This was a vote on an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) requiring communities to be at least 90 miles from a medium or large hub airport (airports which can be used for transfer flights) in order to qualify for the Essential Air Services (ESA) program, which subsidized airline service to rural communities. Current law required that such communities be 70 miles from hub airports. This amendment was offered to legislation authorizing annual funding for the Federal Aviation Administration. (The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has regulatory authority over all civil aviation in the United States.)
Coburn urged support for his amendment: “Remember, the average American drives over an hour to get to the airport now. We are saying we are not going to do it [cut subsidized air service] if you are driving an hour and a half, 90 miles…Remember, in this bill [the FAA funding bill] we are increasing the amount of funds at a time we are going bankrupt. We are increasing the amount of funds for Essential Air Service. What we have done [in the amendment] is a compromise to extend it to those who actually need it but also not subsidize something we should not.”
No senators spoke in opposition to this amendment. Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s (D-WV) Senate office, however, put out a press release indicating his intention to try to remove Coburn’s language from the final version of the legislation before it was sent to President Obama to be signed into law. It characterized the amendment as an “attack [which] changed the mileage requirement for EAS airports from 70 to 90 miles. This amendment passed over Rockefeller’s objections, particularly impacting Morgantown and Clarksburg [WV], which have linked EAS service. Rockefeller…will be fighting to have the original [70 mile] mileage limit restored before final passage.” Rockefeller’s Senate web site also detailed his views on the importance of maintaining EAS: “Senator Rockefeller has long understood that having adequate air service is not just a matter of convenience, it's an economic necessity. If West Virginia's people and businesses are to compete with larger, more urban areas in the United States and around the world, then the state must continue to be adequately linked to the nation's air transportation network.”
The Senate rejected the motion to table (kill) this amendment by a vote of 34-65. Voting “yea” were 31 Democrats—including a majority of progressives—and 3 Republicans. 44 Republicans and 21 Democrats voted “nay.” Following the vote on this motion to table, the Senate passed the amendment by a “voice vote” (in which senators literally voice their support or opposition but no vote tally is recorded). As a result, the Senate agreed to an amendment requiring communities to be at least 90 miles from a medium or large hub airport (airports which can be used for transfer flights) in order to qualify for the Essential Air Services program, which subsidized airline service to rural communities.