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House passes stopgap bill for aviation, highway funding

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The House on Tuesday passed a stopgap funding bill to avert a shutdown of federal aviation and highway programs, with the Senate expected to approve the measure later this week.

With Federal Aviation Administration funding set to expire at the end of this week, the House approved an extension through the end of January. The bill, which passed by voice vote, also calls for highway funding to be extended from Oct. 1 through the end of March.

The typically separate measures were combined into a single bill, with funding kept at current levels. The legislation is devoid of any contentious policy changes that have held up the measures — particularly the aviation bill — in the past.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica, who helped broker the measure, said that while the bill signifies a bipartisan, bicameral agreement to move forward, "it must not be just a temporary Band-Aid for our important aviation, highway, rail and safety programs and for job creation."

"This action represents a last chance to roll up our sleeves and get transportation projects in America moving again," the Florida Republican said.

Since 2007, Congress has passed 21 temporary funding extensions 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.

Similarly, highway and transit programs have been operating under a series of seven short-term funding extensions since the last long-term bill expired in 2009.

House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said that while he was pleased that Democrats and Republicans came together to hammer out a compromise, the bill  "is in no way a substitute for responsible long-term authorizations of both [the FAA and highway] measures."

"While today was a positive step, if Republicans are truly serious about job creation and revitalizing American manufacturing, they will work with House and Senate Democrats, as well as the administration, to enact long-term surface transportation and FAA authorizations," Mr. Hoyer said.

Progress on a long-term FAA bill has been particularly bogged down this year over a controversial new federal rule that has made it easier for airline and railroad workers to unionize. Republicans have pressed to include a provision to overturn the rule in the aviation measure, a move Democrats and organized labor say unfairly targets unions and has no place in the legislation.

Another sticking point on the aviation bill has been a federal program that subsidizes airlines to service certain rural airports. Republicans want to make cuts in the program at more than a dozen small airports, saying it’s unfair to use taxpayer money to subsidize tickets at the airports when each one is located near a larger airport.

Money issue mostly are to blame for the delay in passing a long-term transportation bill. Federal gas and diesel taxes that fund highway programs have declined in recent years, but lawmakers have been reluctant to either raise taxes or cut spending.

The FAA was forced to issue stop-work orders for more than 200 airport construction projects nationwide when Congress failed to pass a funding extension by a July 23 deadline. The move affected at least 70,000 construction-related jobs, furloughed about 4,000 agency employees and prevented the FAA from collecting about $30 million a day in certain airline ticket fees. Funding was shut off for almost two weeks until a temporary funding deal was reached.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, praised the House for passing a "clean" funding extension without controversial policy riders.

"I remain committed to passage of a comprehensive FAA reauthorization deal, but I am disappointed that nearly six months after passing its version the House has still failed to designate conferees so we can work out differences between the House and Senate FAA bills," the West Virginia Democrat said.

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