By ALAN FRAM Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation's largest business organization asked the Trump administration and Congress on Monday to act rapidly to help companies have access to cash and avert a "potentially devastating" hit to the economy as the coronavirus pandemic forced closures and quarantines that threatened to choke off commerce worldwide.
In a letter to President Donald Trump and congressional leaders, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce called for legislation including a three-month cancellation of the taxes companies pay to support Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance.
They also recommended an easing of restrictions on loans for businesses that employ less than 500 workers and an expanded system of loans and loan guarantees for larger companies.
The chamber said in a statement accompanying the letter that acting quickly could "mitigate the potentially devastating economic effects" of the virus' spread.
The chamber's proposals come with talks already underway on a new bill aimed blunting the damage the virus is doing to the economy. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the legislation will focus on direct financial help to individuals, help for businesses such as the airline industry and further steps to support the healthcare system.
Industries representing a broad swath of the economy were seeking help from Congress in withstanding the crisis, which is seeing business closures, layoffs and planned events and travel canceled by the hour.
Retailers, auto manufacturers and companies from the travel, tourism and restaurant industries are among those already seeking help from a new, massive relief bill Congress is expected to work on this week, one top executive of the chamber said in an interview. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Ideas about what Congress should do were also flowing from lawmakers themselves. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, suggested that every American should receive a check for $1,000 "to help ensure families and workers can meet their short-term obligations and increase spending in the economy."
The push for helping business also came as Congress itself struggled to adapt to the ever-evolving perceptions of how people and organizations should change their behavior to curb the infection's spread.
While the House was in recess this week, the 100-member Senate was scheduled to meet and hold an evening vote. While different authorities around the country have issued conflicting advice, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that there be no gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks.
No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois said Sunday that amid warnings about gathering in crowds, it "makes no sense" for senators to board planes to return to Washington to approve a separate House-approved bill providing help for workers affected by the virus. "Set an example for America, Senator McConnell. Think about our staff, their families and our constituents, as well as your Senate colleagues," Durbin said.
In the Chamber's letter, CEO Thomas J. Donohue said his organization considers the crisis "a temporary event" and said it expects that much business activity that's halted now will occur after the virus eases.
Nonetheless, Donohue wrote, "No family and no business should go bankrupt just because of the temporary disruption in income caused by the coronavirus."
The letter did not specify the overall cost of the chamber's requests. But it said that halting businesses' payments of payroll taxes alone would cost over $100 billion per month.
The Chamber's executive who spoke privately said the price tag on its proposal for business loans were hard to estimate because of unknowns that include the length and severity of the economic downturn.
The group also made more than two dozen other recommendations it said would help keep trade and supply chains flowing, support companies' operations and supporting workers.
These included working with other major nations on standards for allowing air cargo crews to keep working; an easing of required pension plan contributions this year; and letting employers get normally private information about employees' health.
The House last week approved a separate relief measure aimed chiefly at workers that included free coronavirus testing and paid sick leave. A nearly empty House — with most of its members away on a one-week recess — convened Monday, planning to adopt a resolution to make technical changes to the measure.
The Senate is expected to turn to that legislation this week and is under pressure to send it to Trump quickly. However, another business group and a handful of Republicans were saying they wanted to make changes in the measure.
"I don't think the House bill is going to pass the Senate as it's written for one basic problem: It doesn't go far enough and it doesn't go fast enough. There are too many gaps in coverage for the smallest businesses and medium-sized businesses," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said Monday on Fox News' "Fox and Friends." He also said he and "a lot of other senators" think the House measure doesn't get cash into affected workers' hands fast enough.
In addition, the National Federation of Independent Business wrote to House leaders that it opposed that chamber's relief bill. The measure "would limit flexibility in adjusting to a rapidly changing environment and impose potentially unsustainable mandates on small business," wrote Kevin Kuhlman, the group's top lobbyist.
The federation has hundreds of thousands of small business members in every state, making them an influential group in Congress.
Earlier this month, Congress approved yet another measure providing $8.3 billion for federal action aimed at helping the government combat the virus' spread. That bill, which Trump quickly signed into law, provided federal agencies money for vaccines, tests and potential treatments, and to help state and local governments respond to the threat.
AP reporters Andrew Taylor, Lisa Mascaro and Matthew Daly contributed to this story.
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