WASHINGTON — Furloughed air traffic controllers soon will return to work, ending a week of coast-to-coast flight delays that upset thousands of travelers.
Unable to ignore the travelers' anger, Congress overwhelmingly approved legislation Friday to allow the Federal Aviation Administration to withdraw the furloughs.
The vote underscored a shift by Democrats who had insisted on erasing all of this year's $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts, not just the most publicly painful ones, for fear of losing leverage to restore money for Head Start and other programs with less lobbying clout and popular support.
With President Barack Obama's promised signature, the measure will erase one of the most stinging and publicly visible consequences of the budget-wide cuts known as the sequester.
Friday's House approval was 361-41 and followed the previous evening's passage by the Senate. Lawmakers then left for a weeklong spring recess.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama would sign the bill, but Carney complained that the measure left the rest of the sequester intact.
“This is a Band-Aid solution. It does not solve the bigger problem,” he said.
The FAA and Transportation Department did not respond to questions about when the controllers' furloughs would end. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who helped craft the measure, was told by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that the agency is “doing everything they can to get things back on track as quickly as possible,” said Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley.
In the week since furloughs began, news accounts have featured nightmarish tales of delayed flights and stranded air passengers. Republicans used the situation to accuse the Obama administration of forcing controllers to take unpaid days off to dial up public pressure on Congress to roll back the sequester.
“The president has an obligation to implement these cuts in a way that respects the American people, rather than using them for political leverage,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a written statement.
Obama and his Democratic allies want to roll back the entire sequester, with the White House proposing a substitute mix of spending cuts and tax increases that Republicans have rejected. The GOP has proposed replacing the across-the-board spending cuts with others, many of them aimed at programs Democrats defend.
The new bill will let the FAA use up to $253 million from an airport improvement program and other accounts to halt the furloughs through the Sept. 30 end of the government's fiscal year.