As Congress returns to Washington this week after a monthlong break, lawmakers are preparing for another heated partisan battle to fund the Federal Aviation Administration, with a temporary deal set to expire in less than two weeks and no compromise in sight.
Unless a deal can be hammered out by Sept. 16, the FAA will go without funding for a second time in less than two months - a scenario that would result in an immediate halt of airport construction projects and the loss of millions of dollars per day in uncollected airline taxes.
At the heart of the debate is a 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 a long-term FAA funding measure, a move Democrats and organized labor say unfairly targets unions and has no place in an aviation funding bill.
Members of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA have been distributing fliers at airports nationwide asking passengers to urge their members of Congress to pass an FAA reauthorization bill without the anti-union provision.
The flight attendants' parent union, the Communication Workers of America, also has launched a direct-mail and robocall campaign at about two dozen House Republicans, including Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica of Florida, to press them to pass a "clean" FAA funding measure.
Last year, the National Mediation Board amended the Railway Labor Act of 1926 to allow recognition of a union chapter if a simple majority of workers who cast ballots approve organizing. The previous rule required a majority of the entire work force to favor unionizing, which meant that workers choosing not to vote effectively were counted as "no" votes.
Republicans and airlines say the new rule will lead to drawn-out labor disputes that could stifle commerce and cause passenger delays that ultimately could cost the industry money - with costs passed down to consumers.
Another sticking point is 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 airline tickets at the airports when each is located within a couple hours' drive of a larger airport.
Subsidies per airline passenger run as high as $5,223 in Ely, Nev., the U.S. Transportation Department says.
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.
Because Congress failed to pass a funding extension by a July 23 deadline, the FAA was forced to issue stop-work orders for more than 200 airport construction projects nationwide. 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 Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, agreed to accept a House GOP-crafted bill to fund the FAA through Sept. 16. Under terms of the deal, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was allowed to use his authority to waive provisions in the bill opposed by Democrats.
It's uncertain if Mr. Reid and Mr. LaHood would be willing to use such an unusual tactic to fund the FAA if another deal - whether temporary or long-term - isn't reached before Sept. 16.
President Obama last week pressed Congress to pass a "clean" long-term FAA funding bill and to address the issue of back pay for the workers who were laid off during this summer's partial FAA shutdown.
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