Senate averts FAA shutdown

By Joan Lowy

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 15 2011 9:58 p.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — The Senate passed a bill Thursday temporarily extending federal aviation and highway programs, averting another shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, after a Republican senator abruptly dropped his campaign to block passage of the measure.

Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma had been insisting Democrats change the bill to eliminate a requirement that states use a portion of their federal highway funds for bike paths, walking trails and other transportation "enhancements."

John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, said the senator agreed to give up his effort in exchange for assurances from Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sen. James Inhofe, the ranking Republican member of the panel, that the enhancements funding requirement will be removed at a later point.

"States will have the ability to opt out and spend enhancement money on bridge repair and other priorities," Hart said in an email.

But Boxer said earlier in the day that she wanted to "reform" the enhancements program, not eliminate it. She declined to elaborate on what those reforms might be.

Once Coburn dropped his objection, the bill sailed through on a 92-6 vote. Democrats also easily turned back an effort by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to cut overall transportation funding.

The House passed the bill on Tuesday. The bill now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

The Senate vote marked "a good day for the American people," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said afterward. "About 2 million people are breathing a sigh of relief because they're going to have jobs on Monday."

The bill extends the FAA's operating authority, which was due to expire at midnight Friday, through January. Authority for highway, transit and rail programs, as well as the federal gasoline and diesel taxes that provide the largest share of funding for the programs, which were due to expire on Oct. 1, are extended through March.

Earlier this week, Coburn had pointed to the nation's 146,000 bridges that are structurally deficient, saying it's wrong to require states to spend money on projects that don't enhance safety.

The enhancement programs amount to about 2 percent of the federal transportation budget, according to the Transportation Department.

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