WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama urged Congress on Wednesday to end the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, which began nearly two weeks ago because of a partisan standoff over air service to rural communities and union organizing.
Obama noted that nearly 4,000 FAA workers have been furloughed, another 70,000 workers involved in airport construction projects are affected and America stands to lose more than $1 billion in revenue from uncollected airline ticket taxes during the shutdown if Congress leaves the problem hanging until lawmakers return in September. In Egg Harbor Township, the stop-work order stemming from the shutdown has halted 27 contracts at the William J. Hughes Technical Center, where 639 workers have been furloughed.
“So this is a lose-lose-lose situation,” he said.
Even in trying to pressure Congress to act, the White House is considering what options Obama has to intervene in the dispute, spokesman Jay Carney said.
When asked directly how he could step in, Obama told reporters: “I have made calls to key leaders, and I am urging them to get this done.”
A White House official later confirmed that Obama called House Speaker John Boehner about the FAA flap on Wednesday. The Republican leader’s public response was that the problem could be resolved almost immediately, if Senate Democrats will accept about $16.5 million in air service subsidy cuts that the House last month attached to a bill to extend FAA’s operating authority.
But Democratic leaders, speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference, said the cuts are a sham. Democrats offered bills in the House and Senate to extend FAA’s operating authority with no strings attached, but action on the measures was blocked by Republicans.
Obama said his “expectation, and I think the American people’s expectation, is that this gets resolved before the end of this week.”
Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller said Boehner told Democrats several days ago that House Republicans would agree to an FAA with no subsidy cuts, if Democratic concede to changing a labor rule that would make it more difficult for airline workers to unionize. He said Democrats refused to accept that condition.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid added: “The issue is the labor issue: an anti-worker agenda of one airline, Delta Airlines. That’s what this is all about.”
Republicans want to overturn a National Mediation Board rule approved last year that allows airline and railroad employees to form a union by a simple majority of those voting. Under the old rule, workers who didn’t vote were treated as “no” votes.
Delta is the largest airline whose workers aren’t primarily union members. Unions have made four recent attempts under the new rule to organize workers, but haven’t been successful.
Obama also raised the specter of safety being compromised, even though Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has repeatedly offered reassurances that safety workers such as air traffic controllers and maintenance crews were on the job. Forty airport safety inspectors were supposed to be furloughed but have volunteered to continue to work without pay and cover their own travel expenses, although officials expected them to be compensated when the shutdown is over. The shutdown hasn’t affected air traffic controllers, who are paid from a different pool of funds.