Congress approved legislation late Friday to repeal the Wright amendment, potentially resolving a decades-old battle over the role of Dallas Love Field.
The bill to phase out flight restrictions at the Dallas airport cleared the House overwhelmingly in a late-night vote before lawmakers departed for a pre-election recess.
The legislation won passage in the Senate earlier Friday after months of pressure by Texas Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn to win over a final detractor, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
President Bush is expected to sign the measure as early as next week.
"It's a great relief to have a final solution," said Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, whose district includes Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. "The fact that none of the parties are completely happy, and all of the parties are relieved to have it over, should be a sign that it's a good agreement."
Still, lawmakers acknowledged that the Wright battle may not be over. North Texas residents and groups that opposed the deal are expected to challenge the legislation in court.
The Wright legislation stalled this summer under criticism over its treatment of federal antitrust laws, and supporters in Congress fought hard for language to help shield the deal from a long court fight.
The legislation will repeal Wright in 2014, implementing a June agreement by the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and D/FW Airport.
It would immediately allow flights anywhere from Love Field, as long as they first stopped inside the nine-state Wright perimeter.
The agreement would also cut the number of available gates at Love from 32 to 20, part of a plan to compensate for an expected increase in noise, pollution and congestion. Nineteen gates are in use now.
On Congress' last day, the House turned out to be the greatest source of contention over repealing the Wright law.
House members planned to clear their bill under suspension of normal rules, a procedure often used for uncontroversial measures that would prevent lawmakers from offering amendments.
Suspension bills often pass without recorded votes, but objections to the Wright legislation forced proponents to corral the support of two-thirds of those present.
A heated evening debate had opponents sparring over the antitrust issue, while also arguing that residents outside the existing Wright perimeter would be saddled with higher airfares as a result of the deal.
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said the bill "will continue vestiges of the Wright amendment" until 2025, when gate arrangements expire under the deal.
In a departure from many congressional debates, supporters and opponents of the Wright agreement weren't split by party affiliation or geography.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the judiciary committee, argued against a frequent ally, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, whose district includes Love Field.
Mr. Sensenbrenner, recalling the "Don't Mess with Texas" bumper stickers in the House garage, said, "Tonight is one of the nights where we ought to mess with Texas.
"This is the most anti-consumer, anti-free-enterprise bill that has come before this House in a long time," he said.
The debate on the House floor was not expected a day earlier. North Texas lawmakers positioned the legislation to allow it to pass easily.
A tougher fight had been expected in the Senate, where rules and traditions allow a single member the power to block legislation.
By early Thursday afternoon, after House members from North Texas had forged a path for their bill to reach the House floor, the pressure had grown on Ms. Hutchison and Mr. Cornyn.
Efforts in recent weeks to find language that was acceptable to Mr. Leahy and the North Texas parties had failed, even after changing the antitrust language from an explicit to implicit exemption to win over the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Love flights to any location will be cleared after President Bush signs the measure, possibly as early as next week.
The vote is unlikely until after Labor Day, but the Senate could still act.
Backers suggest wording to address antitrust concerns
Hoping to force a vote on the law that limits flights to and from Dallas Love Field airport, Nevada Sen. John Ensign on Tuesday introduced legislation to repeal the Wright Amendment.