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Aid to restaurants, businesses faces Senate headwinds

Republicans are loath to support any new federal spending that isn’t fully offset

Pandemic-challenged restaurants are seeking more relief, but it's an uphill climb.
Pandemic-challenged restaurants are seeking more relief, but it's an uphill climb. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate may soon test the bipartisan limits on pandemic spending as Democratic leaders prepare to bring a small-business aid package to the floor containing provisions that have independently enjoyed support from both parties.

But the collective $48 billion package faces strong headwinds in an inflation-fueled election-year environment where Republicans are loath to support any new federal spending that isn’t fully offset. That was the GOP demand on a separate $10 billion bill to appropriate more money for COVID-19 therapeutics, testing and vaccines, which has stalled amid a dispute over a pandemic-related border policy that could snag the small-business package too.

The business aid package, led by Small Business Chair Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., has only $5 billion in offsets from unspent funds in the now-lapsed Paycheck Protection Program — barely one-tenth of the total spending. That program offered small businesses forgivable loans to keep workers on the payroll during shutdowns.

While more than a dozen Senate Democrats say they support the bill, not a single Republican besides Wicker has committed to backing it. Not including Cardin and Wicker, CQ Roll Call contacted 70 senators — 46 Democrats, 23 Republicans and one independent — who have co-sponsored at least one previous business aid bill on which the new package is based.

“I’m encouraged that we’re making progress on a bipartisan package to bring to a vote on the Senate floor soon,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in a statement. “I hope we will have the sixty votes necessary to get it over the finish line.”

Restaurant relief

The bulk of the package is $40 billion to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund. Congress enacted that grant program in a 2021 pandemic relief package with a $28.6 billion appropriation, but only one-third of qualified applicants received money before funds ran dry.

Bipartisan support quickly built for another cash infusion to ensure the other two-thirds of qualified restaurants, bars and other food service businesses received at least some aid.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., introduced a bill in June to provide $60 billion more for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund and Cardin introduced a bill in August to provide $48 billion.

Six Republicans — Wicker, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Mississippi’s Cindy Hyde-Smith, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy and Maine’s Susan Collins — co-sponsored both bills, and a seventh, Missouri’s Roy Blunt, signed on to the earlier Cardin bill.

Spokespersons for Murkowski, Ernst, Hyde-Smith and Cassidy did not respond to requests for comment on whether they support the broader Senate business aid package. Collins’ and Blunt’s offices were unable to provide comment.

A Sinema spokesperson did not comment on the broader package but provided a statement reiterating the senator’s support for the restaurant grant program, saying, “She remains focused on supporting local Arizona restaurants as they emerge from the pandemic, tackling rising prices and supply chain challenges, and helping Arizonans return back to normal.”

The Independent Restaurant Coalition, which has been lobbying for the bill, plans to mount another push for action when Congress returns next week from recess. “The IRC is in close contact with Senate leadership, along with Sens. Wicker and Cardin, and are optimistic there will be a vote on their proposal,” a spokesperson said.

Other industries

Other elements of the broader Senate package have enjoyed bipartisan support as stand-alone bills, including aid for gyms, minor league baseball teams, border-region businesses and live venue service and support companies.

Those industries would collectively get nearly $6 billion under the new Senate bill: $2 billion each to gyms and live event servicers, $500 million for minor league sports teams and $1.4 billion for small businesses located near land ports of entry that were closed due to the pandemic.

The remaining $2 billion in the bill is for transportation service providers. While there’s no current stand-alone bill for that industry, one from the previous Congress had broad bipartisan support, with 23 Republicans co-sponsoring it in 2020. But the GOP appetite for pandemic spending dwindled in 2021 after Democrats took control of the Senate and the White House.

Spokespersons for most of the 23 Republican senators who co-sponsored at least one of the aforementioned business aid bills did not respond to requests for comment on the broader package or declined to comment. The few who did respond indicated opposition to new spending that is not offset.

An aide to Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., who had co-sponsored the transportation provider measure last Congress, said he helps Louisiana small businesses obtain hundreds of millions of dollars in federal support through the annual appropriations process, and cited offsets as a prerequisite for spending beyond that.

“With Americans facing 8.5 percent inflation, the senator needs assurances that additional spending would be fully offset before he could consider billions of dollars more in spending,” the Kennedy aide said.

Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., co-sponsored the bill to extend funds provided for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program to businesses that support those venues, such as companies that provide stages, lighting and sound. The measure is popular with constituents in Nashville, known as “Music City,” among other locales.

Hagerty spokesman Judd Deere said his boss supports making those businesses “eligible for existing, unspent COVID relief dollars” and did not provide comment on the broader Senate aid package.

Democratic support

Of the 46 Senate Democrats — plus Maine’s Angus King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats — who co-sponsored one or more of the stand-alone aid bills, 14 said they support the new Cardin-Wicker package.

Those are: Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal, Delaware’s Chris Coons, Illinois’ Tammy Duckworth, Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, Michigan’s Gary Peters, Minnesota’s Tina Smith, Nevada’s Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, Oregon’s Ron Wyden, Virginia’s Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin.

“I strongly support this package and want to get it over the finish line,” Wyden said in a statement. “I’m particularly encouraged that the legislation includes new provisions to ensure accountability for how this funding is used, and that taxpayer money is distributed fairly.”

While most of the senators specifically said they support the Senate bill, Blumenthal, Peters, Gillibrand, Warner and Kaine said they’d also support a House-passed version that would provide $42 billion for restaurants and $13 billion for other “hard-hit” industries without earmarking funds for any specific industry. Cardin has said he hoped to resolve differences with the House before the Senate package goes to the floor.

“Strong bipartisan relief packages pending in the Senate and passed by the House would help local restaurants, minor league teams, live event venues, and more vibrant local businesses,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “Either would be immensely impactful and our focus now must be on passing one of these proposals into law.”

Several Democrats supporting the Senate package touted elements that would help their districts.

Smith said in a statement that a “top priority” for her is the $85 million in the package for small businesses in “unique communities like the Northwest Angle that have suffered deeply from Canada’s decision to close its border.” The Northwest Angle is a region of Minnesota that is separated from the rest of the state by the Lake of the Woods but shares land borders with Canada.

Rosen and Cortez Masto touted assistance for entertainment businesses that are key pillars of Nevada’s economy, though Rosen in her statement said she’d continue to push for separate aid to Nevada’s tourism sector.

General support

Ten other Democrats cited general support for small-business aid but did not specifically commit to supporting either the Senate or House packages. That includes Sinema, California’s Dianne Feinstein and Alex Padilla, Colorado’s Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper, Georgia’s Raphael Warnock, Massachusetts’ Edward J. Markey, Montana’s Jon Tester, New Jersey’s Bob Menendez and Ohio’s Sherrod Brown.

Markey and Menendez specifically mentioned providing aid to minority-owned businesses as a priority, though neither the Senate or House bills earmark funds for minority-owned businesses.

“Support is especially critical for minority-owned small businesses that continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic and face new challenges such as staff shortages and high costs,” Menendez said in a statement.

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