The House could pass a small-business aid package as early as Friday and a broader coronavirus relief package as soon as late April, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told CQ Roll Call in an interview Tuesday.
Both pieces of legislation are designed to follow up on the $2.3 trillion package that Congress passed last month. That measure included $349 billion to fund forgivable loans for small businesses to keep employees on the payroll through the pandemic, but the money is being depleted quicker than lawmakers anticipated.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is requesting another $250 billion from Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he hopes to pass legislation providing the additional funding through the Senate by unanimous consent or voice vote during the chamber’s pro forma session on Thursday.
Hoyer said the House could follow suit and pass the bill by unanimous consent during its own pro forma session on Friday, but only if there’s a bipartisan agreement.
“We can probably reach agreement on that particular item but not necessarily have that be the sole item,” the Maryland Democrat said. “Our caucus and members have a great concern about the disadvantaged and smaller small businesses who are having trouble making application. And of course this is a first-come, first-served program, so we want to make sure that the smallest are not disadvantaged because of their smallness when they need probably some of the most help.”
Specifically, Hoyer said Democrats are concerned that smaller minority-owned and women-owned businesses don’t have the resources to apply for the loans as quickly as larger small businesses that have established relationships with traditional lenders.
“We want to make sure they are attended to and given assistance if we pass legislation, as is being proposed, to increase by $250 billion the resources available,” he said. “So those discussions are going to be ongoing.”
Unsure of unanimity
Hoyer seemed hopeful that bipartisan agreement can be reached on a narrow small-business package that would allow the House to pass it by unanimous consent, which would prevent him from calling members back to Washington sooner than expected. But he suspects the next broader relief package lacks such unanimity.
“Definitely we believe that substantial, additional items need to be included in broader legislation,” he said. Democrats want to include additional funding for states and hospitals, further expansion of unemployment benefits and more direct payments to individuals and families.
“We may not have unanimous consent,” Hoyer added. “We may have broad agreement but not unanimous consent for additional items. If that’s the case, then the only way you could pass them is either by voice vote, as we did on March 27, or by an actual vote where we would need a quorum of members to take action to pass legislation.”
Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie objected to the House holding a voice vote on the $2.3 trillion bill and asked for a recorded vote. Hoyer and other House leaders, anticipating his objection, brought enough members back to Washington to establish a quorum so that the voice vote could go through; without one, Massie’s objection would have triggered a recorded vote.
Hoyer acknowledged that even if a broad bipartisan agreement can be reached on CARES 2, the House would still likely need to prepare to establish a quorum in case Massie or someone else objects to a voice vote.
“We’ll have to consider how and when we can pass subsequent legislation, but there is no doubt we’re working very hard on constructing additional pieces of legislation which deal with things that were not done in the CARES Act but which we think need to be done to protect workers, to provide greater benefits, to make sure that the most vulnerable are taken care of and to make sure that the health system has the resources it needs to protect the health of our people,” he said.
April still goal for next step
Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a “Dear Colleague” letter Saturday that she hoped the next big package would be ready for a floor vote this month.
Hoyer said Tuesday that putting the additional small-business aid in a separate measure does not take away Congress’ urgency to finish another broader one.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we still believe there is a need to move as quickly as possible, as substantively as possible, seeing what has happened with respect to the bill that we passed in March to see what holes we need to fill there,” he said. “We certainly want to have that legislation ready with some degree of consensus on the provisions that are included in it by the end of this month.”
Hoyer has not yet decided when to call the House back into session but said it would not be before April 20.
In addition to extending aid provided in the last relief measure, Democrats want to further expand paid family and medical leave benefits they included in an earlier coronavirus aid measure, Hoyer said. They also are still pushing for emergency workplace regulations for first-responders that Republicans have rejected.
Another partisan disagreement has been over providing election assistance grants to states for them to set up vote-by-mail for the presidential election and money for the U.S. Postal Service to get ballots out.
“What’s happening today in Wisconsin is a perfect example of why we need additional resources and policies to allow greater flexibility and resources to implement voting systems that ensure access to voting by our citizens,” Hoyer said, referring to the state proceeding with in-person voting after the Supreme Court rejected an effort to expand allowances for absentee ballots.
Hoyer said he’s also working on provisions to help government agencies set up the technology solutions needed to provide pandemic relief more quickly — similar to past technology modernization legislation that he and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have worked on together.
“Technology is becoming increasingly important to provide for the numbers that we’re dealing with and the rapidity with which we have to deal with them,” he said.
One issue Democrats have agreed to leave aside for now is infrastructure funding. Hoyer did not put a timeline on when that would be ready to be pursued.
“We don’t have a date, and we’ll need to work in a bipartisan way because that will be another very large investment that we will make in what we think is the health of our economy, the employment of people and our competitiveness globally,” he said.
Hoyer also mentioned a number of items Congress needs to pass that are unrelated to the coronavirus, like the annual appropriations bills, the annual Defense Department authorization, surprise billing legislation and measures to strengthen the 2010 health care law.
“There’s a lot of legislation that we need to get back to work on,” he said. “And the committee chairs are doing that through conference calls with their committee members and their ranking members. When we can go back, we want to be able to go back and get not only the response to coronavirus correct but also the normal annual work that the Congress needs to perform on behalf of the American people done.”