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FAA Expected To Gain Flexibility On Budget Cuts


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Now that automatic spending cuts are causing wider pain, Congress has begun finding ways to adjust some of them.

MONTAGNE: Today the House is expected to take up a bill the Senate has already approved. It's called the Reducing Flight Delays Act of 2013, and it comes after a week of flight delays and outrage from members of Congress, linked to the furloughs the FAA air traffic controllers.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith is covering this story. She's on the line. Tamara, good morning.


INSKEEP: OK, they're not actually rolling back the spending cuts here, are they?

KEITH: That's correct. The FAA doesn't get any more money out of this bill, but it does get more flexibility. And the FAA insisted it needed that flexibility in how it does its budgeting to stop the furloughs. It allows the FAA to take unspent money from the Airport Improvement Program, which had been locked away, and use that to keep air traffic controllers on the job.

This all began on Sunday when the FAA began furloughs of all of its employees, and that included controllers, and it set off thousands of flight delays.

INSKEEP: It's really amazing how quickly this did happen, Tamara, because we had lawmakers arguing over the so-called sequester, saying there was nothing they wanted or could agree to do about it. And suddenly, as soon as large numbers of the traveling public felt some pain, here they are moving very swiftly.

KEITH: Yeah, I mean there's nothing like public outrage to light a fire. You had pilots telling people if they were upset about the delays that were happening right then and there to call Congress.

And also, Congress is on recess next week. There're two reasons that matters. That means members will be flying...


KEITH: ...and experiencing the delays themselves.

INSKEEP: I want to get home on time. I got to pass this bill. Go on.

KEITH: And you know, I don't want to assign any self-interest, but that's a fact. And also, more significantly, they're going to be at home in their districts while the traveling public would have been suffering. And you know, who wants to take that kind of heat?

Maine Republican Susan Collins is a sponsor of the bill. She spoke on the Senate floor last night.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: That should prevent the onerous delays that have been occurring and were only going to get worse as the traveling season reached its peak this summer.

KEITH: Earlier this week, Senator Jay Rockefeller said something that I think sort of sums up how Congress sometimes works. He said they didn't have a lot of time to do this and that might help. And it absolutely did help. They were rushing to get out of town.

INSKEEP: OK, so the Senate passed this bill. What happens in the House now?

KEITH: Well, there's this interesting dynamic because a lot of House Republicans have been insisting all week that the FAA has had the flexibility it needed all along. In fact, about a dozen of them held a press conference yesterday where they all got up and said more or less the same thing: They have the flexibility, they're just being political here.

But you know, it still seems quite likely that they'll sign off on this fix, even if they don't agree that there's really a problem. Bill Shuster from Pennsylvania is chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

REPRESENTATIVE BILL SHUSTER: We're willing to look at what the Senate's going to propose. But I believe we don't need to pass legislation. And if we were to, it should be limited - very, very limited in actually directing the FAA to use the ability - the flexibility that they have presently to not have these furloughs, which are, again, causing great harm to our economy.

KEITH: Or in other words, if passing this bill will make the flight delays go away, then the House is probably going to sign off.

INSKEEP: OK. Just so I understand that, Tamara, the Senate has already passed this. They tend not to take up legislation unless they're pretty sure the Republican House is going to pass it. So it's thought, even though we can't be sure, it's thought that this legislation is likely to pass?

KEITH: Well, and it passed by unanimous consent in the Senate, which is a pretty powerful margin. Everyone supported it and it also had bipartisan sponsorship, which should give it smooth sailing.

INSKEEP: OK. And in a few seconds, Tamara Keith, what does it say that as soon as a large swath of the public felt an effect of the sequester, Congress immediately moved to change it?

KEITH: But really just that narrow thing. There's only been one other area that has gotten this type of treatment and that was the meat inspectors. So now there are lots of people angling to get their special thing carved out, but it's not clear that there's much appetite for it. And a little political reality here. Kids in Head Start programs are not going to have the same effect on Congress as angry business travelers.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR congressional correspondent Tamara Keith. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.