Republicans say Senate likely won’t vote on next big COVID response bill until after Memorial Day

Political Connection

(CNN) — Senate Republicans dismissed the House’s new stimulus bill as a nonstarter after its release Tuesday, balking at its $3 trillion price tag and warning that any future aid package — if there is one at all– won’t come until after the Memorial Day recess.

“After the recess,” Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, told CNN on Tuesday when pressed on when the Senate would begin serious talks about another stimulus bill.

“Let’s fix what was missed last time rather than just adding more money,” Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, told CNN.

Republicans, however, find themselves caught between conflicting political realities. On the one hand, many want to avoid more federal spending until they see the impact of the last bills. It’s a position that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has taken for weeks. But many Republican also acknowledge they cannot ignore issues with the last round of stimulus spending much longer as they hear from governors, business owners and constituents anxious to make federal programs intended to help stem an economic crisis work for them.

“It is always helpful if we can get something done sooner than later,” said Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, about fixing some of the issues with the last packages.

Without control of both sides of the Capitol, Senate Republicans acknowledge they probably can’t get changes to the last stimulus bill without more money for key Democratic priorities, but the situation has left members, states and workers in limbo. After multiple, hard-fought, bipartisan and sometimes unanimous stimulus packages, Democrats and Republicans appear to have hit an impasse, one exacerbated by conflicting views of when and how the country should return to work amid the coronavirus.

“I see that the House is going to move on a measure maybe as soon as Friday,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska. “Without even looking at it, I really question whether that approach is really the way to go right now. We have put a lot out there, and we need to make sure it is getting to where it needs to go.”

Among the core issues Republicans want to fix are problems with the Small Business Administration’s loan program, state and local funding and an unintended consequence of increasing unemployment benefits.

For weeks, Republicans and Democrats have griped with the Treasury Department about guidance in the Paycheck Protection Program that small business owners have to use 75% of their loans for payroll costs in order for the loan to be forgiven. Despite multiple calls to relax the rules, senators believe that a legislative fix may be necessary to ensure that business owners with higher utility, rent or mortgage interest payments could use the program fully.

Other Republicans have been looking for a way to incentivize more workers to return to the workplace after the increase in unemployment benefits Congress passed in March made it more lucrative for some low-wage workers to stay on unemployment rather than return to their jobs. Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, has floated with colleagues in recent days a proposal that would give workers an additional $450 plus their normal wages to make it financially viable for workers to get back on the job.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the chairman of the Senate’s Small Business Committee, told reporters Wednesday that “ideally” he wants to see Congress make technical changes to the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program by the Memorial Day recess to give businesses more time to use their loans under the program.

But GOP leaders are urging caution, worried that moving forward with a narrow fix could open the door to negotiations with Democrats who are pushing for trillions of dollars in new programs to help bolster the economy.

“My guess is before the Memorial Day recess is unlikely,” Republican Whip John Thune of South Dakota told CNN. “I don’t think those are things you can do quickly. It will probably be part of a larger bill that will happen later.”

Rubio and Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the top Democrat on the Small Business Committee, spoke to Treasury Secretary Mnuchin for 45 minutes on Tuesday about a legislative fix.

Rubio is looking to expand the timeline businesses have to spend the loans they get through the Small Business Administration in a proposal that could be released as soon as Wednesday. Under the program as it stands, business owners had eight weeks to use the money, but many owners have made clear that spending the money in that time frame, when the shutdowns and economic uncertainty loom longer, may not be possible.

“There is broad support for the notion of providing more flexibility … but we have to pass a law to do that,” Rubio said.

State flexibility is another issue many Republicans don’t think they can wait much longer to fix. Multiple senators have proposals to give governors and mayors more options to use the $150 billion in federal funding allocated to deal with coronavirus in states and cities. Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican from South Dakota, proposed allowing states to use a fraction of the money they got for revenue replacement, an idea that has deeply divided the conference.

Many of the issues on the table have bipartisan support. But lawmakers warn that the new House bill further complicated any hope that lawmakers would put aside their political messaging and pass legislation quickly.

“It’s just a nonstarter,” said Rounds.

“I think they would like to have a vote to demonstrate how generous they are at Christmastime,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota.

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