Obama pressures Congress to resolve FAA impasse

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama pressured Congress on Wednesday to return to work, break an impasse and fund the federal aviation agency by the end of the week.

Obama decried gridlock over the Federal Aviation Administration that has led to almost 4,000 federal workers being furloughed and tens of thousands of construction workers being laid off airport projects, including a tower project at McCarran International Airport.

"This is a lose, lose-lose situation that can be easily solved if Congress gets back to town and does its job," Obama said before meeting with his Cabinet.

"They don't even have to come back to town," he said, since an agreement could be completed by House and Senate leaders and pushed to passage by a consent procedure.

But on Capitol Hill, leaders of both parties showed no signs of a new compromise Wednesday.

With Congress completing legislation Tuesday to avert financial crisis by raising limits on government borrowing, officials turned their full attention to the FAA, which has been partially shut down since its legal authority to operate expired on July 23.

But the House and Senate recessed for a monthlong summer break on Tuesday, complicating efforts to resolve the impasse, which also is losing the government millions of dollars in excise taxes on passenger tickets.

A new $43 million air traffic control tower at McCarran in Las Vegas is among the projects where work has been stopped, forcing layoffs of 40 to 50 workers who had begun work last month, FAA officials said.

Lawmakers failed to pass a short-term bill that would keep the agency running until Sept. 16 while they negotiate over a long-term authorization bill.

Congress has passed 20 short-term FAA bills since 2007, but "this time Congress has decided to play some politics with it, and as a consequence they left town without getting this extension done," Obama said.

"Projects all across the country involving tens of thousands of construction workers are being suspended because Congress did not get its work done. That means folks on construction sites doing work, bringing home paychecks, now potentially find themselves going home without one.

"This is an example of a self-inflicted wound that is unnecessary. It's my expectation, and I think the American people's expectation, that this gets resolved before the end of the week."

On Capitol Hill, House Republicans passed a short-term FAA extension on July 20, but Senate Democrats have not accepted it because it contains a rider cutting subsidies to airlines that provide service to remote communities.

The cuts targeted air service, including to Ely in Nevada, in the states of senior Democrats.

Democrats want Republicans to pass a bill without riders that would enable the FAA to continue doing business.

"I call upon Speaker Boehner to end this," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said at a news conference, referring to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Boehner said Wednesday the controversy would be defused by the Senate agreeing to the House-passed bill.

"All it will take to end this crisis is for the Senate to pass the House-approved FAA extension," Boehner said in a statement. "The only reason so many jobs are at stake is Senate Democratic leaders chose to play politics rather than pass the House bill.

"They have had two weeks to respond to the House bill and done nothing, leaving tens of thousands of workers in limbo. The House has done its job, and now it's time for senators to do theirs."

"Senate Democrats have nobody to blame but themselves," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

During a flurry of last-minute negotiations on Tuesday, Reid suggested the Senate might accept the House bill, even with its cuts to rural air service.

But a deal built around that concession collapsed because Democrats wanted other concessions from the GOP, congressional officials said.

Reid and other Democrats charged the fight over the rural air subsidies is a GOP smoke screen.

"The issue here, everyone understand, is not the Essential Air Service," Reid said during a testy meeting with reporters. "Everyone knows the issue behind all this is the labor issue."

The real issue, Democrats said, is Republican insistence on a provision in the longer-term FAA bill that would overturn a pro-labor 2009 ruling by the National Mediation Board.

The ruling, which could make it easier for unions to organize airline and railway workers, was being attacked by the GOP at the behest of nonunion Delta Airlines, Democrats charged.

And beyond that, Democrats said they were drawing a line in the sand over what they called Republican strategy to take "hostages" to win concessions on legislation.

The complaint echoed a similar charge by Democrats during the just-concluded debate over raising the nation's debt ceiling. In that matter, Democrats painted Republicans as refusing to allow more government borrowing, threatening a catastrophic default, to force deep cuts in federal spending.

"I hope the American people wake up," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "This is their modus operandi. Government by crisis they make up. Government by hostage-taking and government by threat."

Reid said the Democrats will not give in on the FAA bill.

"Live to fight another day on September 15? What will the hostages be then? They will go on to something else," Reid said of Republicans. "We are not willing to do that, and that is what this is all about."

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