- President Obama expected to sign bill after House passage
- Furloughs affected 15,000 flight controllers due to forced, government-wide spending cuts
- Controller staffing shortages began this week, affecting airline flights
- The bipartisan Senate plan would give transportation planners new budget flexibility
In rare bipartisan accord, normally quarrelsome U.S. lawmakers passed a measure designed to end budget-related air traffic controller furloughs blamed for widespread flight delays.
The House of Representatives approved the legislation, capping a major congressional initiative as delays snarled traffic at airports. The House vote comes a day after unanimous approval by the U.S. Senate.
The measure -- which is expected to be signed into law by President Obama -- gives the Transportation Department budget planners new flexibility for dealing with forced spending cuts.
It would also allow authorities to protect 149 control towers at small- and medium-sized airports that are slated for closure for budgetary reasons.
"Good news for America's traveling public," White House spokesman Jay Carney said a day before the House vote.
"But ultimately, this is no more than a temporary Band-Aid that fails to address the overarching threat to our economy posed by the sequester's mindless across the board cuts."
Furloughs affecting some 15,000 Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers began this week with the agency saying it had no flexibility to avert them without action by Congress.
Under the sweeping austerity triggered by congressional inaction on deficit reduction, the FAA was required to cut $600 million from its budget.
The furloughs have delayed more than 3,000 flights since Sunday, according to FAA tallies. By comparison, there were more than 4,400 delays due to weather and other factors, the agency said.
Controller furloughs and the planned closure of towers that are privately run but overseen by federal aviation regulators have become political flash points in the partisan-fueled debate over spending in Washington.
They have been highlighted by many to illustrate a clear nationwide consequence of the $85 billion in government-wide cuts that took effect in March and may otherwise not be apparent to the public.
Vocal and politically powerful aviation interests have argued that the budget cuts affecting their industry would hurt business, travelers and cost jobs. More than 600 million people fly U.S. airlines each year, figures show.
During the furloughs, controllers have been spacing planes farther apart at key centers so they can manage traffic with current staffing, the FAA said.
Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said she worried that continued FAA furloughs could jeopardize jobs throughout the travel and hospitality industry.
Earlier this spring, Congress approved a stop-gap budget law that would, among other things, ease budget cuts for the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and Veterans Affairs.
The deal moved quickly through the Senate.
"Something rare has happened in Washington; the Senate came together on a bipartisan basis to put common sense before politics," Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas said Thursday.