Senate passes fix for small-business coronavirus relief

FILE - In this May 3, 2020, file photo, light shines from inside the U.S. Capitol dome at dusk on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
FILE - In this May 3, 2020, file photo, light shines from inside the U.S. Capitol dome at dusk on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – The Senate on Wednesday passed legislation to make it easier for businesses struggling during the coronavirus pandemic to take advantage of a payroll subsidy program that's been a central part of Washington's response to the corresponding economic crisis.

The Senate passed the bill by voice vote after a handful of GOP opponents gave way. The measure now heads to President Donald Trump for his expected signature.

The legislation would give business owners more flexibility to use taxpayer subsidies for other costs and extend the lifespan of the program as the economy continues to struggle through record joblessness and a deep recession.

It passed the House overwhelmingly last week on a 417-1 vote, but was briefly held up this week as Republican leaders sought to placate opponents such as Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson.

The legislation would lower an original requirement that at least 75% of Paycheck Protection Program money be used on payroll costs, reducing that threshold to 60% of the loan. It would also lengthen the period in which PPP money must be used — and still permit businesses to have their loans forgiven — from eight week to 24 weeks.

Critics say the pending measure does nothing to ensure that businesses that don’t necessarily need PPP subsidies are ineligible, among other problems.

“If we’re going to potentially authorize more spending, that program needs to be reformed,” Johnson told reporters. “My main problem with what the House did — and this is what’s in dispute — it basically reauthorized the program through Dec. 31, setting up a massive new infusion into the program without the reforms I think really need to be placed so that people who don’t need it don’t keep getting it. We don’t have an unlimited checkbook.”

But the bill had strong support among both Republicans and Democrats and the backing of powerful business groups, which strengthened the hand of supporters like top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer, who had failed earlier Wednesday in his own attempt to orchestrate passage. At that time it became clear Johnson's resolve to block the bill was fading and Schumer and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., reprised the effort only hours later.