Moving with striking speed and overwhelming bipartisanship, Congress on Friday ordered President Obama to cancel the furloughs of air traffic controllers, making the second big dent in the budget sequesters.
Congress approved a bill ordering the Transportation Department to move money to the Federal Aviation Administration in order to put air traffic controllers back on the job — and requiring Mr. Obama’s team to make cuts elsewhere in the department.
“I think we all agree the FAA and the administration has handled the sequester poorly,” said Rep. Tom Latham, Iowa Republican. “The administration has played shameful politics with sequestration at the expense of hardworking families.”
The bill passed the House 361-41, and the Senate had already pre-approved the bill unanimously late Thursday night.
It now goes to Mr. Obama, who signaled he will sign it — though the White House was not happy about it.
“It is a band-aid solution. It does not solve the bigger problem,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
He said this was a one-time exception and the president wouldn’t entertain other specific carve-outs from the sequesters.
Previously, the president had rejected efforts to give him flexibility to move money around, saying that he didn’t want to pick-and-choose between programs and instead wanted to see taxes raised to cover the costs of the programs.
The $85 billion in sequester cuts are slated to be applied to most domestic and defense programs equally, even though neither Mr. Obama nor congressional Republicans want across-the-board cuts.
But neither do they want to be responsible for the specific cuts. Mr. Obama has called for tax increases, while House GOP leaders have rejected that, instead trying to pass bills that would make the administration have to choose where to cut.
Voting against the bill were 12 Republicans and 29 Democrats.
The Democrats objected to fixing just one part of the sequesters, saying other major programs such as Head Start, health research and defense operations are still suffering.
“It fails to address the whole impact of sequester,” said Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.
The FAA announced the furloughs last week and put them into effect over the weekend, leaving airlines, airports and travelers little time to adjust. With fewer air traffic controllers on the job, takeoffs and landings had to be spaced further apart, which led to major delays at some airports.
Constituents complained to lawmakers, who rushed to act, moving with striking speed for a body that is usually gridlocked.
The new bill orders the Transportation Department to cut $253 million from elsewhere in its budget and send the money to the FAA. The bill would also cancel a future move FAA had planned to close dozens of contract air traffic control towers.
Despite administration warnings of massive pain, the sequesters have been in effect nearly two months and the general public had not felt it — until the FAA furloughs.
Republicans on Capitol Hill accused Mr. Obama of making the furloughs as painful as possible as a political stunt. They said FAA could have focused the furloughs on employees who weren’t controllers, but instead applied them to all employees equally. They also argued FAA could have shifted the furloughs because some airports could handle the cuts better than others.
Friday marks the second time Congress has stepped in to undo a major part of the sequesters.
Last month it approved restoring money to keep federal meat-packing plant inspectors on the job. Without that, analysts had warned of beef, chicken and pork shortages.
Meanwhile, the administration continues to struggle with how to handle the sequesters. In February, the Homeland Security Department released thousands of immigrants from detention, blaming the sequesters — though officials later acknowledged that they’d been running over capacity anyway, and the sequesters weren’t to blame.
Many Democrats reluctantly supported the FAA bill, but said they still want to cancel the rest of the sequesters.
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.
He said Thursday that he’ll try to push that bill through when Congress returns from vacation in two weeks.