Stand-alone airline bill under discussion after broader coronavirus aid stalls

Pelosi, Mnuchin agree to continue talking; Trump signals support, but timing uncertain

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, speaks to flight attendants and fellow aviation workers during a protest outside the Capitol on Sept. 9. The flight attendants urged Congress to pass a COVID-19 relief package and extend the Payroll Support Program.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, speaks to flight attendants and fellow aviation workers during a protest outside the Capitol on Sept. 9. The flight attendants urged Congress to pass a COVID-19 relief package and extend the Payroll Support Program. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 7, 2020 at 12:12pm, Updated at 7:43pm

One day after pulling the plug on a new coronavirus relief package, the Trump administration made a push for piecemeal legislation to help the pandemic-battered airline industry.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke twice by phone Wednesday about a separate aid package for airlines and agreed to talk again Thursday, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted.  The airlines announced plans last week to begin furloughing thousands of workers in the absence of new federal aid.

Pelosi has signaled a willingness to consider a stand-alone airline bill if a broader pandemic relief package couldn’t be negotiated. And President Donald Trump appeared to endorse the idea within hours of calling off the broader aid talks, tweeting that Congress should approve $25 billion in airline payroll support, along with $135 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans to small businesses.

Trump said both programs could be financed with unspent money from a March aid package. “Have this money. I will sign now!” he tweeted Tuesday night.

He also tweeted his support for a stand-alone bill providing another round of $1,200 tax rebates to individuals.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, meanwhile, appeared to open the door to a resumption of broader aid talks. He told Fox News that Trump had been on the phone “constantly”  Wednesday to discuss pandemic relief with Mnuchin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Meadows said for the first time that the White House was prepared to offer as much as $1.7 trillion in total relief — exceeding Mnuchin’s $1.6 trillion offer to Democrats last week — and that Trump “is more than willing to look at a counterproposal” if Pelosi is interested in a comprehensive deal around that topline. Earlier Meadows told reporters the trajectory of the comprehensive negotiations was “going to get to a point where it didn’t have really much Republican support at all,” which would have been “problematic” in the Senate.

Meadows also said that McConnell was willing to take up a separate airline aid package in the Senate and that other relief items could be added to the measure if they have bipartisan support.

Pelosi on Wednesday dismissed Trump’s suggestion of piecemeal bills as a belated acknowledgment of “the political downside” of walking away from negotiations, although she didn’t rule out a stand-alone airline aid bill. “He’s just, again, rebounding from a terrible mistake that he made yesterday, and the Republicans in Congress were going down the drain with him on that,” the California Democrat said on ABC’s “The View.”

Partisan battle

Any new push for airline aid could get caught in a partisan battle over how and whether to pay for it with offsetting cuts or savings. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., on Friday tried to obtain unanimous consent to take up his bill to renew the lapsed payroll support program for airlines through March.

House Republicans objected to the move. A GOP aide said Republicans were concerned because DeFazio’s bill had no offsetting cuts and lacked an official cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.

[Pelosi open to stand-alone airline aid bill to prevent layoffs]

Pelosi reminded Mnuchin on Wednesday that Republicans had blocked the DeFazio bill on the floor, Hammill said. She also asked Mnuchin, the administration’s point man in aid talks, to review the bill “so that they could have an informed conversation,” Hammill said.

Unlike the DeFazio bill, a Senate bill sponsored by Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, would pay for much of the new airline relief by tapping unspent funds for previously authorized loans, loan guarantees and grants. Of the $28.8 billion in new aid, only $11.4 billion would come from new appropriations.

To finance the rest, the bill would take $3.1 billion from cargo carrier loans and loan guarantees, $3.2 billion from unspent payroll support grants for cargo carriers, and $11.1 billion from the $17 billion in previously authorized loans and loan guarantees for businesses “critical to maintaining national security.”

The Senate bill has two Democratic co-sponsors: Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who hail from GOP-leaning states. And Democratic leaders may be loath to give Collins, one of the most vulnerable Republicans up for reelection next month, a campaign talking point.

But sources familiar with the discussions have said there were recently GOP “holds” on the measure in the Senate, which could pose trouble for getting unanimous consent to bring the measure up in that chamber. Objections have come from Republican Sens. Rick Scott of Florida, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Rand Paul of Kentucky, according to lobbyists and others following the issue.

Senators aren’t scheduled to return to Washington for votes until Oct. 19.

The House version of the Wicker-Collins bill, introduced last month by Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., and David Joyce, R-Ohio, has 73 Democratic and 26 GOP co-sponsors. A House Republican aide questioned why lawmakers did not bring that bill up for a vote earlier last week instead of seeking unanimous consent for the brand-new DeFazio bill last Friday.

Furloughs, pay cuts

The March aid package provided $32 billion for airlines: $25 billion for passenger airlines, $4 billion for cargo airlines and $3 billion for airline contractors. But that aid expired Sept. 30.

Without a new deal, U.S. airlines immediately began furloughing employees. American Airlines furloughed 19,000, according to CEO Doug Parker, while United Airlines furloughed more than 13,000 employees.

Both companies indicated that they would be able to reverse the furloughs if Congress acts quickly. Hawaiian Airlines, meanwhile, announced it would reduce its workforce of 7,447 by about one-third, cutting 2,501 employees.

Southwest Airlines won’t furlough any workers for now but has announced 10 percent pay cuts through 2021.

Before adjourning last week for a monthlong recess, the House passed a $2.2 trillion aid package by a party-line vote of 214-207. That bill included DeFazio’s airline aid provisions. But the administration and Senate Republicans said that measure, which 18 House Democrats voted against, was dead on arrival.

The administration proposed $20 billion for airlines as part of a broader, $1.6 trillion aid offer it made last week to Pelosi. That offer was ultimately rejected. Meadows said the aid would be enough to last six months.

While prospects for a separate airline package remain uncertain, the industry wasted no time in ramping up the pressure.

“We need to stay focused,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said in a statement Tuesday night issued shortly after Trump called for a narrower package including airline aid. “Millions of lives count on us staying focused. Congress must act.”

Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.