MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Now, there's a bottom line in all of the funding issues at hand here - the money for rural airports and the disputes over airline employee unions - and that is there's a fundamental disagreement over the role of the government in regulating the airlines.
NPR's Peter Overby now has some more details on the disputes that Brian laid out. And as he explains, there's a lot of money and a lot of high-powered Washington lobbying invested in this fight.
PETER OVERBY: Now, again, the immediate flashpoint, the one that's apparently been taken care of was the Essential Air Service Program. House Republicans voted to end the subsidies for 13 small airports. By coincidence or not, three of them happened to be in states represented by Democratic senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller.
Democrats have said the real battle is over union rights at Delta Airlines. Here's Senator Rockefeller.
JAY ROCKEFELLER: Most of the big airlines are unionized. Not a problem. One isn't, Delta.
OVERBY: Briefly, 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 airlines lobbying arm, the Air Transport Association, joined with Delta to sue the mediation board. They lost. Now they're appealing the decision.
And this year, House Republicans voted to short-circuit the legal proceedings and 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. House majority leader Eric Cantor talked about it yesterday on Fox News.
ERIC CANTOR: You ought to give both the employees as well as the employer equal opportunity to make the case. But again, that's separate from this issue has to do with subsidies that the federal government is paying.
OVERBY: That is, the Essential Air Service Program. And Delta agrees. Company officials replied to an interview request with a written statement, saying: The Essential Air Service is, quote, "the fundamental issue." But Delta's lobbying records suggest another possibility. Last winter the company hired new lobbyists - the Breaux Lott Leadership Group. This is one of Washington's most powerful lobby firms.
John Breaux was a long-time Democratic senator from Louisiana. And Lott is Trent Lott, who was Republican leader in the Senate from 1996 until 2002.
In addition to representing Delta, they also went to work for the Air Transport Association. Their firm didn't respond to an interview request. Lobby disclosure documents show that 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, the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, and another firm headed by Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. Elmendorf said he wouldn't discuss whether he's lobbying on the anti-union provision.
At the AFL-CIO, legislative director Bill Samuel said these things are hard to know.
BILL SAMUEL: Sometimes you talk to Democratic lobbyists who have a corporation, they'll tell you they're working on other issues.
OVERBY: And not working against the Democrats' closest allies.
Between Delta and the Air Transport Association, lobbying expenditures this year have exceeded $2.8 million.
Again, Bill Samuel at the AFL-CIO.
SAMUEL: Delta has always spent a lot of money on Capitol Hill, and obviously there's been some payoff to that, with the way that at least the Republicans in the House have taken up their cause.
OVERBY: That cause will persist and so will the resistance to it in the Senate, even after today's temporary agreement. And that could stymie the FAA's long-term funding indefinitely.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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