Buttigieg dodges on more airline payroll Covid relief

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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Sunday that more federal aid is needed to help airlines avoid massive furloughs as the industry continues to reel from the pandemic, but wouldn’t say whether the Biden administration had committed to negotiating for its inclusion in a $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan.

Buttigieg skirted the issue when he was asked on ABC’s “This Week” if it would be a “mistake” not to use the relief bill as a vehicle for extending payroll support of airlines.

“Look, that’s part of the conversation going on in the administration and with Congress over a package that has many different elements,” he said. “But I can tell you, this ask from the aviation sector is being taken very seriously.”

Federal payroll support for airlines is set to expire at the end of next month. Airlines such as American and United already have warned that they will have to furlough tens of thousands of employees without further federal assistance. Union groups representing aviation workers have asked Congress to provide another $15 billion to extend payroll support through the end of September.

Buttigieg noted that there was “a lot of concern” among airline workers and air carriers and that the administration had been speaking with Congress and wanted to make sure airlines were “supported” in the next relief package.

“That we need to do and get right,” he said without elaborating on what that support might look like.

More broadly, Buttigieg also expressed optimism about working with Congress to find ways to pay for an infrastructure package and noted the bipartisan “gathering and growing momentum” for finding a sustainable way of paying for major projects.

Buttigieg, who has backed away from proposals to increase the federal gas tax to fund such investments, said the economic urgency of issue and the “interest rate environment” made it an opportune time to pass such a plan.

“Again, it’s not going to be easy,” Buttigieg said. “We know what we’re up against as a country. But I’m absolutely thrilled to be in the seat doing the work with the Biden-Harris administration that is serious about making infrastructure happen.”

Still, bipartisan support for infrastructure hasn’t often translated to action in recent years. Over the past decade, talks over ambitious infrastructure proposals from the Obama and Trump administrations have crumbled or failed to launch. The Biden administration has the additional challenge of having to work with a Congress that is even more polarized following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and ahead of a Senate impeachment trial for former President Donald Trump.

Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker, the outgoing chair of a Senate panel with jurisdiction over transportation who followed Buttigieg on “This Week,” indicated the partisan divide could drag down infrastructure discussions. But he said he was willing to work with Buttigieg and had a call with him when he was first nominated about work that they wanted to do on roads, bridges, passenger rail and Amtrak.

“I would a whole lot rather be working with him this week on that sort of thing — maybe on a plan like his Republican governor in Indiana was able to get done on a bipartisan basis to pay for a major infrastructure piece of legislation — rather than going into a really meaningless, messaging partisan exercise like impeachment.”

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