By ANDREW TAYLOR and LISA MASCARO
WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats on Thursday stalled President Donald Trump’s request for $250 billion to supplement a “paycheck protection” program for businesses crippled by the coronavirus outbreak, demanding protections for minority-owned businesses and money for health care providers and state and local governments.
They sidetracked a request by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to give the unanimous consent necessary to fast-track Trump’s request.
“We need more funding and we need it fast,” McConnell said as he opened the Senate, assuring them there would be future bills to deal with other issues.
Democrats’ demands sparked a spirited response from McConnell, who implored them not to block “emergency aid you do not even oppose just because you want something more.”
“Nobody thinks this will be the Senate’s last word on COVID-19. We don’t have to do everything right now,” McConnell said. “Let’s continue to work together, with speed and bipartisanship. We will get through this crisis together.”
Thursday’s development doesn’t mean the legislation is dead. Democrats and Republicans agree the aid is urgently needed. The dispute is over billions more Democrats want to add to the legislation.
McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin say the business program, which involves direct subsidies to companies to keep employees on payroll and pay their rent, is on track to quickly deplete its first $350 billion infusion as businesses rush to apply for the aid.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., accused McConnell of trying to ram through legislation without trying to create the consensus needed to pass a bill into law in the current environment. He detailed a variety of glitches in the program and fears that many big lenders are not serving minority neighborhoods and nontraditional borrowers.
Van Hollen said McConnell “knew full well that there was not agreement and consensus on moving forward with this proposal. That’s why we’re here today. This was in fact designed to fail, designed as a political stunt.”
Democrats’ requests, like aid to states and hospitals, mirror programs that are already funded, but the money is flowing more slowly.
McConnell said Democrats are trying “to use this crucial program to open broader negotiations on other topics, including parts of the CARES Act where literally no money has gone out the door yet.”
The future of the legislation is likely to be largely determined by a small, familiar group of senior Washington hands, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, McConnell and Mnuchin, along with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
In interviews, Pelosi, D-Calif., has stressed making sure the popular paycheck protection program, part of the $2.2 trillion economic aid package Congress passed in March, delivers benefits to businesses in minority communities that are often under-served by traditional lenders.
Democrats are pressing for half of the White House request, or $125 billion, to be channeled through community-based financial institutions that serve farmers, family, women, minority and veteran-owned small businesses and nonprofits in rural, tribal, suburban and urban communities.
“Democrats are prepared to give the resources, provided the money is going to get to the intended recipients,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., in an interview with a pool reporter who shared the remarks. “There seems to be an understanding that you have to empower the minority institutions in order for that to happen.”
They circulated a $500 billion plan that would add $100 billion for hospitals and other health care providers and $150 billion to state and local governments, as well as a 15% boost in food stamp benefits. They hope this serves as a basis for talks with McConnell going forward.
Pelosi said McConnell’s request “simply can’t” advance through the Democratic-controlled House under unanimous consent. There’s also lone wolf Republican Thomas Massie of Kentucky, who promises to block efforts to pass such huge legislation without lawmakers present and ready to vote.
The government is just beginning to implement three previously passed bills to respond to the unprecedented coronavirus outbreak, which has caused grave damage to the economy in addition to the personal toll.
The massive infusions of federal cash are intended as a patch to help the $21 trillion U.S. economy through the current recession, which is causing an economic contraction and spike in joblessness that is overwhelming many state systems for delivering unemployment benefits.
Still, signs of potential progress emerged in Washington’s effort to push cash out the door to suddenly out-of-work Americans and shuttered businesses.
The first $1,200 direct payments to Americans are set to begin next week, Mnuchin told House Democrats during a conference call Wednesday with the administration’s coronavirus task force.
Mnuchin also told the lawmakers that $98 billion in loans for small businesses has been approved under the program that the Trump administration wants Congress to bolster, according to a person unauthorized to discuss the private call and speaking on condition of anonymity.
The battle is taking place with Capitol Hill virtually shut down. The continued spread of the virus has prompted Congress’ top security and medical officials to extend the closure to the public of the Capitol, the Capitol Visitor Center and the adjacent congressional office buildings through April.
The buildings were initially closed only through March. Members of Congress, staff, journalists and visitors with official business will continue to be admitted, according to a March 30 memo.
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