By Jonathan Weisman
President Obama and Congressional Democrats on Friday abandoned their once-firm stand that growing airport bottlenecks would be addressed only in a broader fix to across-the-board spending cuts, accepting bipartisan legislation that would bring the nation's air traffic control system back up to full strength.
With remarkable speed, the House overwhelmingly approved legislation to give the secretary of transportation enough financial flexibility to shift as much as $253 million to the air traffic control system, less than a week after the onset of politically problematic flight delays driven by across-the-board spending cuts. The money will be shifted from airport improvement funds, and none would come from additional revenues, once a key demand of Mr. Obama and the Democrats. The 361-to-41 vote came less than 24 hours after the Senate rushed the measure through.
Republicans claimed victory. "Consider that the Democrats' opening position was they would only replace the sequester with tax increases," Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, said in a memo to members before the vote. "By last night, Senate Democrats were adopting our targeted 'cut this, not that' approach. This victory is in large part a result of our standing together."
The Congressional action effectively undoes one of the thorniest results of "sequestration," the $85 billion in spending cuts that took effect March 1 and have rippled across the federal government. With the president's promised signature, Democrats will lose significant leverage they had hoped would force Republicans into a larger agreement since the flight delays were seen as the sort of inconvenience that could force a reversal of the cuts.
The action also brought charges that lawmakers known for gridlock could move only when affluent travelers like themselves felt the sting of Congress's indecision and that the struggles of lower-income Americans affected by the spending cuts were being ignored. House members who have cleared precious little legislation this year made swift work of the air travel bill minutes before flying out themselves for a weeklong break, a pile of cars stacked up behind the Capitol waiting to ferry them to Washington's airports.
"We're leaving the homeless behind," said Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont. "We're leaving a lot of National Guard folks behind. We're leaving seniors who depend on Meals On Wheels in the dust. Children who rely on Head Start can teach themselves to read. That's basically what's happening."
The shifting of $253 million from the airport improvement program to air traffic operations in the Federal Aviation Administration should be enough to stop further furloughs and keep the air traffic control system operating at a normal pace through Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
"This is a Band-Aid solution," said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, even as he said Mr. Obama would sign it. "It does not solve the bigger problem."
Republicans -- and some Democrats -- had been pushing for much of the month for a rescue of the air traffic control system. But lawmakers who wanted a separate budget rescue for the F.A.A. met resistance from some lawmakers who questioned why air travel was being rescued when children were being thrown out of early education programs, food safety inspections were being curtailed and checks to the long-term unemployed were shrinking.
With those cuts largely invisible to most Americans, some Democrats argued that mounting delays at airports might be the only pressure point left to force Republicans to negotiate a broader deal to reverse the cuts, with a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases.
That position held sway with Democrats into Thursday evening, when Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, cornered Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader.
"We made the pitch that this wasn't about elite Americans. This is about all Americans," Mr. Udall said, singling out hotel and restaurant workers, airport workers and others who would be affected by a sharp decline in air travel.
Opponents also feared that a rifle-shot rescue of the air traffic-control system would open the floodgates for other supplicants seeking relief from the cuts. That fear was realized almost the moment the bill cleared Congress. Cancer clinics, Head Start administrators, housing advocates and teachers all demanded that their programs be addressed next.
"We've seen how devastating the cuts to our core government programs are already, from cuts in Head Start, reductions in housing assistance, cuts to unemployment benefits and fewer job training programs -- all when our nation still has a 7.7 percent unemployment rate," said Rachel Gragg, federal policy director for the National Skills Coalition, a job training advocacy group. "And yet, Congress is scrambling to fix one small -- if highly visible -- piece of sequestration, rather than solve the whole problem."
But visible it was. On United Airlines Flight 1543 from San Francisco to Washington on Friday, the pilot announced after a 90-minute delay that Congress was at fault for "their ineptitude," having financed "worthless projects" but not the F.A.A.
A consulting company called masFlight said Friday that since furloughs began on Sunday, the percentage of flights from major American airports that waited more than an hour to take off rose to 1.4 percent from 0.7 percent, and the percentage that waited from 31 to 60 minutes increased to 9.5 percent from 7.2 percent, compared with the previous month.
Republicans continued to assert that those delays were intentionally inflicted on the traveling public by a White House eager to press its political point.
"We're here today because this administration has decided to put politics over passengers," said Representative Rodney Davis, a freshman Republican from Illinois, who said the administration already had the flexibility to save the air traffic controllers.
But even Republican aides said that was not true. Under sequestration rules, all program categories faced cuts, and backfilling the narrow category "air traffic operations" at the Transportation Department took Congressional action.
With Democrats now in retreat, further program-specific actions could be possible. When Congress passed legislation financing the government through Sept. 30, it granted some select agencies the flexibility to make such changes.
Before the budget cuts hit, Justice Department officials warned of nearly 60,000 furloughs and rising vacancies at the Federal Bureau of Investigations and other federal law enforcement agencies. Congress granted Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. more latitude, and with the F.B.I. grappling with the Boston Marathon bombings, Mr. Holder asked and received permission to shift hundreds of millions of dollars in the Justice Department budget to spare the agencies of any furloughs.
A similar request is expected from the Defense Department in the coming days.