The Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee on Wednesday advanced, 15-5, the nomination of Isabel Guzman to become head of the Small Business Administration.
Chairman Benjamin L. Cardin said it is "critically important that the position of the SBA administrator be filled as soon as possible," as small businesses continue to struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Maryland Democrat added that at her nomination hearing earlier this month, Guzman "clearly demonstrated that she has the experience necessary to hit the ground running."
Currently the director of California’s Office of the Small Business Advocate, the nominee described herself as "a lifelong advocate for small business." Her confirmation would mark a return to the SBA. Guzman served in the agency during the Obama administration as both a senior adviser and as a deputy chief of staff.
The committee’s top Republican, Rand Paul of Kentucky, voted in favor of her confirmation, saying he is hopeful that Guzman will lead the SBA "fairly and without politics."
But he also criticized the Biden administration for attempting to "spend its way out of misguided policies," and argued that "rigid government lockdowns" caused the crisis facing small businesses.
"I'll support this nomination in a good faith effort to work with the administration to pursue the only permanent solution for small businesses, which is ultimately the reopening of the economy," Paul said.
Guzman’s nomination, which now advances to the full Senate for a final vote, is backed by organizations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
If confirmed, she would take on overseeing the Paycheck Protection Program that Congress established last March to provide forgivable loans to small businesses struggling to stay afloat under COVID-19 public health restrictions. FiscalNote, the parent company of CQ Roll Call, has received a loan under the program.
Citing her work in California with business and community groups on state COVID-19 programs, Guzman told senators that she would focus on making the agency’s programs more accessible to businesses with fewer than 10 employees and minority-owned businesses. Such companies have traditionally not had the banking relationships needed to access loans and grants.
Senators had pressed the nominee at the Feb. 3 hearing on politically charged issues like raising the minimum wage and Planned Parenthood’s eligibility for PPP loans.
Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., said he hoped Guzman "would be the voice of reason" in the Biden administration’s proposal to phase in a federal minimum wage of $15 an hour.
But the nominee said she could not offer an opinion on the issue and instead committed to "look at the research from both sides."
Several Republicans argued that as a nonprofit with over 500 employees Planned Parenthood didn’t qualify for relief under the program.
Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii., agreed on the need for fair enforcement of the rule but argued that Planned Parenthood health centers legally sought the PPP loans. Guzman committed to review the eligibility rule and follow it.
The nominee also said she "would immediately be willing to dive in and explore what administrative changes" could be made to the penalty under the program for applicants who have been convicted of nonfinancial felonies.
Under the Trump administration, the program barred owners with 20 percent or more equity in a business from applying for PPP loans if they had been convicted of a felony within the last five years. In June, new guidance reduced it to within one year of applying.
Cardin and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., asked Guzman to do away with the penalty. Booker noted Blacks and other minorities are disproportionately more likely to be charged with marijuana possession and face reduced economic opportunity.
Ellyn Ferguson contributed to this report.