Brief Senate session ends with no movement on coronavirus aid

Partisan sniping hangs up small-business relief as Republicans push limited cash infusion and Democrats want more expansive measure.

Family enjoying a socially distanced Easter Sunday on Capitol Hill while lawmakers are stuck on coronavirus aid (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)
Family enjoying a socially distanced Easter Sunday on Capitol Hill while lawmakers are stuck on coronavirus aid (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 13, 2020 at 10:33am, Updated at 4:28pm

A pro forma Senate meeting came and went Monday without any movement on a spending package needed to shore up funding for small-business loans that could run dry by the end of the week.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats tried to bring up their competing legislation during the one-minute session, as they did last Thursday. Instead, lawmakers reserved their frustration for prepared statements and television appearances.

After a weekend with little movement, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., released a joint statement calling on Republicans to begin negotiations.

“We have real problems facing this country, and it’s time for the Republicans to quit the political posturing by proposing bills they know will not pass either chamber and get serious and work with us towards a solution,” they said.

[Podcast: Congress struggles to find a solution for small-business funding]

The Trump administration requested an additional $251 billion for the Small Business administration’s so-called Paycheck Protection Program last week. The new program, designed to provide forgivable loans to businesses struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, proved immensely popular in its first few days. It could run out of funding by the end of this week, according to White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Saturday said Democrats should let the small-business loan funds pass now and save other matters for subsequent aid packages.

“We hope our Democratic colleagues familiarize themselves with the facts and the data before the program runs dry,” they said.

Democrats want to include structural changes to the program to ensure that women- and minority-owned businesses could access the funding as well as those in rural and underserved areas that don’t have relationships with larger, more established banks.

Pelosi and Schumer also called for the bill to include an additional $100 billion for hospitals and other health care facilities as well as $150 billion for state and local governments. That would double amounts provided in last month's $2.3 trillion relief package for the same purposes.

According to people familiar with GOP leaders’ thinking, the additional funds for hospitals and state and localities can't get unanimous consent to pass right now. That's because of objections from Republicans that those funds don't need to be replenished yet because they are just beginning to be distributed.

The Treasury Department made $71 billion available for grants to states and localities on Monday, while an initial $30 billion went out to hospitals on Friday.

Democrats also want a 15 percent increase to the maximum monthly food stamp benefits for low-income individuals and families, and more money for COVID-19 testing and protective gear for health care workers.

Pelosi and Schumer on Monday also called for the legislation to require more data collection to determine which communities are being disproportionately impacted by the virus, following reports that minority communities were bearing the brunt of the outbreak.

“The collection and publication of demographic data are also desperately needed, so that we can accurately determine the level of impact on under-served communities and communities of color and direct needed resources to them immediately,” they said.

‘Common-sense policies’

Speaking on C-SPAN Monday, House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey said the lack of national, rapid testing for the virus “infuriates” her and continues to be an issue that lawmakers need to address.

The New York Democrat also called on Republicans to work with Democrats to pass the next relief bill.

“These are common-sense policies that everyone, Democrats and Republicans, can get behind,” she said. “I hope that Republicans will come to their senses and move this package at once.”

Lowey said she wasn't surprised about the huge demand for Paycheck Protection Program funding, citing what she’s seen in her own district in the suburbs north of New York. “The stores are closed, everything is locked up,” she said.

Nonetheless, Republicans need to come to the table and negotiate in order to keep small-business funds flowing, Lowey said.

“We have to put politics aside, do what’s necessary, and pass anything that goes through the Senate with unanimous consent in the House, because no one can get back to Washington,” she said.

Lowey added that she doesn’t believe the House will reconvene next week: “I certainly do not think so. I don’t think it’s possible.”

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., later notified lawmakers that the chamber wouldn't return to session until May 4, unless there was a need to return sooner to take up "critical legislation related to the coronavirus response or other legislative priorities."

Logistical challenges

Lowey's comments about travel to Washington highlight the fact that unanimous consent will probably be required to pass the next round of aid, as well as any further relief packages in the near future.

Speaking at an Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate event in Boston on Monday, House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., said he thought a deal that could gain unanimous consent remains in the offing despite tough talk on both sides.

"I think that we can still do that again once the speaker and the administration reach an accommodation, which I expect will happen in the early days of this week," Neal said. “Democrats control one-half of one-third of the federal government. That’s the reality. But the one-half of the one-third that we do control is the House of Representatives. So, to get an agreement, you can’t run past us and I think everybody’s figured out you can’t run over [Pelosi]."

Even if there is a bipartisan deal that President Donald Trump will sign, however, the White House and congressional leaders need to find a way to work around Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky.

Massie, who briefly held up the $2.3 trillion aid measure last month but successfully forced over half of House lawmakers to return to Washington, shows no signs of backing down this time either.

"By calling them out on the Constitution and making them come to Washington, D.C. in order to pass a bill, they're finding it harder to pass this next bill, because they know they're all going to have to come to work," Massie said on the Todd Starnes radio show Monday. "They know I will get in my car and drive there and make them vote on it. And my colleagues, a lot of them, frankly, are cowards."

Paul M. Krawzak and Doug Sword contributed to this report.