WASHINGTON — Senators jetted out of Washington last week without advancing a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, giving them just 17 legislative days to pass a measure before the agency’s funding authority expires at the end of September.
Heated negotiations over pilot training have already deadlocked senators, in turn delaying discussions between the two chambers to reconcile differences between their versions of the measure. And with a September calendar already crowded with other authorization and funding deadlines, it seems likely Congress will have to enact an extension for the aviation agency’s funding authority before the fiscal year ends.
“I still hope we’ll get a markup early in September,” Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in an interview. “We’ll see.”
The Senate’s FAA bill, which includes authorization for airport improvement projects, aviation modernization and passenger protection provisions, hit turbulence just minutes before the committee was set to mark up its 400-page-plus bill in mid-June.
Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., delayed the markup over what she described as a “miscommunication” over language from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., included in the bipartisan manager’s amendment that would establish a program providing a prospective pilot who completed “enhanced training” with an additional 250 hours toward the required 1,500 hours of flight experience for eligibility to fly for a regional or major airline.
According to staff members familiar with the situation, Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., objected to the provision’s inclusion in the manager’s amendment the morning of the markup over concerns that it could weaken pilot training standards. Over a month later, lawmakers are still at an impasse.
Cruz blamed Schumer for “blowing up the agreement” and said senators will have to continue discussions through the August recess.
“We have twice on the committee had a bipartisan agreement, and unfortunately, Chuck Schumer blew it up,” Cruz said. “My team and I will continue working with Sen. Cantwell and her team, and we’ve made significant progress on the bill. But resolving this issue has proved to be challenging.”
Lawmakers including Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., have rallied behind Schumer in opposing changes to current pilot training requirements. Duckworth introduced a bill this month that aims to strengthen pilot training standards and uphold the 1,500-hour rule, a move she described as “holding the line” against efforts from Thune to weaken them.
“We’re not going to have some sort of nebulous language that says you can substitute 150 hours or 250 hours with structured training. It does not actually say what the training is,” Duckworth said in an interview. “We’ve had seven near-misses in recent years, and the solution is not to cut down on pilot training.”
Schumer himself said at a news conference on July 27 that work on the bill is progressing.
“Chairman Cantwell is really making progress on the FAA bill… I think it’s better,” he said. “I’m very optimistic we’ll get an FAA bill very soon when we return.”
The House passed its 800-page-plus version of the bill via a 351-69 vote in mid-July, sticking to the loose schedule House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., prescribed back in May.
If the Senate does pass its bill in September, it’s not clear whether Graves and ranking member Rick Larsen, D-Wash., could reconcile the differences between their bill and Cantwell and Cruz’s legislation in the House’s 12 legislative days before the end of the month. And if the past is any indication, Larsen and Graves’ bipartisan approach could prove difficult to maintain with so little time.
One issue likely to arise during conference discussions is changes to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s perimeter rule, which limits the airport to flights within 1,250 miles, with some exemptions.
Lawmakers from outside of the perimeter have been pushing to add exemptions in the FAA bill, including long-haul flights that they say provide more tourist access to the nation’s capital. Those within the perimeter say more exemptions would overcrowd the already at-capacity airport and siphon business away from nearby Dulles International Airport.
The House rejected, 205-229, a floor amendment from Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, that would add 14 total flights to National Airport. But it’s not clear if Cruz and Cantwell have reached an agreement to add some slots or perimeter exemptions to the bill, although Cruz has said he supports changes to the rule.
Duckworth said in an interview that the National perimeter rule has further slowed down negotiations in the Senate, although Cruz said pilot training language is the only issue holding up the bill. And it’s unlikely that Graves and Larsen will support changing the perimeter rule after the chamber rejected Owens’ bid to add slots.
The two bill texts as they currently stand also still have technical and substantive differences. The House bill is hundreds of pages longer and includes a whole title dedicated to general aviation provisions that is lacking in the Senate bill. The Senate legislation contains more provisions aimed at improving passenger accessibility than the House version does.
Although Graves and Larsen have pushed for enactment of the bill before Sept. 30 and warned against extending funding authority for the agency, they may have to reconsider as the deadline moves closer.
“I think we can get this done before Sept. 30,” Cruz said, “or I hope so.”
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