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Congestion at U.S.-Canada border is put on the back burner

Legislation that ultimately could lead to less congestion at the Peace Bridge died at least a temporary death in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday when it got caught up in an unrelated battle over whether commercial airline pilots should carry guns.

Still, the legislation that the Senate passed reauthorizing funding for the Federal Aviation Administration included good news for one group of Western New York residents: the Families of Continental Flight 3407. That’s because the FAA bill did not, as the families had feared, include an amendment weakening the pilot experience standards they forced into law in 2010.

Before the bill headed for final passage, senators from both parties prepared a package of 26 noncontroversial amendments that they wanted to add. That package included the Promoting Travel, Commerce, and National Security Act to give U.S. border agents the authority to operate in Canada.

Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten E. Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, authored that amendment because it’s necessary to allow federal officials to begin negotiations with Canada on an agreement that would allow U.S.-bound cargo to be preinspected on the U.S. side of the border.

The senators, along with Buffalo-area House members, are pushing that legislation because they think preclearance is the ultimate solution to the truck backups on the Peace Bridge, which often occur because the truck plaza on the U.S. side of the span is too small to accommodate the volume of trucks entering the United States. The plaza on the Canadian side is far larger, and has room for the U.S.-bound trucks to be preinspected there.

That amendment isn’t controversial – but the package that included it became so because of the arcane rules of the Senate, which allow any member to put a hold on legislation at virtually any time, for virtually any reason.

Miffed that the Senate would not consider his amendment calling for commercial pilots to be armed, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., placed a hold on the package that included the border preclearance amendment.

Paul’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but he has been pushing for such a measure for years.

“I want every potential jihadist and terrorist in the world to know that our pilots are armed, and that if you come into the cockpit you will be shot,” Paul told CNN last year.

Schumer, however, was aghast that Paul felt so strongly about his measure that he was willing to block other noncontroversial ones out of protest.

Asked what he thought of Paul’s proposal to arm pilots, he said: “I think it’s absurd. It’s ideology gone crazy.”

Schumer stressed that he had extracted an agreement from Sen. John R. Thune, R-S.D., chief author of the FAA bill, to get the Canadian border amendment and the other noncontroversial measures in the compromise FAA bill that the Senate and House will negotiate.

The Senate passed the aviation bill after Thune gave up on passing those noncontroversial amendments.

A more contentious amendment – one that would weaken the pilot experience requirements – never came close to making it in the bill. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., who proposed it, withdrew it after Schumer and Gillibrand objected.

“I made it clear I would not let this go forward, and they backed off,” Schumer said. Gillibrand said, “I will fight any bill that weakens pilot training requirements.”