A House FAA reauthorization bill may be introduced as early as Monday, with a key detail riding on the outcome of a contract dispute between the agency and air traffic controllers.
Barring a settlement of the dispute over the weekend, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Democrats plan to introduce the bill with language rolling back a contract imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration last summer, according to John Mica of Florida, the panel's ranking Republican.
Mica attended a meeting on the bill Friday with committee Chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minn., Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, and representatives of the White House and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA). Mica said Peters warned that the president would veto any bill that rolls back the FAA-imposed collective-bargaining agreement.
"Secretary Peters repeated what I did, that it would be vetoed flat out," Mica said. "It's sort of hold on to the seat of your pants and see what happens."
He added that he will not cosponsor the measure if includes the roll-back language -- a rare occurrence in a committee that tends to seek bipartisan agreement on major legislation.
Jim Berard, the committee's Democratic spokesman, said he could not comment on the meeting because he was not there.
At issue is language sought by the controllers' union that would change the statute governing the way the FAA negotiates contract disputes.
Enacted as part of the agency's 1996 reauthorization (PL 104-264), the law allows the FAA, after certain conditions have been met, to send stalemated contracts to Congress for review. If Congress takes no action within 60 days, the FAA can impose its last offer without further negotiations. That's what happened last year when the two parties could not agree on a new contract. The GOP-controlled Congress did not intervene, and the FAA's last contract offer was imposed.
The union wants the statute changed to require stalled disputes to be sent to binding arbitration, and wants the change to be retroactive -- effectively reopening the contract the FAA imposed.
Mica said he has agreed to consider rewriting the statute to send future disputes to binding arbitration, but that making the change retroactive is a "show stopper."
The weekend talks between the union and FAA, ordered by lawmakers, was a last attempt to bring the warring parties together to resolve the long-festering dispute.
Contract language aside, the draft legislation is not expected to contain any user fee proposals, unlike the $25 per-flight surcharge contained in the Senate's version (S 1300).
That would probably doom the FAA's airline industry-backed proposal (HR 1356) to fund the agency with user fees instead of the current mix of ticket and excise taxes and general fund contributions.
The FAA has said this change is needed to create enough revenue to fund the expensive transition to a satellite-based air traffic control system to handle growing air travel demands.
An aviation lobbyist said he expects the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over the portions of the reauthorization dealing with taxes, to instead tinker with the current regime of fuel taxes.
Mica also said the draft will not contain "passengers bill of rights" language pushed by a large grassroots group of travelers angered by delays that stranded passengers on grounded planes for hours.
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