Congress begins talks on small business aid after partisan dust-up

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A partisan skirmish in the U.S. Senate cut short a Republican effort to speed $250 billion in new small business assistance on Friday, forcing Republicans and Democrats to negotiate over how best to help businesses reeling from the coronavirus outbreak.

Republicans sought quick passage of a small business measure sought by President Donald Trump’s administration in the Senate, but ran into opposition from Democrats who wanted to include other provisions including money for hospitals, local governments and food assistance.

Democrats then tried to move their own measure, only to see it rejected by Republicans.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, provided no clear path forward afterward, telling reporters that “there’ll be additional discussions” involving the top four leaders of Congress, including House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat.

Among their demands, Democrats want to mandate that $60 billion of the new small business money would be set aside for community-based lenders, including minority-run institutions.

“There is a disparity in access to capital in our country. We do not want this tragedy of a coronavirus to exacerbate that disparity or to ossify it, to solidify it,” Pelosi said in a conference call with reporters.

Republicans said the funding is needed immediately to replenish money in a small business loan program aimed at keeping workers employed.

“To my Democratic colleagues, please – please – do not block emergency aid you do not even oppose just because you want something more,” McConnell said.

The $250 billion in small business loans, which could turn into government-paid grants if lenders meet certain terms, would be in addition to $349 billion already allocated.

But Pelosi pushed back on Republican claims of urgency, saying most of the program money has not yet been disbursed.

“We have time to negotiate to see how and where and when we should have more money there,” she said.

Lawmakers and administration officials have praised the program, which they say has already approved about $100 billion in loans. But an industry group voiced concerns.

The National Restaurant Association, in a letter to congressional leaders, said a growing number of restaurant owners are concluding that the loan program “is not going to prevent them from permanently closing operations in local communities.”

The lobbying group called for changes, including more flexibility in use of the loans and replenishment of a separate disaster aid arrangement.

During brief debate of the Republican bill, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen called McConnell’s move “a complete political stunt” that had no chance of becoming law.

Congress and the Trump administration hope the small business loans, coupled with aid to larger corporations, direct payments to individuals and emergency funding for hospitals will help the United States recover from the economic blow of the coronavirus outbreak.

The pandemic has shuttered schools and businesses, left most of the nation’s population sheltering at home and thrown millions out of work.

More than 15,700 people have died in the United States from COVID-19, a respiratory illness associated with the coronavirus, according to a Reuters tally.

Congress has already allocated more than $2.3 trillion in three waves of legislation aimed at cushioning the economic hit of the pandemic.

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