US House passes aviation bill as Democrats object

For Immediate Release:

October 30, 2003

Contact:John Crawley

Reuters

WASHINGTON, Oct 30 (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives approved a $60 billion aviation bill on Thursday after Democrats fought a losing battle to preserve a proposed ban on the expansion of air traffic privatization.

The 211-to-207 vote along party lines sent the measure to the Senate. It capped a day of rarely used procedural moves by furious Democrats to forestall consideration and a nearly two-hour interruption over a Capitol Hill security scare.

While transportation legislation is usually free of fierce partisan infighting, the bill authorizing Federal Aviation Administration programs for four more years was an exception.

Democrats were enraged that proposals approved by both houses this summer to ban additional privatization of air traffic control centers were first modified and then stripped from the bill by Republican-led congressional negotiators this week.

Republican leaders were under pressure from the White House to change or drop the prohibition on privatization.

Democrats howled they were not properly consulted on the change, aggravating increasingly louder cries from their ranks that Republicans are pushing them around more than ever.

"They have burned the books on rules," Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said of her counterparts across the aisle.

"The administration is free to move forward with privatization notwithstanding the will of the House and the will of the Senate," said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland. "That should not be acceptable in a Democratic legislative body."

John Mica, a Florida Republican and chairman of the transportation panel's aviation subcommittee, dismissed Democratic complaints about fairness.

"I can tell you that in every single issue in this legislation, the minority was consulted. To say that somehow this has been unfairly constructed is not correct. It's not factual," Mica said.

The bill's fate is less certain in the Senate where Democrats have more leverage and strong support for restrictions on privatization.

The Bush administration and the air controllers' union have exchanged sharp elbows over privatization. While the FAA says it has no immediate plans to privatize towers beyond the more than 200 small facilities already run by contractors, the agency would like to expand that program down the road.

Democrats and the controllers' union say that represents the start of a gradual fragmentation of the entire system that will threaten safety.