Just two weeks after the deadly terrorist bombings in Brussels, a seemingly non-controversial bill that could substantially increase security at U.S. airports is becoming bogged down in election-year inertia on Capitol Hill.
The Senate is stuck in high-level, last-minute negotiations to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration – usually a fairly routine measure, but still subject to senators’ whims to tack on amendments.
Democrats are using that strategy to push for three specific airport security improvements: More security personnel at check-in and baggage claim areas, more “active shooter” training for federal agents, and more bomb-sniffing dog teams.
But the real tangle is over four specific renewable energy incentives such as wind and geothermal power that were left out of last year’s FAA bill. Democrats have essentially tied the popular security improvements to the more controversial energy incentives, which will expire at the end of this year without congressional action.
Since the FAA's reauthorization must be done by mid-July, senators see it as one of the last chances to attach the otherwise-unrelated energy tax-relief provisions, and are dangling the airport security measures as a carrot for Republicans.
A procedural vote on the overall FAA bill sailed through the chamber Wednesday, 98-0, but both sides warned that is no indication of eventual success.
“The wheels could come off at any time,” said GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee which passed the bill last month. “But I think it’s significant that at least the leaders have agreed on the revenue piece, and that will allow us a path forward.”
If an agreement does jell between negotiators, a final vote could come as soon as the end of this week, as Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has signaled a willingness to move onto Appropriations bills as soon as possible.
However, even one of McConnell’s lieutenants, Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas, called talk of a quick breakthrough “wishful thinking” on Wednesday, and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee, also shied away from guaranteeing a final vote this week besides saying there has been “a lot of progress.”
Many Democratic and Republican senators say the energy provisions were inadvertently left out of last year’s FAA reauthorization bill, where some believe they were supposed to be attached at this point in the legislative process last year. But House Republicans say it was intentional – and some of the nation’s most prominent conservative groups, including Heritage Action, Americans for Tax Reform and Americans For Prosperity, have made their opposition to the incentives known to GOP senators.
Similarly, the conservative group FreedomWorks on Wednesday notified senators that it opposes the provisions – and will be watching senators’ votes.
“Voters are tired of seeing the Washington establishment pick winners and losers in the marketplace,” said FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon. “We urge senators to vote against any amendment that manipulates the market by allowing these tax breaks for a politically connected industry to continue.”
Democrats have been holding publicity pushes this week for the security amendments, and have used the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris to fuel their arguments. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson joined senators at one such press conference on Tuesday to lend the Obama administration’s support.
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who will become the chamber’s Democratic leader next year, called the European attacks “a wake-up call.”
“We need to tighten up security in vulnerable areas at our biggest airports so that the tragedy that struck Brussels doesn’t land on our doorstep,” he said.
Republicans, for their part, are supporting efforts by Thune to improve the vetting of airport employees and to more widely promote a popular “pre-check” program by the Transportation Security Administration.