WASHINGTON — With another partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration looming this weekend, Sen. Tom Coburn on Wednesday blocked fast-track consideration of a bill to keep money flowing to the FAA and the nation's highway departments.
Coburn, R-Muskogee, said he objected to a federal program requiring states to spend road money on “enhancement” projects like museums and squirrel sanctuaries at the expense of critical bridge and highway improvements. If the state requirement wasn't removed, he said, he wouldn't consent to passage of a bill that includes aviation and highway funding authority.
Obviously frustrated, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., compared Coburn's tactics to those of a “dictator.” Coburn said later that he wasn't offended and that it was “time to draw a line in the sand for the American people, for our future.”
The House on Tuesday sent the Senate a bill that would temporarily extend funding for FAA and highway programs. The FAA's funding authority expires Friday, while the federal gasoline tax and highway programs must be extended by Sept. 30.
Coburn said the Senate could pass the FAA's authority separately and send it back to the House for approval to avoid a partial shutdown.
Or, he said, senators could approve the whole bill quickly by accepting his proposal to stop forcing states to spend money on enhancement projects.
“I will not give (unanimous consent) to continue to spend billions of dollars on things that are not a priority,” Coburn said. “If that means that the highway transportation bill doesn't get approved, so be it.”
Reid said Coburn was putting “his own petty priorities” above the need for FAA safety inspectors and others depending on the agency's funding.
He said Coburn actually refused to have a vote on his proposal and just wanted it made part of the bill. And Reid said Coburn had voted for the 2005 highway bill that included the requirement on states to spend money on enhancement projects.
Coburn was among those blamed for the partial shutdown of the FAA in late July and early August, when the agency was forced to furlough about 4,000 workers — including 133 in Oklahoma City — and halt construction projects at numerous airports. A House Republican lawmaker said then that Coburn would not agree to extend FAA funding unless Congress eliminated federal subsidies for some rural air service.
Senate rules seemed to be exacerbating the problem on Wednesday. Reid said he had to continue, until Friday, the consideration of a bill to replenish federal disaster relief funds. Coburn's refusal to let the aviation-highway bill go through the Senate's fast-track procedure — unanimous consent — means Reid would have to bring it up after the FEMA bill is completed.
Depending on the circumstances, it could take days to get the FAA bill out of the Senate.
Coburn cites projects
Coburn read some of the enhancement projects that had been funded with hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal fuel tax money. Among those cited were a museum in Pennsylvania, a Chinatown gateway in California and a squirrel sanctuary in Tennessee. He said states could choose to fund such projects but shouldn't be forced to do so in order to receive their federal road funding.
Congress has been unable to reach consensus on long-term legislation for the FAA and surface transportation that would eliminate the need for temporary extensions — and threats of shutdowns.
The FAA's authority already has been temporarily extended 21 times since 2007. The highway bill has been extended seven times. The bill before the Senate would extend the FAA's authority for four months and surface transportation programs for six months.