WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer says agreement has been reached on major elements of a nearly $500 billion coronavirus aid package for small businesses, as well as additional help for hospitals and COVID-19 virus testing.
Schumer said post-midnight talks among Democratic and Republican leaders, along with Trump administration officials, including White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, produced a breakthrough agreement on the package.
“We have a deal and I think we’ll pass it today,” Schumer said Tuesday morning on CNN. He cautioned that staff are still “dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.”
A Tuesday afternoon Senate session could provide an opportunity to quickly pass the legislation if it comes together quickly, though the Democratic-controlled House is planning on calling lawmakers to Washington for a vote later in the week.
Most of the funding, more than $300 billion, would go to boost a small-business payroll loan program that ran out of money last week. Additional help would be given to hospitals, and billions more would be spent to boost testing for the virus, a key step in building the confidence required to reopen state economies.
The emerging draft measure — originally designed by Republicans as a $250 billion stopgap to replenish the payroll subsidies for smaller businesses — has grown into the second largest of the four coronavirus response bills so far. Democratic demands have caused the measure to balloon, though they likely will be denied the money they want to help struggling state and local governments.
The Senate met for a brief pro forma session Monday afternoon that could have provided a window to act on the upcoming measure under fast-track procedures requiring unanimous consent to advance legislation, but it wasn’t ready in time.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., set up another Senate session for Tuesday in the hope that an agreement will be finished by then. McConnell warned, however, that he wouldn’t know whether the Senate could pass it by voice vote until the measure is unveiled.
“It’s now been four days since the Paycheck Protection Program ran out of money. Republicans have been trying to secure more funding for this critical program for a week and a half now,” McConnell said during Monday’s brief session. “Our Democratic colleagues are still prolonging their discussions with the administration, so the Senate regretfully will not be able to pass more funding for Americans’ paychecks today.”
The House has announced a vote on the pending package could come later in the week, possibly on Thursday, according to a schedule update from Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. Hoyer also announced that the chamber will vote on a temporary rules change to permit limited proxy voting during the COVID-19 crisis.
With small-business owners reeling during a coronavirus outbreak that has shuttered much economic activity, the administration has been pressing for an immediate replenishment of the paycheck protection program. But Democrats sought additional money in a replay of the tactical jockeying that caused the recently-passed rescue measure to spiral to about $2 trillion.
Talks have dragged as the two sides have quarreled over the design of a nationwide testing regime, among other unsettled pieces
“I heard today from our legislative affairs team that they are hopeful we can get a deal this week,” top White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said Monday on Fox News.
The emerging accord links the administration’s effort to replenish the small-business fund with Democrats’ demands for more money for hospitals and virus testing. It would provide more than $300 billion for the small-business payroll program, with $60 billion or so set aside for community lenders that seek to focus on underbanked neighborhoods and rural areas.
Another $60 billion would be available for a small-business loans and grants program that has previously been aimed at helping businesses harmed by natural disasters like hurricanes. Additionally, it would bring $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion for testing, according to those involved in the talks.
Democrats have been pushing to boost funding to cash-strapped states and local governments whose revenues have cratered. They had proposed $150 billion for the effort, but GOP leaders stood hard in opposition, at least regarding the current package of COVID-19 aid.
The government’s Paycheck Protection Program has been swamped by companies applying for loans and reached its appropriations limit last Thursday after approving nearly 1.7 million loans. That left thousands of small businesses in limbo as they sought help. The National Federation of Independent Business, a GOP-friendly organization that advocates for small businesses in Washington, said it had surveyed their members and reported that only 1 in 5 applicants had received money so far.
About $75 billion would go to U.S. hospitals — those straining under a ballooning coronavirus caseload as well as those struggling to stay financially afloat after suspending elective surgeries during the pandemic. About $25 billion would be added for COVID-19 testing, something states have said was urgently needed.
The SBA loans, based on a company’s payroll costs, offer owners forgiveness if they retain workers or rehire those who have been laid off. The law provides for forgiveness for companies in any industry — even businesses like hedge funds and law firms. There’s a limit of $100,000 on the amount of employees’ compensation that can be considered when loan forgiveness is calculated.
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