Senate rules don't allow lawmakers to shift from the bill they're currently working on, a disaster aid bill, to a stop-gap funding measure for the FAA and highway programs without the consent of all lawmakers, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is refusing to give his consent. Coburn wants to change the stopgap transportation bill that the House passed on Tuesday by eliminating highway program spending on bike paths, beautification projects and other so-called transportation enhancements.
Without directly naming Coburn, Reid effective accused the GOP senator of acting like a "dictator" by insisting the rest of the Senate accept his amendment.
"It's a pretty good way to legislate around here, be a dictator and say either take this or leave it," Reid said. "I'm convinced his issue would lose overwhelmingly. But he's holding this legislation up, and we are in a position now legislatively that I can't get ... to this bill prior to Friday, when the FAA expires."
Republicans say the Senate could have passed the transportation bill in time if Reid hadn't brought up the disaster aid bill first. Because Coburn and several other GOP senators also opposed bringing up that measure, Reid on Tuesday set in motion parliamentary procedures that would allow the Senate to pass the disaster aid bill by Saturday.
Democrats are negotiating with Coburn, with Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., acting as a go-between.
John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, said earlier this week that the senator "believes we need to prioritize bridge repair over bike paths and will use procedural tools at his disposal to strip the enhancement requirements from the bill." He declined Wednesday to elaborate on the senator's position.
A partisan standoff between House Republicans and Senate Democrats forced the FAA to partially shut down for two weeks this summer. Nearly 4,000 FAA workers were furloughed and more than 200 airport construction and safety projects halted, affecting tens of thousands of other workers. The government lost nearly $400 million in airline ticket taxes because airlines no longer had authority to collect the fees.
Without congressional action, the FAA would face another partial shutdown on Friday, when its current operating authority expires. Authority for highway, transit and rail programs, as well as the federal gasoline and diesel taxes that provide the largest share of funding for the programs, are due to expire on Sept. 30.
Long-term funding for the FAA expired in 2007 and highway programs in 2009. Both programs have been continued through a series of short-term extensions. The latest bill would be FAA's 21st extension and the highway program's eighth.