WASHINGTON - Under growing pressure, the Obama administration signaled Wednesday it might accept legislation eliminating Federal Aviation Administration furloughs blamed for lengthy delays affecting airline passengers, while leaving the rest of $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts in place.
The disclosure came as sentiment grew among Senate Democrats as well as Republicans for legislation to ease the impact of the cuts on the FAA, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held talks with key senators.
"I think there was a meeting of the minds" on steps to remedy the situation, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said after the meeting. He said he hoped for a resolution before the Senate begins a scheduled weeklong vacation at week's end.
Said LaHood, "There are too many delays and common ordinary citizens are being affected."
According to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which is privy to FAA data, there were 5,800 flight delays across the country for the three-day period beginning Sunday, when the furloughs took effect. Some were caused by weather. The union said that compares with 2,500 delays for the same period a year ago.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said that if Congress "wants to address specifically the problems caused by the sequester with the FAA, we would be open to looking at that.
"But that would be a bandaid measure," he added. "And it would not deal with the many other negative effects of the sequester, the kids kicked off of Head Start, the seniors who aren't getting Meals on Wheels, and the up to three-quarter of a million of Americans who will lose their jobs or will not have jobs created for them."
Officials estimate the FAA furloughs will save slightly more than $200 million through Sept. 30, a small fraction of the $85 billion in overall reductions that stem from across-the-board cuts that took effect in March.
Neither Rockefeller nor LaHood disclosed the terms of possible legislation.
Other senators in recent days have proposed giving the FAA flexibility in the rules governing its spending. Under a different suggestion, funds would be shifted from a federal grant program for airport improvements into the account that pays for air traffic controller salaries.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the other top Democrats have consistently expressed opposition to piecemeal legislation aimed at easing the impact of the spending cuts, a position that congressional officials say reflected the administration's position.
But support among Senate Democrats has eroded as airlines reported thousands of flight delays and industry executives pressed for a restoration of full funding for air traffic controllers.