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Embattled Small Business Bill Inches Forward

The Senate has two weeks until it adjourns for the August recess, and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has promised that legislation to help small businesses is the highest priority on his docket.

Normally, small business bills are the welcome fruits of bipartisan labor. But not this small business bill. On the surface, it seems like a non-controversial piece of legislation — including tax breaks for small businesses, an extension of Small Business Administration programs, provisions to amp up exports and a $30 billion fund to provide backing for loans to small businesses by small banks. (The more small-business loans the bank makes, the lower the interest rate the government charges it.)

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the five-year cost of the small banks fund to be just $3.3 billion. Republicans support the much more expensive tax cuts, which cost $12 billion over 10 years. And the Independent Community Bankers of America, a lobbying group, said the bill would create 500,000 jobs in two years.

But that seemingly innocuous, relatively inexpensive legislation has caused headaches on the Hill for weeks. Reid has repeatedly had to stop and start consideration of the bill in order to move other measures — such as the war-funding bill and unemployment extension.

Moreover, Republicans started castigating the $30 billion fund as a “bailout” reminiscent of the Troubled Asset Relief Plan, which provided massive cash infusions to investment banks to keep them afloat through the credit crunch. “Remember TARP? A lot of people wish they hadn’t voted for it,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) agreed: “If it walks like a duck, if it talks like a duck, if it acts like a duck, it’s a duck. This is TARP.”

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) — a centrist Democrat and the chair of the Small Business Committee — chided Republicans on the floor. “Evidently [Thune] did not open his mail today,” she said, noting that community bankers in South Dakota had vocally supported the legislation. “If I took out the words ‘big government,’ ‘taxes’ or ‘regulation,’ neither the senator from South Dakota nor most of the members on the other side could finish a sentence.”

Additionally, Republicans insisted on considering a number of amendments, such as tax cuts, to the bill — eating up floor time and altering the legislation. Reid blocked them from doing so this week. In response, Republicans promised to filibuster. The legislation seemed imperiled. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats decided to pull the $30 billion fund to appease Republicans.

But last night, to the surprise of many, the bill seemed to start inching forward again. Landrieu had fought hard for the $30 billion fund, and brought two Republicans around to voting for adding it back into the bill. Sens. George LeMieux (Fla.) and George Voinovich (Ohio) joined the present members of the Democratic caucus in voting for the amendment, which beat an attempted filibuster, 60 to 37.

Speaking in the Roosevelt Room today, President Obama pushed hard for the legislation, after praising Congress for passing financial regulatory reform and the unemployment extension. “[L]ast night, after a series of partisan delays, the Senate took an important step forward,” he said. “I was heartened that [two senators] crossed party lines to help pass this lending provision last night, and I hope we can now finish the job and pass the small business jobs plan without delay and without additional partisan wrangling. You know, the small businessmen and women who write to me every day, and the folks who I’ve met with across this country, they can’t afford any more political games.”

But the bill is not out of the woods yet. The amendment needs a final majority-rules vote and the bill itself needs to achieve cloture and a final vote. LeMieux and other senators considered likely crossovers — such as Olympia Snowe (Maine) — have not indicated that they will vote to end debate and overcome a filibuster on the overall legislation.

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