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Restaurant, ‘hard-hit’ business aid shelved in Senate, for now

The House is expected to vote this week on a $55 billion aid package

Doug Farkas serves a beer at Boundary Stone in Washington, D.C., in April 2021. The House and Senate are working on bills to provide more pandemic aid to restaurants and other hard-hit businesses.
Doug Farkas serves a beer at Boundary Stone in Washington, D.C., in April 2021. The House and Senate are working on bills to provide more pandemic aid to restaurants and other hard-hit businesses. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

High hopes for legislation to funnel more pandemic aid to restaurants and other hard-hit businesses crashed into the Senate’s slow-moving legislative reality Tuesday when one of that chamber’s top negotiators said the effort was being put on ice until after the April recess.

While the House plans to vote this week on a $55 billion aid package, the Senate isn’t ready to take it up, Small Business Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said Tuesday. He’s been working on a similar, $48 billion proposal with Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and there’s been some effort to reconcile differences with the House bill to try to expedite passage in both chambers.

While there was some initial talk of attaching restaurant aid to the COVID-19 supplemental funding bill, that plan was scrapped and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said a vote on the restaurant bill “would not be this week,” Cardin said. Instead, negotiators are aiming for a separate package that could move after the two-week recess.

And a new hurdle emerged, Cardin said, because some of the cost-saving provisions proposed to pay for new aid to restaurants and other industries are now being used as part of the separate $10 billion COVID-19 package for vaccines and therapeutics.

 “I had a substantial amount offset, but most of that, not all of it, most of it will probably end up in the COVID package,” Cardin said. 

Wicker said senators working on the relief will try to develop a back-up plan to pay for at least some portion of the fresh aid. 

“There are other offsets we can look at,” Wicker said. “It is so large a package that it’s hard to offset most of it. But we’re just gonna try plan B.”

Offsetting the cost of new aid could be vital to winning Republican support. Cardin said there would “absolutely” be enough bipartisan support.

Wicker declined to comment on whether offsets could pose an obstacle, saying it would amount to speculation because negotiations are ongoing.

Another setback

The punt amounts to another setback for the pandemic-battered restaurant industry, which has been clamoring for more federal aid since burning through $28.6 billion Congress provided as part of a pandemic relief package last year. Only about one-third of the restaurants that applied for aid last year received a grant under the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, leaving nearly 200,000 restaurants and bars struggling to stay afloat without assistance.

More than 90,000 restaurants and bars nationwide have closed since the beginning of the pandemic, and more than 86 percent of owners say they may close if they don’t receive a grant, according to a survey from the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which is lobbying for more aid.

The House is planning to vote on its restaurant and small business aid package Thursday if leaders determine they have enough votes to pass it, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters Tuesday.

“We’re determining from our members, in light of the fact that we’re not sure what kind of support we’re going to get on the Republican side … what their thinking is about it, making sure we have the votes to get it passed,” the Maryland Democrat said. “So that is going to be determinative of how fast we move it.”

The House’s top Republican appropriator, Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, said she expects the bill will get some GOP votes. Still, Granger said she didn’t think the House would have time to pass the bill this week though “we may.”

Hoyer defended the need to pass the $55 billion small business aid measure even as pandemic restrictions are lifting, noting the bulk of it, $42 billion, is simply about providing help to restaurants that previously qualified for grants but didn’t get any funding before the previous appropriation ran out.

That’s in line with Wicker’s reasoning for replenishing restaurant relief funds.

“To me it’s a matter of fundamental fairness,” he said. “People in the exact same position did not get compensated when people who happened to get an application in earlier did. It had nothing to do with the merits.”

House bill, amendments

The House bill, which could serve as a vehicle for a bicameral deal if it passes Thursday, would provide $42 billion for restaurants and $13 billion for other “hard-hit” businesses that were not able to access previous relief programs.

The grant funding would be offset by “all funds rescinded, seized, reclaimed, or otherwise returned” from various programs in prior pandemic relief laws. A manager’s amendment from House Small Business Chair Nydia M. Velázquez, D-N.Y., would tweak that language to remove “rescinded” and replace it with “recovered” — a possible nod to keeping the rescinded funds offset available for the COVID-19 health package.

It was not clear if that language would score as a full or partial offset for the $55 billion in total funds. 

The $42 billion is expected to be enough to provide grants to the other two-thirds of restaurants and bars that qualified for the funding. But the bill includes language saying that if there’s not enough money to provide full grants to each eligible business, the awards should be reduced by an equal percentage so all approved applicants get some funding. Restaurants and bars must certify that they are still operating or plan to reopen within six months to receive any grant funding.

The House’s manager’s amendment would tweak the insufficient funds language for the new hard-hit businesses program, however, by changing the word “shall” to “may” so that program administrators would have flexibility in reducing grant awards if necessary.

The amendment would also give the Small Business Administration more time to prepare for the expected crush of applications, extending the start date from 60 to 120 days after enactment. It would also push back the deadline for the SBA to establish rules for the new program, from 30 days to 90 days.

While the restaurant aid is similar in both the House and Senate bills, the proposed aid for other businesses is “not as identical,” Cardin said.

The Senate legislation carves out the other small business aid into specific pots of money for certain industries, while the House bill has one big pot of money for the other hard-hit industries, Cardin said.

“We think that first of all, some businesses then shouldn’t be eligible, and secondly, we’re not sure there’s even enough money to get that program started based on the way they have done it,” he said of the House version. “So it’s a matter of dollars, as well as qualifications for who should be eligible for this type of relief.”

Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., who has led the effort on the House bill, said he fought for the language to be broad so as not to leave any industries out like prior relief packages but that he’s open to negotiations with the Senate.

“At this stage, it’s whatever we can get done,” he said.

Some House members were already at work trying to ensure their favored industries got a slice of the bill:

Reps. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., filed an amendment that would set aside $2 billion of the $13 billion for gyms and fitness centers.

California Democrats Jimmy Panetta and Josh Harder want to ensure that state and local agricultural fair operators are eligible for the new hard-hit businesses award program.

Rep. Andrew Garbarino, R-N.Y., has an amendment that would reopen the $16.2 billion Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program to make amusement park operators eligible. Garbarino represents Adventureland Amusement Park in Farmingdale, N.Y., which has lobbied for aid. The COVID-19 bill in the Senate would claw back that program’s $1.9 billion unspent funds as an offset, however.

Other tweaks were also under discussion. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., said Tuesday she is working to make sure that the bill excludes funding for restaurants that are not in compliance with Labor Department standards and targets aid in a way that benefits workers.

“I’m very much trying to make sure those that violate wage theft [regulations], that don’t comply with COVID standards that have been set in place to protect the workers, shouldn’t qualify for the $42 billion,” she said. “The other really important thing is you’ve got to make sure some of this is coming through to payrolls, not just rent and so forth.”

The Rules Committee planned to reconvene Wednesday to finish setting the terms of floor debate. It wasn’t yet clear Tuesday evening which amendments would be allowed, though manager’s amendments are typically rolled into the underlying bill upon adoption of the rule.

Lindsey McPherson, Peter Cohn and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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