By Katherine Gypson
The U.S. Senate passed $484 billion in additional funding for small businesses and hospitals Tuesday, the latest in a series of congressional efforts to address the historic economic and public health crises caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his support for the measure that replenishes funding for parts of the largest relief package in U.S. history, the $2 trillion CARES Act that lawmakers passed last month.
“I urge the Senate and House to pass the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act with additional funding for PPP, Hospitals, and Testing. After I sign this Bill, we will begin discussions on the next Legislative Initiative with fiscal relief,” Trump wrote before the Tuesday vote.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Tuesday that House lawmakers are being asked to return to Washington, D.C., by 10 a.m. Thursday to pass the legislation. Trump would then be able to sign the measure into law.
The majority of the additional funding will be targeted at small businesses that missed out on an earlier pool of rescue money. Hoyer said the $320 billion in new funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) includes assistance specifically directed to women and minority-owned businesses, as well as individuals who do not have access to banks.
Under the PPP, if a business used the aid to pay employees during the next two months then the government will assume responsibility for the costs and the business will not have to pay it back. The program was enormously popular, running out of funds within days of its April 7 launch date.
The additional funding was the focus of almost two weeks of negotiations, with Republicans seeking a fast-track vote that would have immediately upped funding for the PPP.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized Democrats for delaying the vote to seek additional funding for other programs.
“Republicans never wanted this crucial program for workers and small businesses to shut down. We tried to pass additional funding a week before it lapsed. But Democratic leaders blocked the money and spent days trying to negotiate extraneous issues that were never on the table,” McConnell said in a statement announcing the deal.
Democrats touted the agreement as a victory, saying they had “flipped this emergency package from an insufficient Republican plan that left behind hospitals and health and frontline workers and did nothing to aid the survival of the most vulnerable small businesses on Main Street,” according to a joint statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Officials want to help people stay employed and have businesses as ready as possible to ramp up their activity when it becomes safe for customers to return. According to unemployment filings, 20 million people lost their jobs in the last four weeks as coronavirus-related shutdowns took effect.
Reopening the economy
The governors of several U.S. states have announced plans to begin relaxing stay-at-home orders, including some beginning next week. Some states have seen small protests calling for a return to regular economic activity.
“There’s been much talk about reopening the economy,” Hoyer noted Tuesday. “I think everybody is hopeful that we can reopen the economy quickly, but that it must be done and I emphasize must be done with safety to the communities to our families, to other workers, to those we’ve come in contact with. Testing is critically important for that.”
The additional funding set to pass this week also provides $25 billion to help states with testing for the coronavirus as well as $75 billion for hospitals whose resources have been exhausted by the crisis.
Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose home state of New York is the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, criticized the lack of assistance for local governments in the latest funding measure.
“I think it’s a terrible mistake not to provide funding for the states. I get small businesses; I get airlines, how about police? How about fire? How about health care workers? How about teachers? We are not going to fund schools? I don’t get it,” Cuomo said in a press conference Tuesday.
Lawmakers will immediately turn to negotiations on a second massive aid bill, already referred to as CARES Act 2. Hoyer said Democrats’ efforts to include additional funding for state, local and tribal governments failed in this round of negotiations but would be pursued for the next measure.