U.S. House OKs bill ending air traffic controller furloughs

Problems stemming from government sequester remain

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WASHINGTON -- The House Friday quickly gave its stamp of approval to a Senate plan to end furloughs of air traffic controllers and alleviate infuriated travelers' frustrations from canceled and delayed flights that plagued airports this week.

A day after the Senate's unanimous approval, the House Friday voted 361-41 to provide more flexibility over where to make cuts required by the government sequester. The bill allows the Federal Aviation Administration to use up to $253 million from capital improvements and other accounts in order to end the furloughs at least through Sept. 30.

All members of the Pennsylvania delegation voted in favor.

"We're not spending one penny more. All the money is there already; it's just being redirected," said House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Blair.

Republicans said the administration already had the authority to restructure the spending reductions but instead made more painful cuts that would help advance Democrats' tax-and-spend agenda. The new legislation clarifies that flexibility, Republicans said.

"This legislation ensures beyond a shadow of a doubt that the agency now has more than enough capacity to end air traffic control furloughs, stop the pain for the traveling public and protect the economy," Mr. Shuster said.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, blamed President Barack Obama and the Federal Aviation Administration for furloughing air traffic controllers instead of making cuts that would have caused less disruption.

"The president has an obligation to implement these cuts in a way that respects the American people, rather than using them for political leverage," Mr. Boehner said in a statement Friday.

Airports were among the first places many Americans began to feel the effects of the sequester cuts, but it may not be the last flashpoint as other federal departments furlough employees and cut back spending.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. -- who has been pressing for more flexibility in all areas of the sequester -- said the effects of other cuts might turn out to be painful enough to inspire Congress to address flexibility in other budget areas one by one.

Democrats, though, have been wary of a piecemeal approach to the sequester, which had been intended to be painful in order to inspire agreement on a broad and lasting alternative spending plan.

"If this is an example of governance -- that the Republicans will next come up with something else and say we should exempt that -- well, why don't we just get rid of the problem?" House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a floor speech. "This is not the way Congress should be meeting the needs of the American people."

Mr. Shuster said the FAA fix is unique because the airline industry accounts for 5 percent of the economy and because travel to business meetings is crucial to other sectors.

"Going into the busiest travel season of the year [furloughs] were going to cause great damage to the economy, and that's why we had to implement this. There was a lot of pressure this week on the administration," he said in a telephone interview.

Effects of sequester cuts to other areas don't have the same breadth and depth, he said.

"If you shut down a park, you may inconvenience people but you're not wreaking havoc," Mr. Shuster said. "I don't see where we'd do this" in other areas.

Ms. Pelosi, meanwhile, called on Republicans in both chambers to agree to a conference committee to publicly hash out their differences and end the sequester.

"Sequestration is a mindless, across-the-board cutting of what we are now recognizing, and the Republicans are recognizing, of something that should not be cut," she said on the House floor.

Funding for air traffic controllers is important, but so are other programs being cut such as Head Start, defense, biomedical research and more, she said.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said he was glad Congress approved the FAA fix but much more needs to be done to avert other harmful effects of across-the-board cuts mandated in the $85 billion sequester.

FAA officials said more than 3,000 flights were delayed this week because of employee furloughs. Nearly 5,000 other delays were caused by weather and other factors unrelated to the furloughs.

At Pittsburgh International Airport, delays increased as the week progressed.

On Monday, for instance, 81.1 percent of all flights from the airport were on time, with nearly 19 percent delayed anywhere from 15 minutes to more than 44 minutes, according to FlightStats.com.

By Thursday, however, the on-time percentage had dropped to 78 percent, while delays had risen to 22.1 percent.

JoAnn Jenny, an airport spokeswoman, said that "in general weather and sequestration issues affecting the FAA have been factors in" the increase in delays.

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Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. Staff writer Mark Belko contributed.


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