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Democrats and Republicans play chicken as coronavirus urgency grows

Yet Republicans aren’t budging in their insistence that the small-business funding is the only measure that can pass unanimously. And they say it’s the only money that is needed immediately given that the coffers for other programs aren’t yet empty. Still, banks say it’s unclear whether the funds will run out this week or later this month.

The negotiations are complicated by Congress’ unusual posture amid the coronavirus crisis, with lawmakers from both houses working from their home states and unlikely to return to Washington until May at the earliest.

Both chambers were initially due to return April 20. But House leaders announced Monday that the chamber wouldn’t be back until at least May 4, unless lawmakers need to fly back for an emergency session. The Senate, which is also expected to extend its recess, could make an announcement as soon as Tuesday.

Both chambers have been operating in pro forma skeleton sessions, that allow only a single lawmaker to derail everything. Republican aides said conservatives will reject any spending beyond the Paycheck Protection Program; the next Senate pro forma session is Thursday. The House is in Tuesday, and Pelosi continues to insist a small-business-only bill would be quickly rejected in her chamber.

While the dispute centers around what leaders are calling an interim bill, the amount of money being discussed is massive. Governors want $500 billion for state and local governments, Republicans want $250 billion for small businesses and Democrats also want $100 billion for hospitals. The bill passed at the end of March was $2.2 trillion.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sought to approve that $250 billion for small businesses last week while Democrats countered with their own $500 billion proposal. Both efforts failed, but as a result of the impasse Republicans believe Democrats will be caught holding the bag when the Paycheck Protection Program is oversubscribed later this week.

“[House Minority Leader Kevin] McCarthy and McConnell are pretty much dug in,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is close to McConnell. “If we get to the point where basically we run out money for this program … that’s going to be an unsustainable position. So I think time is not on Schumer’s and Pelosi’s side.”

Yet Democrats say it’s a fight worth having. Pelosi told House Democrats on a private call Monday that McConnell could try to bring up the GOP bill during the Senate’s next pro forma session Thursday. Republicans have not ruled out the possibility that McConnell brings up the legislation again later this month.

“Mitch McConnell wants to do it so he can say we’re against this or that,” Pelosi told Democrats, according to two sources on the call. But she said Democrats didn’t plan to back down, telling her caucus that hospitals and local and state governments are “desperate” for additional funds.

That stance has broad support in the party. Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, one of the handful of red state Democrats left in the Senate, said he does not “feel the urgency” to bend to the GOP’s wishes. He said without more money for hospitals, his state’s rural outposts could be shuttered forever.

“It’s real money, and it’s all borrowed. I’m not opposed to infusing money in tough economic times. What I am opposed to is putting money where it’s not going to do the maximum amount of good,” Tester said in an interview. “If we don’t deal with the health care issue first, the economy is not going to snap back.”

He said the $350 billion Paycheck Protection Program was supposed to last for two months: “So if that isn’t happening we should find out why.”

The Trump administration reported huge demands for the loans, fueling the sense of pressure to approve funding legislation. Add to that an increasingly dire economic outlook as upward of 16 million Americans claimed unemployment benefits in recent weeks. But it’s still unclear how much money has landed in the hands of small businesses after a series of stumbles in the program’s launch.

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