WASHINGTON — The Senate approved legislation Friday ending a two-week partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration and President Barack Obama signed it into law, clearing the way for thousands of employees to return to work and hundreds of airport construction projects to resume.
The approval means 640 local residents employed at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township will be able to return to work.
About 100 independent contract employees at the Technical Center issued “stop work” orders following the July 22 shutdown also will return to work.
The stop work orders were issued to 27 companies, many of which were part of research and development for the NextGen Air Traffic Control System. The system is a network of technologies that will change the nation’s air communications system from ground-based to satellite-based.
Employing the so-called “unanimous consent” procedure that took less than 30 seconds, two senators were present to approve a House-passed bill extending the FAA’s operating authority through mid-September. Democratic Sen. James Webb of Virginia stood up, called up the bill and asked that it be passed. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the presiding officer, agreed, and it was done.
Other lawmakers had scattered earlier this week for Congress’ August recess. And Friday’s finishing-business vote was as low key as Congress gets, in marked contrast to the noisy, intemperate and enervating debt-limit battle of recent weeks.
Obama’s signature means nearly 4,000 furloughed FAA employees can return to work as soon as Monday. The shutdown has cost the government about $400 million in uncollected airline ticket taxes and idled thousands of construction workers.
“This impasse was an unnecessary strain on local economies across the country at a time when we can’t allow politics to get in the way of our economic recovery,” Obama said in a statement. “So I’m glad that this stalemate has finally been resolved.”
A bipartisan compromise reached Thursday cleared the way for Senate passage of the House bill, which includes a provision eliminating $16.5 million in air service subsidies to 13 rural communities. But the bill also includes language that gives Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood the authority to continue subsidized service to the 13 communities if he decides it’s necessary
Republicans had insisted on the subsidy cuts as their price for restoring the FAA to full operation.
Democrats said they expect the administration to effectively waive or negate the cuts, although that will not happen right away. That’s because the cuts do not kick in until existing contracts with airlines for the subsidized service expire. The length of those contracts varies by community.
The shutdown began when much of Washington was transfixed by the stalemate over increasing the government’s debt limit. During that time, the FAA furloughed some workers but kept air traffic controllers and most safety inspectors on the job. Forty airport safety inspectors worked without pay, picking up their own travel expenses. About 70,000 workers on construction-related jobs on airport projects from Palm Springs, Calif., to New York City were idled as the FAA could not pay for the work.
But airline passengers in the busy travel season hardly noticed any changes. Airlines continued to work as normal, but they no longer were authorized to collect federal ticket taxes at a rate of $30 million per day. For a few lucky ticket buyers, prices dropped. But for most, nothing changed because airlines raised their base prices to match the tax.
Treasury Department officials initially said passengers likely would be eligible for tax refunds if they bought their tickets before July 23 and their travel took place during the shutdown. However, IRS spokeswoman Julianne Breitbiel said Friday that language in the bill approved by the Senate eliminates the need for refunds. She also said the agency has decided not to retroactively seek taxes from passengers who bought tickets during the shutdown or from airlines.
As the debt ceiling crisis passed and Congress began to leave town without resolving the standoff, Obama spoke out Wednesday and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood urged Congress to return to Washington to deal with the issues. Obama expressed dismay that Congress would allow up to $1.2 billion in tax revenue to go out the door — the amount that could have been lost by the time lawmakers would have returned in September.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced the deal Thursday afternoon, saying it would put 74,000 transportation and construction workers back to work.
“This agreement does not resolve the important differences that still remain,” said Reid, D-Nev. “But I believe we should keep Americans working while Congress settles its differences, and this agreement will do exactly that.”
Staff writer Caitlin Dineen contributed to this report.