Republicans are moving quickly to potentially jam Democrats into accepting an extension of small business programs without addressing other Democratic priorities. A spokesman for Schumer said there’s been no negotiations thus far with Schumer and Small Business Committee ranking members Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he’s spoken to all four House and Senate party leaders about sending $250 billion to the program. And McConnell said he intends to pass new relief as soon as Thursday without a roll call vote.
“It is quickly becoming clear that Congress will need to provide more funding or this crucial program may run dry. That cannot happen,” McConnell said. “Congress needs to act with speed and total focus to provide more money for this uncontroversial bipartisan program.”
House Democratic leaders initially expressed private opposition to the idea. They have been resistant to piecemeal extensions and want additional money for state and local governments and an expansion of unemployment benefits for several more months, according to those sources.
But Pelosi seemed open to the idea Tuesday afternoon, saying in an interview on CNN that it was clear the small business program needs more funds immediately. But the speaker, who spoke to Mnuchin earlier Tuesday, said there would have to be “considerations” to ensure that women and minority-owned businesses had equal access to the funds.
“We want to make sure that the program is administered in a way that does not solidify inequality in how people have access to capital but instead [is a] benefit to everyone who qualifies for it,” Pelosi said on CNN.
Still, Democrats complained they were blindsided by Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) tweets about fast action and McConnell’s statements about spending hundreds of billions of new dollars with two days’ notice. A spokesman for Schumer said the Democratic leader had not spoken to McConnell before the announcement, and that Rubio had not spoken to Cardin.
“I was a little taken aback that Sen. McConnell made this announcement without talking to Sen. Schumer or anyone else on the Democratic side of the aisle,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) on Tuesday afternoon in an interview. “Just to announce that you’re going to do something is not the right approach. But I think everybody would support trying to do something for small business.”
With the Senate’s pro forma session scheduled for Thursday and the House scheduled for a Friday session, the Senate has an advantage simply on timing.
Still, House Democrats felt jammed by McConnell’s Senate majority on the $2 trillion phase three bill in March and may look darkly on an attempt to one-up them again. It’s also possible that a single House member could object to passing the extension via voice vote and demand lawmakers fly back to Washington to vote in person, something congressional leaders desperately want to avoid.
Similarly, a single senator could fight the plans. But one leading conservative, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), would not fight a clean extension of the small business program, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Another conservative senator that sometimes objects to speedy passage of new spending, Rand Paul (R-Ky.), did not have an immediate comment.
And without quick action, Rubio warned that fear would wrack small businesses that are applying for the oversubscribed program.
“We have days, NOT weeks to address this,” Rubio said on Twitter.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that the House move quickly to approve the bill after Senate package “and provide confidence to small businesses across the country that their government will be there for them.”
Pelosi made clear Tuesday that she considers Mnuchin’s request an “interim package” and still plans to pursue another massive legislative package that would expanded unemployment benefits, include another round of direct cash payments and increase funding for state and local governments.
The small business program is popular and may actually be able to be extended without a roll call vote. That would defer debate on other ideas, from Schumer’s proposed pay bumps to grocery clerks and other essential employees to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) rehiring program for idled workers to President Donald Trump’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal.
And the Trump administration will get to hash out the unfolding crisis and the congressional response as the week unfolds. House Democrats will receive a coronavirus briefing from Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials on Wednesday, a rare moment of bipartisanship between the House majority and an administration it is often battling.
The briefing will be conducted via conference call and will last about 45 minutes, according to an invitation obtained by POLITICO. In addition to Pence, other key officials leading the coronavirus response will join, including Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx and Rear Adm. John Polowczyk.
Pence spokeswoman Katie Miller tweeted that the vice president would also do calls with House Republicans, Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans on Thursday. Senate Republicans also spoke to Fauci and Mnuchin last week in a conference call.
A major topic of the briefing is expected to be efforts by federal officials to deliver desperately needed personal protective equipment to states whose hospitals are being crushed by an influx of coronavirus patients.
In a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, senior administration officials said they are working with the private sector to ship “millions and millions” of masks from countries in Asia to address the mask deficiency and working with private companies to increase domestic productions. They also said they expected the United States would be able to deliver 100,000 new ventilators in the next 100 days and that testing has increased in the past four weeks from 2,500 tests a day to 125,000 tests a day.
Polowczyk has been leading the effort at the federal level, coordinating a fleet of cargo planes to bring face masks, gowns, gloves and ventilators from overseas to help replenish rapidly depleting U.S. supplies. But the overall effort has been beset by bureaucratic roadblocks, miscommunication and charges of political favoritism by state leaders.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has been hosting near-daily calls during the week in an effort to keep members informed and connected as Congress is out of session for an extended period to prevent the spread of the virus on Capitol Hill.
On a caucus call Monday that featured former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, Pelosi said the next coronavirus relief bill could “easily” cost more than $1 trillion.
Pelosi wants to begin working on a new more comprehensive bill immediately and is still talking as if the House could come back into session later this month to vote on it, although many lawmakers are increasingly saying they think that’s untenable given the continued spread of the virus across the country.
The California Democrat has also met resistance from some top Republicans, who want to wait, as multiple federal and state agencies are already struggling to implement the policies Congress just passed.