Despite backing from 65 percent of members, the House on Wednesday night failed to advance legislation that would have required the Federal Aviation Administration and its 15,000-member air traffic controllers union to reopen labor contract negotiations.
The vote was 271-148, just short of the two-thirds majority required for passage because the bill was taken up under a suspension of House rules. But the vote sends a clear message that the FAA should return to the bargaining table and "make a deal in the interests of taxpayers and the flying public," said John Carr, president of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Carr said the union will continue pursuing legislation and remains encouraged by bipartisan support in the House and Senate.
The measure, sponsored by Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, would have forced the FAA and NATCA back to the bargaining table, though the agency began implementing a new contract proposal Monday. The clock had run out on a legally mandated 60-day waiting period after the agency ended formal negotiations by declaring an impasse.
The new wage scale will yield $1.9 billion in wage and benefits savings for the agency. The final proposal from the union offered $1.4 billion in such savings -- a gap that proved difficult to bridge.
The two sides had been stuck in combative talks 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 most highly compensated federal employees.
In debate Tuesday night, members on both sides of the aisle lined up to support the LaTourette legislation, saying the 60-day waiting period following the FAA's impasse declaration did not allow enough time for Congress to act.
Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., said the legislation offered a fair way for the two sides to resolve their differences, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, said the argument that the air traffic controllers are overcompensated compared with other federal employees should not negate collective bargaining rights.
Accusing the Bush administration of attempting to undermine the "safest air traffic control systems" in the world, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said that with benefits controllers earn less than the average member of Congress.
A lone lawmaker, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., argued against the legislation, stating that Congress' responsibilities are to the taxpayers and to a sound aviation system.
The White House had threatened to veto the bill, arguing it raised legal questions and could lead to increased pressure on the deficit and take funds away from an air traffic control system modernization project.