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FAA Sequester Reprieve: The Start of Things to Come?

Congress moved quickly today toward putting a stop to the air-traffic-controller furloughs. It won’t be the last such backstop effort to skirt the dreaded sequester knife, though it may be the fastest.

Today’s action means that lawmakers will be subjected to only one more sequester-delayed trip home, and perhaps they won’t be buffeted by town-meeting turbulence during the coming recess. But members are sure to be chastised for making an exception to their tough budget rules that only makes life more convenient for themselves and their business constituents.

The House arranged this morning for expedited enactment of legislation the Senate passed Thursday night, albeit on a rushed voice vote after several budgetary hard-liners at each end of the political spectrum had left town.

Now that one relatively small rifle shot has found its mark. And with no reason to believe there will be progress before summer on a sequester-replacing budget deal, there is every reason to believe that May will be filled with well-lobbied lawmaker appeals to relax the across-the-board strictures at other agencies, from the National Institutes of Health to the National Park Service.

Had the hardliners been around, the ad hoc approach to relaxing the across-the-board cuts would have prompted outraged rhetoric from conservative Republicans, who view acceptance of all the indiscriminate but meaningful spending curbs as a decent price to pay for shrinking government; and liberal Democrats, who want the sequester turned off altogether as a way to help a range of people who are feeling the pinch.

The White House echoed that sentiment in a statement announcing that President Barack Obama would sign the bill. “We hope Congress will find the same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation to help the families who have had children kicked out of Head Start, the seniors who have lost access to Meals On Wheels, the hard-working employees who have been laid off due to defense cuts, and the 750,000 Americans who have lost a job or won’t find one because of the sequester.”

Republican leaders crowed that the angry reaction — from the passengers on about a thousand delayed flights every day this week — had forced an unusually quick and complete capitulation by Obama and the Democrats, who had been emphatically opposed to taking this sort of piecemeal approach.

“Consider that the Democrats opening position was they would only replace the sequester with tax increases,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said in a message to his caucus this morning; then they “proposed replacing the whole sequester with phony war savings. And by last night, Senate Democrats were adopting our targeted ‘cut this, not that’ approach.”

The bill doesn’t ease the $637 million in savings the Federal Aviation Administration has to come up with by September as its share of the sequester’s $85 billion grand total. Instead, it allows the agency to cover the cost of fully staffing all the air traffic control towers by trimming as much as $237 million from other accounts for less pressing projects.

That sort of flexibility is generally prohibited under the terms of the law, which was designed to be so mindlessly draconian that lawmakers would come up with some alternative budget solution in time. They may yet, one pet program at a time.

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