By JOAN LOWY
WASHINGTON (AP) – The House on Tuesday approved a stopgap bill intended to avoid a shutdown of federal highway and aviation programs, with Senate action expected later this week.
The bill, which passed by a voice vote, temporarily extends operating authority for the Federal Aviation Administration through the end of January and federal highway and transit programs through the end of March.
Senate and House leaders reached an agreement last week to temporarily extend both programs, signaling they had no appetite for the kind of partisan standoff that forced the FAA to partially shut down for two weeks this summer. Nearly 4,000 FAA workers were furloughed and more than 200 airport construction and safety projects halted, affecting tens of thousands of other workers. The government lost nearly $400 million in uncollected airline ticket taxes.
The episode did nothing to enhance either party’s standing with the public.
Without congressional action, the FAA could face another partial shutdown on Friday, when current authority expires. Authority for highway, transit and rail programs, as well as the federal gasoline and diesel taxes that provide the largest share of the money for the programs, are due to expire on Sept. 30.
Long-term money for the FAA expired in 2007 and highway programs in 2009. Both programs have been continued through a series of short-term extensions. The latest bill would be FAA’s 21st extension and the highway program’s eighth.
Republicans and Democrats Tuesday traded accusations about which party was more responsible for Congress’ failure to pass long term aviation and transportation funding measures.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, came to the House floor with a large chart show showing Democrats controlled House and Senate more often than Republicans during FAA’s 21 previous extensions.
“I can guarantee (this) will be the last extension,” Mica warned. “This action today represents a last chance to roll up our sleeves and get transportation projects in America moving again.”
The bill doesn’t contain any contentious policy provisions of the kind that led to the previous FAA shutdown.
“Pending enactment of a long-term bill, this short-term extension is the responsible path forward. It will avert more damage to the aviation system and the economy,” said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the senior Democratic member of the transportation committee.
At least one senator – Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma – may object to the compromise bill, John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, said. Coburn is drafting an amendment would reduce funding for “transportation enhancements,” including bike paths and beautification programs, Hart said.
However, it doesn’t appear Coburn has enough support to hold up passage of the measure.
The stopgap bill would continue funding of highway and aviation programs at their current levels. It doesn’t include funds for back pay for FAA workers who were furloughed, something leaders in both parties have said they want to do.
The bill comes just a week after the House Appropriations Committee’s transportation subcommittee approved a budget for next year that would slash highway spending and reduce Amtrak’s operating funding to what passenger rail supporters said would be a starvation budget. There would be no money for high-speed trains, which President Barack Obama has tried to make a signature program of his administration.
The cuts also coincide with Obama’s call for more transportation spending, not less, to create jobs. The Senate hasn’t yet approved a transportation budget for next year.
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