Less than two weeks after U.S. lawmakers passed the largest economic relief package in the country's history, Congress is set to advance even more funding Thursday to help struggling American workers.
The measure would provide additional funding for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a $350 billion program that is part of the broader Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act.
That $2.2 trillion rescue package was quickly written and passed by Congress late last month, as businesses nationwide dealt with the economic fallout of coronavirus stay-at-home orders.
The temporary closure of millions of businesses triggered historic levels of unemployment, with nearly 10 million Americans filing assistance claims in a two-week span in March. That marked the worst period for unemployment filings since 1982. Many analysts predict those numbers could soon reach levels last seen in the United States during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
The CARES Act gives federal unemployment benefits of $600 a week to laid-off and out-of-work Americans in addition to state unemployment benefits. The new bills also make benefits available for the first time to the self-employed and small-business owners.
The PPP gives loans to small businesses to cover their payroll and expenses during the economic slowdown. According to the White House, the Small Business Administration has awarded over 220,000 loans totaling $66 billion as of April 7, just five days into availability of the program. In a request to Congress, the White House asked lawmakers for an increase of $251 billion for the program.
"It is quickly becoming clear that Congress will need to provide more funding, or this crucial program may run dry," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement Tuesday. "That cannot happen. Nearly 10 million Americans filed for unemployment in just the last two weeks. This is already a record-shattering tragedy, and every day counts."
The program had a rocky rollout when it opened for applications last Friday. Many business owners were deemed ineligible to apply because their business banks were not on the list of lenders participating in the government program. Others reported long hold times to obtain information on applications that had been quickly written to encompass a rapidly changing situation.
In a joint statement Wednesday, congressional Democrats appeared to support the increase, while calling for some of that new funding to be directed to women, minority and veteran-owned businesses.
"As Democrats have said since day one, Congress must provide additional relief for small businesses and families, building on the strong down payment made in the bipartisan CARES Act," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said.
The U.S. Senate is set to vote on the increase Thursday, using fast-track procedures that would pass the measure without requiring most senators to fly back to Washington. The legislation would then move to the House of Representatives for a likely vote on Friday.
Republican Congressman Thomas Massie has already tweeted concerns about fast-tracking the legislation in the House. He voiced similar objections to the CARES Act vote last month, forcing many members to fly back to Washington to establish the necessary numbers to overcome his objection.
But there appears to be bipartisan consensus to move quickly on the increases and get the legislation to President Donald Trump to be signed into law.
"We have days, NOT weeks to address this," Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the co-sponsors of the PPP legislation, tweeted Tuesday.
Negotiations on a second-round economic relief package are already under way, with lawmakers set to return to session on Capitol Hill on April 20.
Pelosi initially proposed legislation heavy on infrastructure initiatives that would address broader problems exposed by the coronavirus outbreak — failures in broadband technology and the nation's crumbling roads and bridges. But that approach did not gain sufficient traction.
Democrats will likely ask for another round of direct payments to Americans, even as the first $1,200 payments to many lower- and middle-class Americans are set to be distributed through April.
A proposal for vote-by-mail is also likely to receive a renewed push following criticism of Tuesday's primary election in Wisconsin, the first state to hold in-person elections since coronavirus stay-at-home orders went into effect.
In a press call with reporters Tuesday, Schumer also called for $25,000 pay increases for essential emergency and health care workers fighting the coronavirus.
"No proposal will be complete without addressing the need for essential workers," Schumer said.