WASHINGTON (AP) - Congress has easily approved legislation ending furloughs of air traffic controllers that have delayed hundreds of flights daily. The House approved the measure Friday on a 361-41 vote, one day after the Senate agreed to the bill. The action came with lawmakers streaming toward the doors for a week-long spring recess.
The Federal Aviation Administration has furloughed the controllers as part of the government-wide, $85 billion spending cuts called the sequester.
Republicans are accusing the Obama administration of using the controller furloughs to put political pressure on Congress to roll back all the cuts. Airline delays have infuriated travelers and caused headaches for lawmakers.
Democrats largely went along with the bill but said all the cuts should be lifted.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
Democrats and Republicans traded accusations of blame Friday as the House debated a bill that would end furloughs of air traffic controllers and delays for millions of travelers that have caused a political headache in Washington.
A day after the Senate approved the measure without even a roll call, the House began a vote on the measure. The bill would let the Federal Aviation Administration use up to $253 million from airport improvement and other accounts to end the furloughs for the controllers through the Sept. 30 end of the federal fiscal year.
Republicans accused the Obama administration of purposely furloughing the controllers to raise public pressure on Congress to lift the spending cuts. The FAA has resorted to the move as it swallows its share of $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts - known as the sequester - that took effect last month at government agencies.
"The administration has played shameful politics with the sequester at the cost of hard-working American families," said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa.
The White House and Democrats have argued that by law, the administration has little maneuverability in deciding where the cuts fall. Democrats said Friday that Congress should work on legislation lifting all of the cuts, which they noted have also caused reductions in Head Start pre-school programs, benefits for the long-term unemployed and medical research.
"How can we sit there and say, `Four million Meals on Wheels for seniors, gone, but that's not important. Over 70,000 children off Head Start, but that's not important.' What is important is for Republicans to hold a hard line" on the budget, said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
In addition to restoring full staffing by controllers, the available funds can be used for other FAA operations as well, including preventing the closure of small airport towers around the country. The FAA has said it will shut the facilities as it makes its share of $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts - known as the sequester - that took effect last month at numerous government agencies.
The FAA said there had been at least 863 flights delayed on Wednesday "attributable to staffing reductions resulting from the furlough."
Administration officials participated in the negotiations that led to the deal and evidently registered no objections.
After the vote, White House press secretary Jay Carney said, "It will be good news for America's traveling public if Congress spares them these unnecessary delays. But ultimately, this is no more than a temporary Band-Aid that fails to address the overarching threat to our economy posed by the sequester's mindless, across-the-board cuts."
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a key participant in the talks, said the legislation would "prevent what otherwise would have been intolerable delays in the air travel system, inconveniencing travelers and hurting the economy."
Senate approval followed several hours of pressure-filled, closed-door negotiations, and came after most senators had departed the Capitol on the assumption that the talks had fallen short.
For the White House and Senate Democrats, the discussions on legislation relating to one relatively small slice of the $85 billion in spending cuts marked a shift in position in a long-running struggle with Republicans over budget issues. Similarly, the turn of events marked at least modest vindication of a decision by the House GOP last winter to finesse some budget struggles in order to focus public attention on the across-the-board cuts in hopes they would gain leverage over President Barack Obama.
The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, a union that represents FAA employees, reported a number of incidents it said were due to the furloughs.
In one case, it said several flights headed for Long Island MacArthur Airport in New York were diverted on Wednesday when a piece of equipment failed. "While the policy for this equipment is immediate restoral, due to sequestration and furloughs it was changed to next-day restoral," the union said.
The airlines, too, were pressing Congress to restore the FAA to full staffing.
In an interview Wednesday, Robert Isom, chief operations officer of US Airways, said, "In the airline business, you try to eliminate uncertainty. Some factors you can't control, like weather. It (the FAA issue) is worse than the weather."
In a shift, first the White House and then senior Democratic lawmakers have signaled a willingness in the past two days to support legislation that alleviates the budget crunch at the FAA, while leaving the balance of the $85 billion to remain in effect.
Obama favors a comprehensive agreement that replaces the entire $85 billion in across-the-board cuts as part of a broader deficit-reduction deal that includes higher taxes and spending cuts.
Officials estimate it would cost slightly more than $200 million to restore air traffic controllers to full staffing, and an additional $50 million to keep open smaller air traffic towers around the country that the FAA has proposed closing.
Associated Press writers Joan Lowy, Henry C. Jackson and Alan Fram in Washington and David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.
A long stretch of hot weather begins
A long stretch of hot weather begins