Coburn Agrees To A Deal On FAA Extension

A possible shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration has been averted. It's funding was set to expire Friday night. For the past two days, one senator had been blocking a bill to temporarily extend funding both to the FAA and highway projects. But instead, the bill is now headed to the president's desk. Michele Norris talks to NPR's Tamara Keith for more.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris.

Another partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration has been averted. Its funding was set to expire tomorrow night. For the past two days, one senator had been blocking a bill to temporarily extend funding both to the FAA and highway projects, but instead, the bill is now headed to the president's desk.

NPR's Tamara Keith has been following the drama from Capitol Hill and she joins us now. Tamara, first, who is this senator and what were his concerns?

TAMARA KEITH: This senator is Tom Coburn. He's a Republican from Oklahoma. And in the Senate, some call him Dr. No, because he's made a habit of doing things like this - of putting procedural roadblocks in front of bills that otherwise would pass with ease.

And in this case, Senator Coburn was concerned about part of the bill that directs a small share of highway finding to beautification projects. So, bike paths, museums, beautification on the side of the roads - that type of thing. And what he was saying is that 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.

NORRIS: So, this actually has little to do with the FAA?

KEITH: That's right. This was a bill combining temporary funding extensions, both for the FAA and for highway construction, all bundled up together. So, basically, the FAA was poised to be a casualty in a fight about something else, though in the past there have been big fights about the FAA as well.

As you may remember, earlier this summer, the FAA was partially shut down for two weeks because of partisan fights over rural airports and union organizing. And those fights have not actually been resolved. That became, until they did another temporary extension, this poster child for partisan gridlock in Washington. And so, when Congress got back from the August break, they tried to have a new tone. And so, this dual extension was rushed right through the House on a voice vote, made it right through, no problems. And then came the snag in the Senate, or to be more precise, Senator Coburn.

NORRIS: So, what prompted the man who's known as Dr. No to eventually say yes?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Well, eventually there was a deal. There was a lot of negotiating. You know, the fascinating thing and sort of quirky thing about the U.S. Senate is that one single senator can hold up a vote for quite a long time, and even a vote on something that is popular. In this case, the final vote tally is in and it passed 92 to 6, so it wasn't even close. There was broad bipartisan support.

So, for the last couple of days there's been a lot of negotiating. Senator Coburn has been meeting with California Democrat Barbara Boxer and his fellow Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe. They're the leaders of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. And they spent a lot of time working with Senator Coburn on an agreement that in the longer-term highway bill - so not this one, these temporary extensions, but the long-term, more permanent bill - that his concerns would be addressed. And so they apparently agreed that in the future, states will be able to decide if they want to pay for flowers or pay for bridges.

NORRIS: And just quickly, we don't have a lot of time, Tamara, what comes next?

KEITH: Well, this was the easy part. These were the temporary extensions. For the FAA, the temporary extension will last four months, for the highway funds it'll last six months. And then they have to, in this time, settle on long-term more permanent funding measures. And all these fights that happened before and going to happen again.

NORRIS: That's NPR congressional reporter Tamara Keith. Tamara, thanks so much.

KEITH: Thank you.

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