McConnell, Democrats Jostle Over Urgent Business Virus Aid

WASHINGTON (AP) — An urgent $250 billion request by President Donald Trump to supplement a business “paycheck protection” program for firms crippled by the coronavirus outbreak faces a roadblock Thursday in the Senate.

Democrats have signaled they’ll block the request when it’s offered by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats want add-ons and protections to make sure businesses in disadvantaged communities are able to participate.

McConnell, R-Ky., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., outlined their positions in relatively muted rhetoric Wednesday — tacit acknowledgment of the urgency of the measure.

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McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin say the business program, which involves direct subsidies to companies to keep employees on payroll and pay their rent, is on track to quickly deplete its first $350 billion infusion as business rush to apply for the aid.

Democrats’ requests like aid to states and hospitals mirror programs will flow more slowly, but McConnell is promising those topics are likely to be addressed in future coronavirus response bills.

“There is no reason why this bipartisan job-saving program should be held hostage for other priorities,” McConnell wrote on Twitter. “Let’s re-fund the only program that’s already running dry and keep moving forward together.”

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Pelosi and McConnell do much of their communicating in public statements, which this week have avoided inflammatory broadsides, at least so far.

In interviews, Pelosi stressed making sure that the popular paycheck protection program, part of the massive $2.2 trillion economic aid Congress passed in March, delivers benefits to businesses in minority communities that are often under-served by traditional lenders.

“One of the concerns that we have about the original $350 (billion) is that a lot of … people who are under-banked are unserved on that basis,” Pelosi told NPR on Wednesday. “So, they don’t have banking relationships sophisticated in a way that others do.”

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She is pressing for one-half of the White House request, or $125 billion, to channeled through community-based financial institutions that serve farmers, family, women, minority and veteran-owned small businesses and nonprofits in rural, tribal, suburban and urban communities.

Senate Democrats Thursday circulated a $500 billion plan that would add $100 billion for hospitals and other health care providers and $150 billion to state and local governments, as well as a $15% boost in food stamp benefits. They hope this serves as a basis for talks with McConnell going forward.

The battle is taking place as Capitol Hill is virtually shut down as the nation and the economy are virtually shuttered to stop the spread of the virus. The situation means that legislation is most easily passed through unanimous agreement, rarely a quick task.

Pelosi said McConnell’s request “simply can’t” advance through the Democratic-controlled House under unanimous consent. There’s also lone wolf Republican Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who promises to block efforts to pass such huge legislation without lawmakers present and ready to vote.

Thursday’s Senate action comes as the government is just beginning to implement three previously passed bills to respond to the unprecedented coronavirus outbreak, which has caused grave damage to the economy in addition to the personal toll.

The massive infusions of federal cash — the $250 billion sought by the administration would come on top of combined legislation already totaling about $2.5 trillion — are intended as a patch to help the $21 trillion U.S. economy through the current recession, which is causing an economic contraction and spike in joblessness overwhelming many state systems for delivering unemployment benefits.

Still, signs of potential progress emerged in Washington’s effort to push cash out the door to suddenly out-of-work Americans and shuttered businesses.

The first $1,200 direct payments to Americans are set to begin next week, Mnuchin told House Democrats during a conference call Wednesday with the administration’s coronavirus task force.

Mnuchin also told the lawmakers that $98 billion in loans for small businesses has been approved under the program which the Trump administration wants Congress to bolster in Thursday’s vote, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the private call and granted anonymity.


By AP reporters Andrew Taylor and Lisa Mascaro

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