Senate to test waters on money for restaurants, small businesses

Emergency bill would deliver $48 billion in fresh relief, but GOP has sticker shock

It's not clear how many of his GOP colleagues Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., can convince to support the package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
It's not clear how many of his GOP colleagues Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., can convince to support the package. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 18, 2022 at 3:13pm

Supporters of a $48 billion small-business aid bill to help restaurants and select other industries that suffered revenue losses during the pandemic are lobbying senators to back it ahead of a key procedural vote Thursday.

But the pleas may not be enough for most Republicans suffering from deficit-spending fatigue after lawmakers approved over $5 trillion worth of COVID-19 relief since 2020.

"My understanding is there may be the votes to stop that," Senate Small Business ranking member Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Wednesday ahead of the cloture vote on the motion to proceed, which requires 60 votes for adoption.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., said "there may be a handful" of GOP votes but not enough to get to 60 since the package is largely deficit financed. Several Republicans individually confirmed their opposition.

Although most Democrats are likely to vote to begin debate on the bill, it's unclear how many support the measure. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said he's not yet counted votes.

The cost of the $48 billion is only partially paid for, with $5 billion in unspent funds from the lapsed Paycheck Protection Program, a forgivable loan program first enacted in March 2020 that helped small businesses keep employees on payroll.

“While we understand that there is a desire to see the legislation fully offset, the situation for these industries is too dire to ignore any longer,” the bill’s lead authors, Senate Small Business Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., wrote in a “Dear Colleague” letter earlier this week urging support for the bill.

Cardin and Wicker noted the PPP loans would not have been as successful had Congress delayed action over concerns about offsets.

The Small Business Administration ultimately approved $788 billion in PPP loans through the program's expiration May 31, 2021. To date, recipients have requested forgiveness for about $731 billion of that amount, according to SBA data. FiscalNote, parent company of CQ Roll Call, is among those that have received PPP loans.

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

Companies in the "accommodation and food services" sector received the biggest chunk of forgivable loan funds — about $41.5 billion, according to the SBA — but many restaurants and others complained about eligibility requirements that made it difficult for them to access the aid. In December 2020, Congress made it easier to obtain relief, but the program lapsed before many potential recipients were able to get their applications in.

In early 2021 lawmakers enacted a $28.6 billion grant program called the Restaurant Revitalization Fund for restaurants, bars and other food and beverage service providers as an alternative to PPP loans. Recipients could receive both forms of aid but any PPP money received would have to be subtracted from RRF funding requests.

Pots of money

The bulk of the package is $40 billion to backfill the so-called Restaurant Revitalization Fund for the roughly two-thirds of applicants who didn't receive any grant money under the initial program.

The remaining $8 billion in the Cardin-Wicker bill would be divided among select industries:

  • $2 billion to gyms and fitness centers.
  • $2 billion for 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.
  • $1.4 billion for very small businesses located within 50 miles of land ports of entry that were closed due to the pandemic, with at least one-third set aside for firms located near the Mexican border and another one-third for businesses close to the Canadian border.
  • $500 million for minor league sports teams.
  • $85 million for small businesses in Alaska, Washington and Minnesota that are geographically separated from the rest of the U.S. and weren't accessible due to pandemic-related Canadian border closures.

Cardin and Wicker referred to the measure as “the last round of small business assistance to hard-hit industries,” noting it is “the product of months of bipartisan negotiation and incorporates funding priorities supported by members on both sides of the aisle."

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer also touted the bill’s bipartisan provisions in floor remarks Wednesday. The New York Democrat mentioned the other industries the bill would help, but focused his remarks on restaurants. He said while many have reopened and are seeing business return to normal, they face labor shortages and mountains of debt they took on during the pandemic.

“If they don’t get the money to pay it back, the lenders are going to foreclose and close on restaurants that are already back on the road to prospering and recovering. That makes no sense,” Schumer said. “We must pass this legislation. And I hope we will get a good number of our Republican colleagues to join Sen. Wicker in supporting us.”

The Independent Restaurant Coalition led a letter with various industry groups Wednesday to senators noting that nearly 200,000 restaurants missed out on the initial round of aid and now nearly four out of five of those businesses are in danger of closing.

“​​These businesses — many of which have received no government relief to date — simply do not have weeks to wait as the pandemic continues to impact our economy,” the coalition members wrote.

Signatories included a number of craft brewers, wineries and distillers, food delivery services DoorDash and Chow Now, and big trade groups such as the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and the Beer Institute. They cited the personal debts many business owners have taken on during the pandemic, as well as the rising cost of wages and supplies like cooking oil, meat and dairy products.

'Rip-roaring' inflation

Paul gave a blistering floor speech Tuesday in opposition to both the $40 billion Ukraine aid package that the Senate's expected to clear Thursday and the even more expensive small-business aid bill. Rather than combat inflation, more industry support would simply exacerbate price increases, he argued.

"Now these same big spenders are proposing another $50 billion … to bail out restaurants — restaurants that have been primarily injured by overzealous Democrat governors and their edicts," Paul said. "There are ramifications to this mountain of debt. Make no mistake: Inflation is here and it’s rip-roaring and on the rise.”

Cardin and Wicker, however, invoked the deficit-financed Ukraine package as they urged colleagues to help businesses struggling here at home.

“This funding is absolutely necessary,” Cardin and Wicker said of the Ukraine aid. “However, we must remember that small businesses in the United States also need our help. The legislation we have proposed would help our small businesses keep their doors open.”

Some Republicans said they were reserving judgment until having a chance to review the bill. But unlike with Ukraine aid, it appeared Paul would likely have a majority of Republicans supporting his opposition to the small-business package. Even GOP senators sympathetic to the industry's plight expressed concern with more deficit spending.

"I think restaurant owners got hit hardest out of the gate. Sadly, many of them are out of business. We should never had done these uniform lockdowns in the first place," Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., said Wednesday. "In this case, we're borrowing the money to do it. I'm going to vote against it even though I wish we could help them in some way."

Cardin made no promises about whether 60 votes to advance the package would materialize. But he signaled that further attempts were unlikely if the Senate can't make progress this week.

"We'll see how people vote … if we don't do it now, it's not going to happen," Cardin said Wednesday. "We never say never, I just don't know how we're going to be able to get it. If we can't get the votes now, why would we get them later?"

David Lerman and Aidan Quigley contributed to this report.