The omicron-related surge in COVID-19 cases put a damper on the holiday plans for many Americans and small businesses last month, and it is already leading to calls from business organizations and members of Congress for additional relief money as legislators return to Washington, D.C., in 2022.
The death of Democrats' massive reconciliation spending bill could create an opening in Congress' schedule for it to address those requests. But with sharp divisions in Congress and differing philosophies over how to manage the highly-politicized virus, legislation offering even narrowly-targeted relief could face a tough path to President Biden's desk.
Reps. Dean Phillips, D-Minn., Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., led the push for small business relief last month. They said in a letter Congress should provide cash for the industries that might be the most impacted by omicron through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF). The RRF ran out of money in the fall.
"While the U.S. economy continues to grow, the recovery has been uneven, and the negative effects of the rapid spread of new COVID-19 variants disproportionately impact businesses which rely upon in-person gathering to survive, including the restaurant, hospitality, fitness, live events, and travel industries," the letter read.
"We… call on House and Senate leadership to expedite a targeted relief package that funds all previously eligible requests through the RRF and allows small businesses in the fitness, live events, and travel industries to request much-needed federal assistance," the letter continued.
Both Phillips and Fitzpatrick are in the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus (PSC), and PSC member Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Ohio, also joined the letter. But it appears any more GOP support for additional spending may be very limited.
"As inflation continues to rise, the federal government should pump the brakes on any additional spending," Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., a whip for the PSC, told Fox News. "State governments are still flush with cash from previous pandemic relief packages, they should utilize those funds first if businesses need additional help."
Johnson's comment was similar to one from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., when asked about potential further relief for states.
"Every state is awash in money. They have never seen this much cash," McConnell said. He added that any case for additional spending "remains to be seen."
But many Democrats, and some industry groups, are highly supportive of more COVID money for businesses.
"[Two-thirds] of independent restaurants and bars that applied for the Restaurant Revitalization Fund never got any help. Now, they're stuck in limbo," the Independent Restaurant Coalition tweeted. Its social media in recent days has focused on a campaign to "#ReplenishRRF."
"Millions of restaurants & small business owners are still struggling to keep their businesses open. But some Republicans in the Senate are blocking legislation to provide additional funding," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. said. "Congress needs to replenish the Restaurant Revitalization Fund."
The biggest hurdle for any spending package for businesses will be a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said that an effort led by Small Business Committee Chairman Ben Cardin, D-Md., is struggling to get the 10 necessary GOP to meet the 60-vote filibuster threshold.
Goodman also said that Democrats tried to replenish the RRF in August but Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., blocked the unanimous consent request.
"Senate Dem[ocrats are] continuing to look at what the needs are and how to address" them, Goodman said regarding the possibility of small business relief in the new year.
A senior House GOP aide, meanwhile, told Fox News that business relief wouldn't be necessary if Democrat state and local officials would stop changing their COVID-19 rules and let businesses function.
"The December letter for more small business spending is just Dem[ocrats] trying to cover their a**** because," of pandemic rules supported by their party, the aide said. That letter had dozens of Democrat signatures and very few Republicans.
"Democrats have been using a playbook of hurt businesses then try to make it up by trying to dump money on them throughout the whole pandemic," the aide also said.
"How do you prep for the 2022 fiscal year as a small business with no certainty from the government on shutdowns and a Fauci proclamation can flip everything on its head?" the aide added.
GOP opposition to further coronavirus spending also might focus on fraud that came from previous rounds of virus relief money. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, previously supported new funding for small businesses through the RRF.
But after multiple FBI arrests for COVID-19 relief fraud and several examples of those funds being used for questionable purposes, which Ernst highlighted in her December "Squeal Awards," the senator now says Congress shouldn't spend any more money until there's an accounting of unspent funds from previous bills.
"With the unique challenges our small businesses and restaurants have faced during the pandemic, it’s important they get the support to hire workers and succeed, but before any additional taxpayer money is spent or has the potential to get squandered on holiday grifting, Congress and the administration need to take inventory of what previous COVID funds are unspent and see if it can be redirected to support small businesses that may be in need of assistance," Ernst told Fox News in a statement.