WASHINGTON — With three coronavirus bills now signed into law, Congress is beginning to discuss their next legislative steps, including an interim bill and a second CARES Act to follow the historic $2 trillion aid package passed last month.
The interim bill, which could be considered as soon as Thursday, would address the new Paycheck Protection Program, the forgivable small-business loan program created by the first CARES Act.
That legislation provided $350 billion for the program, but less than a week after it launched, some lawmakers expressed concern that it would quickly run out of money after reports of banks and the Small Business Administration being overwhelmed by demand.
The White House on Tuesday requested an additional $250 billion for the loan program.
“We’re going to be going for, it looks like, a very substantial increase in the number, because we will be running out of money pretty quickly, which is a good thing in this case, not a bad thing,” President Donald Trump said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that he hoped to approve the additional funding by unanimous consent or voice vote during the next scheduled Senate session on Thursday, meaning that any lawmaker could hold up the process and there will need to be a consensus going into Thursday for it to pass.
In a series of tweets Wednesday night, McConnell said he will ask the Senate for emergency funding for the Paycheck Protection Program on Thursday.
"Tomorrow morning, I’ll ask unanimous consent to pass standalone emergency funding for the hugely popular Paycheck Protection Program that is saving small-business jobs as we speak," he wrote. "As the rest of the CARES Act continues to come online, this key part is already low on funds."
McConnell added, “nobody thinks tomorrow will be the Senate’s last word on COVID-19.” But he noted that funding for hospitals and healthcare providers, which Democrats included as part of their request Wednesday, are “still coming online and have not yet been exhausted.”
McConnell said he hopes "none of my colleagues object… There is no reason why this bipartisan job-saving program should be held hostage for other priorities.”
But Democratic leadership made clear Wednesday that the Republican plan would not receive their support unless they met certain demands, potentially setting up for a messy political fight this week.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., released a set of priorities Wednesday that would more than double the Republicans' initial proposal of $250 billion in small-business loans and expand the scope of the bill.
Schumer and Pelosi said half of the requested $250 billion needed to be directed to businesses and nonprofits owned by women, minorities, veterans and families. They also called for an additional $100 billion for hospitals, $150 billion for state and local governments and more money for food assistance programs.
A spokesperson Schumer's office said that the minority leader spoke with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Wednesday about the Democrats' “Small Business Plus” proposal and hoped that Republicans would support it on Thursday.
But it is unclear if Republicans will. Some called the Democrats' demands an attempt to block the funds.
“Senate Democrats should drop their shameful threat to block this funding immediately," Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in a statement Wednesday. "Our small businesses desperately need help — now."
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., who forced House members to return to Washington by pressing for a recorded vote on the stimulus late last month, suggested that he could do so again with the small business funds.
"Once again they’re recommending that just let Nancy Pelosi pass it on her own, that we could all stay home," Massie told Fox Business on Wednesday. "And I’m saying that’s not gonna fly; doesn’t fly with the Constitution, doesn’t fly for accountability to the taxpayers. So what I’m recommending is that she enable remote voting for congressmen."
Although remote voting has been floated as a possible way to allow action on legislation without putting Congress members at risk of infection, House leadership has not yet gotten on board with the idea, which critics say would raise constitutional issues and pose logistical challenges.
In an interview with NPR on Wednesday afternoon, Pelosi said the bill the Republicans proposed "will not get unanimous support in the House, it just won’t.”
After the interim legislation, Schumer and Pelosi said they would press for passage of another major relief package "that will extend and expand the bipartisan CARES Act to meet the needs of the American people. CARES 2 must provide transformational relief as the American people weather this assault on their lives and livelihoods."
Even if Congress manages to pass an interim bill in the coming days, it will likely be a few weeks until a fourth coronavirus bill is considered. Congress members are currently home in their districts and are not expected to return to Washington until April 20 at the earliest.
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But lawmakers have floated their priorities for the next coronavirus bill from their homes, laying the groundwork for what to expect out of negotiations.
Senate Democrats, for example, proposed a hazard pay on Tuesday for essential workers that would include up to $25,000 increase in salary as well as health care worker recruitment incentive of $15,000. The "heroes fund" would also include benefits for the families of health care workers who have died in the pandemic.
"Now already there are discussions of what kind of legislation Congress should pursue next in COVID, in COVID Four," Schumer said in a phone conference with reporters on Tuesday. "We believe that a heroes fund should be part of the next phase of the congressional response to COVID-19. No proposal will be complete without addressing the needs of our essential workers."