Senate Passes $484 Billion Stimulus for Small Businesses, Virus Testing

The Senate passed $484 billion in new pandemic relief funds Tuesday to bolster a tapped-out small business aid program, pay for coronavirus testing and help hospitals deluged by sick patients.

The legislation, which the House could take up as early as Thursday, includes $320 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program designed to help struggling small businesses keep their workers on the payroll. The program has already committed all of the $350 billion allocated when it was created just weeks ago.

The Paycheck Protection Program “is already helping millions of small-business employees receive paychecks instead of pink slips,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement before the voice vote.

President Donald Trump said he would sign the legislation and then turn to the next round of stimulus for an economy that has ground to a halt.

The legislation — Congress’ third big-ticket pandemic response package — follows last month’s massive $2.2 trillion economic stimulus measure, the biggest rescue package in U.S. history. The first, approved in March, included free virus testing, up to 12 weeks of paid family and sick leave for some workers, and bolstered unemployment and food stamp aid.

McConnell and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer traded blame for the delay in passing the new measure after the small business aid program ran out of money.

“It’s unfortunate that it took our Democratic colleagues 12 days to agree to a deal that contains essentially nothing that Republicans ever opposed,” McConnell said. “The American people cannot be political leverage.”

McConnell’s original proposal to replenish the Paycheck Protection Program didn’t include any of the other provisions that were ultimately included in the legislation, including aid for hospitals and money to bolster testing for the coronavirus. Democrats also sought and won measures aimed at ensuring that businesses without relationships with major banks can get access to Small Business Administration assistance.

“The hard work of negotiation paid off,” Schumer said. “This legislation is significantly better” than the original offered by Republicans because it includes an additional $220 billion for small businesses, health care providers and a “down payment” on a national testing program, he said.

Lawmakers are expected to turn next to a broader measure that will include aid to state and local governments, coronavirus caregivers, and possibly for workers at grocery stores, drugstores and others providing needed goods and services to a locked-down American public. Congress is scheduled to return to Washington on May 4.

Schumer said the next rescue measure should include funds for state and local governments, hazard pay for front-line workers, food aid, election security and funds for the U.S. Postal Service.

The Senate approved this latest measure in an almost empty chamber, with almost every senator now back in their home states after signaling to party leaders they had no objection to passing the measure. The House will return as early as Thursday for a formal vote.

The drafting of the measure was punctuated by delays and partisan wrangling.

McConnell initially pushed to simply have the Senate simply replenish PPP funding with $250 billion, but Democrats sought additional funds for hospitals, testing and state and local governments.

The new package would provide $320 billion to allow the PPP to take new applicants for the program, which provides forgivable loans to small businesses that keep employees on the payroll for eight weeks.

The bill sets aside $30 billion of the PPP loan funds for banks and credit unions with $10 billion to $50 billion in assets and another $30 billion for even smaller institutions. Democrats pushed for that, arguing such institutions could better serve “under-banked” small businesses like those owned by newer businesses or those owned by women and minorities.

The measure includes $60 billion in loans and grants for a separate Economic Injury Disaster Loan program and makes farms and ranchers eligible for the loans. Also, there is $75 billion for hospitals, with a significant portion aimed at those in rural areas, $25 billion for virus testing.

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