Congress has reached a bipartisan compromise to end a two-week partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration that has idled tens of thousands of workers and cost the government about $30 million a day in uncollected airline ticket taxes, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said Thursday.
Western New York airports had been bracing for everything from delays in runway reconstruction at Niagara Falls to loss of passenger service at Jamestown, all stemming from the partisan congressional standoff.
Under the deal, the Senate today would approve a House bill extending the FAA's operating authority through mid-September, including a provision that eliminates $16.5 million in air service subsidies to 13 rural communities.
Senators have scattered for their August recess, but the measure can be approved if leaders from both parties agree to adopt it by "unanimous consent."
Chautauqua County Airport outside Jamestown is one of the 13 rural sites threatened by the subsidy cuts. Bradford Regional Airport in McKean County, Pa., is another.
Republicans had insisted on the subsidy cuts as their price for restoring the FAA to full operation. But the cuts may become moot under the compromise bill. It includes language that gives Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood the authority to continue subsidized service to the 13 communities if he decides it's necessary.
Democrats said they expect the administration to effectively waive or negate the subsidy cuts.
If President Obama signs the bill over the weekend, FAA employees could return to work, and payments for airport construction projects would resume on Monday, transportation officials said.
Without an agreement, there could be damaging effects in Western New York, including a delay in $1 million in reimbursement for construction of the passenger terminal at Niagara Falls and a delay in a $4.6 million reimbursement for noise abatement involving hundreds of Cheektowaga homes near Buffalo Niagara International Airport.
In Washington, Democrats say the air-service cuts were used as leverage in a bid to get Democrats to capitulate to the GOP House on a labor provision, which the White House has said Obama would veto, in exchange for dropping the cuts. Democrats see the provision as part of a national effort by Republicans to undermine organized labor.
The provision would overturn a National Mediation Board rule approved last year that allows airline and railroad employees to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn't vote were treated as "no" votes.
The FAA shutdown began last month when Washington was transfixed by the stalemate over raising the government's debt ceiling. During that time, the FAA furloughed 4,000 workers but kept air traffic controllers and most safety inspectors on the job.
Airline passengers in the busy travel season hardly noticed any changes. Airlines continued to work as normal, but they were no longer authorized to collect federal ticket taxes at a rate of $30 million a day.
The entire air service subsidy program costs about $200 million a year. It was created after airlines were deregulated in 1978 to ensure continued service on less profitable routes to remote communities. But critics say some communities receiving subsidies are within driving distance of a hub airport.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, have been vocal in defending the Jamestown subsidy and its importance to business and air travelers in the Southern Tier.
"Every week it's not reauthorized creates mounting problems for our local economy," Schumer said before the accord was announced.
"Without funding, the Jamestown airport will suffer tremendously from its inability to attract commercial airlines, and Chautauqua County may well end up without commercial air service," Higgins said before the deal was reached. "The loss of Jamestown airport would mean a loss of jobs, loss of business and loss of accessibility for our district."
News Political Reporter Robert J. McCarthy contributed to this report.