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Senate loosens rules on private charter flights

In a change to Senate rules, senators will now be allowed to charter private planes -- using taxpayer money -- when and if they are summoned back to Washington, DC to vote in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, a Senate aide tells CNN.

Posted: Apr 7, 2020 2:37 PM
Updated: Apr 7, 2020 2:48 PM

In a change to Senate rules, senators will now be allowed to charter private planes -- using taxpayer money -- when and if they are summoned back to Washington, DC to vote in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, a Senate aide tells CNN.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican and the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, made the change in light of the health concerns and the challenges of commercial travel.

The Rules Committee will now waive a specific section of the Senate's travel regulations, loosening it up so members would be able to use their office funds to pay for the flights. The change lifts the rule that the "Charter of aircraft may be allowed notwithstanding the availability of commercial facilities, if such commercial facilities are not such that reasonable schedules may be kept."

Now, if a senator needs to take a private flight, they will be able to use their office funds -- formally the Senator's Official Personnel and Office Expense Account, a discretionary pot of money that each member has to support their official and representational duties.

The move was prompted after the Senate's second-highest ranking Republican, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, had to charter a flight from Washington, DC, to his home in Sioux Falls, last month, after he had fallen ill with a suspected case of coronavirus. The senator tested negative for the virus shortly after, but, according to his spokesperson, flew home on a charter jet with only himself and one member of his Capitol police security detail out of an abundance of caution.

In the US House of Representatives, the members' handbook already provides limited flexibility for members to pay for chartered travel using their respective office funds, called the House the Members' Representational Allowance.

The Committee on House Administration recommends that charter or private flights should be used "sparingly" and only when the member "determines there is no suitable commercial flight available."

Given the current challenges of commercial travel and concerns over the health and safety of members, a committee aide tells CNN that they've encouraged members with questions about official resources in general to contact the committee.

The recalibrations come as leadership in both the Senate and House have rejected calls from many members to change congressional rules to allow for remote voting.

With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushing to have a fourth stimulus package ready to be voted on by the end of this month, this will require many members to return to Washington potentially in a matter of only a few weeks.

It is not clear how many members will take advantage of this when they are called back to Washington.

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