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Is Congress really close on FAA bill?


Is an FAA reauthorization bill finally nearing the finish line after more than four years of wrangling? Perhaps, but I remain skeptical that a comprehensive, three- or four-year bill can be passed by Congress by the new Feb. 17 deadline (when the latest temporary funding extension passed by the House of Representatives Tuesday would expire).

There is a lot of back patting on Capitol Hill over putting the National Mediation Board airline unionization voting rule issue to rest with a compromise brokered last week between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). But the NMB issue only emerged as a stumbling block last year.

Lawmakers spent years (under various configurations of party control in the White House, House and Senate) arguing over FAA reauthorization prior to determining how to count votes in airline unionization elections became the BIG ISSUE preventing an FAA bill from being passed.

That's because every time one BIG ISSUE is put aside, another emerges. (Remember when drug testing at foreign repair stations and FedEx's labor classification were BIG ISSUES stopping FAA reauthorization?) Or various smaller issues conspire to slow or stall negotiations.

There may be reason for optimism. The US business community has let House Republicans know that they're increasingly unhappy that funding for NextGen ATC and airport construction projects remains in limbo. Republicans and Democrats are weary after a series of bitter flights over the past year on budget and tax issues and may want to put FAA reauthorization to the side so they can get on with bigger battles leading up to November's elections. And the FAA partial shutdown card has already been played. It was a public relations disaster for all involved.

Still, while the threat of another partial shutdown looks to have receded, reaching agreement on an FAA bill that takes the agency through, say, 2016 could prove to be too heavy a lift for this Congress. A fallback could be either a long extension (at least through November's elections and perhaps into 2013) or a short reauthorization (a two-year bill that would be a de facto long extension but may contain a few broad policy provisions that a 9-12 month extension likely would not).

The FAA reauthorization battle has extended through two presidents of different parties and four Congresses of varying partisan configurations. It's hard to believe it can now be wrapped up over the next three-plus weeks. I'll believe a long-term FAA bill has been passed only when I see President Obama sign it into law. An announcement of a broad compromise on a single issue (even one as contenious as unionization voting rules) is far different than both chambers of Congress actually passing identical, comprehensive legislation and sending it to the president's desk.

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