As the budget battle intensifies in the U.S. Congress, one of the aerospace and defense industry's flagship initiatives is blowing past steep cuts levied on many other government programs: The FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System.

An FAA spending bill for fiscal 2012 negotiated by Republicans and Democrats and headed for passage in both chambers includes $878 million for core NextGen programs. The “minibus” legislation also includes full-year funding for NASA and the Commerce, Justice and Agriculture departments, as well as a continuing resolution that will keep all other agencies operating through Dec. 16. A previous temporary spending bill for the entire government expired Nov. 18.

“The legislation . . . represents a bipartisan compromise that will prevent a potential government shutdown, support important programs and services that the American people rely on, and make hard but necessary cuts to help rein in the nation's deficit,” says Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

But NextGen will not be sharing the pain, even though the bill contains spending caps handed down by a congressional agreement in August. Some NextGen research programs took slight reductions, but the legislation provides full funding for the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast program, the FAA's “satellite-based successor to radar.” Among other highlights in the legislation:

•Language accompanying the House's version of the bill takes to task repeated delays and cost overruns on Lockheed Martin's En Route Automation Modernization program, the planned backbone at many air traffic control centers. But rather than pulling funding, a congressional aide says, the final House-Senate conference report—which ironed out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill—adds money to the Obama administration's request for the program to make up for previous cost increases caused by schedule delays.

•NextGen Data Communications, which allows controllers and pilots to communicate with data rather than speaking over a radio, and System Wide Information Management that enables real-time data exchanges, also received full funding, the aide says. In contrast, the FAA's Joint Planning and Development Office took a $5 million hit.

•On top of NextGen funding, the bill restores the Block Aircraft Registration Request (BARR) program and prohibits future changes to it. The program is used to block general aviation flight information from the public.

•Lawmakers provided full funding for the Essential Air Service program for rural airports, though without reversing a provision in the last extension of an FAA policy bill that would remove subsidies of greater than $1,000 per passenger, a change that shuttered air service at three small airports.

Still, the FAA is not home free. Approval of the agency's fiscal 2012 budget does not prevent another shutdown of the agency because congressional reauthorization will be needed to keep it operating (see p. 70). A dispute over a last-minute change to the Essential Air Service program was the catalyst for a partial shutdown of the FAA in July that lasted for a few weeks. The temporary congressional extension that ended the shutdown runs out Jan. 31, 2012.

To avoid another embarrassing example of inaction, lawmakers are hoping for a deal on an FAA reauthorization bill—rather than a 23rd extension—by year-end. The leaders of the House and Senate Transportation Committees met last week to discuss how a “pre-conference” meeting to resolve outstanding issues between the two versions of the bill should proceed. “We directed our staffs to begin again and come back to us on [November] 30th,” says Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House panel.

Those negotiations would focus on a handful of issues, including the number of takeoff and landing slots at Reagan Washington National Airport. Both Mica and his counterpart in the Senate, Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), indicated that an agreement on slots is possible.

The major roadblock in the FAA reauthorization bill remains a House provision to overturn a National Mediation Board (NMB) rule that makes it easier for airline workers to form unions. Rockefeller and Mica have both said leadership needs to find a way forward on that matter.

Other House members who acted as go-betweens during the FAA's partial shutdown in August are still working on the issue, and a potential compromise is being discussed.

Lawmakers might remove the controversial NMB provision from the FAA reauthorization bill and offer a new proposal as a stand-alone measure, confirms Rep. Jerry Costello (Ill.), a leading Democrat on aviation matters.

Mica has called the new change to NMB rules an “equal-in, equal-out” proposal. The change would make it as easy for unions to dissolve as it would for them to form. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has rejected including that language in the FAA bill, and unions consider it an anathema. So whether offering a stand-alone version would satisfy all of the players is an open question.

Rockefeller is continuing to pressure the airlines to make a deal on the NMB provision. “I want to seem as unoptimistic as possible because I think there's a real chance the whole thing can fall because people will just refuse to give up on NMB,” he tells Aviation Week. “If that happens, we will not get an FAA bill.”