Senators see must-pass FAA bill as last chance for lame duck priorities


Senators are hoping their priorities can hitch a ride on a bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, one of the last must-pass pieces of legislation of the current Congress.

The Senate will take its first procedural vote on the reauthorization Wednesday, days before the agency’s authority expires on May 10.

Congressional leaders in the House and Senate announced a bipartisan deal on the bill Monday, paving the way for its passage after three short-term extensions. But the legislation will face opposition from senators on the losing side of its most controversial provision, as well as demands from other members who want to see unrelated measures added before it’s sent over to the House.

Committee negotiators in both chambers had to navigate a series of land mines in crafting the legislation, among them pilot training requirements that held up the bill in the Senate for months. Meanwhile, they ultimately decided to allow five new round-trip flights at Reagan National Airport, despite protests from Washington, D.C.-area lawmakers who say the change will cause further delays at one of the busiest travel hubs in the country.

Those protests will spill over to the bill’s consideration on the Senate floor. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) plans to demand an amendment stripping the provision out, and he could have strong support. 

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) came out against the additional slots on Tuesday, while House lawmakers were almost evenly split when the measure was rejected in a July floor vote.

Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) will be forced to consider amendments from Warner and other senators as he negotiates an agreement that would fast-track its passage in the Senate. But the biggest question is whether he will allow votes on unrelated bills that cover everything from children’s online safety to compensation for radiation exposure victims.

“The problem is, this is probably one of the last must-pass vehicles between now and the election, and all the senators know that,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), an adviser to GOP leadership who noted that around 20 amendment requests have been filed so far. 

“If you’re the bill manager, and you actually want to get the bill passed, that’s probably not something you would welcome with open arms,” he added. 

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), in particular, has been dogged in trying to get the radiation legislation signed into law. It passed the Senate with 69 votes in March, but attaching it to a larger bill may be its only chance of getting through the House given its $50 billion price tag.

He announced on Tuesday that he would slow the FAA bill down unless his legislation gets an amendment vote.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) speaks with members of the media, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

The online safety bill, which would require social and other web platforms to take “reasonable measures” to protect children from bullying and exploitation, is similarly popular. It has 70 Senate co-sponsors, including Schumer himself. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the lead sponsor along with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), told the Washington Examiner they would “try to use any vehicle we can” to get the bill passed, but he doubted leadership will allow off-topic amendments to be considered.

“It has been delayed for so long, and there’s still moving parts in connection with the subject matter itself,” he said, “that they want to get it done without having to open the door to other amendments.”

Oftentimes, leadership is reluctant to allow last-minute changes to bills, especially under a tight deadline. But if Schumer does give these or other measures a vote, some could actually pass.

Bills that aren’t germane to the underlying legislation — in this case, the aviation industry — can still be considered, but only at a 60-vote threshold.

Schumer controls the floor, meaning he decides what gets brought up for a vote. But he will face resistance from GOP leadership that kills certain amendments’ prospects outright. Republicans can filibuster the FAA reauthorization with a bare 41 votes.

Among the possible amendment votes that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) opposes is legislation on cannabis banking that Schumer had expressed interest in attaching.

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Schumer has just 10 days to get the bill through the Senate, and he will need to leave enough time for Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) to send the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk.

But the procedural hurdles he will be forced to jump through if he can’t reach a time agreement means Senate passage likely won’t come sooner than next week.

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