House Republicans grill FAA chief on air traffic furloughs, flight delays

House Republicans grilled FAA Administrator Michael Huerta on Wednesday about whether his agency is making every effort to stop the furlough of air traffic controllers that resulted this week in widespread flight delays across the country.

The furlough of roughly 15,000 air traffic controllers is part of larger federal-budget cuts known as sequester -- a deal Congress made in 2011 after failing to agree on less-drastic reductions.

Though the agreement, which took effect in January, provides little discretion in transferring funds and making cuts, congressional Republicans are suggesting the Obama administration has provided even less flexibility within the Federal Aviation Administration -- to disrupt air travel enough to force Congress to reach a better deal.

“This imperial attitude … on the part of the administration is disgusting,” said Kentucky Republican Rep. Hal Rogers. “Then to turn around and try to blame the difficulties of flying on Congress is unacceptable.”

Rogers made his remarks during a Republican-led House appropriations hearing in which members of both parties focused on why the FAA hasn’t transferred funds, particularly those earmarked for outside contracts and consultants.

“I agree this is no way to run a government,” Huerta said. “But we’re complying with the law.”

Huerta testified that the agency has made efforts to reduce the impact of sequester on Americans, including “drastically” reducing overtime.

He declined to answer Rogers’ repeated questions about whether he and other administration officials have discussed transferring money, including funds from within the larger Transportation Department.

However, Huerta, when questioned by committee Democrats, said he would consider “relaxing” the furloughs if he could find contract savings, including those for equipment.

At about the same time, the FAA warned of more flight delays Wednesday “as a result of employee furloughs due to sequestration.”

The agency said furloughs, combined with bad weather, are resulting in delays at Chicago's O’Hare Airport and the Las Vegas and Tampa, Fla., airports.

FAA officials have said they have no choice but to furlough all 47,000 agency employees, including nearly 15,000 controllers, and close 149 contract air traffic control towers to meet obligations under the sequester, which cuts the agency budget by roughly $600 million this year.

The sequester cuts took effect after Republicans declined to agree to a second round of tax increases this year, as a way to cut the federal budget.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood denied allegations Tuesday by Republicans that he's making a political statement by imposing the furloughs in an area that's visible to taxpayers.

"This has nothing to do with politics," he said. "This is very bad policy that Congress passed and they should fix it."

He said he warned back in February about possible furloughs, defending other accusations that the change came by surprise.

There is a bipartisan Senate plan this week to transfer $50 million in unused FAA research and capital funds to prevent any air traffic control towers from closing.

Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he took the administration at its word that it lacked the authority to find other means to meet the automatic cut requirements "so we are going to give them that authority if, in fact, they need it."

Blumenthal also is calling for a 30-day delay in the furloughs, which began on Sunday. He said the furloughs and tower issue are linked because closing them at smaller airports only puts more of a burden on now-understaffed traffic controllers at other airports.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.