WASHINGTON -- The Senate approved legislation Friday ending a two-week partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration and President Obama signed it into law, clearing the way for thousands of employees to return to work and hundreds of airport construction projects to resume.
Employing the so-called "unanimous consent" procedure which took less than 30 seconds, two senators were present to approve a House-passed bill extending FAA's operating authority through mid-September. Democratic Sen. James Webb of Virginia stood up, called up the bill and asked that it be passed. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the presiding officer, agreed and it was done.
Other lawmakers had scattered earlier this week for Congress' August recess. And Friday's finishing-business vote was as low key as Congress gets, in marked contrast to the noisy, intemperate and enervating debt-limit battle of recent weeks.
Obama's signature means nearly 4,000 furloughed FAA employees can return to work as soon as Monday. The shutdown has cost the government about $400 million in uncollected airline ticket taxes and idled thousands of construction workers.
"This impasse was an unnecessary strain on local economies across the country at a time when we can't allow politics to get in the way of our economic recovery," Obama said in a statement. "So I'm glad that this stalemate has finally been resolved."
A bipartisan compromise reached Thursday cleared the way for Senate passage of the House bill, which includes a provision eliminating $16.5 million in air service subsidies to 13 rural communities. But the bill also includes language that gives Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood the authority to continue subsidized service to the 13 communities if he decides it's necessary
Republicans had insisted on the subsidy cuts as their price for restoring the FAA to full operation.
Democrats said they expect the administration to effectively waive or negate the cuts, although that won't happen right away. That's because the cuts don't kick in until existing contracts with airlines for the subsidized service expire. The length of those contracts varies by community.
The shutdown began when much of Washington was transfixed by the stalemate over increasing the government's debt limit. During that time, the FAA furloughed some workers but kept air traffic controllers and most safety inspectors on the job. Forty airport safety inspectors worked without pay, picking up their own travel expenses. Some 70,000 workers on construction-related jobs on airport projects from Palm Springs, Calif., to New York City were idled as the FAA couldn't pay for the work.
But airline passengers in the busy travel season hardly noticed any changes. Airlines continued to work as normal, but they were no longer authorized to collect federal ticket taxes at a rate of $30 million a day. For a few lucky ticket buyers, prices dropped. But for most, nothing changed because airlines raised their base prices to match the tax.
Treasury Department officials initially said passengers would likely be eligible for tax refunds if they bought their tickets before July 23 and their travel took place during the shutdown. However, IRS spokeswoman Julianne Breitbiel said Friday that language in the bill approved by the Senate eliminates the need for refunds. She also said the agency has decided not to retroactively seek taxes from passengers who bought tickets during the shutdown or from airlines.
As the debt ceiling crisis passed and Congress began to leave town without resolving the standoff, Obama spoke out Wednesday and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood urged Congress to return to Washington to deal with the issues. Obama expressed dismay that Congress would allow up to $1.2 billion in tax revenue to go out the door -- the amount that could have been lost by the time lawmakers would have returned in September.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the deal Thursday afternoon, saying it would put 74,000 transportation and construction workers back to work.
"This agreement does not resolve the important differences that still remain," said Reid, D-Nev. "But I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its differences, and this agreement will do exactly that."
Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma won't attempt to block passage of the bill when it comes up on Friday, spokesman John Hart said. Coburn blocked several attempts by Democrats to pass an extension bill without the subsidy cuts.
The partisan standoff that led to the shutdown began last month when Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, signaled his intention to attach the subsidy cuts to a bill to extend the FAA's operating authority through mid-September. The agency has been operating under a series of 20 short-term extensions since 2007, when the last long-term FAA funding bill expired.
Senate Democrats complained that Republicans were breaking with precedent by using an extension bill to enact policy changes that hadn't been agreed upon. Even Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas called the measure a "procedural hand grenade." Senators refused to pass the House bill, saying to do so would be giving in to legislative blackmail and inviting Republicans to up the ante on the next extension bill.
Both the House and Senate passed long-term funding bills for the FAA earlier this year, but negotiations on resolving differences and finalizing those bills are stalemated. The biggest holdup is a labor provision in the House long-term bill. Republicans want to overturn a National Mediation Board rule approved last year that allows airline and railroad employees to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn't vote were treated as "no" votes.
"The House has made it clear that the anti-worker piece is a priority for them and they also put us on notice that they don't intend to give in," said Vince Morris, a spokesman for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of a committee that oversees FAA. "So we are bracing for a new fight in September."
Communities targeted for the proposed air service subsidy cuts are Morgantown, W.Va.; Athens, Ga.; Glendive, Mont.; Alamogordo, N.M.; Ely, Nev.; Jamestown, N.Y.; Bradford, Pa.; Hagerstown, Md.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Johnstown, Pa.; Franklin/Oil City, Pa.; Lancaster, Pa.; and Jackson, Tenn.