Congress has reached a bipartisan compromise to end a two-week partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration that has idled tens of thousands of workers and cost the government about $30 million a day in uncollected airline ticket taxes, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Thursday.
The deal would allow the Senate to approve a House bill extending the FAA's operating authority through mid-September, including a provision that eliminates $16.5 million in air service subsidies to 13 rural communities. Passage of the bill is expected Friday.
Senators have scattered for their August recess, but the measure can be approved if leaders from both parties agree to adopt it by "unanimous consent."
Republicans had insisted on the subsidy cuts as their price for restoring the FAA to full operation. But the cuts may become moot.
The bill includes language that gives Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood the authority to continue subsidized service to the 13 communities if he decides it's necessary.
Democrats said they expect the administration to effectively waive or negate the cuts.
"I just know that the White House has provided assurances that they (the communities) will be held harmless," said a Senate Democratic leadership aide who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the deal.
But Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, said that "only LaHood can decide how he will use his waiver authority."
If President Barack Obama signs the bill over the weekend, FAA employees could return to work and payments for airport construction projects would resume on Monday, transportation officials said.
The shutdown began when much of Washington was transfixed by the stalemate over raising the government's debt ceiling. During that time, the FAA furloughed 4,000 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 the vast majority, nothing changed because airlines raised their base prices to match the tax.
Some passengers will now be eligible for tax refunds if they bought their tickets before July 23 and their travel took place during the shutdown.
As the debt ceiling crisis passed and Congress headed home for its August recess without resolving the standoff, Obama spoke out Wednesday and LaHood urged Congress to return 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 return in September.
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. But I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its differences, and this agreement will do exactly that," Reid said.
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 delay was the result of members wanting to protect their parochial interests," Hart said in an email.
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 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 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 into legislative blackmail and inviting Republicans to up the ante on the next extension bill.
Obama, who had scolded Congress on Wednesday for not solving the standoff, expressed relief.
"I'm pleased that leaders in Congress are working together to break the impasse involving the FAA so that tens of thousands of construction workers and others can go back to work," Obama said in a statement. "We can't afford to let politics in Washington hamper our recovery, so this is an important step forward."
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. So we are bracing for a new fight in September," said Vince Morris, a spokesman for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of a committee that oversees FAA.
Last month, in comments to the House Rules Committee and separately to reporters, Mica said the labor provision was the only issue standing in the way of the House and Senate reaching an agreement on a long-term FAA bill. He said Reid, D-Nev., has refused to negotiate with Republicans on the issue.
"There is only one issue _ have I not been clear? It's up to Mr. Reid," Mica told the committee. He added that including the subsidy cuts to the extension bill "forces the Senate's hand to act."
Mica has said that he's willing to take provisions from the long-term bill and attach them to future extensions to achieve the policy changes the GOP lawmakers want.
Democrats said they worried that if they give in to Republicans on relatively small items like the subsidy cuts, Republicans will be encouraged to demand concessions on the next extension bill, such as the labor provision.
Democrats and union officials say the proposed labor change puts airline and railroad elections under the same democratic rules required for unionizing all other companies. But Republicans say the new rule reverses 75 years of precedent to favor labor unions.
The GOP labor provision has the backing of the airline industry. The biggest beneficiary would be Delta Air Lines, the largest carrier whose workers aren't primarily union members.
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.
AP White House Correspondent Ben Feller contributed to this report.