Speaker Nancy Pelosi quashed talk of a separate bill to mitigate airline industry layoffs without also aiding other industries and households and funding for schools, nationwide COVID-19 testing and more.
"There is no stand-alone bill without a bigger bill," Pelosi said at her weekly press conference Thursday.
Pelosi spoke to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Wednesday night about the possibility of an airline aid bill, which has emerged as the main area of bipartisan agreement after President Donald Trump called off talks on a broader COVID-19 relief package earlier this week.
“The comment that I made to the administration last night is that we’re happy to review what that stand-alone bill would look like as part of a bigger bill if there is a bigger bill,” she said.
Pelosi said she is willing to move airline aid separately but only if there's "a guarantee" that there will also be a larger package containing aid for state and local governments, schools, testing and contact tracing, as well as unemployment assistance and workplace safety regulations.
"Some of these issues we have come to some area of agreement, but some of them we have not. But they have walked away from the whole package," she said.
Her comments threw cold water on what had appeared to be a last-ditch effort to help the battered airline industry before the Nov. 3 elections.
After calling off the broader talks, Trump said late Tuesday that he’d be open to airline aid as well as another round of $1,200 tax rebates and an extension of Paycheck Protection Program support for small businesses. His tweets caused a flurry of activity Wednesday, with Mnuchin and Pelosi talking twice Wednesday. They were planning to speak again Thursday.
But Pelosi told reporters she was holding out for “a longer-term, a bigger bill” including more mandates for testing, contact tracing and how a vaccine should be vetted and distributed. She said Mnuchin has yet to respond to language that Democrats provided days ago on that.
“There’s one thing that has to be in this bill that [Trump] has never made a priority,” she said. “It’s crushing the virus.”
Trump, meanwhile, said he was open to a bigger deal during a Fox Business interview Thursday, but he did not mention most of Pelosi's priorities.
“We’re talking about airlines and we’re talking about a bigger deal than airlines,” he told Fox Business. “We’re talking about a deal with $1,200 per person. …I think we have a really good chance of doing something.”
White House director of strategic communications Alyssa Farah later clarified that Trump is not interested in the same thing as Pelosi.
"We've made very clear we want a skinny package," she said. "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."
Farah's comment led to some confusion as Pelosi and Mnuchin spoke again by phone Thursday afternoon.
Mnuchin communicated to Pelosi that Trump is interested in reaching agreement on a comprehensive bill, prompting Pelosi to point out Farah's contradicting comment, according to Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill. Nonetheless, Hammill tweeted, "The speaker trusts that the secretary speaks for the president."
Airlines, which saw ridership plummet in the aftermath of the pandemic, received $32 billion in payroll support in the roughly $2 trillion aid package enacted in March.
That law included $25 billion for passenger carriers, $4 billion for cargo carriers and $3 billion for contractors. The support expired Sept. 30, and on Oct. 1, airlines began furloughing tens of thousands of workers.
United Airlines furloughed around 13,000 employees, while American Airlines furloughed 19,000. But officials at both airlines indicated they could bring back those workers if aid is renewed.
"There is enormous bipartisan support for extension of this payroll support program and there's enormous understanding for the urgency for this," American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said Thursday on CNBC.
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.
The furloughs spurred House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., to try to push through a stand-alone bill on Friday by unanimous consent.
That effort was thwarted, as was an effort in the Senate to push proposals being advanced by Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
A GOP aide said House Republicans blocked DeFazio’s unanimous consent request because the bill had no offsetting cuts and lacked an official cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.
Senate GOP objections
In the Senate, despite a letter of support from 16 Republicans in August calling for extending the program, at least two Republican senators are balking at the prospect of additional aid.
Sens. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, said in a joint statement that more financial aid won't resolve the airline industry's structural challenges and could lead to "unsustainable" taxpayer support in the future.
“No other Fortune 500 companies — including restaurant groups, transportation firms, hotel chains, or entertainment businesses — have received taxpayer-funded grants,” they said, arguing instead that airlines should take advantage of low-interest loans instead. The $2 trillion March bill also included up to $25 billion in loans and loan guarantees for passenger airlines.
The Wicker-Collins and DeFazio bills would provide $25.5 billion to passenger airlines, $3 billion to contractors like catering services and ground crews and $300 million to cargo airlines, which have been less affected by the pandemic.
The DeFazio bill's aid isn't offset. The Wicker-Collins bill, along with a House version introduced by Del. Stacey Plaskett, D-V.I., and Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, would pay for much of the new airline relief by using 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.
Every airline aid measure being debated would extend the aid through March 2021, while also mandating a continuation of air service to communities served prior to the pandemic into 2022.
Parker said his airline's suspension of service to 13 cities has been extended through November. Without additional aid, "I expect there will be more of that to come from us and other airlines," Parker said.
On Wednesday night, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows 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 also said that McConnell, R-Kentucky, 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.
Speaking to reporters in his home state Thursday, McConnell didn't address stand-alone airline aid legislation, though he said the approaching elections have made negotiations more difficult.
"I do think we ought to continue to talk and try to get an outcome," he said at a news conference at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. "The need remains the same, whether we get together before or after the election.”
Similarly, Pelosi gave no guarantees about when, or if, a deal might come together.
“We’ve told the White House we’re at the table," she said. "We want to continue the conversation. We’ve made some progress. We’re exchanging language ... so we’ll see how they connect.”
David Lerman contributed to this report.