Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler has revived her push to extend a program that delivers forgivable loans to businesses that retain their employees through COVID-19 closures.
Speaking from the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., the Battle Ground Republican said Thursday that reestablishing the Paycheck Protection Program shouldn't be a partisan issue.
"We're here because we want the families and the individuals and the businesses in our districts and across this country to survive," Herrera Beutler said. "Heading into Hanukkah, heading into Christmas, we don't want them sending their team members into the unemployment line, where, by the way, the unemployment benefits are also stalled."
The Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, is a $650 billion fund distributed by the federal Small Business Administration. It offered loans to businesses to help them pay employees' salaries and benefits for up to eight weeks. If the employer could show they'd spent at least 60 percent of the funds on maintaining their payroll through the crisis, the loans were forgiven.
Companies with fewer than 500 employees were eligible for the PPP, including independent contractors and sole proprietors.
The program started accepting applications from businesses impacted by the coronavirus on April 3. It expired on Aug. 8, and it hasn't reopened since. For Herrera Beutler, extending the PPP has emerged as her key priority during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We knew months before that the date that it was going to expire. We have known for most of this year that this would be a problem," Herrera Beutler said.
She added that $135 billion remains unspent in the program's pot of funds.
"We don't have to spend new money," Herrera Beutler stressed. "It's there. All we have to do is change the dates to allow those loans to be accessed. That's it. And the reason that this hasn't moved is because it's a political football."
In September, Herrera Beutler attempted a legislative maneuver that would have forced a standalone vote on the PPP, divorced from a broader COVID-19 relief package. The maneuver — a discharge petition — is one way that members of the minority party can circumvent House leadership and force an issue to the floor.
Herrera Beutler's petition received 186 of her colleagues' signatures, falling short of the 218 signatures needed to compel action. A spokesperson for the congresswoman, Craig Wheeler, pointed to a Sept. 27 letter urging bipartisanship during COVID-19 legislation negotiations, signed by 23 House Democrats.
"We're still waiting on solution-oriented Democrats to help us break the logjam. If the 23 Democrats who signed this letter would follow through on their threats and sign, that would just about put us over the top," Wheeler said in an email.
Nationwide, around 700,000 businesses accessed PPP loans this year. According to Herrera Beutler, the program helped retain almost 95,000 jobs in the 3rd Congressional District alone, which encompasses Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis, Pacific, Wahkiakum, Skamania and Klickitat counties and part of Thurston County.
"House Democrats have shown that they'd rather use the fate of these small businesses as a bargaining chip," Herrera Beutler said. "It's well past time to break this logjam. Congress must act now."
Earlier last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed a $908 billion version of a COVID-19 relief package that would reestablish the PPP. It's a much slimmer version of the comprehensive, $2.2 trillion legislation championed by House Democrats — the narrower plan would omit sending a second round of direct relief checks to individuals and families, which served as the cornerstone of the CARES Act in May.
Democrat and President-elect Joe Biden signaled his support for the scaled-back version of the bill.
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