More Airline Aid Now Won’t Move Without Resolution of Larger COVID Aid Bill

This was an interesting week for the aviation news beat in Congress. The end result is that many U.S. airlines and contractors are continuing a massive wave of layoffs that began on October 1, and Congress appears unlikely to act on further financial support for airlines anytime soon.

Friday, October 2 – After weeks of insisting that no further COVID aid be passed by the House on a targeted (or “piecemeal”) basis, and insisting that only a giant bill that addresses state and local government fiscal relief, unemployment, COVID testing, and all other areas of need should be considered, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has a change of heart (after a lot of pressure from House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and airline unions). She issues a statement at midday promising that “We will either enact Chairman DeFazio’s bipartisan stand-alone legislation or achieve this as part of a comprehensive negotiated relief bill, extending for another six months the Payroll Support Program.” DeFazio then takes to the House floor to ask unanimous consent that the House pass his bill on the subject (not the bipartisan version of the bill), but Republicans objected, at which point Pelosi issued another statement saying “Democrats will continue our efforts to provide direly-needed relief for airline workers.”

Monday, October 5 – Pelosi continues to have conversations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about an overall package of aid, somewhere between $1.6 trillion and $2.2 trillion.

Tuesday, October 6 – Pelosi and Mnuchin talk again in the morning. But at 2:48 the afternoon, President Trump sends out a series of tweets informing the world that “I have instructed my representatives to stop negotiating [on the stimulus package] until after the election” and directing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to “focus full-time” on confirming a Supreme Court justice. Pelosi responds quickly with a statement that Trump “his contempt for science, his disdain for our heroes – in health care, first responders, sanitation, transportation, food workers, teachers, teachers, teachers and others – and he refuses to put money in workers’ pockets, unless his name is printed on the check.”  Then, perhaps realizing that he had gone too far, Trump sends out another tweet at 9:54 p.m., to wit: “The House & Senate should IMMEDIATELY Approve 25 Billion Dollars for Airline Payroll Support, & 135 Billion Dollars for Paycheck Protection Program for Small Business. Both of these will be fully paid for with unused funds from the Cares Act. Have this money. I will sign now!” Followed by another tweet at 10:18 p.m. saying he wanted to sign a stand-alone bill with more $1,200 stimulus checks.

Wednesday, October 7 – Pelosi goes on The View, where she is asked about Trump’s about-face, and she says “It’s interesting that he said he would send out the checks if we just sent him that bill, because all he has ever wanted in the negotiation was to send out a check with his name printed on it.  Forget about the virus…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.”

Thursday, October 8 – after receiving pushback from Democratic members (along the lines of “why should airline employees be the only ones who get special treatment?”), Pelosi does an interview on Bloomberg News and says, of the airline aid, “There is legislation that we had in the CARES Act, which we hoped we could continue for another six months or so.  That expired the end of September.  We can do that separately, but we cannot do it unless there’s a big bill.  So, it can be part of a big bill or it could be separate from a big bill from a timing standpoint, but there won’t be anything unless we have: crush the virus, put money in the pockets of the American people.” Later that day, at her press conference, she clarified “I have been very open to having a standalone bill for the airlines or part of a bigger bill.  But there is no standalone bill without a bigger bill.  There is no bill.  Because you asked the second question:  Why should we do one, not the other?”

That afternoon, per her press secretary, Pelosi spoke with Mnuchin for 40 minutes about a larger COVID bill, and Mnuchin “made clear the President’s interest in reaching such an agreement,” but while they were on the phone, the White House Communications Director told the press pool “We’re for direct payments, we’re for extension of PPP, and we’d like to see an airline bailout, but not part of a larger package.” Pelosi’s press secretary added “The Speaker trusts that the Secretary speaks for the President.”

And as if that wasn’t enough news, two Republican Senators (Mike Lee (UT) and Pat Toomey (PA)) announced yesterday that they would block unanimous consent agreements to schedule any airline aid bill “unless there are adequate protections for taxpayers and the opportunity to offer related amendments.” (Toomey’s announcement no doubt has something to do with his announcement earlier in the week that he will not seek re-election in 2022.)

Where does all that leave us?

Pelosi gaveled the House into session at 10 a.m. today and quickly adjourned the pro forma session until next Tuesday, so no business can be conducted until then. Similarly, the Senate cannot conduct any business until at least October 19.

There are a few separate problems at work here:

  • The experience of the last few days has caused Pelosi to double down on holding out for a large bill and not breaking it into chunks, at least until there is agreement in principle with the White House on a large bill.
  • Pelosi is close to running out of the 217 Democrats passing any big relief bill, with vulnerable D’s bailing on anything with a multi-trillion price tag before the elections, but progressives bailing on anything less than $2 trillion. (The bill they passed last week only passed because of Republican absentees.)
  • As the Washington Post‘s Paul Kane points out, Republicans didn’t have the votes to pass a plan of even $1 trillion over the summer, and they definitely don’t have the votes to pass anything in the $1.6 to $2.2 trillion neighborhood in which Pelosi and Mnuchin are discussing (at least not before the elections). Politically speaking, putting up a Pelosi-Mnuchin plan before the election that only gets 15-20 Republican votes in the Senate, but has the White House’s support, is a recipe for disaster.
  • However, McConnell (apparently) does have the Republican votes necessary to confirm a Supreme Court justice, so his plan is to concentrate on that, and that only, before the elections.


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