Coronavirus relief deal possible Sunday for U.S. small businesses -officials

by Reuters
Sunday, 19 April 2020 18:03 GMT

(Adds Republican conference call, New York governor Cuomo comment)

By Lindsay Dunsmuir and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON, April 19 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers are very close to an agreement on approving extra money to help small businesses hurt by the coronavirus pandemic and could seal a deal as early as Sunday, congressional and Trump administration officials said.

"I think we're very close to a deal today and I'm hopeful we can get that done," U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in an interview with CNN.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer also said he hoped an agreement with Republicans could be reached as early as Sunday evening. Schumer cautioned, however, that both sides had a few more issues to deal with.

An agreement would end a stalemate that has lasted more than a week over Republican President Donald Trump's request to add $250 billion to a small-business loan program. Congress established the program last month as part of a $2.3 trillion coronavirus economic relief plan, but it has already run out of money.

Senate Republicans and Mnuchin were on a conference call on Sunday afternoon, said a senior Republican aide who requested anonymity, adding that he believed Trump had also joined the call.

Democratic leaders had wanted more money for small businesses but with additional safeguards to ensure that credit is reaching businesses in underserved communities. They also sought more coronavirus response funds for state and local governments and hospitals, as well as food aid for the poor.

Mnuchin said the current measure being negotiated did not contain new funding for state and local governments.

"The president has heard from governors and he's prepared to discuss that in the next bill," Mnuchin said. Congress plans to take up another major coronavirus relief legislation after the small business fund is replenished.

The United States has by far the world's largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 740,000 infections and over 40,000 deaths. State governors are sparring with Trump who wants them to reopen their economies.

Governors of hard hit states such as New York and New Jersey have said they need more federal funding for increased testing for the presence of the coronavirus and to cope with the pandemic's effect on their budgets.

If the federal government wants to reopen and stimulate the U.S. economy, they need to support states' efforts to fund their operations, said Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican.

"If we're going to be laying off tens of thousands of people at the time where they want to reopen the economy, we're going to be swimming against the current they're trying to create," Baker said on CBS "Face the Nation."

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state faced a budget deficit of up to $15 billion and that could spell cuts in state funding for schools and hospitals, which he said would be ludicrous at this time.

"You have the president saying 15 times, it's up to the governors, it's up to the governors, it's up to the governors. And then they're going to pass a piece of legislation that gives you know what to states? Zero," Cuomo said at his daily coronavirus briefing.

Mnuchin said the deal would include another $300 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program, a forgivable loan program for small businesses, after the initial tranche of $350 billion was exhausted on Thursday, less than two weeks after the scheme launched.

He said there would be $75 billion allocated to hospitals and a $25 billion federal program "that can be used with the states with new technology to invest in testing."

About $50 billion would be added to the Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loan fund, another program to help small businesses, he said.

Earlier, Vice President Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, also said a deal was very close.

Neither addressed details of the emerging agreement, but Pelosi told ABC's "This Week" that she wanted the additional funds in the package to help police and fire departments, teachers, health care workers and hospitals. Democrats also wanted to make sure the money is reaching "all of America's small businesses."

The SBA said last week that roughly 1.6 million loans had been made already, but many small business owners have said they missed out, particularly those that did not have an existing business customer relationship with participating lenders.

(Reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir, Susan Cornwell and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Additional reporting by Gabriela Borter and Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Grant McCool)

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