The fate of three-quarters of the contract tower program remains uncertain after Senate leaders late March 18 blocked Sen. Jerry Moran’s (R-Kan.) amendment from coming up for a vote. The measure, which Moran had hoped to amend to the continuing resolution (CR) short-term government-wide spending bill (H.R.933), would have limited the cuts FAA could make to the program, but give FAA more funding flexibility to help pay for the program. Supporters believed that if the amendment had come up for a vote, it would have passed. In fact, by March 18, nearly one-quarter of the Senate, Democrats and Republicans, had signed on as co-sponsors.

But the Senate, grappling with about 100 amendments offered to the CR, voted late March 18 to cut off debate on nearly all the amendments, including Moran’s.

The American Association of Airport Executives and U.S. Contract Tower Association look at yesterday’s actions as a significant setback, but are exploring options to try to prevent the dismantling of the contract tower program.

Moran, calling the move to shutter most of the towers in the program “a dangerous game to play” that is jeopardizing safety, urged his colleagues to work with him to move the amendment.

“The idea we would put at risk an air traffic control tower program which is so important to the flying and traveling public is amazing to me,” Moran told colleagues in a floor statement. “I have been trying to fathom why the Department of Transportation would, in a sense, single out this program. It is hard for me to fathom a good answer to that question.”

FAA plans to close up to 248 towers–-or roughly half of the nations’ air traffic control towers-–-as part of its plan to trim $623 million from the remainder of its fiscal 2013 budget under mandatory sequestration cuts. Of those towers, 189 are part of the contract tower program, and as many as 170 could close April 7. FAA is considering exemptions and plans to announce the final list March 22.

The agency is absorbing 60% of DOT’s sequestration cut, even though it accounts for only 20% of the overall budget. Sequestration rules were written in a manner that cordons off large portions of DOT’s budget, including FAA’s, from the mandatory cuts. The net result is that the reductions primarily target FAA’s operations budget.

But sequestration rules also call for the cuts to be evenly spread, which amounts to about 5% in most areas, except the contract tower program, which is slated to lose 75%. FAA can do this because the program is budgeted outside of normal “line items,” industry sources explain.

“It is not that I think that the sequestration and the 5% cut in [the contract tower] program could not be handled by the Department of Transportation, but that is not what the Department of Transportation is doing. What the Department of Transportation is doing is eliminating the program, reducing the spending in this program by 75%,” Moran told colleagues. He adds his amendment actually would cut the program’s spending by 5%, the same amount as other programs under sequestration.

“I can’t figure out why this program of such importance would be treated in this fashion unless there are those who simply wish to demonstrate anytime we attempt to reduce spending. . .we cannot do that without having huge consequences to the safety and security of Americans,” Moran says.

He notes the bipartisan support for the bill, saying of the 23 co-sponsors, 13 are Democrats. He also warned that while other programs have time to work out funding issues, the contract tower program would essentially terminate on April 7 under DOT’s plan.

Without immediate passage of the amendment, “the Senate will have no opportunity to save this program. We will have lost the only opportunity, which is now on this continuing resolution, to make certain this program remains in place,” Moran says. ”My plea is between now and when the 30 hours run on the post-cloture debate of this bill, there are those in the Senate who will work with me and others to see [that] the amendment process works.”

But despite Moran’s plea, his comments appeared to gain little traction among senior Senate leaders, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who stated, “Everyone can give a heart-rending speech. We have tens of thousands of children who will not able to go to Head Start. I think that is pretty compelling. There are many other people in this body who could give a tearjerker--just like the senator tried to do.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) disputed Moran’s warnings that the CR is the only opportunity to save the towers.“ The president has said he is ready to sit down with the Republicans, pass a balanced plan which would fix the sequester, get the FAA back up to snuff, take care of all of our problems which were caused because of the sequester, deficit reduction, and balance our budget.”

She, too, said that the contract tower program is only one of many difficult cuts and also pointed to the Head Start program. “Why isn’t there more discussion about that when we know every dollar invested in a child in Head Start saves $10 because they get that head start in life? Where is the outrage of the 421,000 fewer HIV tests? This is a public health emergency.”

She also notes that 10,000 teachers are slated to lose their jobs.