Privatization language likely to be stripped from FAA bill

The FAA reauthorization will likely be sent back to a House-Senate conference committee Tuesday night, potentially paving the way for Republicans to strip language from the bill that allows privatization of some air traffic control workers.

The House Rules Committee will vote Tuesday on a motion to recommit the reauthorization, which sources close to the conference said they expect will pass. While in theory both Democratic and Republican conferees want to reopen the legislation to discuss privatization, congressional and industry sources said Republicans plan to strip the privatization language from the bill in order to garner enough support to pass it.

The privatization provision has emerged as the most contentious aspect of the bill, with Democrats pushing to reinsert language expressly forbidding privatization. For weeks, Democrats in both the House and the Senate have said they will oppose a bill that simply removes the provision without reinserting the original anti-privatization language passed by both houses.

House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member James Oberstar, D-Minn., Tuesday said that privatization is the key sticking point to passage of the FAA reauthorization bill. "The substantive issues of the bill are not at risk or disagreement," Oberstar said. "What is in contention is the administration's proposal to undo the determination that air traffic control is an inherently governmental function."

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said House Democrats are unanimously opposed to the contract language, and charged that Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., has been trying to win individual GOP votes by eliminating their districts' towers from the list of those that could contract out services. Rules ranking member Martin Frost, D-Texas, Tuesday circulated a "Dear Colleague" to Democrats saying, "The Republican leadership needs to step up to the plate, return this bill to conference and reaffirm the Congress' commitment to keeping our control towers out of private hands."

John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, said that the Republicans' plan was nothing more than "the deal du jour" to gain support for the reauthorization. He said that removing the provision would not effectively prohibit future privatization by the administration. Assuming the reauthorization bill is returned to the conference committee and the privatization language is stripped, sources said Republicans would have enough votes in the House to pass the reauthorization.

But Democrats in the Senate-most vocally Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.-have pledged to defeat any bill without the original provision banning privatization. If Republicans cannot gather enough votes to pass FAA reauthorization in the House and Senate this week, lawmakers will have to approve another continuing resolution for federal aviation programs, which will expire Friday.

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