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Will Obama’s Small-Business Agenda Survive Congress?

Will Obama’s Small-Business Agenda Survive Congress?

Source: New York

It was late October when President Obama first called for measures to stabilize struggling small businesses. Then, in his State of the Union address in January, he emphasized the role small business would play in healing the nation’s wounded economy. But it is only now, eight months after that speech, that Congress finally seems ready to act. And the House and Senate are so far apart that it is not clear that they will be able to agree on a bill that contains more than just a few of the president’s ideas.

In a series of speeches, Mr. Obama has outlined a three-point agenda for rejuvenating small business. First, he sought to increase the size of loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration and to open S.B.A. loans normally used for new real estate projects to refinancing existing commercial mortgages. Second, because local community banks are responsible for much of the lending to small firms, he proposed using the Troubled Asset Relief Program to lend money to small banks that could in turn be reloaned to small businesses. And the president suggested further tax cuts and other incentives specifically aimed at the small companies.

 Congress did enact a tax incentive to encourage small-business investment and a tax credit for hiring workers, which was not restricted to small companies. But even though small business is notionally sacrosanct in Washington, finding consensus for the president’s broader agenda on Capitol Hill, even among members of his own party, has proved difficult. Representative Nydia Velázquez, chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee, did not endorse the president’s initial S.B.A. proposals, which would have raised loan limits on the S.B.A.’s most popular programs, to $4 million to $5.5 million, although she never explained why. In February, she openly criticized a second round of S.B.A. initiatives from the administration.

Meanwhile, community bankers reacted coolly to the idea of borrowing from TARP. “The unfortunate development in 2009 was that while both the administration and Congress wanted to put in place special TARP efforts to help small businesses, TARP became so badly stigmatized that it became impossible to get almost anyone to voluntarily participate,” said Gene Sperling, a counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner who has been working on small-business issues.

An aide to a legislator involved in discussions about the lending fund acknowledged that the bailout was political poison. “The primary issue is, is the money going to come from TARP,” said the aide, who declined to be identified. “If not, does it look like TARP? Does it leave a TARP-like aftertaste? I don’t think anyone wants this to have a TARP-like aftertaste.”

As a result, Mr. Obama revised this proposal for the State of the Union address as a separate small-business lending fund. But this proposal, Mr. Sperling noted, requires Congress’s assent. “The reality is that it has just run up against an amazingly intense legislative calendar that has included not only extending vital economic recovery measures but two historic pieces of legislation — health care and financial reform — that are also critical for the economy.”

It took until early May to write the lending fund bill. The program would initially loan up to $30 billion to small banks at 5 percent interest, though banks that make additional small-business loans could have that rate drop to as low as 1 percent. Banks that do not make small-business loans would pay 7 percent. The administration also worked with legislators of both chambers to create a $2 billion program to finance state and local programs that help businesses get bank credit.

The House has moved first. In March, it passed a bill aimed at small companies with tax relief and passed a similar bill last week. It followed Thursday with a bill that included the president’s small-business lending fund and state assistance initiatives. But House leaders refused to allow amendments that would have added to the administration’s S.B.A. priorities. “Through this whole process,” said a senior Democratic aide in the House who declined to speak for attribution, “the administration worked very closely with the chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee. They came to an agreement, and that’s the bill that we’ve got. This is a product of consensus — everybody gave on this bill.”

The bill passed the House without a single Republican vote. Instead of stimulating the supply of credit, Republicans have argued for stimulating demand for credit by reducing the tax and regulatory burdens on small businesses.

Though Democrats tried to inoculate the lending fund with a legislative provision that specifically disassociates it from TARP, Republicans derided it as “TARP 3.0? and even tried to change the bill’s title to the “TARP Junior Act of 2010.” At the same time, Republicans professed concern that, as they wrote in a Financial Services Committee report, “banks could shun the program for fear of being stigmatized by its association with the TARP.”

Meanwhile, the Senate plans to unveil its own small-business bill in the next few days, according to Richard Carbo, a spokesman for the Small Business Committee. The legislation will comprise tax incentives and S.B.A. initiatives, he said, but senators have not decided whether to include the community bank and state lending programs. Senate leaders are worried the programs will not win bipartisan support, said Mr. Carbo and another Senate aide, who indicated these may have trouble winning over even moderate Democrats. Senator Mary Landrieu, chairwoman of the Small Business Committee, had not taken a position on the bill as of last week, said Mr. Carbo. But today, he said, “She is warming up to it.”

Her Republican counterpart on the committee, Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, has had a major voice in shaping the Senate bill, in part because she is one of the few Republicans thought to be willing to support the legislation. The president’s proposals for raising S.B.A. loan limits closely followed Ms. Snowe’s own bills. However, her office repeatedly refused to say whether she would vote for a bill that also included a lending fund.

Bipartisanship will likely be hard to come by regardless of what the bill includes. In the House, Republicans opposed the tax bill that passed Tuesday, in part, they said, because its three very targeted tax increases on bigger businesses would more than offset the relief for small businesses. They also complained that the tax cuts didn’t go far enough.

“I think what the majority is laying out is kind of a happy life of low expectations,” said Representative Peter Roskam, a Republican from Illinois, during the debate over the bill. “This is so narrowly crafted and so de minimus and being proclaimed by the same folks that promised us great things in the stimulus that I think we can do better.”

“You say, ‘do better,’” retorted Sander Levin of Michigan, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. “You won’t vote for anything.”

The bill passed 247 to 170. Only five Republicans supported it.

Should the Senate bill pass, it will have to be reconciled with the House’s legislation. If neither chamber prevails, Congress could wind up jettisoning both the S.B.A. proposals and the community bank and state lending programs, and passing only the tax incentives. These incentives could include making the gains on small-business stock acquired through next year tax-free, limiting penalties for violating tax shelter rules and increasing the deduction for start-up expenses to $20,000.

The administration is hopeful that it will get at least some of each part of its agenda, said Mr. Sperling: “There remains a solid commitment from the Congressional leadership to move a small-business jobs package that is broad and robust enough to at least include small-business tax relief, S.B.A. initiatives, and the president’s two small-business lending initiatives.”