The Senate returns to action this week under pressure to pass another major coronavirus relief package, but a more immediate priority for GOP leaders will be to agree on fixes to the Paycheck Protection Program, a lifeline to many small businesses and farms. 

The Senate will deal with PPP before it gets to another round of COVID-19 bills to ensure that businesses, including farms, can qualify to get the PPP loans forgiven. 

A bill that passed the House last week would extend the time that businesses, including farms, have to spend their PPP loan proceeds on payroll to 24 weeks — the current limit is eight weeks — and reduce from 75% to 60% the amount of the loan that has to be spent on payroll. 

The American Farm Bureau Federation urged Congress to eliminate the payroll minimum, and the original version of the House bill would have done that. Other changes sought by AFBF, including allowing H-2A wage costs to be covered by PPP loans, were not included in the House bill. 

Senate Small Business Committee Chairman Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has also expressed concern about the 60% minimum and said the House bill could “create new and serious burdens for PPP borrowers in terms of forgiveness. … I will continue to work with the administration and my colleagues to ensure necessary changes to increase flexibility do not inadvertently harm business owners and employees in the process.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a letter to Democratic colleagues on Friday that the party "will forcefully and relentlessly pressure our Republican colleagues to focus on helping the country, not the president’s reelection campaign.” He said the Senate must act quickly on another COVID-19 aid bill as well as fixes to PPP. 

“We have always known that the CARES Act (the $2 trillion aid bill enacted in March) could not be the final word, and we are fast approaching the point where much of the aid provided will begin to phase out,” Schumer wrote. “The popular and bipartisan" PPP "must be reformed and extended,"

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the Senate would consider changes to PPP as a standalone bill but has not said when. The Senate may then consider a larger COVID-19 aid bill in late June or July, but insists it won’t be nearly as large as the $3 trillion HEROES Act the House passed last month, he indicated. 

“It’s going to be important for it to be narrowly crafted and to fix some of the things that were not done correctly in other measures,” he told Agri-Pulse’s Jeff Nalley. He said the bill must contain liability protections to shield for businesses from coronavirus-related lawsuits, and also would likely include more funding for payments to farmers. 

Farm groups have been pushing for Congress to increase USDA’s spending authority under the Commodity Credit Corp. to as much as $68 billion, up from the current limit of $30 billion. 

“We’re asking for an increase there to make sure that the secretary has the right amount of money to be able to help agriculture, not just through COVID, but through the other issues that are going to face us in the future,” said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse

Duvall also said it is important that the bill provide funding for relief to contract poultry growers, who are not eligible for the $16 billion being distributed to farmers through USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. USDA officials say the payments could only be made to producers who owned their commodity. 

Poultry growers don’t own their birds, but they say the slowdown or closure of many processing plants means they will be able to raise fewer flocks this year, cutting into the revenue they need to cover costs.

Meanwhile this week, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue continues to promote USDA’s $3 billion Farmers and Families Food Box program, which is intended to address COVID-19 market disruptions by distributed fresh produce, dairy products and chicken and pork to the needy. 

On Monday he will be in Georgia to participate in an event delivering food to a nonprofit in Atlanta. 

Bruce Summer, administrator of USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, said last week that the department expects to issue a second round of contracts that will include some companies that were left out in the first round.

Also this week, GOP voters in one of the nation's most important agricultural House districts will decide the fate of Rep. Steve King, who was stripped of his seats on the Agriculture and Judiciary committees last year because of racially tinged remarks, and Democratic voters will choose a Democratic nominee to challenge Republican Sen. Joni Ernst in November. 

State Sen. Randy Freenstra has outspent King in the 4th District race and has the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but the campaign is still going down to the wire. 

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The Democratic Senate primary is a four-way race between Theresa Greenfield, a real estate developer backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; retired Navy Admiral Michael Franken; Kimberly Graham, an attorney; and businessman Eddie Mauro. 

Here is a list of agriculture- or rural-related events scheduled for this week in Washington and elsewhere:

Monday, June 2

4 p.m. — USDA releases weekly Crop Progress report. 

Tuesday, June 3

11:30 a.m. — House Energy and Commerce subcommittee online hearing on the COVID-19 crisis with the governors of Arkansas, Colorado and Michigan.

Wednesday, June 4

10 a.m. — Senate Small Business Committee hearing, “Perspectives from Main Street: COVID-19’s Impact on Small Business," 301 Russell. 

2:30 p.m. — Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing, "The State of Transportation and Critical Infrastructure: Examining the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic," G50 Dirksen.

Thursday, June 5

8:30 a.m. — USDA releases the Weekly Export Sales report. 

11 a.m. — House Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1324 Longworth.

 Friday, June 6

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