With airport delays piling up, the Senate voted late Thursday to give the Obama administration the power to cancel its furloughs of air traffic controllers — a move designed to dent the most painful part of the budget sequesters seen so far.
The bill passed unanimously, without any senators objecting, in a chamber that was almost empty. Most senators had left for a 10-day vacation earlier in the day.
The House must now act. It is still in session on Friday, so it could pass the bill this week and send it on to President Obama.
Mr. Obama had previously rejected efforts to give him more flexibility to halt the sequester cuts, arguing that tax increases to give the government more money to operate is the best solution. But overwhelming support in Congress and ongoing pain by travelers would likely sway him to sign the bill.
“There literally have been thousands of flights delayed since the furloughs went into effect, and I’m so happy we were able to work together across the aisle in a bipartisan way to resolve this problem,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who wrote the bill along with Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat.
The $85 billion in budget sequesters — across-the-board cuts to most domestic and defense programs — took effect March 1. But the pain had been relatively minor for most Americans until this weekend, when the Federal Aviation Administration began furloughs of air traffic controllers.
With fewer controllers, airplane takeoffs and landings had to be spaced out more, which meant delays on the ground. Travelers complained, and members of Congress grilled the FAA, accusing it of poor management.
Some Republicans accused the White House of purposely trying to make the sequester cuts as painful as possible in order to gain the upper hand in negotiations. The FAA chief denied that in testimony this week.
The fight over the FAA highlights the battle lines for the sequester more broadly. Congressional Republicans want the Obama administration to step up and ask for areas where it needs flexibility to keep some major operations open — such as air traffic controllers.
But the administration has refused to make those requests and the White House even rejected a Republican bill that would have given it flexibility to move money around.
Thursday’s bill, though, gives the administration the flexibility the GOP had called for in order to end the furloughs. It also heads off another potential problem that was looming later this year, when the FAA had planned to close down some contract control towers.
Republicans said the bill does not increase spending, nor does it impose new taxes.
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid earlier this week had proposed canceling all of the sequesters for the next five months, saying he wanted to use lower spending on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to cover the costs. But the GOP rejected that as a gimmick.
Mr. Reid said Thursday night that when the Senate returns from its vacation, he will try again to push for a broader solution to the whole sequester.
Still, Thursday’s bill shows that when the sequester pain hits enough Republican and Democratic voters, Congress can act to cancel individual parts of it.
Earlier this year Congress added back money for meat-packing inspections, which had been slated to be cut under the sequesters. But, given a chance to cancel the control tower cuts, the Senate balked then.