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.
Word came from the Texas senators' staffs later Thursday afternoon that Mr. Leahy could come to an agreement for bringing the Wright bill up under unanimous consent, a procedure used for noncontroversial measures.
The senators and their staffs started working on statements to be read on the Senate floor.
Ms. Hutchison reached out to House members about her progress, e-mailing and talking with Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, past midnight and into Friday morning, to ask her to wait for a Senate bill to come to the House to prevent further procedural delays.
By Friday morning, Ms. Hutchison was sitting in a cloakroom off the Senate floor working out how the bill would come up under unanimous consent.
Mr. Leahy had been pushing a wilderness bill to move under unanimous consent, a measure that largely affected Vermont and New Hampshire.
Asked later if she was holding up his bill, Ms. Hutchison smiled. "Why would someone do that?
"Let's just say that we came to an agreement to pass both bills," she said.
The bill passed the Senate in less than a minute just before 1 p.m. Dallas time.
Then Mr. Cornyn and Mr. Leahy engaged in a colloquy, a discussion on the Senate floor that allows lawmakers to share their thinking for the record.
The dialogue does not offer the force of law but gives judges an opportunity to glean congressional intent in a court challenge over the antitrust issue.
"Senator Cornyn and I share a concern about providing antitrust immunity to agreements involving private parties," Mr. Leahy said. "While I would prefer greater clarity on this point in the bill, I am pleased that Senator Cornyn and I agree that this is an entirely unique situation, which should not be repeated."
Mr. Cornyn agreed that "the legislation contemplated here should not be a model for any future arrangement.
"In no way can I imagine a situation arising with a set of facts remotely similar to that created in Dallas by the passage of the Wright Amendment," he said.
Mr. Cornyn, who serves on the judiciary committee with Mr. Leahy, said later that ending the impasse was a matter of talking through the details of the Wright law and the uniqueness of the situation.
"We had to explain to him that actually this increased competition rather than decreased competition," Mr. Cornyn said. "That was one of the hard things for people to understand because of the unique nature of the Wright amendment."
Ms. Hutchison, who urged North Texas officials early in the year to come up with a solution, said the Wright legislation took "an inordinate amount of time for a bill that shouldn't have been this complicated."
"I have to say that in my 12 years in the Senate, the hardest thing that I've ever had to explain was the Wright amendment to outside people," she said.
Dallas Mayor Laura Miller was euphoric Friday afternoon. She'd feared the Senate would be the bigger obstacle.
Ms. Miller said she was confident the terms of the bill would protect Dallas from losing a court challenge, due to a dedicated North Texas delegation and attorneys who worked around the clock.
"Without the language crafted in the Senate ... we would have a huge problem," Ms. Miller said.
Friday's actions followed a nearly two-year fight over the Wright amendment and Love Field.
In November 2004, Southwest Airlines announced that it would lobby Congress to lift the flight restrictions.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, introduced legislation the following May to repeal Wright completely, spurring lawmakers nationwide to pick up the cause to win cheaper flights to and from North Texas.
But Mr. Hensarling decided not to back the compromise agreement, saying he could not support the nation's only congressional mandate on the number of gates at a local airport.
He sat quietly in the back row of the House on Friday evening to watch the debate. He planned to vote against the bill but did not fight the compromise agreement.
Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano, who co-sponsored the original Wright repeal legislation with Mr. Hensarling, said the compromise was "not perfect" but still an agreement worthy of support.
Staff writer Emily Ramshaw in Dallas contributed to this report.
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