Congress getting one last shot at that FAA extension bill

Time is running out for Congress to extend the authorization and funding of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the House is set to make one more attempt to get this thing nailed down. Their previous attempt failed, but this slimmed down version appears to possibly have enough votes to make it through.

First of all, what’s not in it? Congressman Bill Shuster’s plan to peel off Air Traffic Control into a “privatization” scheme. Apparently there aren’t close to enough votes for that even if he’s been out on a fishing expedition with the Democrats lately.

As to what’s in it… well, that’s complicated. It’s unfortunately not a clean funding bill, but the reduced number of optional items tacked on might sneak through. Politico’s Morning Transportation Update has some of the details.

The House is planning to pass this week the FAA extension bill that failed earlier. This time, the vote will occur with a simple majority and the legislation will include new language to give tax breaks to Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands citizens in addition to mainland residents affected by the last few hurricanes. The bill, H.R. 3823 (115), still includes provisions on private flood insurance and health care programs as well. No amendments will be allowed on the floor. The House schedule released Tuesday night appears to suggest that lawmakers will begin debate on the bill Wednesday, but may not finish until Thursday.

Tough spot: The Senate won’t have much time to clear the bill before the FAA’s authority expires Sept. 30. Senate Banking Chairman Mike Crapo(R-Idaho) told our colleague Zachary Warmbrodt that he expects some resistance in the upper chamber to the flood insurance provision — but he was unsure whether it would actually hold up passage. And Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters that the Senate is “unlikely” to amend the bill with time so short. “I think most of the add-ons are things that should enjoy pretty widespread support,” Thune said. “It didn’t in the House … but when push comes to shove, [when] you talk about helping people who’ve been hurt by disasters, I’ve got to believe that eventually we’ll get the votes for that.”

What it all comes down to: The changes to the package at Rules may prompt some House Democrats (especially those from the states hit hard by hurricanes this year) to vote for it, though Republicans can pass the bill without them. But the Senate remains a wild card. Will leaders on that side of the Capitol try to strip out the flood insurance language, which has elicited complaints from some lawmakers? And if they do, will the House clear it in time?

So there won’t be any amendments allowed on the floor. That gives them at least a bit more hope. But there are some sweeteners in there which may not make it feasible in the Senate, dooming the entire project to failure. First there are some tax breaks for residents of areas affected by the recent hurricanes. That probably won’t be too much for most of the members to swallow. But there’s also a proposal to expand the availability of private flood insurance. That’s the one which might be a no-go in the Senate. Bloomberg BNA quotes at least one Democrat who will put his foot down.

A must-pass bill to extend spending authority for the Federal Aviation Administration and provide tax breaks to hurricane victims could face opposition in the Senate if it maintains a provision to expand the private flood insurance market, a senior Democratic senator said.

“That will not get passed here,” Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, told reporters Sept. 26 about the House’s flood insurance provision.

It’s possible that the Senate resistance is bipartisan, but not a sure thing. John Thune (R-S.D.) is quoted as saying he’d, “prefer a clean bill from the House,” but he also followed that up by saying they would take up debate on anything the House sends them. They’d better not debate it for too long, however. The clock is going to run out by the weekend and they won’t have time to start over from scratch.

Frankly, so long as they’re not trying to ram the ATC privatization through on a must pass funding bill, I’ll probably be fine with it. I agree with Thune that a clean bill would have been nice, but what are the odds of that happening in this day and age? Slim to none, I’m afraid. But what are their other options? Are we going to have a shutdown of the FAA heading into the holiday season just as a practice run for an entire government shutdown next year?