Bill returning FAA to bargaining table faces veto threat

The White House issued a formal veto threat Tuesday against legislation that would require the Federal Aviation Administration to reconvene labor negotiations with the union representing its air traffic controllers.

The House is expected to vote on the bill (H.R. 5449) Wednesday. It would require FAA to reopen negotiations with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association two days after the agency started implementing its final proposal, which includes $1.9 billion in wage and benefits savings.

Debate on the measure, sponsored by Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, was scheduled to begin Tuesday night. The bill will be taken up under a suspension of the House rules, which requires passage by two-thirds of members, or 290 votes in its favor.

On Monday, FAA announced it would begin implementing its final contract proposal as the clock had run out on a legally mandated 60-day waiting period after the agency ended formal negotiations by declaring an impasse.

The final proposal from the union, which represents more than 15,000 air traffic controllers, offered $1.4 billion in pay and benefits savings for the agency.

In a statement, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said that the new contract will be phased in, and old work and pay rules will remain in effect during the transition.

The two sides have been stuck in combative and contentious labor negotiations over benefits and salaries since July 2005. The FAA's labor unions legally are allowed to negotiate pay, a unique situation in the federal government, and its controllers are among the highest compensated federal employees.

The Bush veto threat was contained in a statement of administration policy from the Office of Management and Budget, which argued that the legislation changing the "ground rules" raises "serious legal questions."

Legislative action could result in a boost in air traffic controllers' pay, increasing pressure on the deficit and taking funds away from an air traffic control system modernization project, the statement said.

The administration also expressed concern that the bill would result in future FAA wage disputes being sent to binding arbitration with the Federal Service Impasses Panel. The legislation the House will consider Wednesday would not require the agency to go into arbitration, however. Rather, it would send the two sides back to the negotiating table by blocking FAA from implementing its final contract offer.

House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Republican leaders on the Appropriations Committee oppose the bill. They argue that controllers have received a 75 percent increase in salary and benefits since 1998, and the 14,575 controllers are now averaging $173,000 a year in pay and benefits. At least 1,300 controllers last year earned more in wages and benefits than any member of Congress, according to the committee.

Union officials argue that under FAA's proposal, new controllers would receive less pay and veterans at the upper end of the pay scale would not receive another raise before mandatory retirement at age 56. New controllers would make up to $127,000 a year in salaries and benefits in the first five years, according to FAA.

Ruth Marlin, executive vice president of the union, countered that the average salary for new controllers could be as high as $92,166 but probably would be between $64,000 and $69,000 by the fifth year.

The union Tuesday said the Transportation Department and FAA are stifling congressional debate on the legislation and have "resorted to using taxpayer money to distribute misleading letters on behalf of nongovernmental advocacy groups."

According to the union, the Transportation Department circulated letters from Americans for Tax Reform and the American Conservative Union containing misleading statements regarding the contract and the negotiations.

FAA spokesman Geoff Basye denied that the agency was working with the advocacy groups.

"I think these groups have examined the issue and are speaking out for their membership," Basye said. "They've chosen to get involved and give their opinion on the issue."

Darren Goode of CongressDaily contributed to this report.

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