- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2011

Congressional leaders have struck a deal on a transportation funding measure that would avert a potential shutdown of airport and highway programs.

With Federal Aviation Administration funding set to expire at the end of this week, leaders have approved an extension through the end of January. And highway and transit assistance programs would receive a funding extension from Oct. 1 through the end of March.

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

The House could vote on the bill as early as Tuesday. While some conservatives who pressed for more spending cuts may withhold support, the bill likely will pass.

“This wouldn’t be done if there weren’t terms that satisfied both sides,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John L. Mica, Florida Republican, said according to the Associated Press. “It’s a positive step.”

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.

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 an aviation funding bill.

Another sticking point on the aviation bill 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 tickets at the airports when each one is located near a larger airport.

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.

FAA 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.

The issue that held up passage of long-term transportation bill is simpler: money. 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.

c This article based in part on wire service reports.

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