Another Round of Covid Stimulus?

Another Round of Covid Stimulus?

Dado Ruvic

As the omicron variant of the coronavirus drives a record surge in Covid-19 cases, some members of Congress have held early discussions about another round of economic stimulus.

The Washington Post’s Tony Romm was first to report that Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) have been leading talks about a new business-focused stimulus in recent weeks and last month outlined a roughly $68 billion proposal that could include new funding and also repurpose some previously approved spending.

“The efforts have focused primarily on authorizing billions of dollars to help an array of businesses — including restaurants, performance venues, gyms and even minor league sports teams — that face another potential blow to their already-battered balance sheets as a result of the evolving pandemic,” Romm writes.

Cardin told reporters Wednesday that the proposal is focused on restaurants, many of which did not receive aid from a $28.6 billion grant program enacted in March 2021 as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. He added that the proposal could still get broadened. "We started with restaurants but we're prepared to expand it if we can have the necessary support," he said. "There's other industries that have legitimate concerns."

Wicker told reporters Wednesday that half of eligible restaurants did not receive money under the previous Restaurant Revitalization Fund “because it was not adequately funded.”

Cardin and Wicker have reportedly sought to build support for the idea of a business-focused stimulus in talks with senators from both parties, including Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Mark Warner (D-VA) and Susan Collins (R-ME).

No new push from the White House: But CNN’s John Harwood and Betsy Klein report that the early talks about another aid package “were shelved before any legislation was introduced and there was no buy-in from Senate leadership.” They add that a senior Biden administration official shot down the idea of additional stimulus beyond possibly some aid for restaurants.

"No. There might be something small for restaurants. But the economy is booming, there are millions of open jobs, and we do not believe people should be sitting at home if they are vaccinated and boosted, as most adults are," the senior official told CNN. “So we are not going to write checks to incentivize people to sit at home, and we are not going to bail out businesses if the economy seems strong.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki sounded a similar note Wednesday. "We did a major relief package that included helping restaurants just last year," Psaki told reporters. "We are in constant discussions with Congress and leadership about the needs of the American people, whether they are small businesses or restaurants or people sitting in their homes as we continue to fight the pandemic, but don’t have any new pending request or specific requests and wouldn’t predict that at this moment in time.”

Concerns rising among some lawmakers: Congress has thus far approved nearly $6 trillion in pandemic relief funding, and any effort to provide additional aid are likely to face pushback from some Republicans, which may make it difficult to get the 10 GOP votes needed for any new aid to clear the Senate. Bloomberg’s Erik Wasson reports that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, is skeptical of the proposal and wants more details on how it would be structured.

Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), meanwhile, told Insider that he would be open to bipartisan discussions about an additional aid package targeted to restaurants, noting that the funding would have to be focused on “keeping people working, keeping things being produced, as opposed to just free money somewhere.”

At the same time, concern is reportedly rising among some lawmakers that additional aid will be needed beyond the restaurant industry.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has started evaluating “the need for additional resources for vaccines, therapeutics, testing and other needs,” a committee aide told Romm, who adds that some House Democrats have discussed adding aid money, if needed, to a bill funding the government through September. Democrats have also been calling for a renewal of the monthly Child Tax Credit payments that expired at the end of the year (see more on this below).

The bottom line: An additional aid package for restaurants and other small businesses is at least on lawmakers’ radar now, but it’s not clear how much support it can win. But as of now, lawmakers are unlikely to provide any additional stimulus for individuals like the direct payments or enhanced unemployment benefits approved earlier in the pandemic. “With millions of job openings that are going unfilled, Congress is going to be hesitant to provide something that could be seen as being a disincentive to filling those positions,” Ed Mills, Washington policy analyst at Raymond James, told CNBC.