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WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats on Thursday stalled President Donald Trump’s request for $250 billion to supplement a program for small 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 Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to give the unanimous consent necessary to fast-track Trump’s request. 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.”
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“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 the billions more Democrats want to add to the legislation as the virus has caused a record-setting spike in joblessness with unemployment claims overwhelming state systems.
McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin say the Paycheck Protection 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.
[How Maine small businesses can navigate new coronavirus aid programs]
The popular program was championed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and negotiated with top Democrats. But Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, accused McConnell on Thursday of trying to ram through legislation without trying to create the consensus needed to pass a bill into law in the current environment.
Van Hollen 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.”
“This was in fact designed to fail, designed as a political stunt,” Van Hollen said.
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.”
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, D-California, along with McConnell, Mnuchin and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York.
In interviews, Pelosi 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 areas.
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 percent boost in food stamp benefits. Pelosi said McConnell’s request “simply can’t” advance through the Democratic-controlled House under unanimous consent.
The government is 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 state unemployment systems.
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