Senators seek clean FAA bill

Extraneous provisions could erode bipartisan support for the measure, Commerce Committee leaders say.

Senate Commerce leaders warned both parties Thursday not to bog down Federal Aviation Administration legislation with amendments that might sink the long-awaited aviation update. But their attempt might be complicated as lawmakers shift their focus back to earmarks, with each party trying to gain the upper hand.

The two-year bill, which at the moment enjoys wide support in both parties, "is not a vehicle that can carry a lot of controversial provisions," Commerce Committee ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, warned. "I support most of the amendments that I've heard argued. I just don't support them on this bill."

Her comments came shortly after Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., offered an amendment banning earmarks for fiscal 2010 and fiscal 2011, an proposal many Republicans back.

House Republicans Thursday adopted a rule banning all earmarks for the year, an idea that House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democratic leaders floated at a leadership meeting Tuesday. House Appropriations Committee Democrats Wednesday announced a ban on earmarks benefiting for-profit companies, which they say would have resulted in 1,000 fewer earmarks if it had been instituted last year.

But Senate Appropriations Democrats have not bought the idea, underscoring the uncertainty over whether final fiscal 2011 spending bills, many of which might not approved until after the midterm election, will be affected much by efforts to limit earmarks.

These efforts include a bipartisan amendment Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., offered to the FAA bill Thursday requiring the Office of Management and Budget to annually identify unused federal transportation earmarks and use the money to help pay down the debt.

"This really shouldn't be a hard decision ... and it really shouldn't be controversial," Feingold said.

Hutchison said "extraneous amendments regardless of the substance ... will kill" the FAA bill.

Commerce Committee Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller, D-W.Va., added the FAA bill amounts to a "feast" for those who "want to bring [in] all of their frustrations about government."

Hutchison asked her colleagues to focus on aviation-related amendments, "of which there are several that are certainly worthy of our discussion."

Congress has extended federal aviation law 11 times as lawmakers have been unable to complete a reauthorization bill the last three years. A 12th extension will almost certainly be needed before the law expires at the end of the month.

The Senate FAA debate will carry forward into next week, and bicameral differences will take time to be worked out. The House approved a three-year bill last year that includes items that are opposed by some senators, including a provision making it easier for FedEx workers to unionize.

Senate Democratic leaders distanced themselves from the House bill -- and particularly the FedEx language -- by having an unrelated House tax bill instead of the chamber's FAA bill be used as the vehicle to carry the Senate FAA plan.

The move appeared to be connected to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., convincing GOP Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker of Tennessee to lift holds they had put on the Senate bill to ensure that the House language affecting the Memphis, Tenn.-based FedEx would not be included in an FAA bill sent to the president.