The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday approved a Senate plan to ease nationwide air-traffic delays caused by automatic federal spending cuts, seeking to calm irritated travelers but sparking a backlash from interest groups not spared from cuts.
The Senate had unanimously voted for the plan late Thursday and the House approved it by a 361-41 vote. White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama plans to sign the bill.
The legislation will give the Department of Transportation flexibility to use about $250 million in unspent funds to cover the costs of air traffic controllers and other essential employees at the Federal Aviation Administration who had been furloughed.
Congressional approval of the bill, barely four pages long, came as lawmakers looked to fly out of Washington for a week-long recess. It was not clear how quickly the air delays will ease once the bill is enacted.
Lawmakers were eager to stem the growing wrath of the traveling public, which had dealt with significant take-off and landing delays since the furloughs started on Sunday.
They had also faced anger from airline CEOs whose companies had mounted a grassroots campaign through a website called dontgroundamerica.com, encouraging Americans to send messages to Congress and the White House.
The quick legislative action marks a surprising bipartisan effort, especially after many Republicans had accused the Obama administration of manipulating funds to maximize the impact of the budget cuts and thus make Republicans look bad.
FRESH LOBBYING TO FOLLOW?
The move does come with the risk, though, of unleashing lobbying campaigns to ease other program cuts triggered by the controversial "sequestration" that took effect on March 1, requiring across-the-board spending cuts among most federal agencies.
Even as they lined up behind the bipartisan bill, House Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for what House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called "mindless" across-the-board spending cuts that brought the FAA furloughs.
Republican Representative Tom Latham of Iowa, who oversees transportation spending, accused the Obama administration of "shameful politics" by carrying out the furloughs, which the FAA said were required by the deficit-reduction law. "This is no way to run a government," he said.
Democrat after Democrat reminded Republicans that the Republican-controlled House had approved the sequestration in 2011. They complained that the FAA legislation fails to prevent 70,000 poor children from losing pre-school education, 4 million fewer meals from being delivered to poor, elderly people and stop the grounding of some military air combat units.
"Let's deal with all the adverse cuts, not just those that affect the affluent traveling sector," said Representative Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat.
JOB 'WELL DONE'
Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland summed up the quick passage of the bill, as Congress hurried to start its recess, by saying: "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."
The plan for the budget cuts was originally hatched by Washington in 2011 as a way to force the White House and Congress to find an alternative budget deal. But policymakers failed to reach such a deal earlier this year.
The cuts aimed to trim a total $109 billion from federal spending through September of this year and affect a broad range of programs, from early education to medical research.
Congress faces yet another round of these automatic spending cuts that would start on October 1.
Some interest groups immediately cried foul at the FAA fix.
Cynthia Pellegrini, an executive at March of Dimes, a nonprofit that advocates for the health of mothers and babies, said she was troubled by Congress acting on a case-by-case basis.
"Over the next several months we feel there are going to be significant impacts on women, children and families," Pellegrini said in an interview. "This may not be as visible as longer lines at the airport. You can't see that a child's belly is emptier because her family couldn't get food assistance."
The U.S. Travel Association on Friday said it appreciated Congress' swift action, but said it was concerned that funds may be diverted from critical infrastructure projects.
"At a time when we should be modernizing our infrastructure to improve efficiency, capacity and U.S. global competitiveness, sequestration-related issues should not be solved on the backs of airports," the group said in a statement.
Without the legislation, the FAA said it would have to furlough 47,000 employees for up to 11 days through September 30 in order to save $637 million that is required by the sequestration.
Of those 47,000 workers, almost 15,000 are full-time air traffic controllers or trainees.
While supporting the legislation, the White House on Friday said it falls short of broader action needed to address sequestration. "It will be good news for America's traveling public if Congress spares them these unnecessary delays," White House spokesman Carney said in a statement.
Carney said lawmakers need to take additional steps to alleviate the impact felt beyond the airline industry from the cuts, such as among poorer elderly people, defense industry workers and others brought on by sequestration.
"Ultimately, this is no more than a temporary Band-Aid that fails to address the overarching threat to our economy posed by the sequester's mindless across-the-board cuts," he said.
Transportation officials have made other cuts to their budget but furloughs of air traffic controllers began this week, prompting traveler backlash at major hubs like those in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
On Friday morning, departing flights at Newark Liberty International Airport were delayed more than an hour and 15 minutes, and Boston's Logan Airport had departure delays of more than 30 minutes, both due to staffing, the FAA said. Teterboro airport in New Jersey, which handles many corporate jets, also was experiencing delays of more than 90 minutes due to staffing.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Doug Palmer, Susan Heavey, Karen Jacobs and Alwyn Scott; Writing by Karey Van Hall; Editing by Bill Trott)