Senate Commerce Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Trent Lott, R-Miss., said Tuesday he will remove any reference to privatization from the conference draft, and that the contentious provision is not worth jeopardizing the entire bill.
"Taking down the whole bill is a huge mistake," said Lott, adding he remains confident the agency will be reauthorized before the Oct. 31 deadline.
Lott refused to say whether the privatization language would simply be stricken from the bill or if the new conference report would include the prohibition passed by the House and Senate.
"We've got to keep all these options open until we get ready to go to conference," he said, indicating a second round of conference talks could occur next week.
Democratic sources and union officials said that if Lott plans only to strip the provision without reinserting the original language, the bill would not prevent future privatization.
National Air Traffic Controllers Association President John Carr said simply removing the provision "still leaves the system vulnerable to privatization. This may seem like an easy fix ... but to think this returns us to the status quo is overly simplistic."
A Democratic source close to the conference said a plan only to strike the language would be "ridiculous" and "a step in the wrong direction." He added that Congress will have to pass another temporary extension of federal aviation programs before Oct. 31 unless Democrats are included in the conference process.
"Nothing's going to happen until they come to us, rather than just putting all these proposals out there to see if they can get the votes," he said.
Meanwhile, House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., is floating a proposal that would shift command of the air traffic control workforce to the military. Such a move would then prevent air traffic controllers from joining a union. Mica plans to hold a hearing Nov. 6 to discuss the possibility.
Carr said Mica's idea "recognizes the inherently governmental function of air traffic control, although we believe the military's priority should be military air traffic control, not civilian." He also expressed concern that a military currently fighting the war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan may already be spread too thin to take on the responsibility of the domestic air traffic control system.