The Senate may soon put the bipartisan limits on pandemic spending to the test, as Democratic leaders prepare to introduce a small-business aid package to the floor that includes provisions that have bipartisan support.
However, in an inflation-fueled election year, where Republicans are loath to support any new federal spending that isn’t fully offset, the $48 billion package faces strong headwinds. That was the GOP demand for a separate $10 billion bill to increase funding for COVID-19 therapeutics, testing, and vaccines, which has stalled due to a disagreement over a pandemic-related border policy, which could jeopardize the small-business bill as well.
The business aid package, led by Small Business Chair Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., and Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., has only $5 billion in offsets — barely one-tenth of the total spending — from unspent funds in the now-defunct Paycheck Protection Program. This program provided forgivable loans to small businesses in order to keep workers on the payroll during shutdowns.
While more than a dozen Senate Democrats have stated their support for the bill, none of the Republicans have done so, with the exception of Wicker. CQ Roll Call reached out to 70 senators — 46 Democrats, 23 Republicans, and one independent — who have co-sponsored at least one previous business aid bill on which the new package is based, excluding Cardin and Wicker.
The Restaurant Revitalization Fund will be replenished with $40 billion as part of the package. Congress included a $28.6 billion appropriation for the grant program in a 2021 pandemic relief package, but only one-third of qualified applicants received money before funds ran out.
Another cash infusion quickly gained bipartisan support, ensuring that the remaining two-thirds of qualified restaurants, bars, and other food service businesses received at least some assistance.
Wicker, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Mississippi’s Cindy Hyde-Smith, Louisiana’s Bill Cassidy, and Maine’s Susan Collins were among the Republicans who co-sponsored both bills, with a seventh, Missouri’s Roy Blunt, signing on to the Cardin bill first.
When Congress returns from recess next week, the Independent Restaurant Coalition, which has been lobbying for the bill, plans to make another push for action. “The IRC is in close contact with Senate leadership, as well as Senators Wicker and Cardin, and is hopeful that their proposal will be voted on,” a spokesperson said.
Other parts of the Senate package, such as aid for gyms, minor league baseball teams, border-region businesses, and live venue service and support companies, have received bipartisan support as stand-alone bills. Under the new Senate bill, those industries would receive nearly $6 billion in total: $2 billion for gyms and live event servicers, $500 million for minor league sports teams, and $1.4 billion for small businesses near land ports of entry that were closed due to the pandemic.
The bill’s final $2 billion is allocated to transportation service providers. While there is no current stand-alone bill for that industry, one from the previous Congress received broad bipartisan support in 2020, with 23 Republicans cosponsoring it. However, after Democrats took control of the Senate and the White House in 2021, the GOP’s appetite for pandemic spending waned.
Most of the 23 Republican senators who co-sponsored at least one of the aforementioned business aid bills did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment on the broader package. Only a few people responded, and those who did expressed opposition to new spending that isn’t offset.
An aide to Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., who co-sponsored the transportation provider bill last Congress, said he assists Louisiana small businesses in obtaining hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding through the annual appropriations process, and that spending beyond that requires offsets.