WASHINGTON – Major legislation to make the flying skies safer and more passenger-friendly faltered in the Senate Tuesday, a victim of squabbles between the parties.
The Senate stopped debate on legislation to fund and overhaul the nation's aviation system after most Republicans, saying they were barred from freely offering amendments, joined to block an effort to move the bill forward. The vote was 49-42 to proceed with the Aviation Investment and Modernization Act, 11 short of the 60 needed.
That vote could doom action on the legislation this year. It came despite wide bipartisan support for the main goals of the bill, which are to modernize the nation's antiquated air traffic control system, make the Federal Aviation Administration more accountable for the safety of planes and airports, and protect passengers from the miseries associated with lengthy delays.
Under the measure, airlines would be required to come up with a plan to provide adequate food, water and restroom facilities in the event of a significant delay. If airlines do not have a Transportation Department-approved plan, they would have to allow passengers to get off the plane after three hours sitting on a tarmac unless the pilot believes the flight will depart within 30 minutes.
The legislation would also have required FAA inspectors to verify that airlines carry out required safety checks, aimed at preventing a repeat of recent occurrences such as American Airlines canceling flights affecting 250,000 passengers to catch up with safety work and accusations that FAA officials ignored maintenance and inspection problems at Southwest.
It would have barred an FAA safety inspector who goes to work for an airline from having contacts with the FAA for two years. The bill also had increased funding for airport improvements and to sustain the availability of flights to smaller communities and to rural areas.
The Senate took up the bill early last week, but quickly hit a roadblock when Republicans objected to non-aviation revenue provisions in the bill, including about $5 billion to replenish the depleted Highway Trust Fund next year, some $1.7 billion promised New York after the Sept. 11 attacks and $1 billion in tax credit bonds for rail infrastructure.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urged Republicans to offer amendments to remove provisions they didn't like, but then angered the minority with a procedural move to prevent Republicans from offering amendments not directly related to the bill, such as those dealing with gas and energy prices.
Democrats, said Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, "bogged it down with extraneous provisions" that have nothing to do with aviation safety.
The House passed its version of the bill in September, but it stalled in the Senate because of disputes over how to pay for the modernization efforts.
With the bill now on hold, Congress may have to temporarily extend FAA programs at current, less-generous funding levels. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, also is proposing that the Senate return to the bill after it is stripped of all non-aviation provisions.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., head of the Senate Commerce aviation subcommittee, deplored the lack of action when "the aviation system is on the brink of collapse. Our air traffic control system cannot handle the burdens of today, much less tomorrow."
He said that last week, when the Senate was at an impasse, was "the most frustrating week I've spent in the Senate in 24 years here." The deadlock "defines what the American people find so inadequate about the Congress."
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania agreed: "Nothing is happening in the United States Senate."