Democrats say safety sacrificed in aviation bill pushed by House

Vast differences with Senate version

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A sweeping overhaul of aviation regulations the House passed Friday - a measure that would modernize the nation’s aging air traffic control system - may not fly in the Senate.

The Senate passed its own version of the bill in February. And since the two measures differ significantly, it’s uncertain what a final version would include, or even if a compromise is possible.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, chairman of the Senate’s transportation committee, predicted Friday a deal could be hammered out by the end of the year.

“We are ready to roll up our sleeves and get this bill done,” the West Virginia Democrat said in a prepared statement after the House vote. “I am confident that we can work through all the differences between the House and Senate versions of this bill in the conference process.”

But major sticking points - such as a provision in the Republican-crafted House bill that would make it more difficult for rail and airline workers to unionize - won’t make those negotiations easy. And Senate Democrats may balk at some Federal Aviation Administration budget cuts pushed by House Republicans.

The long-delayed FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act passed the House mostly along party lines by a vote of 223 to 196. The $59.7 billion bill is a budget blueprint for FAA programs for the next three-and-a-half years.

A two-year, $34.5 billion version passed the Democratic-controlled Senate in February by an 87-8 vote.

The House measure would cut the FAA’s budget by $4 billion in part by streamlining aviation programs and facilities, and by increasing the role of the private sector in facility operations.

“The federal government can do more with less, and this bill does so by requiring the FAA to identify savings in a manner that does not negatively impact aviation safety,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica, a Florida Republican.

But Democrats say the bill’s cost-cutting provisions come at a dangerous price: airline safety.

“When we are talking about investing in air traffic control modernization, or regulating safety, or hiring a sufficient number of safety inspectors, there is no such thing as ‘doing more with less,’” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the House transportation committee.

The House bill would require the FAA to tailor regulations to specific parts of the aviation industry rather than one-size-fits-all standards. It also would prohibit new safety regulations if the FAA couldn’t justify the costs.

Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who authored the safety provision, denied accusations he was singling out particular regulations. He added the rules only would apply to future FAA regulations.

“I want to improve the FAA rule-making process and I welcome suggestions to make further improvements to my amendment before it is signed into law,” he said.

Democrats and a handful of Republicans also bristled at a provision in the House bill that overturns a 2010 National Mediation Board (NMB) rule that allows rail and airline industry workers to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn’t vote were counted as “no” votes.

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