Trump Signs Nearly $500 Billion Restoration of Small Business Program

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive for a Wednesday tree-planting ceremony to celebrate Earth Day. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (CN) — As Congress eyes its next move in response to the coronavirus outbreak, President Donald Trump on Friday signed a $484 billion package that replenishes a depleted small business loan program while also including money for hospitals and a testing program.

The Senate passed the bill on Tuesday, after Democrats brokered the deal successfully with the administration, and it cleared the House with a bipartisan vote Thursday.

At the core of the bill is $310 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal loan initiative to provide loans to small businesses that can be forgiven if companies use the money to maintain payroll and cover certain expenses like rent and utilities.

The program had received some $350 billion in its initial round of funding — a pool that ran dry last week. During the two weeks it was in operation, the fund approved 1.6 million loans, nearly three-quarters of which were for less than $150,000. 

Though the measure passed with large bipartisan majorities in Congress, it only did so after a bitter partisan battle, with Republicans accusing Democrats of holding up money for a critical economic program, while Democrats said Republicans were ignoring funding for initiatives necessary to battle the coronavirus outbreak. 

Republicans initially planned to refill the program’s coffers as a standalone measure, but Democrats objected to that plan as they sought additional funding for hospitals, a national testing plan, money for state and local governments, and other priorities.

In addition to $75 billion for hospitals and $25 billion for testing, Democrats also pushed for $60 billion in the Paycheck Protection Program’s funding to be set aside for smaller banks — part of an effort to ensure businesses that might not have relationships with larger institutions can still take advantage of the program. 

The bill is the fourth Congress has passed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and plans are already in the works for a fifth. At a press conference Friday, Pelosi said Democrats will push to deliver money for state and local governments facing major budget crunches. 

It would be “probably equivalent to what we’ve done for small businesses,” the speaker said, noting that they are gathering information from governments and municipalities to arrive at a price tag.

Pelosi also touted plans for aid targeted at frontline workers in health care and other fields. 

Congress is scheduled to return to Washington on May 4, but Pelosi said she could not be sure if lawmakers will be able to stick to that timeline. Still, she said whenever Congress does return, Democrats hope to have legislation ready to go.

“We will be ready soon with our next bill and the sooner we can pass it the better because our teachers, our firefighters, our first responders and the rest need the resources that the funding for state and local will bring,” Pelosi told reporters.

At a signing ceremony for the small business bill, Trump said he is interested in working on aid for the oil industry as oil prices reach historic lows.

“The energy business is very important to me and we’re going to build it up,” Trump told reporters in the oval office. 

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Trump has instructed him and Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette to look into options for bringing aid to the energy industry, possibly including the government taking stakes in energy companies.

Democrats have also suggested including additional funding for the U.S. Postal Service in future aid bills, but Trump rejected the idea on Friday after criticizing the Postal Service as a “joke.” He said he would not sign a bill providing more money to the Post Office unless it raises the price it charges companies like Amazon to deliver packages.  

“If they don’t raise the price I’m not signing anything,” Trump said. 

After Trump drew widespread condemnation for suggesting at Thursday night’s White House briefing that scientists should look into whether injecting disinfectants could help patients suffering from Covid-19, the president  insisted during Friday’s signing ceremony he had been joking about the idea.

“I was asking a question sarcastically to reporters like you just to see what would happen,” Trump said, when asked about his comments.

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