Deadlocked Congress shifts virus focus to small business aid

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In this May 20, 2020, file photo, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Congress is at a crossroads in the Covid-19 crisis. Lawmakers are wrestling over whether to go big as Pelosi wants for the next relief bill or hit pause as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insists. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON – Deadlocked over the next big coronavirus relief bill, Congress is shifting its attention to a more modest overhaul of small business aid in hopes of helping employers reopen shops and survive the pandemic.

Bipartisan legislation that would give small employers more time to take advantage of federal subsidies for payroll and other costs is expected to pass the House this week, as lawmakers return to Washington for an abbreviated two-day session.

Yet absent from the agenda is formal talks between congressional leaders on the next “phase” of the federal coronavirus response. Democrats have already pushed a $3 trillion-plus measure through the House, but negotiations with the GOP-controlled Senate and White House have yet to begin.

“We can’t keep propping up the economy forever,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday in Lexington. It was one of his first public appearances in his home state of Kentucky since mid-March due to the pandemic.

“The ultimate solution is to begin to get back to normal,” he said. “There are three things that are essential to have full normalcy — testing, treatment and vaccine.”

Senate Republicans are divided on the next steps and wary of another sprawling negotiation where Democrats and the White House call the shots. They are also split on a central element — how much aid to provide state and local governments and other coronavirus response after earlier relief bills totaled almost $3 trillion.

Even as they hit “pause” on a larger bill, Republicans are enthusiastic about improving The Paycheck Protection Program, which was established in March under the $2 trillion CARES Act and was replenished last month. All told, Congress has provided about $660 billion for the program,

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a key architect of the aid, said in an interview that the program has shifted from one that was intended to keep paychecks flowing during the shutdown to a bridge to help businesses pay workers as they reopen — in many cases, at less than full capacity.