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Coronavirus bill needs a do-over while small businesses chafe

Technical changes needed to bill that passed early Saturday morning

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., makes a statement Friday about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act aid package, which passed overwhelmingly early Saturday but needs a second vote due to technical changes.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., makes a statement Friday about the Families First Coronavirus Response Act aid package, which passed overwhelmingly early Saturday but needs a second vote due to technical changes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House will have to vote once more on the COVID-19 aid package the chamber passed in the wee hours of Saturday morning due to agreed-upon “technical” changes that didn’t make it into the version that eventually hit the floor.

The do-over gives small businesses, unhappy with provisions requiring them to offer up to 12 weeks of paid leave to their workers, time to lobby for additional changes when the measure reaches the Senate. The influential National Federation of Independent Business said it may consider the matter a “key vote” on its legislative scorecard, a gauge of how worthy congressional candidates are of support in the upcoming elections.

Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin acknowledged the concerns small businesses had with the legislation and hedged on whether it could pass the Senate in its current form.

“We are hearing feedback that certain small businesses are very concerned about the burden of this,” Mnuchin said Sunday,  adding he’s been in contact with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other senators.

“I’m speaking to senators, I don’t want to predict, OK, I think there’s a lot of bipartisan support, I hope they pass this bill,” the Treasury chief said. “If not we’ll work with the Senate on whatever minor changes we need.”

It wasn’t immediately clear exactly what changes were needed that didn’t make it into the bill during frenzied late-night bargaining and drafting on Friday. But the paid leave issue continued to vex lawmakers and ultimately 40 House Republicans, or roughly one-fifth of the GOP conference, voted “no” on the measure.

Mnuchin described the needed change as “a technical correction” that had been agreed to by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., before the measure passed the House, 363-40.

The Treasury chief told reporters Saturday that the revised bill would come to the House floor Monday morning, though with the chamber on recess any changes would have to be made by unanimous consent. A Democratic aide who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly confirmed that the change would be made by unanimous consent, but the timing was still up in the air.

Paid leave problems

The underlying bill would provide free coverage to the uninsured for COVID-19 testing, expand unemployment benefits and food assistance, help states alleviate budget shortfalls with Medicaid funding increases and more.

Providing paid sick leave and family leave for workers forced to stay home sick or to care for family members has broad support on both sides of the aisle. But the structure of the emergency leave program has been a topic of dispute for several days.

Republicans thought they’d settled on a formula to alleviate concerns: Provide generous tax credits for businesses with 500 or fewer employees subject to the new requirements, who under current law don’t have to pay workers who take up to 12 weeks off under the Family and Medical Leave Act. There’s also a hardship waiver for firms with 50 workers or less, subject to Labor Department approval.

Small businesses voiced concerns that the tax relief wouldn’t come quickly enough for them to make payroll, however, because the tax credits wouldn’t come until after the end of each quarter. President Donald Trump said he’d agreed to have Mnuchin provide flexibility so that businesses could get the cash upfront. House Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady, R-Texas, announced his support for the bill after personal assurances from Trump.

The NFIB, the nation’s largest small business association, launched its broadside Saturday morning in a letter to congressional leaders.

“Paid family and medical leave is a benefit that all employers desire to offer. Unfortunately, some small employers simply do not have the operating budget to afford it,” the letter states. “By requiring small businesses to shoulder additional burdens and costs, small businesses who cannot afford to keep up will close.” 

NFIB also took issue with the apparent exemption for businesses with more than 500 employees. But a Democratic aide, who wasn’t authorized to speak for the record, said 89 percent of larger companies already offer paid sick leave, so giving them access to tax credits would be providing a windfall for something they are already doing.

At least one GOP senator, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, over the weekend voiced opposition to the paid leave requirement in the House bill. “I hope the Senate will approach this with a level head and pass a bill that does more good than harm — or, if it won’t, pass nothing at all,” Johnson said in a statement.

Mnuchin said late Saturday that Treasury plans to provide regulatory flexibility to get small businesses the cash they need. 

Schedule up in the air

The Senate was expected to reconvene Monday to consider Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation (HR 6172), but the chamber’s schedule was up in the air for the rest of the week. McConnell in an early Saturday statement said the Senate would stay in session to work on the COVID-19 bill.

He said senators needed to “carefully review” the measure but added that he believes “the vast majority of senators in both parties will agree we should act swiftly to secure relief for American workers, families, and small businesses.”

Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., called on Senate leaders to scrap the session due to virus-related fears and instead simply take up the aid package as well as FISA legislation by unanimous consent.

Niels Lesniewski, Lindsey McPherson, David Lerman and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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