The Senate cleared an extension of the Federal Aviation Administration’s funding authority until March after Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet lifted his hold on the bill, averting a lapse in the FAA’s authority before senators leave for the holidays.
The bill, passed by unanimous consent Tuesday evening, now goes to the president and would be the second extension of the FAA’s funding authority in the last three months as senators continue to negotiate a long-term FAA reauthorization bill that’s been held up since June.
“The authorization we drafted on a bipartisan basis addresses airport infrastructure, workforce challenges, ATC [air traffic controller] staffing, protections for passengers, the safety framework, manufacturing, I could go on,” said Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in a floor speech last week. “But we need to make sure we get it right.”
Senators had expected to pass the extension bill shortly after the House approved it last week. But Bennet on Thursday blocked an effort to quickly pass it on the Senate floor, leveraging the FAA’s end-of-year funding authority deadline to urge a deal on funding for Ukraine.
Without an extension, the FAA on Jan. 1 would lose its authority to collect revenues from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund — financed by excise taxes on passengers, cargo and fuel that funds airport infrastructure projects and other aviation programs. The bill would provide for a simple extension of the FAA’s current funding authority without any policy riders.
Bennet said his block forced senators to return this week and continue negotiations on border policy changes, which Republicans want as a part of the supplemental spending package that would provide additional armament to Ukraine. Senators did not reach an agreement on supplemental text, but Bennet lifted his block after Senate leadership assured him they would “take swift action on the supplemental national security legislation early in the new year,” Bennet said in a statement.
“I don’t think we would have come back, probably, from our departure last week if we didn’t have the unfinished business of the FAA to do,” Bennet said on the floor Tuesday night. “And while the FAA is unrelated to the Ukraine funding … It was something that could force us to come back here to continue to have the debate.”
The extension would provide lawmakers extra time to negotiate and pass a long-term reauthorization of the FAA. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Cruz indicated that they’re hoping to get the bill done soon — especially as safety concerns with the nation’s air traffic control system are mounting pressure on lawmakers to pass key aviation policies.
The Senate’s five-year FAA reauthorization bill has stalled since June, when Schumer objected to language from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., on pilot training requirements. The House passed its full reauthorization bill in July.
Thune’s language would allow would-be pilots to count “enhanced training” that could include time on flight simulators toward their required 1,500 hours of in-flight experience to become certified.
Cantwell said they are close to an agreement on changes to pilot training requirements. But the committee is still working through other contentious issues, like an effort to add more flight slots to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and raise the pilot retirement age.
Cruz indicated in a floor speech last week that he was concerned about getting the long-term reauthorization through the Senate, specifically blaming the airline pilot union, the Air Line Pilots Association and other “special interest” groups for holding the bill up.
“Each month, it seems there’s a new issue we’re told cannot be in the FAA bill because the unelected special interests are opposed to it,” Cruz said. “I’m very concerned, given the time we have, the limited progress we have, and the constantly moving the goalpost in negotiations, we’re getting to the point we’ll be forced to extend the FAA’s authority until 2025.”
However, Cantwell said last week that March 8, the new funding authority deadline, is a reasonable amount of time to get the bill done. “Or Feb. 8, maybe even Jan. 8,” she added.