Republicans hail victory over Democrats but White House spokesman suggests Congress should help the needy
The House of Representatives passed on Friday a draft bill to ease the disruption to air travel across the country that has been created by the sequester budget cuts.
The House vote was quick, with members anxious to head home for the start of a week-long recess. It followed a late-night vote in favour by the Senate, on Thursday. The bill will now go to President Barack Obama, to be signed into law.
The deal, which followed a cave-in by Democrats in Congress in the face of public pressure, opens the way for other interest groups, such as the national parks department or the Pentagon, to also seek special treatment. The concession to the air industry is only the second made by Congress since an estimated $87bn in sequester budget cuts kicked in on 1 March. The other was to fund food inspectors, amid fears of a health scare.
Republicans hailed the vote on air traffic control as a victory over the Democrats, who had opposed any exemptions to the sequester cuts. The Democrats had argued that if there were to be exemptions, they should be for vulnerable social groups, such as help with schooling for the disadvantaged.
The draft bill does not increase the Federal Aviation Administration's share of the budget, but it does allow it flexibility in how to spend it. Hundreds of flights were being cancelled daily and thousands delayed because of forced furloughs for air traffic controllers. The bill allows the FAA to shift $253m from other parts of its budget to make up staff pay. There were continued flight cancellations and delays on Friday but they were expected to ease once the bill becomes law. FlightStats, which monitors disruption, listed 74 cancellations by early afternoon and 1,668 delays.
In a statement, the Republican House speaker, John Boehner, said: "The disruption to America's air traffic system over the past week was a consequence of the administration's choice to implement the president's sequestration cuts in the most painful manner possible. It's unacceptable that the FAA chose not to plan for sequestration or utilise the flexibility it already has. Americans were rightly fed up, and it's unfortunate that the House and Senate were forced to step in and fix the problem when the president chose not to act."
The Republican senator John McCain was among the first to cite the flexibility offered to the FAA as a reason to extend such treatment to other areas.
"I support the action by Congress this week to provide the Federal Aviation Administration with the flexibility it needs to keep air traffic controllers on the job and flights on schedule," McCain said. "However, it is shameful for us to make allowances for the FAA while doing nothing to stop the draconian cuts that are decimating our military today and putting our nation's security in danger.
"Dealing with the impacts of sequestration on a case-by-case basis does nothing to fix the underlying issue and prolongs this damaging policy. While Congress gives flexibility to the FAA, our military aircraft don't fly and our ships don't sail."
The White House press spokesman, Jay Carney, described the bill as a temporary Band-Aid that fails to address the overall threat to the economy. He suggested that Congress should find the same sense of urgency to help families who have had children kicked out of Head Start programmes or seniors who have lost access to Meals on Wheels.