ANDREW TAYLOR and LISA MASCARO
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday agreement has been reached on major elements of a nearly $500 billion coronavirus aid package for small businesses, including additional help for hospitals and virus testing.
A Tuesday afternoon Senate session could provide an opportunity to quickly vote if the final deal comes together.
“We have a deal and I think we’ll pass it today,” Schumer said on CNN. He cautioned that staff are still “dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s.”
Schumer said post-midnight talks among leaders of both parties and top Trump administration officials produced a breakthrough agreement on the package.
President Donald Trump said he supports the measure, tweeting: “I urge the Senate and House to pass the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act with additional funding.”
Trump said he was open to including in a subsequent virus aid package fiscal relief for state and local government — which Democrats had wanted for the current bill — along with infrastructure projects.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has yet to publicly comment on the emerging deal, but was expected to do so when the Senate opens.
“Every major issue was resolved,” Schumer said. “So yes, I believe we have a deal.”
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. An additional $75 billion would be given to hospitals, and $25 billion would be spent to boost testing for the virus, a key step in building the confidence required to reopen state economies.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, told a conference call with reporters that House votes would occur Thursday. He said the House will also vote on a proposal to allow proxy voting during the pandemic, a first for Congress, which has required in-person business essentially since its founding.
The Maryland Democrat insisted that proxy voting is “no substitute” for traditional roll calls. But he also wants to go further by opening committees hearings to remote ways of doing business during the crisis.
“The House must show the American people that we continue to work hard on their behalf,” Hoyer wrote to colleagues.
But as the Trump administration pushes to reopen the economy, the landmark rules change met with objections from Republicans.
“I don’t support it at all,” said Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., one of a handful of Republicans who showed up for Tuesday’s pro forma session to protest proxy votes. “Congress should be in session.”
The emerging virus aid package — 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.
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.
Talks have dragged as the Democrats tacked on the health priorities and two sides have quarreled over the design of a nationwide testing regime, among other unsettled pieces.
Democrats were rebuffed in a request for another $150 billion in aid to revenue-strapped state governments but did win the ability to used recently appropriated federal funds to cover revenue losses from the economic shutdown in stead of using it only for costs related to suppressing COVID-19.
The administration says further state aid will come in the next relief bill.
There’s also pressure to help cities with populations of less than 500,000 that were shut out of the massive $2 trillion relief bill that passed last month.
Schumer said Monday that he had talked to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell and that Powell said the Fed is working to open up the Main Street Lending program to nonprofits and municipal governments.
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 under-banked 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.
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.
ANDREW TAYLOR and LISA MASCARO