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Congress Acts On Flight Delays, What's Next?


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The first great sequester showdown has ended and the White House says President Obama will sign a bill that effectively ends furloughs for air traffic controllers. The House yesterday approved the measure, which was passed by the Senate Thursday night, and the action comes after a week of flight delays that angered air travelers and set off a flurry of finger-pointing in Washington, D.C. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: It's exceedingly rare in these polarized times for Democrats and Republicans to agree with near-unanimity on anything; rarer still for the House and Senate to act in what, in their terms, was practically warp speed. But that's what happened when angry constituents and anxious lawmakers combined this week in a perfect storm. It was no coincidence that Congress voted to give the FAA authority to shift funds around in its budget as lawmakers prepared to travel back to their districts for their end of April recess. Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen summed it up this way:

REPRESENTATIVE CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: After the vote on this today, members of this House are going to run for the airports. They're all going to be flying home on airplanes, and, yes, they will make it easier for members of Congress to get through those lines, and they will pat themselves on the back and say job well done.

NAYLOR: The measure allows the FAA to move some $253 million into the part of the budget that pays for air traffic controllers. Also benefiting will be the airports with control towers that operate under a contract with the FAA that the agency planned to close. Republicans argue that the Obama administration and the FAA have this authority to shift funds within the budget all along but resisted to create maximum pain for political reasons. Florida Republican John Mica.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN MICA: Again, we have the resources, they have the money and here we're giving then the final fig leaf that they have asked for and they say they need to get this done. I can tell you, if Ronald Reagan were president, we would not be in this mess. Thank you.

NAYLOR: The furloughs, which began last Sunday, resulted in several thousand flight delays because of understaffed control towers and radar facilities. The airline industry fought hard to reverse the cuts, as did the travel industry. Erik Hansen is with the U.S. Travel Association.

ERIK HANSEN: We saw flight delays and cancellations almost triple from the previous week. And we know that if travelers are frustrated with the system they're going to avoid traveling. So, that is a real economic cost to the travel industry.

NAYLOR: The money to pay for full staffing of controllers will be taken from the part of the budget that pays for airport improvements. So, Hansen says the congressional action is a mixed blessing for the industry.

HANSEN: We're worried that we're solving this problem on the backs of airports at a time when we should be modernizing our infrastructure.

NAYLOR: And while air travelers will no longer face furlough-related flight delays, other groups affected by the sequester aren't faring so well. Democrat Steny Hoyer argued on the House floor that there is no rescue ahead for low-income Americans or seniors.

REPRESENTATIVE STENY HOYER: Head Start - 70,000 children will be kicked out of Head Start. Nothing in this bill deals with them. Furloughs that cause delays in processing retirement for disability claims. Nothing in this bill deals with them. Four million fewer Meals on Wheels for seniors, 600,000 people dropped off WIC. Nothing in here for them.

NAYLOR: Budget analyst Stan Collender says the reason those groups were left out of the sequester fix is simple.

STAN COLLENDER: Their ability to generate any kind of real political pain is very, very small. So, the chances are those sequester cuts are going to stay in place. What's interesting here is that the Democrats in the administration did hold out and say, all right, if you want to fix FAA, we want to fix everything. We want flexibility in a lot of places.

NAYLOR: And while White House spokesman Jay Carney says the administration views the bill as a Band-Aid, covering a massive wound to the economy, President Obama does plan to sign it. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.