Talks on bill to ease FAA furloughs

WASHINGTON – With flight delays mounting, White House officials and key members of the Senate reported significant progress Thursday night on legislation to end air traffic controller furloughs blamed for inconveniencing large numbers of travelers.

Under a draft compromise circulated among lawmakers, the Federal Aviation Administration would gain authority to transfer up to $253 million from accounts that are flush into other programs, to “prevent reduced operations and staffing” through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year.

Officials said they hoped for passage later in the evening, after most members of the Senate already had left the Capitol to begin a 10-day vacation.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a participant in the talks, said the measure would “prevent what otherwise would have been intolerable delays in the air travel system, inconveniencing travelers and hurting the economy.”

Earlier, lawmakers involved in the talks said there was general agreement that the FAA should be given additional flexibility in allocating its share of $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that took effect last month at numerous federal agencies.

But consensus on the details was elusive, and without legislation, the furloughs and resulting flight delays were virtually certain to persist at least until Congress returns on May 6 after a weeklong vacation.

“I want to do it right now. There are other senators you’d have to ask what the hang-up is,” said Sen. Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who helped author one of several proposals under consideration.

Any measure that cleared the Senate would also have to be approved by the House. Officials there indicated earlier in the day they were willing to do so, depending on the details.

For the White House and Senate Democrats, the discussions on legislation relating to one relatively small slice of the $85 billion in spending cuts marked a shift in position in a long-running struggle with Republicans over budget issues. Similarly, the turn of events marked at least modest vindication of a decision by the House GOP last winter to finesse some budget struggles in order to focus public attention on the across-the-board cuts in hopes they would gain leverage over President Barack Obama.