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

WASHINGTON, D.C. — 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 called Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday morning to inquire about a separate aid package for airlines, 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 Payroll 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.

But 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.

In their phone call Wednesday, Pelosi reminded Mnuchin that Republicans had blocked the DeFazio bill on the floor, Hammill said. She then 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 that bill wasn’t brought up for a unanimous consent request instead of the brand-new DeFazio bill last Friday.

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% pay cuts through 2021.

Before adjourning for a monthlong recess last week, 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. White House Chief of Staff Mark 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.”

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