if I were to make that suggestion."
Mr. Durbin said Republicans characterized that fund differently when Sen. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., proposed tapping that fund in his budget proposal last year.
Democrats including Mr. Durbin and Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada have resisted a piecemeal approach to the sequester, preferring to address the cuts together, but support for that view has eroded in recent days as airlines reported thousands of flight delays and industry executives pressed for a restoration of full funding for air traffic controllers.
"I think it's better to do a big deal, but as we work toward that big deal we have to admit that there are some things that are very problematic," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who helped write legislation to give the FAA flexibility to switch money between accounts and permit full staffing by controllers.
At least three other Democrats support the measure, which Ms. Klobuchar co-sponsored with Republican Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota and several other GOP lawmakers.
"This is a very simple bipartisan bill that fixes the problem," Mr. Hoeven said, adding he had informed the White House of his plans.
It was not clear whether supporters of the legislation or of similar proposals would seek a vote before Congress begins a one-week vacation at the end of the week.
Nor was it clear whether any FAA-related measure might include a provision to keep open smaller towers that the agency says might be closed as a result of the spending cuts, a provision that numerous lawmakers in both parties favor.
Democrats said it was unlikely any FAA bill would be expanded to offset the impact of the cuts on Head Start or other programs that draw more support from Democrats than Republicans.
Apart from the inconvenience caused by delays, some lawmakers have criticized FAA administrator Michael Huerta, saying they were blindsided by the flight delays. Republicans have been particularly vocal.
Mr. Huerta got a public tongue-lashing during the day when he appeared before the House Appropriations Committee.
"You didn't forewarn us this was coming. You didn't advise us how to handle it. This imperial attitude on the part of this administration -- you are the latest example of it -- is disgusting," Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said.
Mr. Huerta said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had warned at a news conference in February that the furloughs were coming and could create flight delays of up to 90 minutes.
He also said he had testified about them at a hearing before a different committee earlier over the winter.
"It's fair to say the thing that captured the media's attention was the" threatened closure of small towers, he added. "The furlough problem didn't sink in with Congress and the public until recently."
The Associated Press contributed. Washington bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.