Air Delays Get Swift Political Response

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Members of the House of Representatives leave the U.S. Capitol, adjourning after their final vote of the day on Friday.

In a deal expected to end long delays for fliers soon, Congress speedily approved a bill to revoke the furlough of federal air-traffic controllers, tackling a short-term political problem but creating longer-term complications for the White House.

The White House said President Barack Obama would sign the measure that passed the House on Friday and the Senate on Thursday night. Doing so marked a setback for his strategy for revoking the full set of across-the-board federal budget cuts, known as the sequester, that for months he had argued would do the public and the economy harm.

Congress passes a bill to ease travel delays caused by the sequester cuts to the FAA that have impacted travel at the nations busiest airports. Aaron Zitner discusses on Lunch Break. Photo: AP Images.

Lawmakers said that funding would allow the Federal Aviation Administration to stop the furloughs of air-traffic controllers and also prevent the scheduled closure of 149 control towers staffed by contracted employees at small airports.

A spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which represents the FAA’s 15,000 civilian controllers, said it wasn’t yet clear how quickly the FAA could reset its controller schedules to full staffing. The FAA and Department of Transportation didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

United Continental Holdings Inc.

Chief Executive Jeff Smisek said in a memo to employees that the FAA expects to be “mostly back to normal within 24 hours” after the president signs the bill, and “fully back to normal within 72 hours.”

Some Democrats argued on Friday that in agreeing to ease the effects of a small portion of the cuts, Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress made it more difficult to accomplish their goal of replacing all the cuts with a mix of new tax revenues and different spending cuts.

If public ire over long flight delays is now resolved, Republican lawmakers will be less likely to compromise on replacing all the sequester cuts, they said. Other than in air travel, anger over the budget cuts has been slow to materialize, and many agencies have furloughed fewer federal workers than expected.

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Associated Press

A passenger sits in the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta on Friday.

Congress’s action on Friday “begins to chip away at the ability to get a broader budget deal done,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D., Wash.), who nonetheless voted for the bill. “If you start nickel and diming our way out of the sequester, then at some point it begins to get in the way of doing something bigger to replace the whole thing.”

A Republican House member, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, said the FAA fix “lowers the pressure considerably” on Congress to roll back the sequester.

Republicans said the outcome was a victory that illustrated how federal spending could be cut in a way that minimizes pain. They have rejected Mr. Obama’s call for new tax revenues to help replace the across-the-board cuts, which resulted from a 2011 deal between the parties to raise the federal borrowing limit.

The House measure, which passed on a 361-41 vote, would give the Department of Transportation the ability to reduce furloughs that began Sunday and effectively meant a 10% daily cut to the FAA’s workforce of air-traffic controllers. Under the bill, the FAA would be able to redirect as much as $253 million from other areas of its budget to shore up staffing and operations. Similar legislation, crafted by lawmakers in both parties, had unanimously passed the Senate late Thursday.

At the White House, press secretary Jay Carney on Friday called the bill “good news for America’s traveling public.” But officials disputed the idea that the GOP had won a victory, arguing that effects of the sequester would grow and that the FAA case showed that fixes are difficult to pull off.

“The president believes it’s good news to eliminate this problem. But as I’ve said and he believes, this is a Band-Aid covering a massive wound to the economy,” Mr. Carney said.

Rather than targeting the FAA, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) had urged members of his party to coalesce around a plan to repeal all of the cuts to federal agencies, which total $85 billion through the end of this fiscal year, and replace them with money saved from winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a source of funds some consider a budget gimmick.

House Democratic leaders also sought a broad bill. “We ought not to be mitigating the sequester’s effect on just one segment, when children, the sick, our military and many other groups who will be impacted by this irresponsible policy are left unhelped,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.), in a speech on the House floor that talked of cuts to the Head Start early-education program and nutrition programs for senior citizens and families, among others.

The public outcry over the flight delays, however, prompted many other Democrats to join Republicans in giving budget flexibility to the FAA. Although weather across the U.S. was relatively mild this past week, United estimated that every day since the controller furloughs began on Sunday, about 20,000 of its customers were affected by delays directly attributable to the staffing shortages, and 48 flights a day were canceled on average. The company, including its commuter affiliates, carries between 300,000 and 400,000 fliers a day and operates about 5,800 flights.

Republicans welcomed the bipartisan agreement as proof that the sequester’s effects were forcing Democrats to change tack.

“By last night, Senate Democrats were adopting our targeted ‘cut this, not that’ approach,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) said in a letter Friday. “This victory is in large part a result of our standing together.”

Some in Mr. Obama’s political base and in social-service programs saw a double standard at work. They said Washington moved quickly to ease the pain for air travelers while letting the cuts remain for other constituencies hurt by the sequester.

WSJ’s Damian Paletta and Sara Murray explain why lawmakers have scrambled to end sequester-related flight delays and how the move risks political backlash.

“I would invite anyone in Washington to come look my patients in the eye and tell them that waiting for a flight is a bigger problem than traveling farther and waiting longer for chemotherapy,” said Dr. William Nibley, of United Cancer Specialists in Utah, in a written statement.

Because the sequester was to be applied equally to all federal activities, many federal agencies they said were constrained from sparing personnel as they made cuts. Now, lawmakers are expected to consider giving other agencies more flexibility to navigate the budget cuts, as they did with the FAA.

Sen. Mark Udall (D., Colo.), who helped reach the FAA agreement, said the deal had inspired him and his GOP partner, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, to do more.

House GOP lawmakers don’t feel compelled to take any immediate steps on the sequester, a senior House leadership aide said.

“The House has acted twice to replace the sequester with more sensible spending cuts,” Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said Friday.

The FAA has said the furloughs to its roughly 30,000 air-traffic employees, half of whom are controllers, would save $162 million, and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told Congress in February that the agency would save $45 million to $50 million by eliminating funding for 170 contract towers. The FAA has since spared 24 of those towers and postponed the closure to June 15, drawing down the projected savings.

Whether the FAA spares the 149 contract towers will be up to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who administers the FAA, lawmakers said. The contract towers oversee the airspace at airports that handle fewer than 150,000 landings and takeoffs a year, including fewer than 10,000 commercial operations. The airports include those in Santa Fe, N.M.; Bloomington, Ill.; and Ithaca, N.Y.

—Susan Carey and Janet Hook contributed to this article.

Write to Kristina Peterson at, Peter Nicholas at and Jack Nicas at

A version of this article appeared April 27, 2013, on page A1 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Air Delays Get Swift Political Response.