WASHINGTON (AP) - The House moved Wednesday toward a showdown with the Senate that could result in a shutdown of portions of the Federal Aviation Administration and the furlough of about 4,000 workers.
A Republican-sponsored bill to extend FAA operating authority through Sept. 16 was approved Wednesday by the House by a 243-177 vote mostly along party lines. Senate Democrats have warned that the House bill is unacceptable because Republicans added a provision eliminating about $8.5 million in subsidies for airline service to 13 rural communities in 10 states. The White House also issued a statement calling on the House to drop the subsidies provision.
The FAA's current authority expires at midnight Friday. Most immediately affected by a shutdown would be FAA programs paid for with airline ticket taxes. Airlines would have to stop collecting federal ticket taxes, although they would continue to collect airport fees.
Air traffic controllers, deemed essential safety personnel, would stay on the job. But airport construction grants and FAA's implementation of a new air traffic control system based on GPS technology would halt.
"I want to reassure the flying public that, during this period, safety will not be compromised," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.
At the root of the quarrel is a dispute over union organizing by airline and railroad workers.
Congress has been trying to pass a long-term FAA funding bill since 2007, when the last long-term bill expired. The Senate approved a long-term funding bill in February.
The House approved its version in April. But the House bill contains a GOP-sponsored provision that would 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.
Negotiations between the House and Senate on a long-term FAA funding bill are at an impasse over the labor provision and a handful of other issues, making a temporary extension of FAA's operating authority necessary.
Congressional passage of 20 previous short-term extensions was routine. If enacted, the House bill would be the 21st extension. Senators introduced their own short-term extension bill on Wednesday without the airline subsidies provision, but it was unclear if they would have time under Senate rules to pass it before Friday night.
Democrats say they won't let a bill pass the Senate with the subsidies provision, which they described as a symbolic gesture aimed at trying to force them to negotiate with the House on the labor issue.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has insisted the labor provision be dropped. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, acknowledged that he included the airline service subsidies provision in part to prod the Senate to cut a deal.
"We're trying to do something to motivate them," Mica told reporters.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chief sponsor of the Senate FAA bill, told Mica in a letter Tuesday that he won't let the House force him to accept their policy positions by attaching them to extension bills.
But that's exactly what Mica says he plans to do. In comments to reporters and on the House floor, Mica said he's prepared to effectively pass the entire House long-term funding bill by continually attaching provisions of it to extension bills necessary to keep FAA in operation.
"If I have to do the entire bill one extension and one (provision) at a time, I will," Mica said.
Rockefeller's office said in a statement that the senator was disappointed by House passage of an extension bill with the elimination of rural air service subsidies."
"The House effort sets a terrible precedent for bipartisanship, for the conference process and for the spirit of compromise. Our goal is solutions, not stunts," the statement said.
The long-term funding bill approved by the Senate includes a provision eliminating air service subsidies for 10 of the 13 airports affected by the provision in the House extension bill. Mica said he "tweaked" that language to include three more airports - in Nevada, Montana and New Mexico - because their subsidies amount to more than $1,000 per ticket.
"I want to see folks come down here and vote to continue subsidies for more than $1,000," Mica said.
The 13 affected cities are Athens, Ga.; Morgantown, W.Va.; 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.
The subsidy program was created when airlines were deregulated in 1978 to ensure continued service on less-profitable routes to remote communities.