Jobless airline workers moved closer to getting some assistance in President Bush's supplemental spending package yesterday when the House of Representatives voted to include workers' aid despite administration entreaties to drop "this objectionable provision."
The House voted 265 to 150 to instruct its conferees to include a Senate provision in the airline aid package that would provide an extra 26 weeks of unemployment insurance for laid-off airline workers, even though the provision was not in its version of the bill.
The airline aid package is part of a larger supplemental spending measure that would provide nearly $80 billion to finance the war with Iraq and to strengthen defenses against terrorism at home. A conference committee is scheduled to meet today to work out differences in the two versions of the bill.
Both the Senate and the House versions of the spending bill include money for the struggling airline industry, which lost $10 billion last year and expects to lose $11 billion this year. The Senate version includes an additional $3.2 billion, including $225 million in expanded jobless benefits for workers. The House version contains an additional $2.7 billion to reimburse airlines for security-related expenditures but does not include any funds for workers.
Airline unions have been lobbying hard for the worker-aid provision, arguing that employees were left behind when Congress approved $15 billion in financial aid and loan guarantees for the airlines shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The union's efforts have gained some support from Republicans, including those whose districts include large concentrations of airline workers. Last week 13 House Republicans, led by Rep. Phil English of Pennsylvania, wrote to House Appropriations Committee conferees urging them to include the jobless benefits in the supplemental war funding bill.
Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., the director of the Office of Management and Budget, yesterday wrote members of Congress outlining the administration's position on several provisions in the overall package, including financial aid to the airlines.
"While the Administration did not request financial assistance for airlines, it recognizes that the war in Iraq may have an impact on the demand for air travel," he wrote. But he added that the amounts of money provided by the House and the Senate "are excessive."
Despite Daniels' objections, the administration has not threatened to veto the bill over the airline provisions. "The V-word was not used in any of their correspondence," said one airline industry source. Several airline and congressional sources said they expect the bill to emerge from the conference possibly with a slight reduction in the dollar amount but containing the benefits for airline workers. They also said they doubted that the administration would allow the airline issue to endanger the larger spending measure.
The crux of the debate within the administration over the airline aid has been between those who are concerned that additional financial aid will only postpone a shakeout in the industry and those who believe financial assistance is warranted to offset the costs of increasing security. The airline industry initially said security measures, such as reinforcing cockpit doors, had cost it an additional $4 billion.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who backed the aid for workers, said yesterday that the unemployment rate for airline workers is about 15 percent, which is nearly three times the national rate.
Noting that there have been 115,000 layoffs in the industry in the last year and a half, including 10,000 since the war in Iraq began, Murray said at a news conference that the extension of benefits is "not a lot of money but it's going to make a real difference in the lives of airline workers who have lost their jobs but still need to pay their mortgages."