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Rush to help airlines, travelers could crack open budget door

A long line of passengers wait to enter the security checkpoint before boarding their aircraft at Reagan National Airport in Washington, Apr
A long line of passengers wait to enter the security checkpoint before boarding their aircraft at Reagan National Airport in Washington, Apr

By David Lawder and Doug Palmer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress got rid of a headache on Friday when it rescued the flying public from flight delays caused by its budget cutting. But in the view of many lawmakers, the pain is just about to begin.

Members of Congress and groups representing people hit by across-the-board budget cuts, ranging from cancer patients to welfare recipients, say the quick action on air traffic control staffing underscored the importance of being visible to millions of Americans.

"What are we going to do, every time there's a fire we're going to put it out by moving some funds around? That's a shell game," said Representative Gerald Connolly, a Democrat from northern Virginia.

"I'm going to predict that there's going to be more weeping and gnashing of teeth, as sequestration sets in and we're going to continue to approach this on a piecemeal basis," he said.

Next in line for individual funding relief will be advocates for national parks, low-income housing, AIDS funding, meals on wheels and Community Development Block Grants, Connolly said, adding that budget cuts for these and other safety-net services will be felt severely by local communities.

Representatives for some of these other programs said it was the television images of lines in airports and the interviews with angry passengers that led to action, combined with the lobbying power of the travel industry.

"It means we worry about who's going to scream the loudest now," said Chris Hansen, president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, which has been lobbying against cuts in federal funding of medical research.

A heavy dose of lobbying from the airline and travel industry preceded the legislation enacted Friday, which permitted the Federal Aviation Administration to move money to avoid the furloughs of air traffic controllers that were causing the delays.

Sequestration - the $109 billion in automatic across-the-board budget cuts enacted by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama - formally took effect in March and barring Congressional action to replace it may continue for a decade.

Some programs won relief from Congress in March, notably the meat and poultry industry, which fought successfully to prevent furloughs of U.S. Department of Agriculture meat inspectors.

But because the furloughs in other programs, such as the FAA, were not immediately implemented, the impact was slow to build.

TRAVEL LOBBY

The travel industry began to accelerate its lobbying effort after it learned early last week from the FAA that as many as 6,700 flights per day could be delayed, potentially reducing capacity at major airports by 30 to 40 percent.

Nicholas Calio, president of Airlines for America, or A4A, the main airlines industry group, worked the phones throughout the week, said Jean Medina, senior vice president for communications at A4A.

"He certainly was in very close contact with a lot of people to make sure they understood what needed to happen," she said.

Its first course of action was to ask the administration for a 30-day delay.

When that was denied, the industry group began focusing on a legislative fix that would clear both houses with bipartisan support and be signed into law by Obama.

US Airways Chief Executive Doug Parker, who would head the world's largest airline if his carrier's merger with AMR Corp's American Airlines is approved, said he spent the past week making calls to government officials in his airline's hub markets to express concern about the furloughs.

"What I know is we're doing great disservice to the flying public and to the citizens of the United States and we need for this to get resolved," Parker told Reuters from Arizona earlier this week.

The non-profit U.S. Travel Association said it mounted its own "sequester offensive" in response to the furloughs and began a consumer texting campaign that connected travelers who had been delayed at airports to members of Congress.

The association also asked industry workers to contact their representatives in Congress to explain that the travel delays put their jobs at risk.

"We were in frequent contact with Congress urging them to solve this problem as soon as possible," Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy at the U.S. Travel Association, said on Friday. "We were able to generate hundreds of calls and emails to Congress and we're hoping that helped to move the ball forward," Hansen said.

VISIBILITY

Airlines for America reported about $6.3 million in lobbying expenses in 2012 according to the Center for Responsive Politics; the U.S. Travel Association spent about $1.7 million; US Airways and Delta about $2.8 million each.

While other interest groups have a lobbying presence in the national capital, they are hard pressed to match the visibility of air travel.

Compared to "longer lines at airports," said Cynthia Pellegrini, a vice president at the March of Dimes, which raises funds to improve the health of mothers and babies, "you can't see that a child's belly is emptier because her family couldn't get food assistance."

"We are not as well-heeled as the travel industry," said Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of social welfare organizations. "But I think as more people learn of this appalling choice," that Congress made on Friday, "they will get as mad as I am."

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, home to a major Delta Air Lines hub in Minneapolis, was among the members backing an FAA budget fix on Thursday when the Senate passed it.

She called it a "practical, pragmatic answer to an immediate problem," but acknowledged that it does nothing to get Congress closer to fixing the problems caused by sequestration. More effects of the cuts, demonstrated dramatically to the public, could do that, she added.

She may not have long to wait. Organizations that have been more quietly protesting the budget cuts were rethinking their strategy on Friday in the wake of Congress' action.

"It is inexplicable why proven and effective Meals on Wheels programs get overlooked from exemption from the sequester when both the business and social case exists," said Ellie Hollander, President and CEO of Meals on Wheels Association of America.

"I guess that's because we need to be a different kind of squeaky wheel."

(Additional reporting by Karen Jacobs, Susan Heavy and Karey Van Hall; Editing by Fred Barbash and Tim Dobbyn)

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