Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has fired off a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) offering an urgent compromise on Congress’ latest impasse: the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The move comes just hours after President Barack Obama slammed the imbroglio for creating a “lose-lose-lose situation” and urged Congress to resolve the matter before the end of the week.
Complicating matters is the fact that many lawmakers are about to leave DC, or have left already, as this year’s Congressional recess has now begun.
Other top Democrats are adding their voices to the mix. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL), Chair of the Democratic National Committee, said it was “reckless and irresponsible” for the GOP House leaders to adjourn before settling the FAA matter. She demanded Speaker Boehner call the House of Representatives “back from vacation.”
Earlier Wednesday, Democrats decried what they saw as Republican “hostage-taking” — since the situation had forced 4,000 agency employees out of work and airport safety inspectors to continue working without pay.
Democrats blame Republicans for the partial FAA shutdown, accusing them of reneging on their promise to put Americans back to work because the stand-off has prevented tens of thousands of construction workers to continue building airport projects.
“The FAA is in limbo. Airports are the economic engine of the small communities around the country, and that economic engine is now stuck in neutral,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters Wednesday. “Under the cover of the debt ceiling crisis, they are holding these aviation workers hostage until they get everything they want…they have taken brinksmanship again one step too far.”
If the FAA impasse continues through Labor Day, the IRS stands to lose an estimated $1 billion in tax revenues on airline ticket sales because when the FAA financing expired last month the agency lost its ability to collect the taxes.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday afternoon, President Obama was scathing. “The airlines are still collecting these fees because it’s priced in a their ticket but they are not turning them over to the federal government, and the federal government stands to lose $200 million a week,” he said. “That would be $1 billion at a time when we’re worrying about how we pay for everything from education to Head Start and we don’t anticipate it’s going to be easy to get that money back, even though the airlines are collecting it. They are keeping it.” The President also noted the effect the stand-off would have on workers’ livelihoods.
Republicans say Democrats are responsible for the furloughs and lost revenue because they’re insisting on a clean bill without compromise.
“The only reason 80,000 jobs are at stake is that Senate Democratic Leaders chose to play politics rather than keep their word and pass the House bill,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said in a statement Wednesday. “That’s indefensible, and they should end this crisis immediately.”
The point of conflict differs depending on which party you talk to. Republicans are focusing their public cost-cutting missives on a program that subsidizes commercial air service to rural airports, but the much more ideological battle is over federal rules on union activity in the airline industry.
Last month, the House passed a bill that would have extended FAA financing through September 16. This would have been the 21st such temporary funding measure for the agency in the last four years. Larger longtime disagreements over overhauling the air traffic control program and other budget issues have been the major disputes in the past.
But with the new GOP in control in the House, they decided to include a provision cutting $14 million in subsidies to commercial airlines service to 16 rural airports, shuttering airports in the states of leading Democrats including Reid’s Nevada. Rockefeller, who chairs the committee with jurisdiction over the FAA, has repeatedly objected to the language ending the subsidy, arguing they have no place in what should be a “clean” temporary spending measure.
The real sticking point for Democrats, however, is a GOP demand to change recently instituted federal labor regulation that made it easier for unions to organize at airline companies.The change, which the National Mediation Board put into place, requires an employee vote on labor representation to be approved by a majority of those voting when previously, the rule required a majority of all affected employees, meaning that employees who failed to vote were counted as “no” votes.
By blaming him for trying to protect a rural airport in Nevada, Reid said Republicans were trying to obfuscate the real issue — their attempt to reverse the board’s rule change — to benefit Delta Airlines, the only major airline that has yet to be unionized.
Reid said he was willing to close the airport in Nevada to take that issue off the table, but Republicans refused to agree because they wanted to force the Senate to include the anti-union language.
“The way we have America going today there is no penalty for outrageous conduct,” Reid said during a heated press conference in which he sparred openly with reporters who were focused on the rural airport issue. “The issue behind this is the labor issue…it’s an anti-worker agenda of one airline — Delta.”
Schumer also didn’t hesitate to use even more violent language to describe the Republicans’ tactics despite criticism over the past days of Democrats who accused the GOP of acting like terrorists during the debt crisis.
“It’s as if someone is holding a gun to your head and saying give me your money….,” he said. “You can hurt innocent people by not getting your own way.”
Reid’s late Wednesday letter to Boehner asked for a “clean, short term extension” that would help people get back to work. He noted that ultimately the parties would have to “resolve our differences through the normal legislative process.”
This followed President Obama’s observation earlier in the day that “[Lawmakers] don’t even have to come back into town. The House and the Senate could through a procedural agreement basically do this through unanimous consent, and they could have the fights that they want to have when they get back.”
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