Push to fill high court seat lends sliver of hope for aid deal

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Washington DC Capitol government
ASTA hopes that a relief deal from the federal government is still a possibility. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Although the likelihood of a large-scale federal coronavirus relief package similar to the $2 trillion Cares Act has dwindled, ASTA still holds out hope that legislators will provide some relief for small businesses in the form of a single bill that includes provisions helpful to travel agencies.

These hopes are buoyed -- slightly -- by the extension of the legislative session as the Trump administration attempts to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Lawmakers were initially scheduled to leave Washington as early as Sept. 25 but have now planned to extend their time there.

Much of their focus, however, will likely remain on that issue, said Genevieve Strand, ASTA's director of advocacy.

"[That fight will] take up a lot of bandwidth, frankly, on the Senate side," Strand said, "For the foreseeable future, I think that complicates things, as well."

The road to a new relief package has been bumpy since the Cares Act was introduced in March. Earlier this summer, the House passed a $3 trillion relief package. The Senate answered earlier this month with its own $300 billion package, which Strand called "an extremely slimmed-down relief package."

"It still had some items that we would have been really happy to support," Strand said, including giving small businesses a second draw at Paycheck Protection Program loans and some expansion of unemployment benefits.
While it was smaller in scope than the House's bill, Strand said, "'better than nothing' was sort of our philosophy."

Genevieve Strand
Genevieve Strand

Although negotiations slowed and both bills failed to advance, some movement has occurred recently, Strand said.

"It seems to be more the rank-and-file members taking it upon themselves, especially on the House side," she said. "I think they're feeling the pressure from folks. They're hearing how tough this has been for a lot of their constituents."

A bipartisan group of 50 lawmakers, the Problem Solvers Caucus, has formed in the House. That group came up with a $1.5 trillion "compromise bill," Strand said. While it has gained little traction, she said it was positive that it was introduced.

However, the Restart Act, a standalone bill that extends PPP and restores expanded unemployment benefits, is gaining traction, Strand said. As of press time, it had 153 co-sponsors in the House and 56 in the Senate. Passing a bill like that seems more likely than a larger-scale relief package at this point.

"I think our optimism for a broader package is waning, but we're certainly not giving up on it," Strand said. "We're going to keep pushing on lawmakers because the need really is there. But the landscape definitely gets tough."

The fight over the high court seat and the extended session, Strand hopes, may "prompt folks to get talking and actually get working on a solution."

If additional relief for small businesses doesn't come in 2020, the timeline for a possible package next year depends heavily on the results of November's election. If the House and Senate remain controlled by opposing parties, the same issues will likely plague future relief efforts, Strand predicted. A one-party sweep, on the other hand, could mean new relief legislation is a priority in the new year.

In the meantime, Strand encouraged travel advisors to send letters to the editor of their local newspapers, which lawmakers read, and to call and write to lawmakers.

To contact legislators through ASTA's advocacy portal, go to www.asta.org/Government/Advocacy.cfm.

"We know that everyone has written or called, but it doesn't hurt to write or call again, especially right now, when we're not seeing the kind of progress that we'd like on the negotiating front," she said. "I think with everything else going on politically, we just want to make sure folks aren't forgetting about small businesses and their ongoing concerns. Unfortunately, it's not getting better on its own overnight." 

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