By Richard Cowan and Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress on Friday approved a plan to ease nationwide air-traffic delays caused by federal spending cuts, seeking to calm irritated travelers but sparking a backlash from groups still being hit by budget cuts.
The Senate unanimously voted for the plan late Thursday and the House of Representatives approved it Friday by a 361-41 vote. White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama intends to sign the bill.
The legislation will give the Department of Transportation flexibility to use about $250 million in unspent funds to cover immediate salaries of air traffic controllers and other essential employees at the Federal Aviation Administration who had been furloughed.
Lawmakers hurried the bill through, eager to stem the growing wrath of the traveling public, which had dealt with significant take-off and landing delays since the furloughs started on Sunday.
They also had faced anger from airline CEOs whose companies had mounted a grassroots campaign through a website called dontgroundamerica.com, encouraging Americans to send messages to Congress and the White House.
Congressional approval of the air travel bill, barely four pages long, came as lawmakers prepared to fly out of Washington for a week-long recess. It was not clear how quickly the air delays would ease once the bill is enacted.
Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland chided fellow lawmakers for frantically pushing the bill through just before the break, making their upcoming travels easier. "They will pat themselves on the back and say job well done," said Van Hollen, who wanted to address more than just FAA furloughs.
The union representing the controllers was relieved. "After just one week of furloughs, it is abundantly clear that a fully staffed air traffic control workforce is necessary for our national airspace system to operate at full capacity," the National Air Traffic Controllers Association said.
The quick legislative action marked a surprising bipartisan effort, especially after many Republicans had accused the Obama administration of manipulating funds to maximize the impact of the broad budget cuts and thus make Republicans look bad as they pursue an aggressive deficit-reduction agenda.
The cuts, known as "sequestration," were originally hatched by Washington in 2011 as a way to force the White House and Congress to find an alternative budget deal rather than have spending cuts kick in automatically. But policymakers failed to reach such a deal earlier this year and the cuts went into effect on March 1.
Unless Congress comes up with a better spending plan for the next fiscal year, air traffic controllers potentially could find themselves back on furlough sometime after October 1, when a new round of automatic spending cuts is scheduled.
Nicholas Calio, head of Airlines for America representing the leading U.S. airline companies, praised Congress' action, adding, "The winners here are the customers who will be spared from lengthy and needless delays."
The companies might consider themselves winners, too, as they faced potential losses that could have climbed to millions of dollars a day in a worst-case scenario.
The move comes with the risk, though, of igniting lobbying campaigns to ease other program cuts triggered by sequestration.
Democrats complained the FAA legislation fails to prevent 70,000 poor children from losing pre-school education, 4 million fewer meals from being delivered to poor, elderly people and stop the grounding of some military air combat units.
"Let's deal with all the adverse cuts, not just those that affect the affluent traveling sector," said Representative Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat.
INTEREST GROUPS COMPLAIN
But conservative House Republicans have rejected moves to repeal or replace the automatic spending cuts. Earlier this week, Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, told reporters that those cuts marked "the first time we've saved money in Washington, D.C."
The cuts aimed to trim a total of $109 billion from federal spending through September of this year and affect a broad range of programs, from early education to medical research.
Some interest groups immediately cried foul at the FAA fix.
Cynthia Pellegrini, an executive at March of Dimes, a nonprofit that advocates for the health of mothers and babies, said she was troubled by Congress acting on a case-by-case basis.
"Over the next several months we feel there are going to be significant impacts on women, children and families," Pellegrini said in an interview. "This may not be as visible as longer lines at the airport. You can't see that a child's belly is emptier because her family couldn't get food assistance."
The U.S. Travel Association on Friday said it appreciated Congress' swift action but expressed concern that funds could be diverted from critical projects to upgrade airports.
The furloughs of air traffic controllers began this week, prompting traveler backlash at major hubs like those in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Without the legislation, the FAA said it would have to furlough 47,000 employees for up to 11 days through September 30 in order to save $637 million that is required by the sequestration.
Of those 47,000 workers, almost 15,000 are full-time air traffic controllers or trainees.
While supporting the legislation, the White House on Friday said it falls short of broader action needed to address sequestration. "It would be good news for America's traveling public if Congress spares them the unnecessary delays," he told reporters.
Carney said lawmakers need to take additional steps to alleviate the impact felt beyond the airline industry from the cuts, such as among poorer elderly people, defense industry workers and others brought on by sequestration.
That, Carney said, could be accomplished through a long-term budget deal "that would replace the sequester altogether."
(Reporting by Richard Cowan, Doug Palmer, Susan Heavey, Karen Jacobs and Alwyn Scott; Writing by Karey Van Hall; Editing by Bill Trott)