House-Senate disagreements over assorted aviation issues now threaten to doom the safety provisions for which the Families of Continental Flight 3407 have been fighting for more than a year.
Lawmakers from both chambers earlier offered assurances that they would quickly agree on a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization including the safety measures by the time a stopgap measure expires July 3.
But with that date in sight and the key House and Senate lawmakers involved in the issue barely speaking about their differences, congressional aides said House lawmakers now are preparing another temporary FAA funding bill to be passed next week.
So with no more than eight weeks of actual lawmaking left before members of Congress go home in October to campaign, it now looks increasingly possible that the ticking clock and the simmering differences between the houses could kill everything the families have worked to achieve.
"There's no action on the bill, and it's just ridiculous," said Rep. Chris Lee, a Republican from Clarence, where Continental Connection Flight 3407 crashed in February 2009, claiming 50 lives.
"If this thing isn't done by the August recess, it's not going to get done," said Kevin Kuwik, one of the leading members of the families group, which has traveled to Washington more than 20 times to push for the air safety provisions.
Lawmakers will be back in their districts for the week of the Fourth of July, and after returning to D.C. on July 12, they will leave the capital again for more than a month on Aug. 2. And when they return, must-pass items will likely clog up the schedule, congressional aides said.
Moreover, the differences between the House and the Senate over the FAA legislation appear to be deeper than expected.
While much attention has been paid to a House provision that would make it easier for FedEx drivers to form labor unions, two other key issues remain in play.
Rep. James L. Oberstar, D-Minn, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is demanding that the final bill preserve a House provision that would sunset antitrust exemptions enjoyed by alliances that link big U.S. airlines with overseas partners.
The Senate version of the bill does not include that provision.
Similarly, Oberstar is insisting that the final bill include language tightening safety standards at foreign aircraft-repair stations. The Senate bill includes similar language, but with the European Union threatening retaliation over the provision and the aerospace industry vehemently opposed to it, senators are willing to abandon it.
Within days, the Senate may allow a test vote on the FedEx provision Oberstar favors -- just so that Oberstar will see that the votes for the provision simply don't exist on the other side of the Capitol, sources said.
The other two controversial provisions are also nonstarters in the Senate, but Oberstar remains adamantly attached to the House version of the legislation.
"The House will not be deterred by threats from the Senate," said Oberstar's spokesman, Jim Berard. "This is the House's position. [Oberstar] is going to champion that position in negotiations."
So far, however, most of the negotiations have taken place at the staff level. Berard said that Oberstar and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the committee that pushed the bill through the Senate, have spoken about it but that he did not know how extensive the discussions have been.
Negotiations "are not at that point yet" where lawmakers would get deeply involved, Berard added.
A spokesman for Rockefeller did not return a call seeking comment.
Kuwik, for one, suggested that it was about time that Oberstar and Rockefeller started working out the differences over the bill.
"It's like a big stare-down," Kuwik said. "No one wants to be the first to call the other."
Nevertheless, Berard said, the spreading pessimism about the bill amounts to "scare tactics" by some with vested interests.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said he remains optimistic that the two chambers can settle their differences so the bill can be passed.
"This is mostly done," said Schumer, who added that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., are committed to getting an FAA bill finished this year. "These are the kinds of things that get done" late in a legislative year, he said.
Both the House and the Senate bills would dramatically increase experience requirements for pilot training, with the House bill requiring 1,500 hours of flying time and the Senate measure settling on 800 hours. The bills also push the FAA to establish and maintain a pilot employment, training and testing database that would allow airlines to assess pilot flight records while making hiring decisions and include other key safety provisions.
As the clock ticks and the disagreements linger, "We're just hoping that the leadership on both sides doesn't lose sight of the fact that safety is the most important thing," Kuwik said.
For the Flight 3407 families, he added, "patience is kind of in short supply."