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Billions of relief dollars for small businesses stuck in Congress quicksand

Replenishment of a federal loan program for small businesses failed to get Senate approval Monday amid a dispute over money for coronavirus testing.

The White House and Senate Republicans have been negotiating with Democrats on an additional round of funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, which last week ran out of the $350 billion set aside in a $2.2 trillion coronavirus response package approved last month. The program gives small businesses loans that can be forgiven for use on covering certain expenses like payroll, rent and utilities. 

Republicans initially sought to add $250 billion to the program as a standalone, but Democrats blocked the measures while seeking additional money for hospitals and state and local governments, and additional conditions helping to deliver the loans to underserved communities. 

Over the weekend, Democratic leadership and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said a deal on the additional funding was imminent, possibly as early as Monday. 

The final agreement is said to have been delayed, however, by a dispute on how to spend a $25 billion testing fund now expected to be included in the bill, according to a Washington Post report this morning. 

While the Senate did not approve additional money for the program during a brief pro-forma session Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell scheduled an additional session late Tuesday afternoon that was not previously on the Senate’s calendar. 

This could make it possible for the Senate to clear the package on Tuesday, provided the administration and Democrats can hammer out the final details of an agreement in the next 24 hours. 

“Colleagues, it’s past time — past time — to get this done for the country,” McConnell said in a floor speech Monday. 

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The House and Senate are both on a previously scheduled recess, despite the pandemic. Since they are not scheduled to return until early May, any legislation responding to the outbreak must pass unanimously.  

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s office told members the House could hold a vote as early as Wednesday on spending legislation and will be told when they need to return to Washington, if necessary. 

While the House could clear any Senate-passed legislation with a unanimous vote that does not require members to be present, any one member could demand a vote and force lawmakers back to the Capitol.

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Barbara Leonard/Courthouse News Service

Tape outside of a pet-goods store in San Diego shows a few of the steps taken by businesses to respect social-distancing measures while remaining open for customers.