Senate Raises Cap on Covid Help for Small Businesses

(Courthouse News photo/Jack Rodgers)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Senate on Wednesday passed a bill adding greater flexibility to a federal small business loan program aimed at helping businesses struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill on Wednesday night, less than a week after the Democrat-controlled House overwhelmingly approved the measure. President Donald Trump is expected to sign the legislation.

The bill would make changes to the Paycheck Protection Program, a key piece of the $2.2 trillion Cares Act that became law at the end of March. The program allows small businesses to take out loans that can be forgiven if they use the money to cover payroll, rent and certain other expenses.

The changes approved make it so businesses can spend the money over a longer period and raises a cap on how much of the loan money a business can spend on expenses other than payroll while still being eligible for forgiveness.

Under the original legislation, businesses had to spend the loan money within eight weeks, but the new legislation increases that to 24 weeks. The new bill also gives businesses until the end of the year to rehire employees and still be able to have their loan forgiven. Businesses had been facing a June 30 deadline to rehire employees.

Lawmakers who pushed the changes said the additional flexibility is especially critical for restaurants and similar businesses as they endure continued state-ordered closures and capacity restrictions that make it difficult for them to operate as they normally would.

The bill’s fate had been uncertain earlier in the day, with Republican senators standing in the way of speedy passage. Senator Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who has publicly criticized the bill in the past as giving money to businesses that do not need it, objected when Senate Democrats tried to pass it unanimously earlier in the day.

Johnson explained he was worried about extending the program further without additional reforms, including measures that would ensure the loans go only to businesses that need the money.

“My only objection is we should not extend this authorization without significant reforms that I hope my colleagues would all agree with,” Johnson said.

But shortly after 7 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was able to approve the legislation without objection, sending it on its way to the White House.

“The Senate delivered for workers and small businesses when we first passed the Cares Act,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “We delivered again when we added more money to this popular program back in April, and we’re delivering again today.”

McConnell said lawmakers are also eying additional tweaks that the Senate could soon take up.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he and Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, talked with Johnson throughout the week to work out the Wisconsin Republican’s concerns about the legislation.

“This is an improvement that is much needed and comes at the last minute, but not too late,” Schumer said on the Senate floor.

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