Senate extends aviation, highway programs

September 15, 2011 3:51:24 PM PDT
The Senate has passed a bill temporarily extending federal aviation and highway programs, averting another shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, abruptly dropped his effort to block a vote Thursday afternoon, clearing the way for passage.

The bill extends the FAA's operating authority, which was due to expire at midnight Friday, through January. Highway and transit programs, which were due to expire Oct. 1, are extended through March.

John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, says the senator agreed to drop his opposition in exchange for assurances that a highway program that funds bike paths and other "transportation enhancements" will be eliminated at a later point.


The Senate reached a deal Thursday to permit a vote on a bill necessary to prevent another shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as federal transportation programs.

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid announced the agreement on the Senate floor. A vote is expected Thursday evening. The announcement came less than two hours after an exchange between Reid and Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma in which both senators indicating no compromise was at hand.

Coburn had been blocking action on a bill to temporarily extend aviation and highway programs. FAA's operating authority is due to expire at midnight on Friday.

Democrats have been negotiating with Coburn, with Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., acting as a go-between. But Coburn had insisted up until Thursday afternoon that he wouldn't back down.

But shortly after his exchange with Reid, Coburn was seen talking with Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, on the Senate floor.

John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, said the senator agreed to give up his effort in exchange for assurances from Boxer and Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking Republican member of the committee, that a highway program that funds bike paths and other "transportation enhancements" will be eliminated at a later point.

Earlier this week, Coburn had pointed to the nation's 146,000 bridges that are structurally deficient, saying it's wrong to require states to spend money on projects that don't enhance safety.

The enhancement programs amount to about 2 percent of the federal transportation budget, according to the Department of Transportation.

A partisan standoff between House Republicans and Senate Democrats forced the FAA to partially shut down for two weeks this summer. Nearly 4,000 FAA workers were furloughed and more than 200 airport construction and safety projects halted, affecting tens of thousands of other workers. The government lost nearly $400 million in airline ticket taxes because airlines no longer had authority to collect the fees.

Without congressional action, the FAA would face another partial shutdown on Friday, when its current operating authority expires. Authority for highway, transit and rail programs, as well as the federal gasoline and diesel taxes that provide the largest share of funding for the programs, are due to expire on Sept. 30.

Long-term funding for the FAA expired in 2007 and highway programs in 2009. Both programs have been continued through a series of short-term extensions. The latest bill would be FAA's 21st extension and the highway program's eighth.

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