WASHINGTON â€” The Senate gave final approval on Wednesday to a measure that would relax the terms of a federal loan program for small businesses struggling amid the pandemic, sending the bill to President Trumpâ€™s desk for his signature.
The legislation, approved overwhelmingly by the House last week to enact changes to the Paycheck Protection Program, would extend to 24 weeks from eight weeks the period that small businesses would have to spend the loan money. Without that change, the time for businesses to use the funds would have lapsed in only a few days.
The measure passed unanimously on Wednesday evening without the full Senate present, marking a rare moment of bipartisanship during a fierce debate over the next round of federal coronavirus relief. Democrats have pushed for another swift injection of billions of dollars in spending, while Republicans have urged restraint with a far leaner package.
Since its inception in the $2.2 trillion stimulus law passed in March, the program has been plagued by problems and controversy, but it remains popular among businesses and lawmakers. Facing a flood of requests for assistance, the program ran out of money, and Congress moved in April to inject an additional $320 billion into the initiative.
â€œThe Senate has always committed to standing behind this popular program,â€ Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said on the Senate floor. â€œIâ€™m proud the Senate is sending it on to the presidentâ€™s desk to become law.â€
Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, initially objected on Wednesday to an attempt by Democrats to pass the legislation without a formal roll call vote, telling his colleagues that more clarity was needed about the changes. To satisfy those concerns, Mr. McConnell submitted a letter clarifying that the congressional intent was to extend the time frame to spend the loan money until the end of the year, not the period by which to apply for the program.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, praised the legislation, and said that he and Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, spoke to Mr. Johnson about his concerns. â€œThis is an improvement that is much-needed and comes at the last minute, but not too late,â€ Mr. Schumer said.
The legislation approved Wednesday would eliminate a number of restrictions in the program, including limitations on how the funds could be spent, in an effort to make the initiative more accessible to local restaurants, hotels and hospitality businesses.
It would also give companies greater flexibility to use the loan money on other business expenses, like utilities and rent, by lowering the amount required to be spent on payroll to 60 percent, from 75 percent.
But some lawmakers remained concerned about the change to the amount required to be spent on payroll, with some Republicans warning that the language could result in some businesses being penalized and required to repay their loans in their entirety.
Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Susan Collins of Maine, the Republican architects of the program, said they were likely to pursue legislation that would provide a technical change that ensures that businesses can have their loans forgiven in some form regardless of how they spend the money.
â€œThe fundamental challenge was basically, you have a bunch of people out there with loans that are about to hit the eight-week limit,â€ Mr. Rubio said earlier Wednesday, calling the process â€œa race against time.â€