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House passes bill to end FAA furloughs, now goes to Obama to sign

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This photo taken April 23, 2013 shows a Southwest airlines jet waiting to depart in view of the air traffic control tower at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle.AP

A bill that would end the Federal Aviation Administration’s furlough on air traffic controllers is now on its way to President Obama to sign.

On Friday, the House passed the measure 361-41.  

On Thursday night, the Senate passed the legislation after most lawmakers had left the Capitol for a weeklong vacation. 

Earlier this week, lawmakers from both parties urged the Obama administration to postpone or cancel the furlough of air traffic controllers, with some accusing the FAA of playing politics as the cuts contributed to massive delays at airports across the country.

The furloughs went into effect Sunday, and the impact was felt almost immediately.

The FAA reported more than 1,200 delays due to the sequester-tied cuts on Monday. On Tuesday, the agency reported "challenges" at airports in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. On Wednesday, the FAA said there had been close to 900 flights delayed “attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough.”

The FAA claims the furloughs were unavoidable. But lawmakers say the agency could find the money elsewhere, by cutting spending on consultants and grant programs and in other areas. 

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a key participant in the Senate-side talks, said the legislation would "prevent what otherwise would have been intolerable delays in the air travel system, inconveniencing travelers and hurting the economy."

Senate approval followed several hours of pressure-filled, closed-door negotiations, and came after most senators had departed the Capitol on the assumption that the talks had fallen short

Officials said a small group of senators insisted on a last-ditch effort at an agreement before Congress adjourned for a vacation that could have become politically problematic if the flight delays continued.

"I want to do it right now. There are other senators you'd have to ask what the hang-up is," Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said at a point when it appeared no compromise would emerge.

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 Obama.

The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, a union that represents FAA employees, reported a number of incidents it said were due to the furloughs.

In one case, it said several flights headed for Long Island MacArthur Airport in New York were diverted on Wednesday when a piece of equipment failed. "While the policy for this equipment is immediate restoral, due to sequestration and furloughs it was changed to next-day restoral," the union said.

It added it was "learning of additional impacts nationwide, including open watches, increased restoration times, delays resulting from insufficient funding for parts and equipment, modernization delays, missed or deferred preventative maintenance, and reduced redundancy."

The airlines, too, had Congress to restore the FAA to full staffing.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.