Wright Change Offered

WASHINGTON - Aiming to ease antitrust concerns, the creators of a June compromise that would phase out the Wright amendment agreed Wednesday to eliminate some controversial language.

The change would remove a phrase in the bill that offers the deal a blanket exemption from competition laws.

Critics say the exemption could unfairly benefit Southwest Airlines Co. and American Airlines Inc.

The planned revisions came on the eve of a so called mark-up session of the House Judiciary Committee.

That panel is reviewing the bill that would lift flight restrictions at Dallas Love Field.

The committee chairman, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., flagged the bill over concerns that it would exempt the North Texas-based carriers from antitrust laws.

The legislation would carry out a deal that ended a contentious fight among the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, Southwest, American and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

The bill has already cleared the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The legislation would end flight restrictions at Love Field in 2014.

It also would immediately allow for flights anywhere in the U.S. from Love, if passengers first stopped at an airport in one of the nine Wright states.

The agreement would also cut the gates at Love to 20 from 32, a move intended to compensate for an expected increase in air traffic and noise at the inner-city airport.

That piece of the deal has sparked complaints from competitors and some lawmakers that it would reduce the potential for competition at Love Field.

The five parties to the North Texas agreement, along with lawmakers from the area, had warned that any changes to the bill could result in its withdrawal.

The initial antitrust language in the bill was intended to protect the five parties from court challenges.

Still, some members were concerned that the proposed changes may not adequately accommodate Mr. Sensenbrenner.

"It was a big step," said Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth. "We are hoping that he will be satisfied."

Delay possible

There also were signals that the committee could hold off on considering the Wright legislation. The bill is the last of seven items scheduled for today's meeting, and the committee has until the end of next week to deal with the issue.

Representatives from Texas were conferring with colleagues on the Wright issue Wednesday evening as they gathered on the House floor for their first votes since leaving in July for a summer recess.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, the senior Texan on the Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers were continuing to negotiate language.

After talking with Mr. Sensenbrenner on the floor, Mr. Smith said the committee may have one more week to work on the issue.

North Texas lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have been meeting with other members of the committee to press the case.

Two Texans

The panel includes two Texas lawmakers - Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston - who are co-sponsors of the Wright legislation.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, said she met with Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the committee, and received his support.

Ms. Johnson said removing part of the blanket antitrust immunity wouldn't further expose the deal to outside challenges.

Without changing the language, the bill "would have been safe," she said. "But if this language helps improve the possibility of moving it along, then I can support it."

So far, Mr. Sensenbrenner has been the only member of the committee to question the bill.

The chairman "has concerns about exempting an agreement from antitrust laws that protect the interests of consumers," said committee spokesman Jeff Lungren.

It isn't unusual for a committee to pick up legislation that has already passed another committee in order to review elements that fall under its control.

"It gives us an opportunity to review it, and again add our expertise to ensure that if any legislation does get passed, it's the best legislative product possible," Mr. Lungren said.

If any changes are made in the House version, the Senate would have to come up with identical language in its bill to prevent a procedural logjam.

Congress is scheduled to be in session for less than a month before returning home to campaign for the November elections. That could further complicate efforts to clear the legislation by the end of the year, when the North Texas agreement expires.

"There's still enough time, but it really needs to be the same in the House and the Senate," Ms. Granger said.

On the Senate side, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has expressed similar antitrust concerns.

But the deal has been backed by key Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, John McCain of Arizona, and John Ensign, the Nevada senator who originally introduced legislation to repeal Wright.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who is leading efforts to clear the bill through the Senate, said she worked through the day on the Wright issue, losing sleep over the matter.

She said she e-mailed her staff at 4 a.m. Wednesday with the subject line: "Couldn't sleep. What about this?"

Ms. Hutchison said she was working with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Mr. Leahy to resolve the antitrust concerns.

"These are pretty simple, clear-cut questions," she said. "We either answer them or we try to have some strategy by which everybody can have their say and we can move forward."

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