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House passes aid for restaurants, small businesses affected by Covid pandemic

The $55 billion bill would largely replenish a grant program created by the American Rescue Plan that provides assistance to restaurants.
Outdoor diners at the Bit and Spur Saloon in Springdale, Utah, in summer 2020. Mikayla Whitmore for NBC News

WASHINGTON — The House passed a $55 billion bill Thursday that would provide assistance to restaurants and other small businesses that have struggled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers approved the measure in a 223-203 vote, with only about a handful of Republicans backing it. A large chunk of the bill, $42 billion, would replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a grant program launched as a result of the American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law last year.

Nearly 300,000 restaurants and bars applied for grants through the program last year, according to the Small Business Administration, but only a third of applicants received relief.

The legislation would also provide $13 billion for other businesses affected by the pandemic, and it would establish oversight and reporting requirements to ensure grants are awarded properly and to verify the use of funding.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., the main sponsor of the bill, and Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., said Thursday that more than 80 percent of restaurants that didn't receive grants have reported that they are on the verge of permanent closure, citing a survey from the Independent Restaurant Coalition. They said at least 90,000 restaurants and bars have closed since the pandemic started more than two years ago.

It's unclear whether Democrats in the evenly split Senate will be able to win over at least 10 Republicans to overcome the 60-vote threshold to end any potential filibuster and pass the measure. But with Congress having adjourned for a two-week recess, the bill won't be considered anytime soon in the Senate.

Senate Minority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., splashed cold water on the prospects of the legislation moving forward, comparing it to the stalled Covid relief bill.

"I think right now it's hard to — as you saw, even with the $10 billion package of new money for Covid — unless they can reprogram or repurpose it, it's going to be a hard sell," he said Thursday afternoon as he exited Capitol.

According to the Small Business Administration, which handles the fund, restaurants and other eligible businesses can receive funding "equal to their pandemic-related revenue loss up to $10 million per business and no more than $5 million per physical location." In addition to restaurants and bars, eligible businesses include food trucks, bakeries, wineries or breweries and inns.