A single Republican senator's objections plus a procedural snarl could force another partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration at the end of this week, potentially putting thousands of workers out of jobs and depriving the government of $30 million a day in uncollected airline ticket taxes.
Senate rules don't allow lawmakers to shift from the bill they're currently working on, a disaster aid bill, to a stop-gap funding measure for the FAA and highway programs without the consent of all lawmakers, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is refusing to give his consent. Coburn wants to change the highway portion of the stopgap transportation bill that the House passed on Tuesday by eliminating a requirement that states spend a portion of their highway program dollars on "transportation enhancements" like bike and walking paths and projects aimed at drawing tourists.
Without directly naming Coburn, Reid effective accused the GOP senator of acting like a "dictator" by insisting the rest of the Senate accept his amendment.
"It's a pretty good way to legislate around here, be a dictator and say either take this or leave it," Reid said. "I'm convinced his issue would lose overwhelmingly. But he's holding this legislation up, and we are in a position now legislatively that I can't get ... to this bill prior to Friday, when the FAA expires."
Republicans say the Senate could have passed the transportation bill in time if Reid hadn't brought up the disaster aid bill first. Because Coburn and several other GOP senators also opposed bringing up that measure, Reid on Tuesday set in motion parliamentary procedures that would allow the Senate to pass the disaster aid bill by Saturday.
Democrats have been negotiating with Coburn, with Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., acting as a go-between. But Coburn said in speech on the Senate floor late Wednesday that he won't back down with regard to transportation spending. He said he wouldn't object if Reid split off the FAA portion of the bill and passed that separately before Friday. Since that would change the bill, the House would have to pass the bill as well before the deadline.
But Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid, noted the transportation and disasters bill "sailed through the Republican-led House."
"We should not have to put thousands of American jobs at risk because one Republican senator is not getting his way," he said.
Pointing to the nation's 146,000 bridges that are structurally deficient, Coburn said it's wrong to require states to spend money on projects that don't enhance safety when they could spend the money on repairing or replacing bridges. He released a list of 40 enhancement projects that he described as low priorities, including $111,804 for a sanctuary for white (albino) squirrels in Kenton, Tenn. Gibson County, where Kenton is located, calls itself "The Home of the White Squirrel" because families of white squirrels live throughout the town.
Among other projects on his list were $150,000 to build a critter crossing in Monkton, Vt., for migrating salamanders and other amphibians whose numbers are dwindling in part due to roadway traffic, $250,000 build a twin dragons arch over the entrance to Los Angeles' Chinatown neighborhood, and $500,000 to restore windows, doors, bricks and shutters in a Toledo, Ohio, lighthouse.
Coburn said enhancement funds amount to 10 percent of the federal surface transportation program, but a Transportation Department official said it actually accounts for about 2 percent of all highway aid. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the department's stance contradicted the senator.
Also, most enhancement dollars go to more parochial projects like bike paths and walking trails. States, not the federal government, chose which enhancement projects they want to fund.
"I would think we would rather repair these 146,000 bridges rather than redecorating a (road) side," Coburn said.
A partisan standoff between House Republicans and Senate Democrats forced the FAA to partially shut down for two weeks this summer. Nearly 4,000 FAA workers were furloughed and more than 200 airport construction and safety projects halted, affecting tens of thousands of other workers. The government lost nearly $400 million in airline ticket taxes because airlines no longer had authority to collect the fees.
Without congressional action, the FAA would face another partial shutdown on Friday, when its current operating authority expires. Authority for highway, transit and rail programs, as well as the federal gasoline and diesel taxes that provide the largest share of funding for the programs, are due to expire on Sept. 30.
Long-term funding for the FAA expired in 2007 and highway programs in 2009. Both programs have been continued through a series of short-term extensions. The latest bill would be FAA's 21st extension and the highway program's eighth.