White House backs $25B airline relief extension

Meadows endorses industry request after meeting with airline CEOs; broader virus aid package still mired in partisan dispute

Administration support for airlines could boost vulnerable incumbents like Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Administration support for airlines could boost vulnerable incumbents like Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 17, 2020 at 1:01pm

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows urged Congress on Thursday to extend payroll grants for airline employees through next March, in order to avoid sweeping furloughs throughout the industry.

He said $25 billion was necessary to provide sufficient relief for six more months, mirroring the amount approved in March that expires Sept. 30. Meadows said he thought it was a small price to pay given the trillion-dollar-plus proposals under discussion, though broader coronavirus relief talks continue to stall.

"Compared to $1.5 trillion, it's a rather small amount of additional assistance that could potentially keep 30 to 50,000 workers on the payroll," Meadows said after a meeting with airline executives, who warned of imminent furloughs.

That's the price tag on a compromise plan floated by the 50-member bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House earlier this week. Democratic committee leaders shot it down as too skimpy, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi has demanded at least $2.2 trillion in relief. Earlier this week she said she'd be open to additional airline assistance as part of a broader relief package, but didn't offer a dollar figure.

Senate Republicans didn't include airline aid in their "skinny" $300 billion plan that couldn't muster the 60 votes needed for cloture last week.

[‘Skinny’ coronavirus relief bill blocked in Senate]

But sixteen GOP senators wrote to Senate leaders in August urging continuation of the Payroll Support Program, led by Colorado's Cory Gardner, one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in November. His seat is ranked "Tilt Democratic" by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

Arizona's Martha McSally, another whose seat is in the "Tilt Democratic" column, also signed the letter, as did Susan Collins of Maine and Steve Daines of Montana, whose races are both ranked "Toss-ups."

In the House, 223 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have requested a six-month extension of the program.

“There's enormous bipartisan support for an extension of the Payroll Support Program which would keep those people employed,” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said.”The only problem we have is, we don’t have a vehicle for getting it done. We need to have a COVID relief package that includes that."

[Bipartisan letter urges extension of airline payroll support]

Parker said “small communities” will be facing service cuts without assistance, as well. American has already announced it would halt service to middle and smaller airports including Williamsport, Pa., and Dubuque, Iowa, through October.

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly praised the March law, but said its only flaw was that it didn’t go far enough and long enough.

“Chief Meadows assured us that the White House is very interested in getting something done, so we’ve reached out to the speaker, just encouraged the two sides to work together so that we can save jobs and really in a broader sense save this economy," Kelly said.

In a January report released before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the industry, the Federal Aviation Administration said civil aviation accounts for about 5 percent of the U.S. economy, contributes $1.8 trillion in total economic activity and supports nearly 11 million jobs.

Trump on Aug. 5 signaled support for renewed aid for airlines, but he wasn't specific. "Well if they need it ... I think it's very important that we keep our airlines going," Trump said.

Meadow’s comments come as major airlines have begun sending out mass layoff notices. United Airlines has said it will have to furlough 36,000 if aid is not renewed and American has said it will have to furlough some 17,500 and lay off 1,500 on the management side.

The $2 trillion coronavirus assistance package passed by Congress in March included $25 billion in payroll support for passenger airlines, as well as $4 billion for cargo airlines and $3 billion for contractors. That aid will expire Sept. 30.

Wide gulf

Negotiations on a new coronavirus aid package remain at an impasse given the wide gulf between top party officials on overall spending levels and state and local aid.

The White House signaled some new flexibility Wednesday when it came close to endorsing a $1.5 trillion Problem Solvers plan, but that's still $700 billion shy of top Democrats' demands.

[Bipartisan House group unveils $1.5 trillion coronavirus relief plan]

Trump urged Republicans in a Wednesday tweet to support more spending than they have thus far, and Meadows said he was willing to accept more money for aid to state and local governments.

But leaders on both sides Thursday expressed resistance to moving much further. "Based on conversations with some Democrat House members yesterday, I'm not optimistic Speaker Pelosi is going to see this as an opportunity to actually have meaningful conversations,” Meadows told reporters.

And Pelosi, who has faced pressure from within her caucus to make a deal or at least put something on the floor to vote on, downplayed the push. “They don’t say that actually,” Pelosi told reporters, when asked about Democrats who want something passed quickly. “What they say is we need to have a solution.”

Pelosi again criticized the Republican-controlled Senate, which offered a bill last week with a net cost of about $300 billion that provided only a fraction of the aid Democrats are seeking. “We have a massive problem in our country and they put forth not only a skinny bill…..[but an] emaciated bill,” she said.

Pelosi’s insistence on at least $2.2 trillion is “not a negotiation; that’s an ultimatum,” Meadows said. He said there were no plans to talk with Democratic leaders Thursday.