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Congress Teeters On Edge Of Adjournment Senate Calls It Quits; House Left To Tidy Up A Few Minor Bills

A weary Senate resolved disputes over airport funding and national parks on Thursday as it prepared to lower the curtain on the 104th Congress.

In its final acts, the Senate approved the airport bill, 92-2, after Democrats lost a last-ditch effort to strip out a provision opposed by organized labor. The parks bill, which provides for maintenance of public lands around the country, passed on a voice vote.

Both bills have been approved by the House and are expected to be signed by President Clinton.

Technically, Congress will not adjourn until the House acts on some minor bills sent by the Senate, but that is expected today.

Adjournment has seemed amply overdue because Congress cleared its last major piece of legislation days ago. By Monday, both the House and Senate had passed a big budget bill to keep the government operating for the next year.

But the Senate remained in session, hung up over the airport bill, which provides $19 billion over two years for airport maintenance and improvements as well as beefed-up security programs such as background checks for baggage handlers.

The bill also would require the National Transportation Safety Board to be the point of contact for families of passengers involved in a crash and would prevent unlicensed pilots from flying in competitions or aeronautic feats. The latter provision was inserted after the death last spring of 7-year-old Jessica Dubroff as she tried to set a cross-country record for young pilots.

The provision in dispute essentially makes it harder for workers at Federal Express to join a union. It may have served as a fitting end to a Congress that has been split by partisanship because the issue allowed both parties to replay arguments that have been central to the ideological combat of the last two years.

Democrats charged that the provision shows that Republicans are ready to ride roughshod over the interests of working people. The GOP said Democrats’ opposition shows they are in the pocket of organized labor, which is spending millions of dollars to try to defeat Republican candidates in this fall’s elections.

Under the provision, FedEx workers will be subject to the regulations of the Railway Labor Act, which requires many transportation workers to organize nationally, rather than the National Labor Relations Act, which allows most workers to organize in local bargaining units. It generally is easier to organize locally than nationally.

The issue was clouded by the nature of Federal Express, which uses both air and land transportation. Truckers typically are covered by the Labor Relations Act, while air transport and railroad workers are subject to the Railway Labor Act.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., led the unsuccessful fight to drop the contested provision. Even though the amendment was sponsored by a Democrat - Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C. - Kennedy blamed the Republicans. “Everyone knows that Federal Express’ anti-worker amendment would not have passed a Democratically controlled House and Senate,” Kennedy said.

The parks bill expands and improves parks in 41 states and, among other things, sets up a trust to preserve the Presidio, a former military base in San Francisco which has been taken over by the National Park Service.

The bill also creates the first protected U.S. tallgrass prairie (in Kansas), creates a historic trail commemorating the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama and allows an increase in the number of cruise ships visiting wildlife-rich Glacier Bay in Alaska.

The measure was a stripped-down version of a more ambitious bill Clinton had threatened to veto over provisions such as one that would have allowed corporate sponsorship of national parks.

To avoid a veto, the House had eliminated that element and others the administration opposed. But in the Senate, a similarly stripped-down bill was held up by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, who threatened to stall it until the administration agreed to address a separate issue: the protection of some 500 jobs in the timber industry in southeastern Alaska.

Murkowski allowed the bill to go forward after White House chief of staff Leon Panetta reached a side agreement under which the federal government is to provide timber from the Tongass National Forest for at least two years to mills operated in the region by the Ketchikan Paper Co.