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Restaurant bill backers battle deficit concerns, knowledge gap

Senate aid package would benefit a range of other industries, from minor league sports teams to bus operators

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, questions the fairness of helping one group of industries but not others.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, questions the fairness of helping one group of industries but not others. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A $48 billion aid package for restaurants and other pandemic-ravaged businesses the Senate is expected to take up this month faces steep hurdles, from Republicans concerned about lack of offsets to senators in both parties unaware of the measure.

CQ Roll Call asked 14 senators about the bill late last week, and most were unfamiliar with the details, if they even knew the measure existed.

Of those, eight were senators whose offices did not respond to requests for comment or provide a definitive stance on the measure when CQ Roll Call last month contacted 70 senators who supported at least one of a handful of stand-alone bills that were used as the basis for the new package. The other six were not previously contacted because they hadn’t co-sponsored any of the stand-alone bills. 

“I have not heard a thing about it,” Utah Republican Mitt Romney said, noting he’d take a look at the bill but that it’s “highly unlikely” he would support it.

Told the Senate could vote as soon as next week on a $48 billion small-business aid bill, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III raised his eyebrows at the mention of the price tag in apparent shock. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “I’m not afraid to give you comment once I know.”

Education campaign

They weren’t the only senators who didn’t know about the bill, which Democratic leaders are expected to bring to the floor soon after a $40.1 billion Ukraine aid measure clears. 

That underscores the massive education campaign the bill’s authors, Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., have in front of them as they try to find 60 senators who will vote for the legislation, which is the minimum needed to overcome a likely GOP filibuster.

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

But the bigger obstacle Cardin and Wicker face is finding enough Republicans to support $48 billion in new spending, only $5 billion of which is offset. 

“It’s a big price tag,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. GOP leaders haven’t taken a position on the bill yet — “that one really hasn’t crossed the radar screen, so to speak, yet” — but the lack of offsets is likely to be an issue for many of their members, he said.

The main goal of the bill is to backfill the Restaurant Revitalization Fund with $40 billion for the roughly two-thirds of applicants who didn’t receive any grant money under the initial $28.6 billion program.

The other $8 billion would be divided among select industries: $2 billion each to gyms and live event servicers, such as companies that provide staging, lighting, sound and casts for theaters; $2 billion for transportation service providers, such as 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.

Sen. Jon Tester said he supports the restaurant aid, but when told about the provisions for other businesses, he said he’d need to take a deeper look at the bill to see if he could vote for it.

“If there’s a lot of extra stuff in there, that may change my opinion,” the Montana Democrat said. 

The measure would offset $5 billion, barely one-tenth of the total $48 billion cost, by repurposing unspent funds from the Paycheck Protection Program, a lapsed forgivable loan program that Congress enacted early in the pandemic to help businesses keep employees on payroll. 

“We’ve indicated that it takes greater offsets than that for me,” Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said, although he stopped short of demanding a specific amount. “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Moran’s opposition is notable given he is the lead GOP sponsor of a stand-alone bill to provide $30 billion for gyms. That measure did not include offsets either. 

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said fully paying for new spending has “got to start to matter.” While she was not familiar with the exact details of the bill, she said she generally favors providing aid to industries like the ones it seeks to help recover from pandemic revenue losses. 

A few other Republicans similarly expressed support for the underlying goals of the bill. 

“I’ll look into it. I mean, I’m not opposed to some of that, particularly if people were relying on getting something and then they got the rug pulled out from under them,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, referring to restaurants that were previously approved for grants but didn’t get awards because the money ran out.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins was the only Republican interviewed who indicated openness to supporting the bill without more offsets. “I haven’t seen the details, but yes, I’m inclined to support additional help,” she said. 

Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Deb Fischer, R-Neb., Steve Daines, R-Mont., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., all said they would have to look at the bill before they could comment.

Iowa GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley was familiar with the bill and didn’t have a problem with it but said: “That doesn’t mean I’m going to vote for it or want it to pass.” 

“I think we’ve been talking to restaurant people about this issue; then we talk to the hospital people about needing money,” he said, citing examples of some of the many industries seeking pandemic aid from Congress. “If you respond to all these — and I think it might be unfair to respond to one, rather than all of them — you could easily have another trillion-dollar package.”

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