How One Senator Can Stall A Widely Supported Bill

Following a work stoppage at airports across the country last month, there almost emerged a rare consensus in Washington, D.C., that the spectacle of laying off workers in a bad economy would not be repeated. "Almost" emerged because Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn is holding up the bill that extends funding to the Federal Aviation Administration for four months. He objects to money for bike paths and similar projects in an attached transportation bill.

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The FAA is at risk of a partial shutdown starting Saturday if Congress does not pass a temporary funding extension. If this all sounds familiar, there's good reason.

Earlier this summer, partisan bickering shut the parts of the FAA down for two weeks. Thousands of workers were furloughed and airport construction projects came to a halt.

But as NPR's Tamara Keith reports, this time is different. The bill's being held up by just one man.

TAMARA KEITH: The partial FAA shutdown became a poster child for partisan gridlock in Congress. What should have been fairly routine, blew up into a fight over rural airports and union organizing. Those underlying issues haven't been resolved. But when Congress returned from its August break, there was a noticeable shift in tone. Florida Republican John Mica heads the House Transportation Committee. He worked quickly to get a bill through the house that would extend funding for the FAA and for highway projects through early next year.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN MICA (REPUBLICAN, FLORIDA): Even though there's been some disruption in the past, hopefully it prodded action now and that people move forward and get both FAA and the major transportation bill extended so we can finish the long-term bills and get people to work.

KEITH: The temporary extension passed on a voice vote in the House and a lot of people assumed it would breeze through the Senate too. That is, until it came up against this man.

SENATOR TOM COBURN (REPUBLICAN, OKLAHOMA): And if that means that the Highway Transportation Bill does not get approved, so be it.

KEITH: Senator Tom Coburn is a Republican from Oklahoma. He's also a family practice physician. In the Senate, he's known as Doctor No because he's made a habit of putting procedural roadblocks in front of bills that would otherwise pass with ease. Last night, on the floor of the Senate, he said he planned to stand in the way of the combined FAA-Highway Bill.

COBURN: I will not give a unanimous consent as my right as a senator of the United States for us to continue to spend billions of dollars on things that are not a priority when this country is struggling to survive. Its very survival depends on us changing the way we do business.

KEITH: Coburn objects to part of the bill that directs a small share of highway funding to beautification projects, bike paths and museums. He says states should be able to choose whether they spend money on those things, or direct all of their federal funds to bridge repairs and highways.

COBURN: But I believe it's time to draw a line in the sand for the American people, for our future. It's not popular. It's certainly not expedient, but it's absolutely the right thing to do.

KEITH: It's safe to say not everyone agrees.

SENATOR BARBARA BOXER (DEMOCRAT, CALIFORNIA): Don't hold up all of these bills. It's wrong.

KEITH: California Democrat Barbara Boxer chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

BOXER: This is America, 70% of our bridges are deficient and we have colleagues holding up this bill. I say shame on them. Shame on them for doing that.

KEITH: Now, it's still entirely possible something can be negotiated behind the scenes and the transportation bill will make it to the president's desk before the FAA's current temporary funding runs out tomorrow night.

But if Senator Coburn follows through on his threat, it could be the middle of next week before the bill finally gets a vote, thanks to the many procedural stall tactics available to U.S. senators.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took to the floor to suggest Senator Coburn was using Senate rules to behave like a dictator.

SENATOR HARRY REID (DEMOCRAT, NEVADA): Unless my friend, the junior senator from Oklahoma, unless he agrees to allow us to go forward on this, one senator will stop 80,000 people from working. I hope he would reconsider.

KEITH: If he doesn't, the FAA would partially shut down starting Saturday and tens of thousands of government and contract workers would be furloughed - again. Highway funding expires at the end of the month.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the Capitol.

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