Trent Lott is a veteran of the Senate GOP leadership. He now heads the Breaux Lott Leadership Group, one of Washington's most powerful lobbying firms.
Trent Lott is a veteran of the Senate GOP leadership. He now heads the Breaux Lott Leadership Group, one of Washington's most powerful lobbying firms. AP
Even as Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid announced a bipartisan compromise to end the shutdown at the Federal Aviation Administration Thursday afternoon, a legislative struggle — and some high-powered lobbying — continued behind the scenes.
The immediate flash point in the fight over the FAA has been the Essential Air Service program, which subsidizes flights to some rural airports. House Republicans voted to end the subsidies for 13 communities. Three of them are in states represented by top Democratic senators, including Reid.
But Democrats have said the real battle is over union rights at Delta Air Lines. Sen. Jay Rockefeller's state of West Virginia has one of the targeted airports.
"Most of the big airlines are unionized. Not a problem. One isn't: Delta," says Rockefeller, chairman of the transportation committee.
Unions are trying to organize Delta workers. Last year, the National Mediation Board, which oversees labor practices at the airlines, voted to make organizing easier.
The Air Transport Association — the airlines' lobbying arm — and Delta sued, and lost. Now they're appealing the decision.
This year, House Republicans voted to override the mediation board legislatively. At issue is whether a vote to unionize requires a majority of all union members, or just a majority of those who cast ballots.
Delta wants the higher threshold. The judge in the case said the mediation board has the power and substantial legal precedent to use the lower one.
Republicans contend the union issue hasn't been the obstacle to funding the FAA.
"You ought to give both the employees, as well as the employer, equal opportunity to make the case," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told Fox News on Wednesday. "But again, that's separate from this issue; [it] has to do with subsidies that the federal government is paying."
Delta agrees. In response to an interview request, company officials released a written statement saying the Essential Air Service is "the fundamental issue."
But Delta's lobbying records suggest another possibility. Last winter, the company hired new lobbyists: the Breaux Lott Leadership Group, one of Washington's most powerful lobby firms. John Breaux was a longtime Democratic senator from Louisiana, and Trent Lott is a veteran of the Senate GOP leadership.
In addition to representing Delta, the Breaux Lott group also signed a contract with the Air Transport Association. Their firm didn't respond to an interview request.
Lobby disclosure documents show the hirings coincided with House action to consider and adopt the anti-union provision.
Delta's lobby team already included a former chief of staff to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and another firm headed by Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. Elmendorf says he won't discuss whether he's lobbying on the anti-union provision.
"Sometimes you'll talk to Democratic lobbyists who have a corporation. They will tell you they're working on other issues" and not working against the Democrats' closest allies, says AFL-CIO Legislative Director Bill Samuel.
Delta and the Air Transport Association have spent more than $2.8 million so far this year to lobby Congress.
"Delta's always spent a lot of money on Capitol Hill, and obviously there's been some payoff to that, with the way, at least, the Republicans in the House have taken up their cause," Samuel says.
That cause will persist, and so will resistance to it in the Senate, even after today's temporary agreement. And that could stymie the FAA's long-term funding indefinitely.