WASHINGTON (CNN) — When Democrats unsuccessfully tried months ago to persuade Republicans to replace forced spending cuts with a mix of tax and spending cuts, they predicted the GOP would come around in the spring when the reductions kicked in and constituents started complaining about the effects — like long lines at airports and flight delays.
But now, instead of Republicans conceding, it is Democrats who are giving in to public pressure to reverse one of the most visible consequences of $85 billion in government-wide, indiscriminate spending reductions approved by Congress — cuts at the Federal Aviation Administration.
And many rank-and-file Democrats are not happy about it, saying their party gave in without extracting concessions from Republicans over austerity in other areas, especially programs for the poor.
Right before leaving town on Thursday night for a weeklong recess — mostly on commercial flights — Democrats who run the Senate cut a deal with Republicans to pass a bill giving the transportation secretary flexibility to move money around and reverse air traffic controller furloughs blamed for causing widespread flight delays.
There was virtually no debate, and it then passed in the blink of an eye via unanimous consent.
House GOP leaders said immediately they would hold a vote on Friday, which left House Democrats in a pickle.
“I have a hard time going back home to the Mayo Clinic and for them saying, ‘Why is cancer research money not restored when you give FAA money?'” Rep Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, told CNN.
“I think that frustration from many of us is to single [the FAA] out,” Walz said. “Of course, we knew that sequestration was a poor way to go about business. We knew that there would be repercussions, and my concern is that as these things bring up and we deal with them individually and piecemeal, we’re defeating the purpose of trying to get a long-term solution that budgets fairly but makes sure we don’t cut any essential services.”
On the House floor, No. 2 Democrat Steny Hoyer gave voice to Democratic frustration in that chamber.
“We ought not to be mitigating the sequester’ s effect on just one segment when children, the sick, our military and many other groups who will be impacted by this irresponsible policy are left unhelped. Instead of dressing this serious wound with a small Band-Aid, let’s get to work on a serious solution,” Hoyer said.
Some Democrats tried to place the blame on Republicans.
“My Republican friends held this place hostage. We won’t pay the debt ceiling; we won’t pay the debts. Now we are losing 2 million jobs, 4,800 Head Start programs. And I believe in air traffic controllers, but we are holding them hostage. What about the person who can’t afford an air ticket, an airline ticket?” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.
To be sure, many Democrats said they supported the strategy to deal with flight delays.
“In order to make sure that the economy continues to grow, people have to get around in this country,” said Rep. Dan Maffei, D-New York, who was not in Congress when lawmakers passed the sweeping forced spending cuts that took effect in March, and says they were a bad idea.
“If we could fix any part of it that has a detrimental effect on our economy, on the ability of people to visit their children and grandchildren, just the ability of people to move around this country, we’ve got do to it. … We shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good,” said Maffei.
Privately, some top House Democrats say they are annoyed with fellow Democrats in the Senate, claiming they caved on FAA cuts without getting concessions on programs for the needy.
And in several conversations in and around the Capitol with House and Senate Democrats, aides were quietly cursing the White House for opening the door to ending furloughs at the FAA.
“They cut us off at the knees,” said one Senate Democratic aide.
But other Senate Democratic sources were taking a more politically practical approach.
“You think one guy standing in line today cares whether this is a Democratic problem or a Republican problem? They just hate Congress,” said another senior Senate Democratic aide.
“Our guys don’t need to go home and talk about FAA. [They need to] move on and get back to the messages that work,” the aide argued.
As for Republicans, they worked hard to preempt rebellion from their GOP base, wary of backroom deals and excess spending.
“Well, if you look at it, we’re not spending one penny more. That’s been my goal all long, not spend one penny more, but reprogram these dollars, and that’s what we’ve done here, to be able to stop these needless furloughs, to be able to stop the pain it’s going to cause the traveling public and to our economy,” said Bill Shuster, R-Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which oversees most aviation matters in the House.
To be sure, after lawmakers of both parties on both sides of the Capitol passed the bill to end flight delays caused by furloughs, most left town headed for airports. After all, members of Congress are frequent fliers.