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The Senator Who Could Have Shut Down The FAA

A partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration was averted right around 6:30 p.m., EST. That's when the U.S. Senate voted 92-6 in favor of a bill to temporarily extend funding for both the FAA and highway projects.

Sounds like an easy vote, right? Think again.

For the past two days Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) had been threatening to block the bill. His concern was with part of the bill that directs a small share of highway funding to beautification projects, bike paths and museums. He says states should be able to choose whether they spend money on those things, or direct all of their federal funds to bridge repairs and highways.

"I will not give a unanimous consent as my right as a senator of the United States for us to continue to spend billions of dollars on things that are not a priority when this country is struggling to survive," Coburn said on the floor Wednesday night as he explained his intention to block the transportation bill.

In addition to being the junior senator from Oklahoma, Coburn is a family practice physician. In the Senate, he's known by some as "Doctor No," because he's made a habit of putting procedural roadblocks in front of bills that would otherwise pass with ease.

In the late afternoon, Democratic senators were talking about staying in through the weekend and saying things like "this time he's gone too far."

Senators were particularly sensitive about FAA funding because earlier this summer, partisan bickering over another extension shut down parts of the FAA for two weeks. Thousands of workers were furloughed, and airport construction projects all over the country came to a halt. The whole mess became a poster child for partisan gridlock in congress.

It wasn't supposed to turn out that way this time around. The House passed the extensions bill with ease earlier in the week. The only question was whether Sen. Coburn would give in.

And then, like flipping a switch, a deal was struck. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and James Inhofe (R-OK) agreed to address Coburn's concerns in the longer term transportation reauthorization bill they are currently working on.

The bill now heads to the president's desk. It extends FAA funding for four months and highway funding for six months.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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