WASHINGTON (AP) - As airport delays spread across the country, members of Congress on Tuesday urged the administration to postpone the furloughing of air traffic controllers to give the White House and Congress time to find a less painful way of handling automatic spending cuts.
Two senators, Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas and Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, said putting off the furloughing of air traffic controllers should be combined with a reversal of Federal Aviation Administration plans to close 149 contract air control towers as another way to meet reduced spending goals.
And the top two senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Democratic Chairman John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia and Republican John Thune of South Dakota, have sent a letter to the administration questioning its approach to the automatic spending cuts and saying that the furloughs and closing of control towers raise "serious safety and operational issues."
Two Tri-State senators are also pushing for changes.
Indiana Sen. Dan Coats is calling on the transportation department to end all furloughs of air traffic controllers and Ohio Sen. Rob Portman has joined the group of senators petitioning that the transportation department move funds around to pay to get staffing back up to pre-sequester levels.
FAA officials have said they have no choice but to furlough all 47,000 agency employees, including nearly 15,000 controllers, and close the control towers in order to meet obligations under the sequester, or spending cuts.
Republicans have taken issue with that position, charging that the administration is using the furloughs, and the resultant flight delays, to force Republicans to compromise on budget and tax issues.
Moran said there was speculation among lawmakers from both parties that "there is an effort afoot to try to demonstrate that the sequester is something that is so painful that it cannot be accomplished without causing dramatic consequences."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday, denied allegations by Republicans that he's making a political statement by imposing the furloughs in an area that's visible to taxpayers.
"This has nothing to do with politics," LaHood said. "This is very bad policy that Congress passed and they should fix it." He said he warned about the furlough problem back in February and no one should be surprised that it is now causing flight delays.
Blumenthal said he took the administration at its word that it lacked the authority to find other means to meet the automatic cut requirements. "So we are going to give them that authority if in fact they need it."
The legislation proposed by the two senators and sponsored by 33 others would transfer $50 million in unused FAA research and capital funds to prevent any air traffic control towers from closing.
Blumenthal also called for a 30-day delay in the furloughs, which began on Sunday and are already causing backups at airports around the country. He said the two issues are linked because closing contract control towers at smaller airports only puts more of a burden on now-understaffed traffic controllers at other airports.
"I would see these issues together," Moran said. "Both involve the safety of the flying public, inconvenience of those who travel by air, they affect the economy, they affect our national security."
The Rockefeller-Thune letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA administrator Michael Huerta faulted the administration for its handling of the sequestration process. "Many stakeholders argue that you have flexibility within your budget to avoid or minimize air traffic controller furloughs and the closure of the contract control towers," they wrote.
The White House said Wednesday it's willing to consider legislation that would give the administration the budget-cutting flexibility to avoid furloughs of air traffic controllers.
White House spokesman Jay Carney says that if Congress wants to address the effect of automatic spending cuts on the Federal Aviation Administration, "we would be open to looking at that."
But he says that would be a "Band-Aid measure" that would not address other automatic cuts that kicked in March 1.
Back in February, when those cuts were approaching, the White House threatened to veto legislation that would give Obama budget-cutting flexibility across all accounts.
At the time, the White House said it couldn't make dramatic cuts without affecting national security or hurting the economy.