More aid for U.S. small businesses fails in partisan fight in Senate

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday failed to pass an additional $250 billion of aid intended to help small businesses cope with the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic as Democrats and Republicans blocked each other’s proposals.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks to the Senate Chamber floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. , April 9, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Following a short session of the Senate with only a few senators, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, provided no clear path forward.

“There’ll be additional discussions” involving the top four leaders of Congress, he told reporters.

Democrats objected to the Republican measure for $250 billion to beef up emergency loans to small businesses, saying they would back the bill only if it had new restrictions and was coupled with a similar amount of money for hospitals, local governments and food assistance.

For example, Democrats wanted to mandate that $60 billion of the new small business money would be set aside for community-based lenders, including minority-run institutions.

Republicans objected to the Democratic initiative, saying the money in a small business loan program needed to be replenished immediately.

“To my Democratic colleagues, please – please – do not block emergency aid you do not even oppose just because you want something more,” McConnell said.

The $250 billion in small business loans, which could turn into government-paid grants if lenders meet certain terms, would be in addition to $349 billion already allocated.

Officials with President Donald Trump’s administration and lawmakers have praised that program, which they say has already approved about $100 billion in loans. But an industry group voiced concerns.

The National Restaurant Association, in a letter to congressional leaders, said a growing number of restaurant owners are concluding that the loan program “is not going to prevent them from permanently closing operations in local communities.”

The lobbying group called for a series of changes to the newly created program, including more flexibility in use of the loans and replenishment of a separate disaster aid arrangement.

During brief debate of the Republican bill, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen called McConnell’s move “a complete political stunt here on the floor of the United States Senate” that had no chance of becoming law.

He and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin called for immediate renewal of the emergency loan and grant program for small businesses that they said already has run out of money, along with many other initiatives.

Congress and the Trump administration hope the small business loans, coupled with aid to larger corporations, direct payments to individuals and emergency funding for hospitals will help the United States recover from the economic blow of the coronavirus outbreak. It has resulted in shuttered schools and businesses, left most of the nation’s population sheltering at home and thrown millions out of work.

More than 15,700 people have died in the United States from COVID-19, an illness associated with the coronavirus, according to a Reuters tally.

Before the Senate action, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in an interview with CNBC that officials wanted to get the small business loans program beefed up as soon as possible.

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“We need more money for small business. The president has been very clear. He’d be happy to talk about other issues such as hospitals and states in the next bill,” Mnuchin said.

With most of Congress out on a recess, each side tried to ram its respective bill through the Senate on a fast track, meaning it took only an objection from any one of the 100 senators to shelve either plan.

Congress has already allocated more than $2.3 trillion in three waves of legislation aimed at cushioning the economic hit of the pandemic.

Reporting by Richard Cowan, David Morgan, Lisa Lambert, Susan Cornwell and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler

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