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Congress Learns the Letter ‘S’ in FAA Snafu

Debates about letters of the alphabet can now return to “Sesame Street,” as Congress has sorted out what to do with the letter “s.”

A bill to provide funding to stop air-traffic-control furloughs will finally head to President Barack Obama’s desk after the Senate used a procedural maneuver that’s unusual even by Senate standards to fix a one-letter mistake

The Senate agreed to correct the Federal Aviation Administration funding flexibility bill that it passed last week to add an “s” to the word “account” at a point it had erroneously been omitted. In doing so, the House-passed and Senate-passed measures became identical. Tuesday’s move to make the two bills match results in the execution of a prior Senate agreement to automatically pass the House bill if the two measures are the same, finally putting the bill on a glide path to the White House.

The Senate action brings to a close a rather comical exercise in which lawmakers and aides alike initially seemed caught off guard by the drafting snafu which, if left uncorrected, would have restricted the ability of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to move money around to keep air traffic controllers on the job.

“There may be a letter difference because of what they thought they passed and what was actually enrolled in the Senate,” said Tom Latham, R-Iowa. “So what was sent over as the enrolled bill that we took exactly as it was, they were under the understanding over there they had handwritten an ‘s’ in.”

The language of the Senate-passed bill that actually reached the House did not include the “s.” That’s known because it did not appear in the version of the bill printed in the Congressional Record. The extra letter seems to have been necessary, however, to apply the bill to more than one FAA budget account. The House passed the bill without the “s” on Friday, then added it later the same day. (It appears on page 2, line 14 of the House version.)

“Frankly, I don’t think that if I were to veto, for example, this FAA bill, that that somehow would lead to the broader fix,” Obama said Tuesday of the other spending cuts required by the sequester. “It just means that there’d be pain now — which they would try to blame on me — as opposed to paying five years from now. But either way, the problem’s not getting fixed.”

Part of the confusion on April 26 stemmed from a move the previous night to change the language of the Senate bill shortly before passage by adding a new requirement that the Transportation Department notify the House and Senate Appropriations committees before reallocating funds. The language didn’t appear in the original printed text of the Senate bill. Instead, someone wrote it in by hand. That change is apparent in a copy of the Senate bill obtained by CQ Roll Call that includes handwritten additions.

The Senate passed the original bill the night of April 25 by unanimous consent after negotiations that went on for much of the day to come up with a patch before departing for a weeklong recess.

Knowing that the typo would be resolved, the FAA announced April 27 that air-traffic-control towers would resume normal operations even before the formal bill signing.

“The FAA has suspended all employee furloughs,” the agency said in a statement. “Air traffic facilities will begin to return to regular staffing levels over the next 24 hours and the system will resume normal operations by Sunday evening.”

Anne L. Kim contributed to this report.

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