As weary travelers endure flight cancellations and
delays because of furloughed air traffic controllers, the White House signaled
Wednesday that it might consider legislation that would give the Obama
administration more flexibility over cuts to the Federal Aviation Administration
budget while leaving the rest of the $85 billion in sequester cuts in place.
Democrats have resisted attempts to provide the administration with flexibility, saying that any cuts would be painful and that forcing President Barack Obama to decide where to slice would only set him up for blame.
Pressure increased after at least 5,800 flights were delayed in a three-day span beginning Sunday when FAA furloughs took effect. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association said that compares with 2,500 delays for the same period a year ago.
Republicans on Wednesday accused the White House of manufacturing the air travel crisis for political gain. They said the administration could have prevented the furloughs but is purposely making painful cuts in order to inspire public support for increased spending.
"This recent round of furloughs is driven, not by the necessity of budget cuts, but political calculation and sheer incompetence along with the administration's desire to apparently maximize the pain on American taxpayers," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "It boggles the mind."
He said he supports allowing more flexibility that would allow the FAA to "take another look at [its] budget. Look at those piles of money that might be available to move around and avoid the furloughs and avoid the inconvenience ... to the air-traveling public."
White House spokesman Jay Carney agreed that allowing flexibility within only the FAA cuts "would be a Band-Aid measure" that would not fix other "negative effects of the sequester: the kids kicked off of Head Start, the seniors who aren't getting Meals on Wheels, and the up to three-quarter of a million of Americans who will lose their jobs or will not have jobs created for them."
Meanwhile on Wednesday, Republican Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and James Inhofe of Oklahoma reintroduced their plan to allow the president flexibility over all areas of the sequester.
"Let's give the president maximum flexibility," Mr. Toomey said. "The fact is, especially in a government that has grown this big, we can find the little tiny savings that are required in the sequester so that we don't have to do it in a disruptive way."
He said the White House rejected that flexibility and previously threatened to veto any bill that would have provided it.
Officials estimate that the FAA furloughs will save slightly more than $200 million through Sept. 30, a small fraction of the $85 billion in overall reductions that stem from across-the-board cuts, known as the sequester, that took effect in March.
Senate Democrats prefer to address all of the sequester cuts rather than look at departments one by one.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Wednesday advocated backfilling the sequester cuts with money from the overseas contingency operations account, which has a balance of about $600 billion. The funds, which are meant to be used in times of war, aren't needed because troops are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
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