Amendments on FAA bill could jam Senate for weeks

The Senate is starting its 2011 workload with a bill that it already passed. Last year, the Senate approved a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization measure 93-0. The FAA bill didn't go any further because of disagreements with the House over a few provisions that the Senate bill didn't address-and it still doesn't.

It's anyone's guess how long it will take senators to pass the bill this time around, since Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is leaving the bill open to amendment. The FAA bill is a trial-run of a gentleman's deal between Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to make the Senate more efficient, by reducing procedural roadblocks by both sides. Reid, for his part, will not limit the number of amendments or the amount of time in which the bill must get done.

This means lawmakers could get bogged down in any number of quibbles, from the number of long-distance slots at Washington, D.C.'s Ronald Reagan National Airport to passenger fees.

"There is no defined timeline on it," Reid said on Monday. "In the past, we had many, many bills that have hundreds of amendments, but we work our way through those. Let's try to have the Senate start being the Senate again."

Assuming the Senate finishes work on the FAA bill before March 4-when the current FAA authorization runs out-senators will be in an odd position of waiting for the House to act. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., will introduce his own FAA reauthorization in the next few weeks.

Mica has said the FAA bill will be the first order of business in his committee. Mica won't be starting completely from scratch in introducing the measure because he has an outline from last year to work with. Still, Mica will attempt to streamline some of the programs in the measure and make FAA operations more efficient. That will be a theme throughout the year, not just from Mica, but from a whole range of House Republicans.

To kick things off, the Aviation Subcommittee will hold a series of hearings next week on an FAA reauthorization bill. The FAA will address the panel on Tuesday, February 8, and industry stakeholders will appear on Wednesday, February 9.

Air carriers and airports will be watching closely to see how the aviation system is funded in both the House and Senate. Much of the current network is funded by user fees from the industry, which means any changes proposed by Mica could give way to lobbying fights as various companies jockey for position.

In the Senate, the $35 billion bill is largely self-funded, which means Republicans will have a hard time complaining about how it adds to the deficit. User fees paid by consumers finance $8.1 billion for airport improvements, for example.

The Senate bill also sets deadlines for the implementation of the GPS-based Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) that sponsors say will reduce flight delays. Right now, air traffic control towers are using outdated radar equipment. "It's a 21st Century system. It allows up to one-third more planes to land safely," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., of the NextGen technology.

Perhaps more important than what the bill does is what it doesn't do. It doesn't change the number of long-distance slots available at Reagan National Airport, for example. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he would be open to adding some long-distance slots, but he doesn't want the bill to get dragged down over a side issue like that. "It's important to people on both sides of the country, less in the middle," Rockefeller said.

The Senate bill also doesn't change passenger facility charges, as some lawmakers have proposed. Nor does it change how some carriers-namely FedEx-are governed by union laws, which was a big deal in the House last year.

The FedEx issue has disappeared since former Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., lost his bid for reelection. Except for some of its pilots, most of FedEx isn't unionized, and Oberstar had attempted to make it easier for ground carriers to organize by shifting their labor governance to the Railway Labor Act. House Republicans objected to that idea, and now they're in charge. So that issue, at least, shouldn't delay the bill.

Dan Friedman contributed to this report.

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