Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) speaks at the start of a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the government’s response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on March 5, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Samuel Corum | Getty Images

The Senate passed a bill Wednesday to give small businesses more flexibility in how they spend federal loans given as part of a coronavirus aid program. 

The chamber approved the measure by voice vote hours after Sen. Ron Johnson blocked a Democratic effort to unanimously approve it. The Wisconsin Republican got assurances assurances on making changes to the bill later. He has said he wants the loan system known as the Paycheck Protection Program to expire earlier than initially planned. 

It now heads to President Donald Trump‘s desk, as the House approved it last week. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tried to push the House-passed legislation through by unanimous consent Wednesday afternoon. Any one senator can stop such a request, and Johnson initially opposed it. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought up the bill again, he did not object. 

Schumer contended that the Senate risked “too much delay” if it amended the bill and then had to go to a conference committee with the House to hash out final legislation. The House passed the proposal by a 417-1 margin last week. 

The legislation would make several changes to the PPP, which aims to help small businesses keep employees on payroll after public health measures designed to curb the pandemic forced them to shutter. Congress created it as part of the $2 trillion rescue package passed in March, and it includes stipulations for how companies can spend money and still get loan forgiveness.

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Under the proposal, small businesses would have to spend 60% of the loan money on payroll instead of the previous 75%. They could use the funds for six months, a change from two months. 

The proposal would extend a June 30 deadline to rehire workers. It would also push back the timeline for repaying loans, and allow companies that get loan forgiveness to defer payroll taxes. 

The House passed the bill nearly unanimously last week as Democrats and Republicans failed to reach agreement on how to structure the next steps to boost an economy devastated by the pandemic. 

Congress put $350 billion into the small business loan program at first, but the money quickly ran out during a rocky start to the process marked by complaints about wealthier bank clients getting assistance more quickly. Lawmakers then injected another $310 billion into the PPP, with $60 billion devoted to small lenders. 

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