Funding debate threatens to ground NextGen air traffic control

Senate aviation leaders from both parties are each proposing to add more than half a billion dollars to the economic stimulus bill to modernize the nation's air traffic control system.

But, echoing a larger disagreement between the parties in the stimulus talks, whether to offset the new spending or just add to the bill's overall cost is keeping Commerce Chairman John (Jay) Rockefeller and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison from backing each other's amendment and might sink both attempts.

Rockefeller and Hutchison each have an amendment that includes $550 million for FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System. Each is identical in setting aside money to purchase and install ground infrastructure, develop routes and procedures supporting more efficient air navigation, purchase aircraft equipment and support FAA's safety oversight during the transition from a ground-based to satellite-based system.

The key difference is that Hutchison's amendment reduces "administrative or programmatic overhead" across the board in the bill to make up for the added spending.

Rockefeller so far has the support of likely incoming Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey. Hutchison has Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Ensign of Nevada as a co-sponsor.

Neither amendment seems likely to survive, as Republican complaints about the overall cost of the bill seem destined to make it difficult for anyone to add even more money.

Far more likely to be added is an amendment Rockefeller and Hutchison have joined forces on that would extend aviation funding and taxes until the end of the fiscal year. The funding and taxes are set to expire at the end of March.

That extension -- and agreement by Rockefeller and Hutchison that aviation modernization funding should be in the stimulus -- comes as lawmakers will try again this Congress to approve a multi-year FAA bill.

Both parties are in agreement that the stimulus bill could use more funding for infrastructure. But there, too, there are disagreements about how to pay for it.

Republicans Tuesday defeated an amendment from Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would have added $25 billion in infrastructure spending without offsets.

Only two Republicans -- Sens. Christopher (Kit) Bond of Missouri and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- voted against a successful budget point of order against the amendment raised by Environment and Public Works ranking member James Inhofe. Every Democrat except Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana voted against Inhofe's point of order, which required 60 votes to overcome.

Inhofe and Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer filed an amendment Wednesday that would add up to $50 billion in infrastructure funds by shifting money elsewhere in the bill that is not used within a year.