WASHINGTON — Sequestration became a reality to the public in airports across the country this week, and on Friday both Congress and the Obama administration caved in to pressure from tens of thousands of airline passengers angered by flight delays.
The lawmakers and the Obama administration, creators of the across-the-board funding cuts, found a path around their own creation, approving legislation to end the daily furloughs of 1,500 air traffic controllers that caused long delays at several major airports
With remarkable speed, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation to give the secretary of transportation enough financial flexibility to shift up to $253 million to the air traffic control system, to prevent the furloughs. The money will be shifted from airport-improvement funds. The 361-41 vote came less than 24 hours after the Senate rushed the measure through.
Friday was one of the busiest travel days of the week, and all three of New York’s major airports reported furlough-related delays. Through Thursday, the number of flights arriving or departing behind schedule averaged about 2,800 a day, with many attributed to weather problems.
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The congressional action effectively undoes one of the thorniest results of sequestration, the $85 billion in spending cuts that took effect March 1. With the president’s promised signature, Democrats will lose leverage they had hoped would force Republicans into a larger agreement since the flight delays were seen as the sort of inconvenience that could force a reversal of the cuts.
The action also brought charges that lawmakers known for gridlock could move only when affluent travelers like themselves felt the sting of Congress’ indecision and that the struggles of lower-income Americans affected by the spending cuts were being ignored. House members who have cleared precious little legislation this year made swift work of the air-travel bill minutes before flying out themselves for a weeklong break, a pile of cars stacked up behind the Capitol waiting to ferry them to airports in Washington, D.C.
“We’re leaving the homeless behind,” said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. “We’re leaving a lot of National Guard folks behind. We’re leaving seniors who depend on Meals On Wheels in the dust. Children who rely on Head Start can teach themselves to read. That’s basically what’s happening.”
The shifting of $253 million to air traffic operations in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should be enough to keep the air traffic control system operating at a normal pace through Sept. 30. FAA officials were unable to say after the House voted when the furloughed controllers might return to their jobs.
“This is a Band-Aid solution,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “It does not solve the bigger problem.”
Republicans and some Democrats had been pushing to rescue the air traffic control system. But they met resistance from lawmakers who questioned why air travel was being rescued when children were being thrown out of early-education programs and food-safety inspections were being curtailed.
With such cuts largely invisible to most Americans, some Democrats said mounting delays at airports might be the only pressure point left to force Republicans to negotiate a broader deal to reverse the cuts.
On United Airlines Flight 1543 from San Francisco to Washington Dulles International Airport on Friday, the pilot said after a 90-minute delay that Congress was at fault for “their ineptitude,” having financed “worthless projects” but not the FAA.
Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.