President Obama on Wednesday called on Congress to end the Federal Aviation Administration's partial shutdown, seeking to gain the political upper hand in yet another high-stakes showdown with House Republicans.
Obama cited the thousands of FAA workers who have been furloughed and the loss of $200 million a week during this month's recess in revenues collected by airlines but not being turned over to the federal government.
"That would be $1 billion at a time when we're worrying about how we pay for everything from education to Head Start and we don't anticipate it's going to be easy to get that money back, even though the airlines are collecting it," he said.
Obama said that members need not even return to town to resolve the dispute, saying it could be done through a procedural agreement and that debate could resume in September.
"This is a lose, lose, lose situation that can be easily solved if Congress gets back into town and do their job," he told reporters. "They don't even have to come back into town."
But a quick fix appears unlikely unless the Senate is prepared to agree unanimously to a six-week stopgap bill that was passed by the House a few weeks ago. And that is unlikely to happen.
House Speaker John Boehner has refused to ask House members to sign off remotely on a "clean" FAA extension that is being advocated by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Reid on Wednesday said both chambers could pass a clean FAA stopgap under "unanimous consent" by Friday.
House and Senate Democrats at the Wednesday news conference said solving the impasse is up to Boehner. "I call upon Speaker Boehner to end this," Reid said. "He can do it."
But the GOP was not buckling. "The only way to get a bill to the president's desk is for the Senate Democrats to pass the House bill by [unanimous consent]," said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel on Wednesday.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that Boehner's office had made clear that a clean FAA bill was out of the question.
Before Obama's remarks, a visibly frustrated LaHood came to the White House briefing room to implore Congress to return from their vacations and pass a clean bill.
"We've heard a lot of great speeches from members of Congress. They've talked the talk but they have not walked the walk" on deficit reduction, he argued. "Come back to Washington! Leave your vacations!"
LaHood dodged questions about whether President Obama could grant him the authority to shift his agency's funds in order to create a temporary fix until Congress returns. He said he was now focusing on getting Congress to return to pass a clean bill. While he had previously focused on getting the Senate to pass the House-approved extension, he said Wednesday the fact that both Houses were out of session now had changed his goal.
Rockefeller's plan for both the House and Senate to pass a different FAA extension is technically plausible, but it is a difficult path. Even if Boehner did seek agreement from all members in the House for a clean FAA bill, there is no guarantee he would get it. That goes for the Senate as well.
Both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have objected to various stopgap funding measures for the FAA.
The immediate issue is language added by House Transportation Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., to a House-passed short term FAA extension that would cut funds for rural airports. Democrats say Mica has it made clear that provision, with the axe falling particularly hard on a few states including Nevada and West Virginia, is meant to force Senate Democrats to yield in talks on a long term FAA reauthorization bill. Those talks are stalled primarily over House language Democrats say is aimed forcing a National Mediation Board to make it harder for airline unions to organize.
Rockefeller said Boehner "three or four days ago" sent "a direct message to me that the House would only consider a clean extension if I would agree" to the House position on the board.
Reid said Tuesday he would accept the House bill, even though it cut funding for an airport in his state. He called on "other senators," presumably meaning Rockefeller, to agree. The House extension was blocked on the Senate floor by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., a Commerce Committee member, though Rockefeller also continued to object.
Defending Rockefeller, Reid on Wednesday walked back his statement, saying he was referring to a compromise offer to allow cuts to rural airports in Nevada. "I was willing give up Nevada; that still wasn't good enough for them," Reid said.
Democrats on Wednesday argued the FAA fight is the latest example of House Republican "hostage taking" following the pattern of negotiations on a continuing resolution and raising the debt ceiling. They said yielding this time would simply invite new demands from Mica and House Republicans.
"This is their modus operandi," Boxer said. "Government by crisis that they make up; government by hostage taking; government by threat."
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said anger over the FAA spat should fall "on Mr. Mica," who by refusing a clean extension has already cost the government more than it would save through cuts to rural airports. "Why? Because he has taken us hostage," Hoyer said.
The mood isn't very cordial on Capitol Hill anyway, and Democrats in both chambers cried foul over the dilemma Reid faced after the House adjourned on Monday--to pass a bill that no Democrat likes or let 4,000 FAA workers remain on furlough and halt some 200 construction projects employing 70,000 people.
Rockefeller has been the most strenuous of the objectors to the House version of the FAA stopgap, saying House members have not negotiated in good faith over a broader bill to authorize its funding for several years. It was clear the talks were over on Tuesday evening when he issued a scathing statement blaming Republicans for refusing to allow a "clean" stopgap to clear the Senate.
On Wednesday, Boehner's office issued a strikingly similar statement saying Democrats had chosen to play politics with the issue by refusing to pass the House bill.
Rebecca Kaplan contributed