Republican senators still cool to more coronavirus relief spending, but willing to talk about PPP revamp

GOP Sen. Portman suggests instead of extending unemployment payments, funding could be spent on rehiring bonuses.
Image: Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., left, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wear face masks to protect against the spread of the new coronavirus as they arrive for a weekly luncheon on Capitol Hill on May 19, 2020.Patrick Semansky / AP

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By Garrett Haake, Julie Tsirkin and Alex Moe

Senate Republicans appear generally supportive of a bipartisan House plan to fix the PPP loan program to allow businesses greater flexibility in spending the loan money they receive, even as they remain cool to passing another large-scale relief bill.

"I hear a lot of pushback about the 75-25 [split of how businesses can spend the loans], yeah, so that’s something we could maybe find common ground on," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told NBC News.

"I think it would be appropriate to do it," said North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer. "I think constituents would like us to do that kind of work."

The picture that emerges from conversations with Republican senators is that there's a philosophical difference at play: Congress should be focusing on reopening, not relief. In practice, that means ending expanded unemployment benefits, potentially modifying rules for spending money already appropriated, and easing the path for businesses to reopen and rehire — a reopened economy is the relief.

Senators expressed a similar willingness to tinker with programs they've already passed, while still maintaining that now is not the time to pass another massive relief-oriented spending bill.

"Why would you load up the money cannon again, and fire that off, when a majority of the biggest monstrosity we've ever even contemplated hasn't even been deployed yet?" asked Sen. Pat Toomey.

Graham said that a bill his Judiciary Committee is writing to protect businesses from frivolous lawsuits related to the coronavirus would be a key component in any GOP legislation.

"We’re trying to find common ground with Democrats, think you got to have a regulatory scheme that would protect consumers and employees," Graham said.

Sen. Rob Portman acknowledged that Republicans have made a mistake by focusing on attacking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's response to the crisis, rather than offering more alternative measures of their own. He suggested using money Democrats would like to see spent on continuing $600 unemployment insurance plus-ups be spent instead on offering rehiring bonuses.

"That's what I'm proposing. Back to work bonus to get people back to work when they can get their health care, get their retirement, get other benefits that most people want, people want to go back to work," Portman said. "We shouldn't be creating incentives [to not work] and that's what the House bill does."

At her weekly news conference on Wednesday, Pelosi said she had not been approached by the administration or the Republican Senate leadership about negotiating a next bill.

"I think public opinion will be very much our friend in all of this," Pelosi told reporters.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., indicated Tuesday that he's in no hurry to take it up.

“We still believe, with regard to the coronavirus, we need to assess what we've already done, take a look at what worked and what didn't. And we'll discuss the way forward in the next couple of weeks,” McConnell said Tuesday.

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, signaled movement on future legislation in the Senate is far from imminent,

“I do think we will move on a Phase 4 before the August break, would be my guess. And it’s more intuitive than informed,” Blunt told reporters Wednesday.

“I think it’s reasonable for us not to yet have a sense of what either the fight against the virus or the fight for the economy is going to look like in August and September, which is really the period that whatever we do now should be focused on,” he added.

Blunt also said there are sticking points among Republicans surrounding topics like infrastructure — something that President Donald Trump wants but McConnell has indicated he can do without.

On his way out of the Capitol, Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D., echoed Blunt. “I know there’s sort of the sense to do something but the question is what is that something?" he said. "There’s not a broad agreement on that yet, we got big differences of opinion within the conference.”