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Senators Get Informal as FAA Deadline Nears

Reauthorization didn’t make the summer cut. Now senators are looking for a pre-conference shortcut

Sen. John Thune says negotiating with the House before Senate passage is the best option to avoid a lapse of authorization Sept. 30, even if process questions remain. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. John Thune says negotiating with the House before Senate passage is the best option to avoid a lapse of authorization Sept. 30, even if process questions remain. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Staff members on both sides of the Capitol are trying to work around obstacles in the Senate by negotiating “pre-conference” versions of Federal Aviation Administration authorization and water infrastructure bills, according to lawmakers.

Despite the stated goals of the bills’ sponsors, the Senate did not consider either the FAA or water infrastructure measure over the summer, preventing a true conference committee from hashing out differences with the House-passed versions of the FAA and water infrastructure bills.

If it succeeds, the bills’ backers say the pre-conference process would allow the Senate to vote just once on each bill before sending the measures to President Donald Trump.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking Democrat Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon told reporters on Wednesday that the pre-conference negotiations with the Senate on the water infrastructure bill are close enough that a new bill could be brought to the House floor as early as next week.

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune, who sponsored that chamber’s FAA bill and passed it through his committee on a unanimous vote last year, said negotiating with the House before Senate passage was the best option to avoid a lapse of authorization Sept. 30, even if questions remain about where the process goes after reaching an informal agreement with the House.

“We’ve been in negotiations and discussions with our counterparts in the House to try and agree on the substance so we’re ready to move quickly,” the South Dakota Republican said. “We’ll get to common ground on the substance of the bill. Then the question is what’s the path forward and how do we expedite getting this passed without having to do an extension.”

Thune said the only remaining difficult issue was a measure in both chambers’ bills that would preempt states from enforcing meal and rest break regulations for truckers. The measures passed as amendments in the Senate committee and the House floor, with support mostly from Republicans while Democrats were nearly universally opposed.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee ranking Democrat Rick Larsen of Washington said Wednesday the issue was the largest remaining issue for him.

“For me, it’s the biggest sticking point,” he said. “I don’t know why a trucking issue is in an aviation bill.”

But full House committee Chairman Bill Shuster said while the trucking provision is one issue, negotiations have not progressed far enough to know the full extent of where they will lead. The Pennsylvania Republican said negotiators began talks only last week and had barely started to recognize what the major points of conflict will be.

“We really haven’t figured out exactly what the big issues are because we’re just starting to get through some of the easy ones,” he said.

The pre-conference strategy could lead to shorter consideration on the Senate floor because it would likely be taken up on an up-or-down vote, without amendments. That may be more acceptable to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who Thune has said does not want to spend too much time on the FAA bill.

With an ambitious schedule for appropriations bills in September, floor time has been a major hurdle for getting the bill to the floor. Thune and ranking Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida worked over the summer to attain unanimous consent for a time agreement for floor consideration that would limit the number of amendments that could be considered, but were unable to do so.

‘Sticky’ water issues

As with the FAA bill, Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso of Wyoming and ranking Democrat Thomas R. Carper of Delaware hoped for a floor vote on their water bill before Labor Day. They were stymied when GOP Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina declined to sign on to a time agreement that didn’t include language to authorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The fund, which Burr has championed, is an Interior Department program meant to protect national parks, water resources and wildlife areas and make them available to the public for recreation. Its authorization is set to expire at the end of September.

Barrasso and Carper said last month that the LWCF was the lone issue preventing floor consideration of the water infrastructure bill. Barrasso said Tuesday that dynamic had not changed.

While Shuster said the negotiations on the water bill are further along than for FAA, he said about 12 “sticky” issues remain. Carper said Wednesday only “about four” issues remained unresolved. Neither identified those issues.

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