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Dispute over control towers in budget spotlight

Slows sequester talks

WASHINGTON — A dispute over budget cuts that threaten dozens of smaller control towers with closure slowed the Senate’s progress Tuesday on legislation needed to avoid a government shutdown on March 27.

Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas, refused repeatedly to permit final passage of the measure unless Democrats first allow a vote on his plan for erasing most of the cuts aimed at towers operated by Federal Aviation Administration contract employees.

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The Senate majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, just as persistently declined to give in, and other Democrats noted that House Republicans had rejected calls to give all federal agencies the type of budget flexibility Moran was seeking.

Republicans and Democrats struggled with two goals: ensuring there is no interruption of routine government funding while vying for political advantage following $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that kicked in this month.

The top US commander in South America told Congress the cuts would reduce if not eliminate the fleet of ships used to counter drug runners.

General John Kelly said US forces seized 150 to 200 tons of cocaine last year. If the budget cuts stand, ‘‘next year all of that will make its way ashore and into the United States.’’

Moran said his proposal has support from senators in both parties and that House Republican leaders have indicated the bill’s final approval would not be jeopardized if the change were incorporated.

Democrats responded tartly.

‘‘I want to restore the Head Start to 70,000 children. I want to restore 10,000 teacher jobs,’’ countered Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.

In general, senior members of the Senate Appropriations Committee have worked harmoniously to ease the impact of the $85 billion in cuts.

As drafted, the measure includes House-passed provisions to give the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs flexibility in coping with cuts. It also extends leeway to the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Homeland Security, and to the Food and Drug Administration.

There was no such provision for the FAA, where, Moran said, officials had ordered a 75 percent cut in funding for airport towers operated by contract employees, even though the agency’s overall reduction is just 5 percent.

He suggested Democrats were playing politics with the issue. ‘‘I’ve been trying to fathom why would the Department of Transportation, in a sense, single out this program,’’ he said Monday night.

Moran’s office circulated a list of 173 FAA facilities that could be closed. Seven were in the senator’s state and the rest scattered around the country. Most if not all are smaller or medium-size locations.

Moran’s proposal calls for transferring $50 million to the contract tower program from FAA accounts that have unspent funds. His office said the shift would leave the contract tower program with the same 5 percent cut that other parts of the agency must absorb.

FAA administrator Michael P. Huerta told Congress recently that when deciding where to cut, the agency tried to ‘‘minimize inconvenience.”

The two parties have sought to avoid blame for any inconvenience that results from the budget cuts, known in Washington-speak as the sequester. Much of the back and forth has focused on minor matters, including the decision to cancel White House tours. But hundreds of thousands of federal employees face unpaid furloughs beginning next month.

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