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

Speaker prefers comprehensive coronavirus relief deal; Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer tells lawmakers to keep their schedules open

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., leaves a meeting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., leaves a meeting in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened the door Friday to taking up a free-standing bill to provide payroll support to airlines so they can postpone tens of thousands of furloughs, even as she expressed optimism about a comprehensive COVID-19 aid deal.

A piecemeal airline aid bill would be a shift from Pelosi’s prior position that additional coronavirus relief must be negotiated as a broader package. But the influential flight attendants’ union has been flooding lawmakers with calls for action, and most members of Congress get on a plane every week.

“Burn up the House lines everyone. Call and demand this is passed now,” Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International President Sara Nelson tweeted earlier Friday, along with a video showing an emotional flight attendant about to lose her job.

Pelosi said the House would either take up stand-alone legislation authored by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., to renew a lapsed payroll support program through March, or a more comprehensive bipartisan deal that includes the fix.

‘Imminent’ action on airlines?

Given the prospect of “imminent” action, Pelosi urged the airline industry to “delay their devastating job cuts” that “jeopardize the livelihoods of tens of thousands and threaten to accelerate the devastating economic crisis facing our nation.”

A Pelosi spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on how long the speaker would give for negotiations on a comprehensive bill before advancing a stand-alone measure.

DeFazio tried to obtain unanimous consent to pass his bill before the House adjourned Friday. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., who was presiding, rejected the request on standard procedural grounds for not getting the request cleared in advance by party leaders on both sides.

DeFazio blamed GOP leaders for that outcome. “In plain English, what you just said is that the Republican majority killed this legislation,” he said.

A House GOP aide said rather than pass an earlier bipartisan airline aid bill, Democrats introduced a new partisan measure with no offsets and sent it to Republicans during the final vote series of the day. Republicans objected to the unanimous consent request because they are still awaiting a Congressional Budget Office score and further details of the legislation, the aide said.

Earlier Friday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer seemed optimistic that a broader aid package could be agreed to as soon as this weekend, though there wouldn’t be anything ready to vote on until midweek at the earliest.

“Hopefully those negotiations will bear fruit sooner rather than later … I hope that this weekend perhaps an agreement can be reached,” Hoyer, D-Md., said. “It will take some time to memorialize that agreement on paper, so I do not necessarily expect that a Monday or Tuesday vote is likely.”

Hoyer said members would be allowed to leave for the planned October campaign recess but should remain available to return to Washington on 24-hour notice.

Providing more money to help the airlines has not been one of the divisive issues in negotiations, although the proposals Democrats and the White House offered vary slightly.

The House passed a $2.2 trillion aid package Thursday night on a 214-207, party-line vote that included DeFazio’s airline fix, including $28 billion to fund a six-month extension of the Payroll Support Program. Of that figure, $25 billion would be for passenger carriers.

The White House proposed $20 billion in their offer to Pelosi, which Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said would be enough to last six months.

An earlier coronavirus relief package enacted in March 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 deal, and 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 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.

The White House has endorsed passing a stand-alone aid bill previously. Amid news of furloughs on Oct. 1, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters the administration was willing to look at “clean legislation to protect those airline workers.”

Negotiations continue

The top administration negotiator, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, said Friday morning he planned to speak to President Donald Trump later that day to update him on his negotiations with Pelosi.

“The president is determined to make sure everybody who lost their job as a result of COVID gets back to work,” he said at a virtual “fireside chat” hosted by Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y. ” So, our work is not done until we get the economy back to where it was, and we have a lot of confidence that will be the case.”

Separately, Meadows told reporters that Trump had requested an update, but he provided no details.

Mnuchin expects to have “significant talks” with Pelosi on Friday, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow told Bloomberg television. “We are willing to do business,” Kudlow said.

Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke by phone for about 65 minutes Friday afternoon, Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill tweeted.

Pelosi and Mnuchin have been negotiating for a week now in a renewed attempt to get a bipartisan aid deal after their initial effort, which involved Meadows and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, broke down in early August of vast divisions over spending levels.

Some of the funding divisions have been worked through. For example, Pelosi said Friday she and Mnuchin were largely in agreement on health care funding levels, but they still have policy language to work through.

“We’re continuing to make sure that they agreed to the language for a strategic plan … we’ve had money for testing all along but they haven’t implemented it, and you can see they haven’t even given a good example of what should be done,” she said on MSNBC.

The speaker also cited some of the issues that still remained unresolved, which she had outlined in detail on Thursday, including state and local aid and tax provisions.

On Thursday Pelosi had hoped Mnuchin would revise his offer to include at least some of Democrats’ requests on the tax provisions, like expanding the refundability of the earned income and child tax credits. But on Friday she indicated that had not yet occurred.

“Very important to the overwhelming majority of our caucus is how we meet the needs of a family of four making $20,000 a year,” Pelosi said. “That is not in the Republican plan or any of the bipartisan plans and that is very important to us, whether it’s earned income tax credit, whether it’s a child tax credit, refundable.”

The speaker called the $1.6 trillion offer Mnuchin put on the table Wednesday “the heel of a loaf of bread” and said it would never have the votes to pass the Democrat-controlled House.

“Maybe because I’m a woman you expect me to accept — some people expect me to accept whatever they put out, but when I put something out … it’s so partisan,” she said. “When they put it out, it’s ‘Why don’t you take that.’”

Nonetheless, Pelosi, noting she is “always optimistic,” said she believes she will get a deal with the White House.

In a separate letter to House Democrats, she outlined five chief areas of disagreement, including state and local aid, money for schools, testing and tracing, and the refundable credits, as well as unemployment insurance.

“We are expecting a response from the White House on these areas and others with more detail.  In the meantime, we continue to work on the text to move quickly to facilitate an agreement,” Pelosi wrote. “I will keep you updated.”

David Lerman, Jim Saska and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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