WASHINGTON — House and Senate lawmakers are preparing new legislation that would make it easier for the government to forgive emergency loans to small businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic after a lobbying blitz by firms who said they needed more assistance.
The bills would give companies more time to use funding under the Paycheck Protection Program, allowing them additional flexibility to rehire workers later this year rather than rush to bring people back by June.
It’s unclear, though, whether a political compromise to rework the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program is near, even as many businesses argue they are on the verge of shuttering for good.
The Paycheck Protection Program was one of the key pillars of the Cares Act that Congress passed in March, initially providing $350 billion in loans up to $10 million each to businesses with 500 or fewer employees. The loans were to be originated by banks and other financial institutions, and they would not need to be repaid if the businesses used most of the money to keep workers on payroll after a short period of time.
Despite a rocky rollout and loopholes that allowed large businesses to take advantage of the program, it proved so popular that it soon ran short of funds. Congress approved an additional $310 billion for the program last month.
However, the legislation specified that only money used within eight weeks of securing the loan could be forgiven, a deadline that is fast approaching for many businesses that tapped into the first wave of funding. That’s led many business owners to petition Congress and the White House for an extension.
“When it was implemented, you know, eight weeks probably seemed like an eternity,” Jose Cil, chief executive at Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King and other chains, told President Donald Trump in a White House meeting this week. “But today, we’re in the 10th week of the pandemic, and I think it’s going to take some time.”
Cil and other restaurant owners told Trump that they would like to have 24 weeks to use the money, a change the president seemed amenable to. But Congress would need to approve any such change. And despite a widespread, bipartisan consensus in favor of extending the eight-week deadline, it’s uncertain whether competing proposals in the House and Senate could get reconciled into a bill with a chance of passage — or whether the efforts will be hijacked by a larger partisan fight over next steps to respond to the coronavirus crisis. Democrats are pushing for trillions more in spending on a wide array of priorities, while many Republicans want to wait on spending more money and focus on reopening the economy instead.
In the Senate, Small Business Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is finalizing legislation he said would give businesses up to 16 weeks to use the loans — less than the 24 some businesses are seeking. Rubio said in a video posted on Twitter on Wednesday that he expects GOP senators to attempt to pass the legislation on the floor this week. It’s unclear whether Democrats would block such a move.
“What I have found is that up here, if we just had a straight-up vote on whether or not we should extend or change the bill to say instead of eight weeks you have 12 weeks or 16 weeks to spend money on payroll, it would probably get 99 or 98 votes,” Rubio said. “I think the only issue in question now is, Number 1, will some Democrats insist that in order to agree on something that they support, they must get something else in return unrelated to that, something that is not uncontroversial? … And Number 2 can we get the House to take it up and pass it as well?”
A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., could not immediately say whether Democrats would block Rubio’s bill if GOP senators attempt to pass it on the floor.
In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced Wednesday a vote for next week on legislation by Reps. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., and Chip Roy, R-Texas, that would extend the loan forgiveness deadline from eight to 24 weeks and make a number of other changes.
The changes include eliminating a requirement that businesses spend 75% of the loan on payroll in order for it to be forgiven. That’s been another major request from businesses who say in some cases non-payroll costs constitute far more than 25% of their expenses. The bill by Roy and Phillips also would also extend a rehiring deadline past June 30, and eliminate restrictions that limit loan terms to two years.
For Pelosi, putting a narrowly focused piece of legislation on the floor is a change in strategy after she pushed a $3 trillion bill through the House last week that addressed every aspect of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus. But Pelosi said Wednesday that the issue “has an urgency about it.”
“We saw a quick fix in how we could make this work better,” Pelosi said. “We couldn’t ignore that.”
Pelosi agreed to put the Paycheck Protection Program bill on the floor after speaking with Phillips last week in an effort to get him to vote “yes” on the $3 trillion Heroes Act, which he ultimately did, Phillips said Wednesday.
“This is simply applying some much-needed bipartisan fixes to a program that had great intentions but is failing millions of businesses and many more millions of business owners,” Phillips said.
Roy said in an interview Wednesday that he’s spoken with business owners in his district who’ve struggled with the terms of the Paycheck Protection Program loans, or in some cases have not applied for the loans at all out of concern over the strings that are attached. Roy said Congress needs to take action to help these businesses survive.
“I can’t stress enough how informed I’ve been over the last five to six weeks by the boots on the ground, small businesses, that have been getting absolutely decimated,” Roy said. “We passed legislation, it had some upsides it had some downsides, let’s make some tweaks to make it work better.”
Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., the top Democrat on the Small Business Committee, welcomed the House bill and said he hoped to see the Senate act quickly to make similar changes and reach agreement with the House and administration.
“It was bipartisan from the beginning. We need to do that again,” Cardin said on the Senate floor.