Amid FAA furloughs, Dems, GOP revive sequester blame game

Travel editor Peter Greenberg discusses what effect the government's massive spending cuts will have on the F.A.A. and Americans traveling in the near future.

Seventy- and 80-minute flight delays at major airports across the country are an "utterly unnecessary" consequence of sequestration, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said Tuesday. Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., agreed: President Obama should use "existing flexibility" as the Federal Aviation Administration begins to furlough employees, "to ensure that flights are not needlessly delayed or cancelled."

One of the most feared consequences of the blind, across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester is at last coming into focus, nearly two months after the split Congress failed to agree to a more reasonable alternative. The FAA has ordered its 14,750 air traffic controllers on furlough two days a month to help make up for $600 million in mandatory cuts. Over the weekend, the effects became clear: Major airports saw flight delays up to 80 minutes.

Right on cue, Republicans and Democrats on Tuesday were rushing to reprise the blame game that gummed up efforts to avoid it in the first place.

"As a result of the administration's poor planning and, I would argue, political motives, thousands of people were stuck on tarmacs over the past few days," McConnell said. "The FAA's mismanagement of this issue is a source of bipartisan frustration. Our goal here shouldn't be to score political points on the backs of weary travelers; it should be to fix the problem."

McConnell called on Mr. Obama and the FAA "to be smarter and more transparent about the sequester," arguing, "not all government spending is created equally." White House spokesman Jay Carney countered that only Congress has the ability to reverse course on the furloughs by shifting resources, but pointed out that because 70 percent of the FAA's budget deals with personnel, "there is simply no way to avoid furloughs."

"The FAA did take action - all the action that it could under the law - to produce savings and avoid furloughs up until this point, where because of the nature of their budget and the personnel-heavy nature of their operations, furloughs are the only option available to the FAA at this time," Carney said Tuesday during his daily briefing. "Now, if Congress wants to address this matter, then they should act. But this is something that only by law Congress can do."

Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut - who with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., authored legislation that would transfer $50 million in FAA research and capital funds to keep air traffic control towers from closing - spurned Carney's notion, offering the administration bipartisan permission from Congress, "if in fact they need it," to find cuts elsewhere.

"It is, long-term, a cost to the nation, and I think that all we're doing is enabling the administration to do what we think it can do right now, but says it can't," Blumenthal said of the furloughs. "I believe the administration ought to postpone these furloughs at least for 30 days to give the congress an opportunity to act. As a member of the Commerce Committee, I think that our authority certainly would permit a more flexible and effective response to sequestration requirements."

Terming the airport delays a "manufactured crisis," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, during a press conference said there are "many options" the FAA and Department of Transportation have "to avoid this disastrous impact on the traveling public." Speaking to reporters shortly after Collins, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., offered one: Keep air traffic control afloat by dipping into savings from the winding down operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We should do what was in one of the Ryan budgets; that is, use the overseas contingency fund to delay the implementation of sequestration," Reid said, referencing a budget offered once by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "We're going to move to that later this afternoon."

In the weeks leading up to the sequester, many in the GOP accused the president of overinflating the drama when he embarked on a national tour sounding the legislation's effects. Moran suggested the smell of politics is still ripe, and said Democrats as well as Republicans in Congress speculate "that there is an effort afoot to try and demonstrate that the sequestration is something that is so painful that it cannot be accomplished without causing dramatic consequences."

Carney addressed the charge: "The fact is Congress had an opportunity, but Republicans made a choice," he said. "We made it clear that there would be these kinds of negative effects if Congress failed to take reasonable action to avert the sequester - policy that everyone who was involved in writing it knew at the time and has made clear ever since was never designed to be implemented. It was designed to be bad policy and, therefore, to be avoided."

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