Congress faces narrowing window to resolve FAA impasse

WASHINGTON -- With construction workers sidelined at McCarran International Airport and airfields around the country, lawmakers remain gridlocked over funding the federal aviation agency and face a narrowing window to resolve the impasse before a monthlong recess.

Senators and House members are scheduled to break on Aug. 5 until Labor Day. Presently Congress is focused on the looming debt crisis that is stamped with an Aug. 2 deadline, although it could carry beyond that.

In the meantime, lawmakers have shown no inclination publicly to compromise on legislation to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Hope springs eternal but I haven't heard of any movement," said Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev. "Of course things happen here that are slow, slow, slow and then there is a breakthrough so I would not say it is out of the realm of possibility."

Another possibility, Berkley said, is that "we may not be recessing" for August.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., said Congress should remain in session until the FAA impasse is resolved.

I think August break is in doubt," he said. "There are a lot of issues we need to resolve before leadership decides we can leave."

The FAA furloughed 4,000 employees and issued stop-work orders on dozens of construction projects after its authority to do business expired last Friday at midnight.

In Nevada, workers building the high profile $43 million air traffic control tower at McCarran International Airport were told to stay home when the FAA engineer required to be onsite was furloughed.

The delay is adding $8,500 to $8,700 per day to the cost of the tower, a bill that the FAA says will be borne by taxpayers.

The FAA sent out work notices after Congress failed to pass a bill that would renew the agency's standing until Sept. 16. The split is over provisions passed by the House that would cut $16.5 million from the Essential Air Service program that pays commercial airlines to service remote communities.

Specifically the House bill eliminated subsidies for 10 communities that are within 90 miles of a larger hub airport.

It also reduced payments for airlines that serve three other airports, including the one in Ely, where the per-passenger subsidy of $3,270 is the highest in the nation.

The short-term bill would have been the 21st stop-gap FAA measure passed by Congress since 2007, when a multiyear authorization expired. Since then, lawmakers have been stymied while debating a new multiyear bill, split by the rural subsidies, a unionization issue and disagreements over flights out of Reagan Washington National Airport.

Customarily Congress has passed "clean" short-term FAA bills, meaning they are free of riders and simply authorize the agency to continue current business.

The one passed by the House and sent to the Senate on July 20 was different in that it targeted the rural air program. Senate leaders have refused to bring it to a vote.

Democrats charge Republicans were sending a volley across the bow of Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, seeking leverage in negotiations over the long-term bill and specifically its labor provisions.

In a House speech on Tuesday, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Democrats were being disingenuous in their criticism.

"For three airports where their passengers are being paid a subsidy of $1,500 to $3,700 -- at three airports -- they're closing down the FAA," Mica said. "So I don't care how we've done things before. We're going to do things differently."

Berkley said the FAA logjam is indicative of the pervasive untrusting atmosphere in Congress.

"This is extraordinarily frustrating," she said. "Every issue we are dealing with has become a hill to die for and a partisan issue."

Reid is said to be preparing to push a "clean" FAA bill through the Senate in a bid to break the impasse. Senate officials said that probably won't happen until after the debt crisis has been resolved and Senate floor time can be scheduled.

All four members of Nevada's congressional delegation -- Reid, Berkley, Heck and Republican Sen. Dean Heller -- would vote for a "clean" bill in the interest of resuming work at McCarran, they or their aides said this week.

"We have to let the FAA do its job and get people back on the job in Nevada," Heck said.

Heck said he has reservations about the cost of the rural air subsidies and wants to explore possible charters or other strategies to move passengers from remote communities like Ely. But he said lawmakers can continue debating that without freezing the entire FAA bureaucracy.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephens or 202-783-1760.