Loeffler, Perdue face pressure in Georgia Senate runoffs over pandemic relief delays

Airline support a factor given Delta’s dominance in the state

Georgia Democratic Senate candidates Raphael Warnock, right, and Jon Ossoff attend a rally in Columbus, Ga., on Oct. 29.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Georgia Democratic Senate candidates Raphael Warnock, right, and Jon Ossoff attend a rally in Columbus, Ga., on Oct. 29. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted December 4, 2020 at 6:00am

As the country was shutting down in the early throes of the coronavirus pandemic, Georgia Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler joined Republicans in Congress to register their opposition to targeted aid to individuals and families. 

Both Perdue and Loeffler eventually voted for a $2 trillion package that included those provisions that passed with bipartisan support in March. 

But now, with the two fighting to keep their seats in January runoffs that will decide control of the Senate, their Democratic opponents, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, have seized on that early opposition, especially to expanded unemployment benefits. 

The challengers are also hammering the incumbents, both wealthy business people, for pandemic-related stock trades in a bet that voters will hold them accountable for months of congressional inaction while “working families” suffered. Those attacks gained new momentum last month amid reports raising new questions about Perdue’s stock transactions. 

Perdue and Loeffler say their portfolios are managed by third parties and note they have been cleared of any wrongdoing by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee. 

But Democrats continue to spend millions of dollars on ads challenging them on the issue, and both Ossoff and Warnock highlighted it in press events earlier this week.

“While we were busy sheltering in place, Kelly Loeffler was busy sheltering her whole family’s considerable stock portfolio,” Warnock said during a press call Monday. “It’s been months since Kelly Loeffler has provided any relief to ordinary families.” 

New package may be moving

The attacks are ramping up as both chambers of Congress appear to have adopted a new sense of urgency to pass another aid package before adjourning for the holidays and the swearing-in of a new Congress in January.

Exit polls showed the coronavirus was among voters’ top concerns in November. Some 41 percent of voters told The Associated Press it was the most important issue facing the country, and 17 percent told Edison Research it was the most important issue in deciding their vote. 

Ossoff and Warnock say they would address the pandemic with expanded paid leave for workers, more money for state and local governments and direct payments and tax breaks for individuals. 

It is unclear where Loeffler and Perdue stand on the latest proposals. Both have eschewed lengthy policy discussions in campaigns that have largely focused on turning out the Republican base and presenting the runoff vote as an all-or-nothing referendum on Democratic control in Washington. 

“What Loeffler and Perdue are mainly doing are attacking the Democrats as being too liberal for Georgia,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “Out of the Republican side, not a whole lot of policy is being discussed.”

That’s also meant that both senators have largely avoided weighing in on the debate over whether to extend special pandemic relief aid for airlines, an industry that includes one of the state’s largest employers.

Delta cuts rile unions

Delta Air Lines, which employs roughly 30,000 people in Georgia, was as recently as 2018 the largest employer in the state. It took $5.4 billion in payroll support out of the $32 billion offered to airlines and contractors in the March relief bill to prevent airlines layoffs. 

But that aid expired in October, and major airlines have furloughed tens of thousands of workers since then as the pandemic continued to curtail travel. 

Delta has managed to avoid furloughs by offering enhanced early retirement and departure packages and reducing hours for ground-based employees. In October, the airline reached a deal with its pilot union to avoid pilot furloughs in exchange for a modest reduction in hours.

Perdue was one of 25 co-sponsors on legislation from Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., that would extend the airline support through March 2021. The bill did not advance however, and leaders of some of the unions hurt by the ground crew hour cuts are working against Loeffler and Perdue in the runoff.

“We are letting our members know and are actively working to turn them out and get them  out of office,” said James Carlson, assistant airline coordinator in the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers’ transportation department. “And with the margins being as thin as we saw in the presidential election, the Machinists Union could make a difference in both of these special elections.” 

He said that while Delta workers have avoided layoffs, they’re worried about the future.

Both Loeffler and Perdue have touted their votes for the March relief package — which included the Paycheck Protection Program that offered businesses loans that would convert to grants if they kept workers on the payroll — as evidence of their support for small businesses. 

Early opposition

Democrats point out, however, that the incumbents both originally championed a much smaller package. Both opposed a $600 boost to weekly unemployment checks the final bill contained, benefits that expired in July. When it was first proposed, they said it be a disincentive to returning to work. Perdue proposed a floor amendment that would have stripped the payment from the bill, but Republicans eventually accepted it during negotiations. Perdue also opposed direct stimulus checks that were ultimately approved, providing up to $1,200 for single adults and $3,400 for a family of four. 

A Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee press release this week highlighted Perdue’s comment in June that those payments were a “hindrance to people going back to work,” and Loeffler’s July remark that they were an “incentive not to be at work.” 

The DSCC warned that unemployment insurance, loan forbearance, eviction moratoriums and paid family leave benefits were set to expire at the end of the month because of Perdue and Loeffler’s “inaction.” 

A $908 billion package proposed this week by a bipartisan group of senators and members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House did not include new stimulus checks but did include more PPP funds and a $300 boost in unemployment benefits. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Wednesday that proposal should be the starting point for negotiations. 

Perdue and Loeffler did not comment on that bipartisan plan, or a less generous $519 billion package proposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Instead, they have focused their campaigns on arguing that Democrats are to blame for Congress going months without approving further aid and that Ossoff and Warnock would let Pelosi and Schumer control policy.

“As he has done from the start of this pandemic, Senator Perdue will continue fighting every single day to secure additional PPP funding, support our schools, expand testing, and accelerate investment in vaccines so we can beat this virus and help all of our communities recover,” Perdue campaign spokeswoman Casey Black said. 

She pointed to other measures Perdue has supported that were not passed by the Senate, including a state grant program to help schools safely reopen and a proposal to reallocate unused immigrant visas for doctors and nurses who could help fight the pandemic.

Republicans have also accused Democrats of “bashing” the PPP. Ossoff and Warnock have criticized the way money was distributed through the program, saying it ignored small businesses in favor of wealthy, politically connected corporations.  

Loeffler called for additional funding for PPP loans in a Tuesday statement and told a local news station last week that passing a new round of relief was among her priorities. 

“I’m going to be pushing for it because it’s things like schools, money for schools to reopen, money for small businesses, but also for child care,” she told Atlanta ABC affiliate WSB-TV on Friday. “Parents can’t get back to work if they don’t have that child care option, so I want to make sure that’s there.”

Neither her office nor campaign responded to requests for more details.