- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A partial shutdown of U.S. aviation programs showed no sign of ending Wednesday, as President Obama called on Congress to cease a bitter partisan fight that has affected tens of thousands of workers and lost millions of dollars in uncollected airline taxes.

In a game of political chicken similar to the recently resolved debt-limit battle - if a somewhat lower-stakes one - Democrats and Republicans have angrily blamed one another for a stalemate that has halted airport runway and air traffic control tower construction projects across the country.

Democrats have accused Republicans of holding the nation’s aviation sector “hostage” by slipping “anti-worker” provisions in a stalled Federal Aviation Authority funding bill. Republicans countered that Democrats are trying to protect prized “pork programs” that benefit unions and small airports.

With Congress away for summer break, the deadlock may continue until lawmakers return to Washington in early September.

Mr. Obama said he has telephoned congressional leaders to urge them to “get this done” immediately, noting they could use parliamentary procedures to pass legislation to fund the FAA without requiring most of their members to return to the Capitol.

“This is an example of a self-inflicted wound that is unnecessary,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday at the White House. “This is, as I said, not the kind of situation that is complicated.”

The president added that he expected the impasse to be resolved by the end of the week.

Democrats have called on House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, to reconvene the House and pass a “clean” FAA funding bill without any of the provisions they oppose.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, at a heated news conference at the Capitol on Wednesday, accused Republicans of injecting partisan politics into an issue that has caused thousands of construction-related workers to stay at home.

“This is a made-up crisis,” she said. “This is government by hostage-taking.”

But Rep. John L. Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said Senate Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for the partial FAA shutdown because his chamber two weeks ago passed and sent to the Senate a temporary funding measure for the agency.

The Florida Republican defended the “extras” in the House measure - including a provision critics say would make it more difficult for Delta Air Lines employees to unionize, and the elimination of federal subsidies for airlines to service some rural airports - saying they are “modest reforms” intended to eliminate Democratic pork projects.

“We have been willing to compromise, willing to negotiate, find common ground,” Mr. Mica said. “Now they plan to engage in a personal and political media bludgeoning of folks who disagree with them.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican House member but now serving in a Democratic administration, declined to blame either party or congressional chamber for the impasse, saying the “difficulty is with Congress.”

“We need both houses; end your vacation for a couple days, get off the beach, get out of your mobile homes or whatever you’re traveling in, come back to Washington, pass a bill,” he told reporters during a White House briefing Wednesday.

Since 2007, Congress has passed 20 temporary funding extension to keep the FAA running, as disputes over spending, labor rules, safety issues and cross-country airline routes have held up a long-term deal.

Because Congress failed to pass another funding extension by a July 23 deadline, the FAA has issued stop-work orders for more than 200 airport construction projects nationwide. The move has effected at least 70,000 construction-related jobs while furloughing almost 4,000 agency employees.

Mr. LaHood said the partial shutdown won’t compromise air safety and that essential employees such as air traffic controllers will keep working. Forty airport safety inspectors were furloughed but remain on the job, using their own credit cards for expenses.

The shutdown also has prevented the FAA from collecting about $30 million a day in certain airline ticket fees - a number that would exceed $1 billion by the time Congress is scheduled to return to Washington in early September.

The House and Senate passed separate long-term FAA funding authorization bills earlier this year, though the two chambers have been unable to reach a compromise on a combined version.