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Air traffic controllers set to return to the job

Congress easily approved legislation Friday ending the furloughs of air traffic controllers that have delayed hundreds of flights daily.

David Goldman/Associated Press

Congress easily approved legislation Friday ending the furloughs of air traffic controllers that have delayed hundreds of flights daily.

WASHINGTON — Furloughed air traffic controllers will soon be heading back to work, ending a week of coast-to-coast flight delays that left thousands of travelers frustrated and furious.

Unable to ignore travelers’ anger, Congress overwhelmingly approved legislation Friday to allow the Federal Aviation Administration to withdraw the furloughs. The vote underscored a shift by Democrats who had insisted on erasing all of this year’s $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts, not just the most publicly painful ones, for fear of losing leverage to restore money for Head Start and other programs with less popular support.

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With President Obama's signature promised, the measure will erase one of the most stinging and publicly visible consequences of the budgetwide cuts known as the sequester.

Friday’s House approval was 361 to 41 and followed the previous evening’s passage by the Senate, which didn’t even bother with a roll call. Lawmakers then streamed toward the exits — and airports — for a weeklong recess.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama would sign the bill, but Carney complained that the measure left the rest of the sequester intact.

‘‘This is a Band-Aid solution. It does not solve the bigger problem,’’ he said. Using the same Band-Aid comparison, Representative Rick Larsen, Democrat of Washington, said that ‘‘the sequester needs triple bypass surgery.’’

The FAA and Transportation Department did not respond to repeated questions about when the controllers’ furloughs would end. Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who helped craft the measure, was told by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood Friday that the agency is ‘‘doing everything they can to get things back on track as quickly as possible,’’ a Collins spokesman said.

In the week since the furloughs began, news accounts have prominently featured nightmarish tales of delayed flights and stranded air passengers. Republicans have used the situation to accuse the Obama administration of purposely forcing the controllers to take unpaid days off to dial up public pressure on Congress to roll back the sequester.

Halting the furloughs was the latest example of lawmakers easing parts of the sequester that became too painful.

They previously used a separate, wide-ranging spending bill to provide more money for meat and poultry inspectors.

The bill would let the FAA use up to $253 million from an airport improvement program and other accounts to halt the furloughs through the Sept. 30 end of the government’s fiscal year.

The money can be used for other FAA operations, too, including keeping open small airport towers around the country that the agency said it would shut to satisfy the spending cuts.

But Democrats were bitter Friday that cuts in many federal programs remain. Besides the Head Start preschool program, they complained about ongoing cuts for health research, feeding programs for poor women, children, and the elderly, and jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, and about furloughs of civilian Pentagon workers.

Congressional approval was hailed by groups representing the airline industry and the union representing controllers.

‘‘The winners here are the customers who will be spared from lengthy and needless delays,’’ said Nicholas E. Calio, president of Airlines for America, representing major carriers.

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