March 2, 2006

Senator says may add airline pensions to tax bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the Senate Finance
Committee said on Thursday he would try to add U.S. airline
pension relief to a tax bill if Senate and House negotiators
are unable to finish broad pension legislation.

Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Senate
panel, said he was frustrated by a two-month delay in naming
congressional negotiators to reconcile the Senate and House
versions of pension reform legislation.

"If we don't get this resolved right away, I'm going to
look into pulling the airline relief and the post-Enron reforms
out of the pension bill, adding them to the tax reconciliation
bill," Grassley said in a statement.

Such a move would effectively kill the broader pension
reform legislation, Grassley said.

Last November, the Senate approved a bill that would
strengthen traditional corporate pensions and shore up a
deficit-ridden pension insurance agency. The package also
included language that would give distressed airlines up to 20
years to repair their underfunded pension plans, in addition to
the seven years provided by the bill to all companies.

While both chambers have passed pension bills, negotiations
over a merged version have been delayed while Senate leaders
feud over the size of the negotiating committee.

Democrats have demanded to add one more of their number, so
that there would be eight republican senators and six
democrats, but Senate majority leader Bill Frist has refused,
saying it should be 7-5.

Grassley said time was running out to name a negotiating
panel that would prepare one final version of the bill.

"The airline provisions need to get done because if any
more airlines tank, the economy will tank right along with
them," Grassley said. "And employees have waited long enough
for the post-Enron reforms, such as the basic right to
diversify from company stock."

Airlines such as bankrupt Delta Air Lines Inc and Northwest
Airlines Corp have been lobbying for months to get special
pension aid.

Nationwide, traditional pensions are underfunded by some
$450 billion. The federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which
takes over failed plans, is $22.8 billion in deficit.