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Senators Play Nice on FAA Bill

Nelson co-authored the FAA bill Thune. (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

At least for the moment, the Senate is negotiating agreeably on a modest reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration. If things keep going in this amiable manner, there could be a new tax title and a new airport security title, a feeding frenzy for policy-hungry lobbyists and advocates.

Democrats have a handful of asks as the chamber prepares to begin debating the legislation, co-authored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and ranking Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

Lawmakers from both sides say those requests won’t necessarily tank the legislation. A procedural vote to begin debate on the bill, which would authorize FAA funding through September of 2017, is set for Wednesday.

At the top of the Democratic wish list are at least three energy-related tax provisions that some lawmakers say were unintentionally left out of a tax package signed into law last December. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that the inclusion of the provisions is a requirement for the legislation to move forward.

Currently, there are no tax credit provisions attached to the FAA bill, and lawmakers say negotiations are fluid. Still, Thune acknowledged that in order to avoid a Democratic filibuster, the bill would need to address the Democrats’ concerns in some fashion. Thus, they plan to include a tax title.

Remarkably, lawmakers of various stripes are in agreement that last year’s tax extender negotiations were chaotic. They even acknowledge that a revision may be needed. Thune said some tax provisions were left out of December’s tax bill by accident, but he also noted that in the whirl of eleventh-hour deal making, the definition of what is “unintentional” is often murky.

“The things that were left out last year — there were some of them, I think, that were unintentional,” he said. “But there probably may have been some where there was some rhyme or reason to why they were left out, too.”

And, with a dearth of tax-related bills on the horizon, Thune said he anticipated requests to tack on even more tax provisions than the three Schumer specifically named.

“This is what [Democrats] always viewed as the best opportunity to get some of these things that were left out of last year’s extender bill,” Thune said. “And so, we’re listening to them and we’re working for them.”

Thune, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, added that negotiations over the tax portion of the FAA bill would rest largely with Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and his Democratic counterpart, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Wyden is optimistic a deal could be struck. “I think we’re making good progress,” he told reporters Tuesday, adding that in deference to his colleagues, he would like to keep discussions private. “I’m convinced we can get this done. All sides recognize that this was a major omission and we’re moving to get it done.”

Beyond the energy provisions, Democrats also want to add a number of airport security measures in the wake of the Brussels terror attacks last month.

At a Tuesday news conference featuring Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, a handful of Senate Democrats unveiled three specific proposals that they want to add to the FAA bill.

First, they want to double the number of bomb-sniffing dog teams – or Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams (VIPR) – from 30 to 60 nationwide and to expand their operations to non-secure “soft” targets in airports such as outside of checkpoints, according to summaries of the proposals provided by Democratic staff.

Additionally they hope to explicitly authorize DHS grants to fund active shooter training exercises and beef up security in “soft” areas at airports and other surface transportation venues.

“The FAA bill is a perfect opportunity for both sides to work together to toughen up security at our airports,” said Schumer. “All of us here are optimistic and hopeful that our Republican colleagues will join us and do just that.”

Thune, the lead negotiator for the Republicans, is generally on board. In a floor speech, he highlighted several other potential add-ons to the FAA bill, including another Thune-Nelson collaboration that would enhance the vetting process for airport workers with access to restricted areas. He also said House-passed legislation that encourages public-private partnerships to enroll more passengers in the TSA PreCheck program could be an amendment.

In keeping with the “get it done” atmosphere permeating through the Senate, Thune also said he was open to a variety of ways to get the security provisions enacted. He is open to “hotlining” the airport security measures — i.e., passing them on the floor separately without a prior committee vote — or including them as amendments to the FAA legislation, whichever is most efficient.

As to the Democrats’ proposals, Thune is generally receptive, but he also said he would withhold judgment until he saw the final legislative text and a cost estimate.

“We haven’t seen any text or draft on it yet. They’ve talked about it in generalities, but we need to look at language before we can make any final decisions,” he said. “If the Democrats are willing to work with us and we can find some common ground on a security package, we can move as part of the FAA bill. I’m not adverse to doing that.”