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Conflicting priorities threaten quick coronavirus aid passage

White House, Senate Republicans want $251 billion to buttress the lending program for small business

A man wearing a bandana as a face mask rollerblades past the Capitol building.
A man wearing a bandana as a face mask rollerblades past the Capitol building. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The latest partisan skirmish over emergency funds to respond to the economic meltdown wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic could prevent speedy delivery of small-business relief to President Donald Trump’s desk this week.

And that’s before figuring out what to do about Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who is again demanding the House either reconvene to vote on the measure or implement some kind of remote voting procedure so lawmakers can be recorded.

The White House and Senate Republicans want $251 billion to buttress the lending program enacted under the huge aid bill signed into law March 27, which is rapidly running out of cash. A two-page Senate GOP-authored draft bill circulating on Wednesday would implement the Trump administration’s request without any changes.

The draft Senate legislation includes an extra $10.3 billion to cover fees the Small Business Administration must pay to banks for processing the loans. The earlier $349 billion pot of money for SBA loans wouldn’t entirely go to businesses, because a chunk would be eaten up by fees; a senior administration official said by adding money to pay the fees, the full $600 billion in both measures will go directly to helping small businesses.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday he wanted to pass the not-yet-introduced bill to appropriate the additional funds during a pro forma session on Thursday.

Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Fla., tweeted Wednesday that McConnell had “hotlined” a bill to provide the extra SBA money. That’s a process designed to allow quick passage without a roll call vote during Thursday’s session, as long as there were no objections.

Senators were asked if they had any objections to lodge them by noon on Wednesday, Rubio wrote, adding: “Hope for the best.”

In a letter to lawmakers Tuesday night requesting the additional $251 billion in loan funding, acting White House budget director Russell Vought said the SBA by Tuesday had recorded 220,000 loans for $66 billion since the program began accepting applications on Friday.

That figure has since swelled to over $90 billion, according to Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Miss., who was on a call about coronavirus response efforts with Vice President Mike Pence on Wednesday morning.

The program was designed to consider new loans through June 30. At the current pace, without additional money it could run dry within days, according to Rubio.

But Democrats have their own priorities, which means it’s not going to be an easy path through both chambers for a small-business lending package.

“The bill that they put forth will not get unanimous support in the House, it just won’t,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an NPR interview Wednesday.

Hospitals, states, food stamps

Democratic leaders want to roughly double the size of what they’re calling an “interim” package until they can take up a larger measure later this month or early next.

They want to supplement the White House request with another $100 billion for hospitals, on top of the same amount provided in the $2.3 trillion aid package signed last month.

Democrats also want to double the money for states, which got $150 billion to cover cash shortfalls in the recent relief round, as well as bolstering the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit by 15 percent. More commonly known as the food stamp program, SNAP currently provides a monthly benefit of up to $646 for a family of four, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.

“The heartbreaking acceleration of the coronavirus crisis demands bold, urgent and ongoing action from Congress to protect Americans’ lives and livelihoods,” Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a joint statement Wednesday. “The American people need to know that their government is there for them in their time of great need.”

Democrats also want more small-business funds allocated to firms that have trouble accessing the new loans because they don’t have established relationships with traditional lenders, typically large financial institutions. And they want more dollars loaned to women- and minority-owned businesses. Of the additional $250 billion sought for the SBA program, Democrats want half set aside to meet such requirements.

Some Democrats, such as former presidential candidate and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are also calling for increasing the size of the small-business loan package substantially beyond what the White House and Republicans are seeking.

[Congressional leaders lay down markers for fourth relief package]

In addition, Pelosi told House Democrats on a conference call Wednesday that she wants the package to tack on another $15 billion in direct grants for small businesses, according to Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash. Pelosi also said the measure should include $50 billion more for disaster relief, and eliminate a state matching requirement for election security grants allocated in the last aid package, DelBene said.

Speaking at a Politico event Wednesday, House Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden, R-Ore., said the extra money Democrats want isn’t an emergency that warrants holding up more money for small-business lending, known as the Paycheck Protection Program.

He said the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services just released $30 billion of the initial relief funds for hospitals, leaving another $70 billion for them to figure out how to allocate. The “state stabilization fund” guidance would be out “in a week or so,” he added, while SNAP is also flush with funding just granted late last month.

“There are other times to argue if we have other programs that may need more funding later, but they don’t need it now. [Paycheck Protection Program] needs it now,” Walden said.

In a separate statement, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Senate Democrats “should drop their shameful threat to block this funding immediately.”

Schumer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin discussed the Democrats’ proposal Wednesday morning, according to a Schumer spokesman, who expressed hope that Republicans might come around to support it on the floor Thursday.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday that his chamber could act as soon as Friday if they are able to get unanimous consent or clear the measure by voice vote.

Speaking on CNBC Wednesday morning, Mnuchin reiterated the administration’s call for quick passage of additional small-business funds, without addressing the Democrats’ demands.

“The president has asked us to go back to Congress. We hope they pass this tomorrow and Friday,” Mnuchin said. “And we want to assure everybody, if you don’t get a loan this week, you’ll get a loan next week or the following week. The money will be there.”

Massie redux

Even if the White House and congressional leaders can reach agreement, it’s not clear how the House might act on it procedurally. Massie has already hinted he might try to force House lawmakers to return to Washington to consider a new relief measure.

Massie tweeted Tuesday that the Constitution requires a majority of House lawmakers to be physically present to consider legislation. He followed up Wednesday with a specific dig at the small-business lending program, which enables beneficiaries to skip payback if they use the money to meet payroll and other covered expenses.

“If the expected default rate for a federal loan program is 100%, is it appropriate to call it a loan program?” Massie tweeted.

Later Wednesday in a Fox Business appearance, Massie said a voice vote or unanimous consent request to take up the measure this week is “not going to fly.”

“Doesn’t fly with the Constitution. Doesn’t fly with accountability to the taxpayers,” Massie said. “So, what I’m recommending is that she enable remote voting for congressmen.”

Walden panned a potential Massie roadblock in his comments Wednesday, noting that Massie exposed lawmakers to COVID-19 unnecessarily when he temporarily delayed final passage of the recent $2.3 trillion package.

“It’s unnecessary. I think everybody understands the crisis we’re in and that we don’t have a lot of tools at our disposal other than a [unanimous consent request] or a voice vote,” he said.

A House Rules Committee report issued last month found numerous challenges with implementing a remote voting system, including security issues and the fact that the constitutionality of such a system would be “an untested principle.”

Doug Sword, Paul M. Krawzak, Mary Ellen McIntire, Lindsey McPherson, Chris Cioffi and Jim Saksa contributed to this report.

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