WASHINGTON — The deadlock over sequestration might have had a dreary same-old quality Tuesday had the budget cuts not tied up the system that delivers 23,000 airplanes, hundreds of thousands of passengers and millions of tons in freight across the nation.
Congress demanded information.
Senators decried a “manufactured crisis.”
The Obama administration dug in its heels.
The same players and much the same rhetoric as last year’s “fiscal cliff” and debt-ceiling dramas, but this time with the rest of the nation more directly engaged.
“This is a manufactured crisis,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who sits on the Appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding the Federal Aviation Administration.
“I would add phony and contrived to that description,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex.
“As a result of employee furloughs due to sequestration,” the Obama administration said in an FAA statement, more than 1,200 flights were delayed Monday because 1,500 air traffic controllers were off the job.
The aviation system began to back up again shortly after daybreak Tuesday, with the first delays occurring at New York’s three airports and then spreading to the big hub airports in Dallas and Los Angeles, finally touching traffic into the Washington area’s Dulles International and Reagan National airports.
The FAA has estimated that a third of passengers will face delays during the furloughs, with up to 6,700 flights arriving late at more than a dozen major airports each day. The agency says furloughs are necessary to achieve $200 million of the $637 million in savings mandated this fiscal year to meet sequestration targets.
Republicans and some Democrats challenged the way the White House has chosen to impose sequestration cuts by furloughing 10 percent of the 15,000 air traffic controllers for the rest of the fiscal year. The administration quietly held firm to the position that ending sequestration all together was the best resolution.
“[Transportation] Secretary [Ray] LaHood indicated to me that he would like to be helpful,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. “His explanation to me is that they are not interested in short-term solutions, but long-term solutions.”
Moran said reluctance to create a sequestration loophole to protect controllers “has led to the speculation of many that there is a political effort to try to demonstrate that … sequestration is something that is so painful that it can’t be accomplished without causing dramatic consequences.”
Sens. John Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., and John Thune of South Dakota, the chairman and ranking Republican member of the Senate transportation committee, signed a sharply worded letter demanding to know how much it would cost to end the controller furloughs and keep open 149 control towers slated to close.
“Many stakeholders argue that you have flexibility within your budget to avoid or minimize air traffic controller furloughs,” they wrote in the letter, addressed to LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., waded in by introducing a bill that would defer all sequestration cuts until the new fiscal year begins in October. The measure, which proposes to cover the cost by counting savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was derided as a gimmick by Republicans and given no chance of passing.
“Sequestration is now in effect. It’s taking a big meat cleaver to something that should have a scalpel,” Reid said. “It’s fine that everyone talks about airports. I care about flights being held up for 10 minutes, let alone three hours. But I’m also concerned about jobs being lost to the tune of 750,000 people. Seventy-five thousand little boys and girls being cut off Head Start. Homeless veterans being taken out of the homes that we’re helping to subsidize.”
The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said in a statement Tuesday that some controllers are being paid overtime while others take mandated unpaid days off.
Both the airline industry and members of Congress have expressed frustration that the final furlough plans were announced only last week, with the airlines contending they had little time to plan for the delays.
“Look, the Obama administration knew about the sequester for months,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “Yet it gave the traveling public and Congress only three days’ notice before implementing the furloughs that are now being blamed for these delays.”
The administration brushed off suggestions that air travel is being “used as a pawn in a budget debate,” as alleged Monday by Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. The White House is pushing for resolution of the larger sequestration issue and deflected the suggestion that it was using high-profile airport turmoil as leverage.
Immediate relief is unlikely to come from the courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Monday denied an airline industry request for a stay of the furloughs.
The court set a May 22 deadline for the industry group and the FAA to make arguments in the suit filed Friday.