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Biden eyes COVID stimulus, as Trump admin waffles

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Sen. Chris Coons

Sen. Chris Coons

WILMINGTON With the dark cloud of the coronavirus pandemic looming over the country, there could be a small silver lining for businesses with a second relief package under President-elect Joe Biden, according to U.S. Sen. Chris Coons.

“My hope is that we have an administration that takes this pandemic seriously and negotiates a bipartisan package … I expect that once he is president to communicate with Congress regularly and work with us on trying to enact a [COVID relief] package,” Coons said in a Nov. 13 webinar hosted by the Delaware Business Times. “It’s my hope that during the transition time we will see a relief package that should have happened months ago.”

Coons, who serves on the Senate Small Business Committee and is a close friend of Biden, noted that the spirit of bipartisanship that led to passing the $2.3 trillion CARES Act which created the more than $500 billion Paycheck Protection Program and as well as direct stimulus checks has long faded as time marched on. 

Seven months earlier, House Democrats passed the Heroes Act, a $3 trillion second round of stimulus funds, but Coons said that the Senate has “done nothing” due to disagreement on the package. Before the election, Democratic leadership and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin were discussing a deal between $1.8 and $2.2 trillion.

For Congress, Coons said that top priorities in new legislation were to simplify the loan programs’ application process and forgiveness terms, including ensuring there is no tax liability on PPP and Economic Injury Disaster Loans, ensuring smaller borrowers only have to certify its use instead of a more thorough review, and those applying for loans between $50,000 to $150,000 would do it in one page or less.

While there is bipartisan agreement on these aspects, Coons said he’s unsure Congress will be able to pass it by the end of the year, since there is larger debate about the final price tag and whether direct stimulus checks, which averaged $1,200 per adult in the first round, would return. To Coons, the greatest unknown is whether President Trump would sign it in the waning days of a lame-duck session.

“In the last six weeks, President Trump has gone back and forth saying he wouldn’t sign anything and he wanted to go bigger… he has been largely absent from these negotiations, and it’s literally been driven by [White House Chief of Staff] Mark Meadows and Mnuchin, and at times they would go into negotiations and say opposite things,” he said.

Coons was confident that, as president, Biden would take a more active role in these negotiations, but the top priority for the incoming commander-in-chief would be getting the pandemic under control.

“The most important thing the Biden-Harris administration can do for businesses is listen to the scientists and public health officials,” he said. “If we have an unchecked spread nationwide, we are going to careen to shutdowns across the country. President-elect Biden is already trying to get those governors that have resisted mandating masks, or putting some restrictions on operating hours and operating practices.”

Early signals to the Biden administration’s attitude to small business will be found in his selection of administrator to the Small Business Administration and the secretary of the U.S. Commerce Department. Other key organizations would also include regulatory offices like the Federal Reserve, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation as well as how they prioritize access to capital for small businesses, Coons said.

“Based on my conversation with the head of the treasury and the Biden administration transition team for that you’ll see a sustained engagement with small business by the incoming administration,” he added.

Looking ahead, Coons said moving health care reform would be the “biggest lifts” facing Congress in the next administration, even without the U.S. Supreme Court’s impending decision on the Affordable Care Act. 

The future of Opportunity Zones, a popular reinvestment tool for census tracts designated as economically distressed, also remained unclear. Coons had worked with Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) on the initial bill that proposed Opportunity Zones, but he said he found them difficult to take full advantage of due to regulations in how the Treasury Department rolls it out.

“With a new administration and a new Treasury Secretary, I hope we’ll look at them and reimagine them, not get rid of them,” Coons said. “The STAR Campus is in an Opportunity Zone, and that has helped incentivize investment and there’s ways we could accelerate that investment in lab space.”

By Katie Tabeling

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