Senate hits impasse over $250 billion in coronavirus small-business funds

Lauren Egan and Kasie Hunt and Julie Tsirkin

WASHINGTON — The Senate hit a standoff Thursday over a Republican proposal to add $250 billion in small-business coronavirus relief funds to a program on pace to run out of money.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., had sought unanimous consent — a procedural maneuver to pass a bill without having lawmakers vote — to approve more funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, but Democrats objected, claiming McConnell was politicizing the push for more small-business money.

In turn, Democrats tried to add more funding for hospitals and state and local governments, which Republicans blocked.

McConnell's proposal also lacks the support to pass the Democratic-controlled House.

Congress wrangled for days over a $2 trillion coronavirus bill that was approved in late March, which included funding for small businesses. Lawmakers immediately began discussing another round of funding, and McConnell's newest legislation was viewed as an infusion for a program that was immediately met with high demand.

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In floor remarks earlier Thursday morning, McConnell asked Democrats to support the proposal.

"Please, do not block emergency aid that you do not oppose just because you want something more," he said. "We don't have to do everything right now."

After the objection, McConnell told reporters, "This is the one program that was running out of money, needed assistance now, and all my proposed amendment would do, at the request of the administration, was to simply change one number."

But Democrats said McConnell failed to negotiate.

"I am afraid that this unanimous consent is basically a political stunt," Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said following McConnell's request. "This unanimous consent was not negotiated. There was no effort made ... so it won't get done. It's not going to be enacted."

Maryland's other Democratic senator, Chris Van Hollen, also criticized McConnell for what he called his "go it alone" approach that "violates the spirit" of the bipartisan coronavirus response efforts.

"The majority leader knew full well there was not agreement," Van Hollen said. "This was designed to fail."

Cardin and Van Hollen offered an alternative proposal, which drew McConnell's objection; a senator objecting in person would prevent any legislation from passing by unanimous consent. The Senate then adjourned until Monday.

The Paycheck Protection Program, the forgivable small-business loan program created by the $2 trillion stimulus package known as the CARES Act, has been overwhelmed by demand. Less than a week after it launched, many lawmakers expressed concern that the program would quickly run out of the $350 billion they provided for it.

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In their counterproposal, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said half of the requested $250 billion would need to be directed to businesses and nonprofits owned by women, minorities, veterans and families. They also called for an additional $100 billion for hospitals and $150 billion for state and local governments, as well as more money for food assistance programs. Their proposal would more than double the Republicans' initial proposal.

Republicans insisted that despite objecting to the Democrats' proposal, they were not opposed to additional funding for hospitals and state and local governments down the road.

“I support it for the next phase," President Donald Trump said at a press conference Thursday evening. "It's much simpler for the next phase.”

In media interviews Wednesday, Pelosi made it clear that without those priorities in it, the Republican plan would not get support from House Democrats.

"The bill that they put forth will not get unanimous support in the House," she told National Public Radio. "It just won't."

Pelosi lamented the Republican leadership's decision to try to pass the bill Thursday without opening up negotiations with Democrats, telling reporters on a phone conference: "We have a framework for bipartisanship. Let's let that continue."

Pelosi also said she had not spoken to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday about the small-business loans, and she reiterated her commitment to making sure minorities had access to the program.

"There is a disparity in access to capital in our country," Pelosi said. "We do not want this tragedy of the coronavirus to exacerbate that disparity."