Senate to vote on PPP reauthorization Tuesday as Pelosi backs away from coronavirus aid deadline

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WASHINGTON – The Republican-controlled Senate is set to vote on the reauthorization of the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi backed away from a Tuesday deadline to reach a deal on a COVID-19 relief plan before the election. 

The bill would reauthorize another round of small-business loans but is likely to be blocked by Democrats, who have opposed standalone relief bills. 

Pelosi said in an interview with Bloomberg her Tuesday ultimatum was not actually a deadline to have a deal but “the day where we would have our terms on the table, to be able to go to the next step.” 

The bill might not be passed until after the election. “We could still continue the negotiations,” Pelosi said. “It might not be finished by Election Day.” 

Although the parties were close to resolving policy differences on COVID-19 testing provisions, she said there are two outstanding differences. One involves the amount of aid for state and local governments, which Republicans say would amount to bailouts for mismanaged governments if too much is allocated, and the other is over COVID-19 liability protections for businesses, a provision opposed by Democrats. 

Pelosi spokesperson Drew Hammill said Monday the speaker hoped she would “have clarity on whether we will be able to pass a bill before the election” by the end of Tuesday. Pushing the negotiations until after the elections means both parties would not restart negotiations until the “lame duck” session of Congress, the time between the election and when a new Congress is sworn in next year.

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans up for a vote Tuesday helped many small businesses stay afloat during the pandemic but expired Aug. 8. Under the program, businesses with 500 or fewer workers were eligible for loans up to $10 million, which became forgivable if at least 60% of the amount was spent on payroll. The Senate’s bill would restart the loan program. 

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., dared Democrats to oppose the PPP bill, noting it is not a topic that both sides disagree on.

“I’ll let you in on a secret. There’s something senators do when we want something to pass: We vote for it,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “It’s no counterargument to complain that the PPP legislation does not also contain 100 other things. The entire point is to agree where we can and make law while we keep arguing over the rest.”

He said Democrats were holding up additional relief for Americans over provisions that aren’t related to COVID-19. He said funds for the small-business loan program had “been taken hostage.”

“The Democratic leaders have spent months holding out for a long far-left wish list of non-COVID-related priorities and obstructing any additional aid until they get it,” he said. “All or nothing. That’s been their position. Either Democrats get every unrelated policy they want, or American families get nothing. So for months, they’ve blocked bipartisan aid at every turn.”

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., blasted McConnell and said the PPP bill was nothing more than a “stunt” designed to fail in the chamber. He said that if McConnell were serious about getting help to American families and businesses, he would be at the negotiating table. McConnell has not played a role in the talks, leaving the negotiating to Democrats and the White House.

“The response here in Congress to a pandemic that affects our country in a way we haven’t seen in decades should be to comprehensively provide relief,” Schumer said. “Our mission is not to pick out one or two industries and say maybe later to the rest. We can’t privilege a small issue here or there and ask everyone else to wait. Our mission is to deliver big for a country and a people who are suffering direly.”

Both sides are struggling to reach a deal weeks before the election. Democrats and Republicans are hundreds of billions of dollars apart in their proposals and have been unable to resolve major policy differences on COVID-19 testing, liability protections and school funding. 

Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in March, but many of the package’s provisions have lapsed. The federal boost to unemployment benefits ran out in July, airline assistance expired in October, and Americans weathering an economic recession eagerly await another round of relief checks.

President Donald Trump ended relief talks at the beginning of the month, telling Senate Republicans to instead focus on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, but he reversed course, reopening negotiations with congressional Democrats.

Republicans in the Senate are set to take up a $500 billion plan Wednesday that would  reauthorize the PPP loans, reissue the federal boost to unemployment benefits, send more than $100 billion to schools and allocate funding for testing and vaccine development. 

The price tag of the bill is much lower than the roughly $1.8 trillion package the White House is negotiating and the $2.2 trillion package Democrats offered. Even if the White House and Democrats reach a deal, they may run into opposition from Republican senators, many of whom oppose a higher price tag.  

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the second-ranking Senate Republican, said Monday, “it would be hard” to get enough Republicans to support a bill at $1.8 trillion. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said Tuesday, “I don’t support something of that level.”

McConnell said Tuesday a “presidentially supported bill” would come to the Senate floor if it passed the House.  

Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin spoke on the phone Monday afternoon as the two sides crawled along toward a deal. Hammill said they “continued to narrow their differences” and are set to speak again Tuesday. 

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, cast doubt on the possibility of a large aid package, calling the $1.8 trillion offered by the White House a “high number.”

“The clock keeps ticking away, and I’m not optimistic about us doing anything,” he said. 

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More: Here are the top two things Americans want in the next relief package

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID-19 relief: Senate to vote on PPP, Pelosi backs off deadline

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