By Michael McAuliff and Sabrina Siddiqui
Lawmakers passed a bill Friday to ease air traffic delays before catching their own flights home for a week off, leaving unchanged other painful effects of the across-the-board spending cuts mandated by Congress' sequestration law.
While the legislators likely improved their chances for on-time flights when they return to work next month, cuts that are harming care for cancer patients, closing children out of preschool and ending food programs for the elderly remain in place.
The $85 billion in mandatory cuts this year are a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which Congress passed after its standoff over raising the nation's debt limit. The sequester was proposed as a fallback in case Congress could not come up with a more rational way to achieve at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade -- the theory being that sequestration would be so painful that Congress wouldn't let it happen.
But Congress and the "super committee" tasked with the budget-cutting job failed anyway.
The sequester's knife has already slashed other programs. But faced with an outcry from the flying public over delays caused by sequester-related furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration, the Senate acted Thursday night and the House followed suit Friday, voting 361 to 41 to give the FAA budget flexibility otherwise barred by the sequester law. The legislation allows the agency to move up to $253 million from construction accounts to operations accounts to keep air traffic controllers on the job.
President Barack Obama still has to sign the measure.
In passing the bill, many Republicans blamed the Obama administration.
"I think we all agree the administration and the FAA has handled this sequester poorly," said Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversee the FAA. "The Congress is stepping in to correct the problems created by the administration's gross mismanagement," Latham added, accusing the White House of playing "political games."
Democrats argued that the FAA debacle was another reason to replace the sequester.
"The solution is a comprehensive removal of sequestration," said Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), Latham's counterpart on the subcommittee. "That needs to be done in order that we're not dealing issue by issue and crisis by crisis."
"The president would sign this," said White House spokesman Jay Carney of the FAA legislation, but he lamented Congress' failure to address the broader problem.
"He believes this is a Band-Aid covering a massive wound to the economy," Carney said, adding that it would be a "welcome development" if Republicans showed the same concern for children and the elderly that they are showing for airline passengers.
Others -- who voted against giving the FAA the loophole -- saw in the move rank hypocrisy.
"It's totally outrageous. The people who are whining the most are the ones who made this happen," said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). "They wake up and they're shocked, absolutely shocked, when their flight home is delayed. So they take immediate action to carve out an exception that benefits them and the most well-heeled Americans, by and large."
Welch, who voted against the sequestration bill in 2011, said, "What we should be doing is not carving out an exception so members of Congress don't have to have delayed flights. We should be coming up with a fix for the whole sequester. Why is it that the one inconvenience where the howling is the greatest and affects the people who are least affected overall by the sequester, that one gets fixed and it happens to be members of Congress?
"This is hypocrisy writ large," Welch added. "John Boehner said he got over 98 percent of what he wanted [in the sequester law], and now he's complaining. This was a policy that by design was going to inflict punishment on the American people, and he's carving out the ones who have the most access to their members of Congress.
"We're all in this together or we're not," Welch added. "This picking and choosing where the winners continue to be the haves and the losers tend to be the have-nots -- it's just a spiral down, and it's a sad day in Congress that instead of attacking the real problem that we created, we carve out an exception that's going to benefit members of Congress themselves."
After the FAA measure passed overwhelmingly, Republicans left for the House recess declaring victory. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) gloated in a statement that Democrats had utterly caved on their earlier sequestration demands.
Democrats, on the other hand, wondered just how their plans to make the GOP bear the brunt of public anger over the sequester cuts had unraveled.
"I'm frustrated with the administration. It didn't take long for the administration to begin to remove this issue [of air travel delays] from the broader budget debate," said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), noting that the Obama administration had been pulled into other debates and couldn't keep the focus on sequestration. "Congress itself should not be nickeling and diming its way out of finding a bigger solution to replace the sequester. But if this situation this week is any indication, that is what we're going to have to do."
"We'll be picking winners and losers in the budget, and as of now, kids on Head Start are the losers," he added.
Larsen, who voted for the FAA bill, said the naysayers who had played down the impact of sequestration were proven wrong this week when furloughs tied up airports across the country -- and yet instead of letting them feel the heat for their previous denial, both parties moved quickly to make the travel delays disappear.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Democrats had been "boxed in" by the refusal of House Republicans to go to a conference with the Senate and finalize a new budget.
"This is a very dangerous approach that they're taking, which is to treat the symptoms of the problem rather than getting at the underlying cause," Van Hollen said.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said he had struggled with his final decision to vote yes and lamented the position that House members were placed in by the Senate's unanimous consent agreement to give the FAA more budget flexibility.
"What I feared all along about sequestration is happening, which was that members would begin carving out little fiefdoms that cannot be impacted by the cuts," Cleaver said. "Things work differently in the other chamber. They could've avoided this. They run this joint."
At Reagan National Airport, where many members of Congress headed after the vote, the same split mood was apparent.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), asked if he was relieved Congress had stemmed the delays, smiled broadly and said, "I gotta catch my flight," as he breezed toward a relatively short line.
Stuck in a much longer queue at another terminal, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said he was not relieved. "I think there are far bigger problems with sequestration than just the air traffic controllers," he said.
Asked what House Democrats could do moving forward, given the piecemeal precedent set by the FAA agreement, Cleaver simply responded, "Nothing."