Senate extends program to help small businesses after Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee drops hold on bill

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Sen. Mike Lee answers questions at a town hall in Draper on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.

Washington • The Senate on Wednesday passed legislation to expand the time small businesses and nonprofits have to spend money under a program aimed at helping them stay afloat during the coronavirus outbreak.

The passage came after Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, won assurances that the extension only applies to money received and not additional time to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, which can be essentially forgiven by lenders if the employer keeps its staff on payroll during the crisis.

Lee earlier Wednesday had promised to hold up quick passage of the legislation — already approved overwhelmingly by the House — because he wanted the program to end Aug. 15 rather than the Dec. 31 as the measure called for.

“Sen. Lee secured a letter signed by the chairmen and ranking members of the Small Business Committee today clarifying that the amendments to the Paycheck Protection Program passed today only extend the program’s spending deadlines and do not extend the deadline for the issuance of new loans," Lee spokesman Conn Carroll said Wednesday night. "With the additional clarity provided by the letter, Sen. Lee feels comfortable allowing the legislation to pass by unanimous consent.”

The Senate passed the bill by voice vote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had planned to take up the House-passed legislation this week that would give small businesses and nonprofits until the end of 2020 to spend money they got through the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, which was part of a package of bills Congress approved to help amid the pandemic.

McConnell had hoped to take up the bill by unanimous consent, a procedural move that would allow it to pass without the usual several day delay required in the Senate.

“I hope and anticipate the Senate will soon take up and pass legislation that just passed the House by an overwhelming vote of 417-1 to further strengthen the Paycheck Protection Program so it continues working for small businesses that need our help,” McConnell said Monday.

But Lee, a Utah Republican, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., had planned to block the effort.

“Sen. Lee believes that PPP was intended to be a short term solution and that loan applications should be limited to August 15th,” Carroll said earlier Wednesday.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was a sponsor of the program’s extension, which would extend the loan’s forgiveness period to 24 weeks rather than the eight weeks and allows businesses and nonprofits to spend more money on other expenses rather than mostly on employee wages.

“This bill also allows greater flexibility for businesses to use these funds to cover other necessary costs beyond payroll," Romney said. "This extension will be crucial for many of our small businesses who still remain closed or far from full capacity as we fight COVID-19.”

Loans from the PPP have been a lifeline to businesses and nonprofits during the outbreak, which shuttered a quarter of the American economy.

The House bill would allow recipients to expend funds they received over a longer period of time as well as use a larger portion of the money to go to nonpayroll expenses.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune, a nonprofit, is a recipient of Paycheck Protection Act money.