MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to start the program by turning our attention once again to the economic toll the coronavirus pandemic and our response to it is having on Americans. As of this weekend, more than 38 million Americans have applied for unemployment over the last nine weeks, and that number doesn't include those whose hours have been cut or who are not eligible.
To address this, lawmakers have created new programs to help businesses and their employees. One of them, the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, set aside hundreds of billions of dollars in loans to help small businesses who meet certain criteria, including using most of the funds to keep staff employed.
But some say this program is ill-conceived, too hard for truly small businesses to access or isn't enough to help small businesses survive beyond the eight weeks. One of those critics is Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado. Along with his Republican colleague Todd Young of Indiana, he's sponsoring a bill that will address what they see as some of the shortcomings of the PPP. And Senator Bennet is with us now.
Senator, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
MICHAEL BENNET: Thanks, Michel. It's great to be here.
MARTIN: So let me just see if I can summarize. In a nutshell, your bill would allow the PPP to be extended from eight weeks to 16 weeks. It would provide some loans to help businesses with operating expenses for six months. If it's one thing we do know, or we seem to know, is that we don't really seem to know when this pandemic is going to end. How did you decide on this timeframe?
BENNET: The RESTART Act, which Todd Young and I had introduced, is the first and only bipartisan bill that helps the hardest-hit businesses, first by extending PPP from the 8 week to 16 weeks and making it more flexible, and then looking beyond June to provide loans for support throughout the end of the year so small businesses can have the working capital they need to get through the end of the year. Then they've got seven years to pay it back.
And importantly, unlike PPP, our bill is focused on the hardest-hit businesses. These are businesses that have lost 25% of their revenue or more. It's focused on our smallest businesses as well as our small and medium-sized businesses. Too much of the PPP money went to businesses that didn't need it. I think we need to be more - at the same time more focused and in a little more generous in terms of who receives it.
MARTIN: A number of the small business owners that we've been hearing from say that it puts them in this bind. I mean, on the one hand, they have to pay employees when they don't have any business to give them. I mean, restaurant owners in particular are saying, nobody's coming to my restaurant. And even if, you know, authorities in my area say I can reopen, a lot of customers say they're not coming because they're afraid to come. So how does it address this bind that a lot of small business owners say they're in?
BENNET: PPP, the theory was designed to say, OK, we want to keep our employees with their employers. That's a great idea. But if your company is shut down because of the pandemic, it's impractical. And unemployment has now gone into place, and so there's the opportunity to - for people to make sure that we're getting through the worst of this.
But the businesses are going to need the money when they reopen, when these orders come off and restaurants - which, by the way, many of whom are going to have half the tables they had before. PPP doesn't account for that, and we need to think that through.
So what this program basically does is it provides funding to cover six months of payroll benefits and fixed operating expenses for businesses that have taken a substantial revenue hit - so for the last part of this year. And then a share of that loan is going to be forgiven based on the revenue losses the business suffers. And then the remainder gets paid back over seven years.
So it fixes that PPP problem by saying, OK. Not everybody's going to be able to use this money for the first eight weeks, as you were pointing out. There are a lot of businesses that are going to need working capital until the end of the year, and then they need more time to pay it back.
MARTIN: What is your sense of the appetite among your colleagues for another relief bill? I mean, it seems that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell seems to be of different minds about it. I mean, on the one hand, you hear him expressing concern about yet more money being pumped out.
On the other hand, he seems sort of open to a - particularly if it's for sort of small business relief. And yet, you're hearing sort of reports from the White House that the president's advisers are - say they're concerned about, you know, adding yet more to the deficit. So what are your colleagues telling you about their appetite for this?
BENNET: Today, we've got 40 million Americans out of work. We have millions of small businesses that are at risk. We have state and local governments who are on the verge of laying off teachers, firefighters and police officers. I say that as a former school superintendent. I'm not saying that as a politician. And if we don't do something, matters are going to get much, much worse. So my hope is that people are going to hear as they're home during the Memorial Day weekend what I'm hearing from my constituents, which is, now is the time when we are - have to be one nation under God.
And the federal government has an important responsibility here to play to make sure that this terrible recession doesn't turn into a Great Depression. And I am confident that, having heard the voices of the American people and our small business owners, they'll come back, and we will work out a bipartisan bill that the president will be able to sign.
MARTIN: That was Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado. And he is the co-sponsor, along with Todd Young of Indiana, of the RESTART Act.
Senator Bennet, thanks so much for talking to us.
BENNET: Thanks, Michel, for having me. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.