Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pauses during daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, July, 28, 2011. LaHood urged lawmakers to pass a bill to put the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) back in business. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) WASHINGTON (AP)—On the surface, the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration is about whether to cut $16 million in air service subsidies, a pretty small amount in this town. Underneath are layers upon layers of political gamesmanship that, at its heart, is about whether Democrats or Republicans get to call the shots in Congress. The immediate price is high. Already, 4,000 FAA employees have been furloughed, more than 200 construction projects have been halted and an estimated 70,000 other private-sector workers affected. Air traffic controllers and safety inspectors remain on the job because the agency still has money from another pool of funds to pay them. The government has been losing about $30 million a day in uncollected airline ticket taxes since the shutdown began on July 23, when FAA’s operating authority expired. If it’s not resolved until after Congress returns from its August recess in early September, lost revenue will tally about $1.2 billion. The political stakes are even higher. Democrats complain that Republicans, by manufacturing crisis after crisis, are trying to force them to accept painful policies that haven’t been negotiated through normal legislative processes. Earlier this year, it was the prospect of a government shutdown over tax breaks for higher-income Americans. More recently it was a potential default on the government’s financial obligations. Now it’s a continued shutdown of the FAA unless Democrats accept the air service subsidy cuts. “This is becoming a very disturbing pattern: A small, uncompromising group, feeling the righteousness of their cause, hurt tens of thousands of innocent people and takes them hostage until they get their complete way,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “These debates should not be determined by which side is willing to take the most casualties.”
The most politically difficult issue involves a labor provision in the House long-term bill. Republicans want to overturn a National Mediation Board rule approved last year that allows airline and railroad employees to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn’t vote were treated as “no” votes. Democrats and union officials say the change puts airline and railroad elections under the same democratic rules required for unionizing all other companies. But Republicans say the new rule reverses 75 years of precedent to favor labor unions. The GOP labor provision has the backing of the airline industry. The biggest beneficiary would be Delta Air Lines, the largest carrier whose workers aren’t primarily union members. Last month, in comments to the House Rules Committee and separately to reporters, Mica said the labor provision was the only issue standing in the way of the House and Senate reaching an agreement on a long-term FAA bill. He said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has refused to negotiate with Republicans on the issue. “There is only one issue—have I not been clear? It’s up to Mr. Reid,” Mica told the committee. He added that including the subsidy cuts to the extension bill “forces the Senate’s hand to act.”
Furloughed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employee Ralph Randall, right, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday, July 27, 2011, calling for a clean FAA reauthorization bill to get more FAA employees and construction workers back to work. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana) One of the communities that would lose subsidized service is Morgantown, W.Va., in the home state of Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who, as transportation committee chairman, is Mica’s Senate counterpart. Reid and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which handles the tax aspects of the bills, also have communities on the list. Besides Morgantown, the cities on the list are Athens, Ga.; Glendive, Mont.; Alamogordo, N.M.; Ely, Nev.; Jamestown, N.Y.; Bradford, Pa.; Hagerstown, Md.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Johnstown, Pa.; Franklin/Oil City, Pa.; Lancaster, Pa.; and Jackson, Tenn. “Yes, I did work with our leadership to find some pressure points to get leverage on the (long-term) bill,” Mica told the AP. “I didn’t ask for a lot.” Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the senior Senate GOP negotiator on the FAA bill, called Mica’s inclusion of the subsidy cuts in the extension bill a “procedural hand grenade.” It has been House Republicans who have refused to negotiate with the Senate unless Democrats agreed to concessions on the labor issue, Hutchison said. The House bill was approved on July 20 by a mostly party-line vote. Senate Democrats have introduced their own FAA extension bill with no strings attached, but Republicans have repeatedly blocked votes on the measure. Democrats have responded in kind, blocking votes on the House-passed bill containing the subsidy cuts. A few days ago, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, indicated to Democrats that he’d be willing to accept their extension bill without the subsidy cuts in exchange for concessions on the labor issue, but Democrats refused the offer, Rockefeller said. Boehner didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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