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Congress to Focus on Small Biz Aid     05/27 06:29

   Deadlocked over the next big coronavirus relief bill, Congress is shifting 
its attention to a more modest overhaul of small-business aid in hopes of 
helping employers reopen shops and survive the pandemic.

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- Deadlocked over the next big coronavirus relief bill, 
Congress is shifting its attention to a more modest overhaul of small-business 
aid in hopes of helping employers reopen shops and survive the pandemic.

   Bipartisan legislation that would give small employers more time to take 
advantage of federal subsidies for payroll and other costs is expected to pass 
the House this week, as lawmakers return to Washington for an abbreviated 
two-day session.

   Yet absent from the agenda is formal talks between congressional leaders on 
the next phase of the federal coronavirus response. Democrats have already 
pushed a $3 trillion-plus measure through the House, but negotiations with the 
GOP-controlled Senate and White House have yet to begin.

   "We can't keep propping up the economy forever," Senate Majority Leader 
Mitch McConnell said Tuesday in Lexington. It was one of his first public 
appearances in his home state of Kentucky since mid-March because of the 
pandemic.

   "The ultimate solution is to begin to get back to normal," he said. "There 
are three things that are essential to have full normalcy  testing, 
treatment and vaccine."

   Senate Republicans are divided on the next steps and wary of another 
sprawling negotiation where Democrats and the White House call the shots. They 
are also split on a central element  how much aid to provide state and local 
governments and other coronavirus response after earlier relief bills totaled 
almost $3 trillion.

   Even as they hit "pause" on a larger bill, Republicans are enthusiastic 
about improving the Paycheck Protection Program, which was established in March 
under the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill and was replenished last month. 
All told, Congress has provided about $660 billion for the program.

   Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a key architect of the aid, said in an interview 
that the program has shifted from one that was intended to keep paychecks 
flowing during the shutdown to a bridge to help businesses pay workers as they 
reopen  in many cases, at less than full capacity.

   "It's taken on a different level of importance now," Rubio said. "The 
program has evolved from simply keeping people from getting unemployed to 
actually helping rehire people as these businesses open up but the cash flow 
lags."

   The House bill would provide a 24-week window to spend PPP funds and would 
eliminate a requirement that 75% of the forgivable loans be used for payroll 
costs. The goal is to give businesses more flexibility to pay rent and other 
overhead costs such as installing protective equipment.

   Under the original program, businesses are required to spend their loan 
money within the eight-week window to have their loans forgiven. That deadline 
is fast approaching. Without forgiveness, they would face a debt burden that, 
for many, would be hard to bear in a struggling economy.

   But the eight-week window has created a problem, particularly for 
restaurants. Under the law, they were required to rehire all their laid-off 
workers despite being closed or limited to takeout and delivery. Many 
restaurant owners feared that they would use up their loan money before being 
allowed to reopen, or reopening with reduced revenue because of social 
distancing requirements.

   The House's return to Washington for voting Wednesday comes after Senate 
Republicans  who are on recess after spending the past three weeks in 
Washington  have been knocking the decision by top Democrats to largely stay 
out of session during the pandemic.

   House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy's office announced it was filing a lawsuit 
Tuesday against the new system of proxy voting. Approved by House Democrats 
earlier this month, the first-of-its-kind rules change will be in practice this 
week as dozens of lawmakers sign up to have another vote on their behalf so 
they can avoid travel to Washington. Republicans call it unconstitutional.

   House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the lawsuit a "sad stunt" as the nation's 
virus-related death toll approaches 100,000.

   It appears the House could be out of session for much of June as well. The 
House, which has more than four times as many members as the 100-person Senate, 
is operating under the Capitol physician's guidance, as Washington, D.C., 
remains under stay-home orders.

   Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said there isn't much legislation ready 
for floor votes, and committees are just beginning to write must-pass 
legislation like agency budget bills, the annual defense policy measure and a 
major reauthorization of water projects.

   Hoyer said political messaging bills, usually a feature of election years, 
are likely to take a back seat for now, as voting in the House has become an 
arduous and time-consuming process because of social distancing rules.

   In the meantime, Democrats are focused on touting the more than $3 trillion 
measure that they passed earlier this month, a more than 1,800-page measure 
crafted in response to Pelosi's admonition that they "go big" in the response.

   Republicans and the White House have dismissed the bill as a liberal wish 
list, but they have yet to coalesce around an alternative despite acknowledging 
the need for more legislative action.

   One idea gaining steam among Republicans  pushed by Rep. Kevin Brady of 
Texas and Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio  would deliver a bonus to unemployed 
people who return to their jobs. It's discussed as a replacement for the $600 
per week supplemental unemployment benefit that expires July 31.

   "It's something we're looking at very carefully," said White House economic 
adviser Larry Kudlow. He called the jobless aid "a major disincentive to go 
back to work."

 
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