House OKs $484 billion in COVID-19 relief, loans could go out this week

After approving a $2 trillion coronavirus relief package just weeks ago, Congress added another $484 billion for health care, but mostly to revive a $349 billion loan program for small businesses that run out of money shortly after it opened. (Photo by Tim Dennell/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Money could start flowing to distressed small businesses as early as this week, after the House overwhelmingly approved a $484 billion measure that refills the exhausted Paycheck Protection Program and adds funds for hospitals and other services.

The Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act passed 388-5 Thursday during an unusual session in which mask-wearing House members, out since mid-March because of the coronavirus, were called to vote in rotation so they could keep their distance.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, was one of the five “no” votes on the bill, saying in a statement after the vote that he was troubled by $12 billion earmarked for “surveillance” and “contact tracing” of COVID-19 victims, activities he said “have been used to spy on Americans.”

But other Arizona lawmakers said that while the bill did not do everything they wanted, it was important to get assistance out to businesses and health care workers.

“The changes we made will make a difference for Arizona’s small businesses, but we’re going to have to continue to work together in a bipartisan way to ensure support actually reaches those who need it most,” said Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix, in a statement released by his office.

President Donald Trump was expected to sign the bill Friday, just one week after the original $349 billion loan program ran out of money in the face of overwhelming demand from businesses that have been hit hard by COVID-19.

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The PPP was designed to get short-term loans to businesses through their banks, with a promise that the Small Business Administration would forgive the loan if business owners used it to keep their workers on the payroll.

It was rolled out in less than a week and marred by confusion with private lenders who handle the application process. But it was also wildly popular, with the SBA announcing last Friday that loans were being put on hold because the first round of funding had already been allocated.

When it was clear that the program would run out of money, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pushed a measure two weeks ago that would have added $251 billion. But Democrats balked, insisting that money be included for health care and that problems be fixed with the PPP, which had seen some of the first round of funding end up in the hands of large businesses.

Each side accused the other of delaying the bill, but the Senate approved the new, larger, bill by voice vote Tuesday and the House gave its OK Thursday after a day of debate.

Despite the delay, Phoenix Chamber of Commerce spokesman Mike Huckins said he was “very happy to see it work out, just wish it could’ve been a little sooner.”

“Every day that businesses don’t have access to these dollars is another day of peril for them,” Huckins said.

In addition to the PPP, the bill appropriates $75 billion to reimburse health care providers for coronavirus costs and $25 billion to create and distribute COVID-19 tests.

Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, on the House floor Thursday accused Democrats of dragging their feet on the aid package.

“It was two weeks ago now, the Senate Republicans put up a bill to help continue funding for small businesses so they could pay their workers,” Lesko said. “Two weeks we’ve been waiting around while Democrats have been delaying it, and why? I don’t understand why.”

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Democrats responded by pointing to reports that large businesses had been favored for loans over smaller businesses and independent contractors. They called it a “joke” that Republicans tried to push through the new relief bill without addressing those issues.

“The only focus they have urgency around are folks like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Shake Shack,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., referring to two restaurant chains that initially got PPP loans before returning the money. “We had to fight to fund hospitals, fight to fund testing…. It is unconscionable.”

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, said Wednesday that Democrats fought to make the program more accessible to smaller businesses by setting aside $60 billion for smaller banks.

“This measure is intended to benefit smaller, rural economies who will be hit hardest and for whom the PPP program has not provided adequate assistance thus far,” he said in a statement.

Huckins said he appreciated those changes.

“There’s been a lot of consternation about larger companies getting access to the monies first, so I think that the carve-outs … for the smaller businesses and the smaller banks are a good thing and will go a long way to having the program live up to the expectations it was meant to have in the first place,” Huckins said.

Huckins said he was frustrated by last week’s stoppage of the program, but he expects more disagreement along ideological lines as Congress moves forward.

“It’s frustrating that partisanship got in the way a little bit, I think both sides have to take some blame in that,” Huckins said.

But Huckins, and numerous members of Congress, said they expect another bill will be needed to support the slowing economy. Thursday’s relief bill only buys time, Huckins said.

“Hopefully those talks will continue here over the next couple weeks before we’re out of money again,” he said.

Health Reporter, Washington, D.C.