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“We Don’t Have the Luxury of Time.” Americans Suffer as the Passage of a New COVID Relief Bill Is Complicated by Ginsburg’s Death

7 minute read

When Corissa Hernandez first heard that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, she was personally devastated. She credits Ginsburg’s advancement of women’s rights for her ability as a Latina to become a restaurant owner in Los Angeles. But within days, as it became clear that Senate Republicans intended to move forward immediately with confirming Ginsburg’s replacement, pushing aside all other issues—including the passage of a new COVID-19 economic relief package—her grief was compounded by a new anxiety about her own future.

“I’m terrified,” says Hernandez. “As it is, in the six months that we’ve all been experiencing a pandemic, the statistics are showing we’ve already lost 40 percent of black owned small businesses and 32 percent of Latino small businesses. We don’t have the luxury of time on our side. We need relief and we need it now.”

Last spring, Hernandez received a $75,000 loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). That money helped her keep her business afloat and 5 of her 8 employees on payroll. But as the pandemic continued to ravage Los Angeles into the summer, she had to temporarily shut down her restaurant and those PPP funds are now depleted. Hernandez thought that maybe Congress would pass another relief package this fall, affording her another loan, but the new focus on the Supreme Court confirmation has all but eliminated that hope.

“I was much more optimistic, this time last Thursday that I am now,” said Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, referring to the day before Ginsburg’s death. “But we need to do something. The elements are there to get it done but it could be there’s just not enough oxygen left in the room to get that done.”

House Democrats announced on Thursday that they were drafting legislation for a new $2.4 trillion relief package—a trillion dollars less than the bill they passed in May, and a clear effort to appeal to Republicans, who’d balked at the price tag of their original bill. But that’s hardly reason for Hernandez to celebrate. Any bill, even if it passes the House, would need the support of at least thirteen Republican Senators and the White House. And as the fight over Ginsburg’s replacement begins to consume Washington, Senate Republicans, who were barely able to reach a consensus among themselves on a fourth round of relief this past summer, seem to have little appetite for another fight.

“I think we’re seeing more and more in both parties tell their leadership that they want to get their parts done that we can agree to,” said Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho. “But I don’t know it’s at that point that I can tell you we expect something soon.” (Crapo made these comments before House Democrats announced plans for a new bill Thursday afternoon.)

But millions of Americans, including Hernandez, say federal relief can hardly come soon enough. In recent weeks, several federal economic relief programs that were included in previous relief bills have expired. The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which provided an additional weekly $600, ended on July 31. The Paycheck Protection Program that had supplied businesses like Herndanez’s with potentially forgivable loans, stopped accepting applications on August 8. And the Payroll Support Program, which has been providing airlines with financial assistance to keep workers on payroll, expires on October 1. If no renewal agreement is reached for the latter, hundreds of thousands of airline employees may find themselves furloughed.

Meanwhile, the number of deaths in the United States just topped 200,000 and the unemployment rate, while slowly decreasing, is still at 8.4%—more than double what it was before the pandemic began.

Lobbyists and outside groups, particularly those representing industries like restaurants and other small businesses in the hospitality industry that have been flattened by the fallout, have been pushing for more relief for months, to no avail. In the days since Ginsburg’s death, they have ratcheted up their calls for action to ensure they don’t become collateral damage in the race to confirm Ginsburg’s replacement.

“We recognize the huge loss that comes with the passing of Justice Rith Bader Ginsburg and we understand the attention of Congress is trained on commemorating her remarkable life and legacy and determining a path of forward for the seat on the court that is now vacant,” Doug Parker, the CEO of American Airlines, said in a September 22 press conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday, which was organized by airlines and unions to push for a six month extension of the Payroll Support Program, “but we know that is far from the only challenge our country is facing.”

On Sept. 21, the Small Business Roundtable wrote a letter to Congressional leadership on behalf of 30 million small businesses claiming “business failures in the next several months will skyrocket” if Congress does not pass a relief package by the month. Two days later, leadership received a letter from the Save Small Business Coalition and Chamber of Commerce expressing similar views.

“I’m hearing from operators and restaurant owners every day telling me they’re going to make business decisions for October based on what Congress does this week,” says Sean Kennedy, executive Vice President at the National Restaurant Association. “The stakes are that high. Restaurants have that small a runway to work with.”

While many of these officials spent the summer furious at lawmakers of both parties for failing to reach an agreement, the frustration in recent days has been compounded by Republicans’ haste to unify around a Ginsburg replacement.

“We’re not partisan and we’re not taking a position on the Supreme Court or any nominee. But we’re very much about Congress having its priorities straight,” says John Arensmeyer, the CEO of Small Business Majority, a group that advocates for small businesses and has been pushing Congress to renew the Paycheck Protection Program. “We’re not saying at some point they shouldn’t consider the vacancy obviously. We’re saying to fast track it and to further delay reaching some kind of agreement on critical economic policies seems like their priorities are out of order.”

Procedurally, it is much easier for the Senate to confirm a judicial nominee than pass a massive economic stimulus package. The former merely requires a majority vote in the Senate alone, where Republicans already control 53 seats. The latter requires support from both chambers, including 60 votes in the Senate, and the President’s signature.

But polling shows that Americans are significantly more enthusiastic about the idea of Congress passing another round of economic relief funding than they are at the prospects of filling Ginsburg’s vacant seat. Even Washington lobbyists, schooled on Senate procedure, are frustrated that voters’ demands aren’t front and center.

“As much as folks pay attention to high profile things like the Supreme Court, the first place they pay attention to, if they’re a business owner, is to their business. And if they’re a worker or an unemployed person, the first thing they pay attention to is their own finances. I would expect that we see growing frustration with the fact that Washington couldn’t come together on [coronavirus relief,” says Neil Bradley, Chief Policy officer at the Chamber of Commerce, who worked for House Republican leadership for more than a decade. “It’s a frustration driven by the real world consequences of Congress failing to get a deal.”

Some observers saw hope in Democrats’ Thursday announcement of a new, pared-down proposal. “I am feeling way more optimistic today than yesterday,” said Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

But for people like Hernandez, who have been awaiting relief for weeks, every week that passes feels like a kick in the shins. Washington’s apparent willingness to ignore the pressing economic needs of Americans like her sends a clear message, she says: “We are of no priority.”

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Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com