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Coronavirus updates: Senate blocks small business loan legislation

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  • Senate Democrats block an effort to unanimously pass $250 billion more for a small business loan program approved as part of the $2 trillion relief plan last month. 
  • Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., objected to a request from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to quickly approve the funding. 
  • The Trump administration cited strong demand for the loans this week as it asked Congress for more money for the program, which is designed to help small businesses keep employees on payroll. 

VIDEO2:2402:24Democrats block request from McConnell for unanimous consent to more coronavirus reliefSquawk on the Street

Senate Democrats on Thursday blocked a Republican push to unanimously pass a bill to put $250 billion more into a loan program for small businesses devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. 

With only a few senators in the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to approve the measure by a unanimous vote. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., objected to the request, stalling the legislation. 

Speaking on the Senate floor, McConnell said he was not "talking about changing any policy language" the parties negotiated last month as part of an unprecedented $2 trillion emergency spending package. He urged Democrats not to "block emergency aid you do not even oppose just because you want something more" — tweaks to the small business aid program and more emergency funding for hospitals and states, a proposal Democratic leaders outlined Wednesday. 

After Cardin rejected the measure, he called McConnell's move to pass the funding a "political stunt." He pushed for provisions including money for Small Business Administration disaster assistance grants, which people who do not already have a banking relationship can receive. 

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leaves for the night after the day's efforts to wrap up work on coronavirus economic aid legislation to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2020.Mary F. Calvert | REUTERS

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., then tried to unanimously pass a Democratic amendment. McConnell blocked it, and the Senate adjourned until Monday after a roughly 30-minute pro forma session. 

It is unclear if Republicans and Democrats will try to reach agreement on emergency legislation to pass in the coming days. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated she could try to pass a Democratic bill on Friday — which Republicans can likely block with most representatives out of Washington. 

McConnell said the small business aid is the only part of the $2 trillion rescue law "at risk of exhausting its funding right now."

The Trump administration cited strong demand for the loans this week as it asked Congress for more money for the program, which is designed to help small businesses keep employees on payroll. Lawmakers initially approved $350 billion for loans. They can be forgiven partly or fully if companies use them on expenses such as payroll, rent and utilities. 

On Wednesday, Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asked for an emergency bill to include $250 billion for hospitals, health care systems, state and local governments and food assistance programs, on top of money for small companies. However, Pelosi said she only wanted $125 billion for the existing program specifically, and another $125 billion for community-based lenders and SBA disaster assistance loans and grants. 

The Democrats said they wanted the bill to be separate from another package they hope to pass to extend major provisions of the $2 trillion emergency measure, such as direct payments to individuals, enhanced unemployment insurance and state grants. 

After the small business loan program started Friday, reports emerged about confusion around applications, loan terms and eligibility. Democrats also said they worried it left out rural business owners, farmers and small firms who do not already work with a bank participating in the program. 

McConnell contended Democrats did not need to attach other emergency funding measures to the small business plan. 

"Nobody believes this is the Senate's last word on COVID-19. We don't have to do everything right now," he said. 

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