Lawmakers urge FAA to reconsider furloughs as travelers encounter mounting delays

Lawmakers from both parties urged the Obama administration Tuesday to postpone or cancel the furlough of air traffic controllers, with some accusing the Federal Aviation Administration of playing politics as the cuts contributed to airport delays 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.

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.

Two senators, Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas and Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, called Tuesday for the furlough policy to be delayed for another 30 days. They also want the FAA to reverse plans to close 149 contract air control towers.

Moran said there may be an effort to make the sequester seem "painful" to the public.

"It certainly seems as if politics is playing a significant role in determining what actions the FAA are taking," Moran said, adding that "every indication" is that "it emanates from the White House."

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, though, argued that these cuts should come as no surprise -- as the administration repeatedly warned about the projected impact of the sequester cuts before they took effect in March.

"This is a result of the sequester being implemented. We made it clear that there would be these kinds of negative effects if Congress failed to take reasonable action to avert the sequester," Carney said Tuesday. "The fact is Congress had an opportunity, but Republicans made a choice. And this is a result of a choice they made to embrace the sequester."

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," he said.

The legislation proposed by the two senators and sponsored by 33 others would transfer $50 million in unused FAA research and capital funds to prevent any air traffic control towers from closing.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell argued that the administration should use "existing flexibility" to allay the furloughs -- he joined other conservatives in suggesting the FAA cut spending on "travel, conferences and consultants."

"Not all government spending is created equally, and so this morning I'm calling on the Obama administration and the FAA to be smarter and more transparent about the sequester," he said. "That means prioritizing funding to ensure that flights are not needlessly delayed or canceled."

He claimed the administration's "poor planning" and "political motives" have left travelers "stuck on tarmacs."

Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey called the cutbacks "utterly unnecessary."

The top two senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Democratic Chairman John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia and Republican John Thune of South Dakota, also have sent a letter to the administration questioning its approach to the automatic spending cuts and saying that the furloughs and closing of control towers raise "serious safety and operational issues."

FAA officials have said they have no choice but to furlough all 47,000 agency employees, including nearly 15,000 controllers, and close the control towers in order to meet obligations under the sequester, or spending cuts.

"The FAA will continue to work with the airlines throughout the day to try and minimize delays for travelers," the agency said in a statement Tuesday.

According to the FAA, all 15,000 air traffic controllers will experience furloughs. Roughly 10 percent of them are being furloughed on any given day.

Click for information on airport delays.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.