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Restaurant, small-business aid bill vote expected next week

Supporters' confidence grows, but Senate schedule unclear

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., right, walks with fellow Mississippi Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith to the Senate Republicans’ lunch in the Capitol on May 3.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., right, walks with fellow Mississippi Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith to the Senate Republicans’ lunch in the Capitol on May 3. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate is likely to vote next week on a $48 billion small-business aid package to help restaurants and bars, buses and ferries, gyms, minor league teams, live event support companies and border-region businesses that saw big revenue losses during the pandemic, the measure’s authors said Wednesday.

The main goal of the bill from Senate Small Business Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., and Mississippi GOP Sen. Roger Wicker is to backfill the Restaurant Revitalization Fund for the roughly two-thirds of applicants who didn’t get any grant money under the initial $28.6 billion program. It would provide $40 billion to do that, while a House-passed version had $42 billion. 

The other $8 billion in the Senate bill would be divided among select industries: $2 billion each to gyms and live event servicers, like companies that provide staging, lighting, sound and casts for theaters; $2 billion for transportation service providers like buses and ferries; $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 House offered a industry-neutral approach to helping businesses outside of those approved for RRF grants, allocating $13 billion for a “hard-hit” industry grant program based on size and revenue loss. 

The Independent Restaurant Coalition sent an alert to its members and a tweet late Tuesday afternoon saying they “just got word” from Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer that “the Senate will vote next week on refilling the Restaurant Revitalization Fund” and urging them to call senators to gin up support.

Schumer’s spokesman did not directly dispute the coalition’s claim but said they needed to work through the scheduling of the House-passed Ukraine aid bill first. Senators in both parties are optimistic the Senate will clear that measure on Thursday, which Cardin said would likely allow for the small-business aid bill to get a vote next week. 

“If we can pass the Ukrainian bill tomorrow, which is our hope, then I think we have a good chance to have a vote next week,” Cardin said Wednesday.

[Small businesses worry final aid package will neglect them again]

Wicker said while the vote timing is not nailed down, “there’s a distinct possibility that it could be voted on as early as Monday.”

Cardin said he does not plan to make changes to the Senate bill as introduced unless he and Wicker agree on them. 

“There might be a desire to do something a little bit different in order to get the support. We’re certainly open to that,” Cardin said, noting Wicker has not suggested Republicans need something different to get their support yet. “But we’ll see whether we have the votes. We’ve had a lot of false starts on this. So now that it looks like it’s real, I expect it’ll be a lot of conversation.”

Wicker did not rule out the need for tweaks to the Senate version. “We’re counting votes right now. And so I really just cannot answer your question at this time,” he said.

Cardin and Wicker have waxed optimistic for weeks about their ability to get 60 votes for the measure. But they both acknowledged Wednesday they’re still not yet there and probably won’t be able to firm up whip counts until Schumer officially schedules the bill for floor action.

“I don’t think we’re going to know until we take the vote,” Cardin said. “If we don’t have a vote, it’s the same as defeating it because restaurants are closing every day. … Members have said certain things. Let’s see what they actually do now.”

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