WASHINGTON - As airport delays spread across the country, members of Congress on Tuesday urged the administration to postpone the furloughing of air traffic controllers to give the White House and Congress time to find a less painful way of handling automatic spending cuts.
Two senators, Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas and Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, said putting off the furloughing of air traffic controllers should be combined with a reversal of Federal Aviation Administration plans to close 149 contract air control towers as another way to meet reduced spending goals.
And the top two senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Democratic Chairman John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia and Republican John Thune of South Dakota, have sent a letter to the administration questioning its approach to the automatic spending cuts and saying that the furloughs and closing of control towers raise "serious safety and operational issues."
FAA officials have said they have no choice but to furlough all 47,000 agency employees, including nearly 15,000 controllers, and close the control towers in order to meet obligations under the sequester, or spending cuts.
Republicans have taken issue with that position, charging that the administration is using the furloughs, and the resultant flight delays, to force Republicans to compromise on budget and tax issues.
Moran said there was speculation among lawmakers from both parties that "there is an effort afoot to try to demonstrate that the sequester is something that is so painful that it cannot be accomplished without causing dramatic consequences."
Blumenthal said he took the administration at its word that it lacked the authority to find other means to meet the automatic cut requirements. "So we are going to give them that authority if in fact they need it."
The legislation proposed by the two senators and sponsored by 33 others would transfer $50 million in unused FAA research and capital funds to prevent any air traffic control towers from closing.
Blumenthal also called for a 30-day delay in the furloughs, which began on Sunday and are already causing backups at airports around the country. He said the two issues are linked because closing contract control towers at smaller airports only puts more of a burden on now-understaffed traffic controllers at other airports.
"I would see these issues together," Moran said. "Both involve the safety of the flying public, inconvenience of those who travel by air, they affect the economy, they affect our national security."
The Rockefeller-Thune letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA administrator Michael Huerta faulted the administration for its handling of the sequestration process. "Many stakeholders argue that you have flexibility within your budget to avoid or minimize air traffic controller furloughs and the closure of the contract control towers," they wrote.