By Cromwell Schubarth

If small businesses could get back to "business as usual" as quickly as their elected representatives and lobbyists did, they wouldn't have to worry about a recession.

But independent business owners, who employ more than half of all U.S. workers and create two-thirds of all new jobs, have a lot to worry about these days.

And this has revived calls for tax breaks and new programs on Beacon Hill and in Washington that appeared to be on hold before last month's terror attacks.

The fervor of these calls is fueled by the possibility that economic stimulus packages being discussed could wipe out budget surpluses, making this possibly the last chance for quite a while for some of these proposals.

"Small-business owners seem to have taken the attack personally, with far fewer seeing hopes for sales gains," says Bill Dunkelberg, chief economist at the National Federation of Independent Business, a Washington lobbying group.

Small-business optimism dropped sharply after Sept. 11, according to a survey done by Dunkelberg, hitting its lowest level since 1993.

"In these suddenly uncertain times, (small-business owners) have quickly concluded that customers will be holding on to their money," he says.

In Massachusetts, the most likely legislative relief that small businesses can expect is a freeze on unemployment insurance rates.

Without action, rates were scheduled to go up for the first time in years. That doesn't seem necessary, however, with the state's unemployment trust fund sporting a $ 2 billion surplus.

"A proposal to reduce the rate was put on hold earlier this year when it was unclear whether the economy was going into a recession," says James Klocke, legislative specialist for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. "Now it looks like the rate is going to be frozen at this year's level."

In Washington, where power is more evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, it's harder to predict outcomes.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who chairs the Senate Small Business Committee, has proposed providing low-cost loans to firms directly affected by the attacks.

Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the committee's ranking Republican, backs tax relief measures, including increasing the annual cap on new equipment expenses for small firms. He wants the current $ 24,000 lid raised to $ 100,000.

That split reflects party divisions in Washington, with President Bush signaling last week that he favors tax cuts over spending to boost the economy.

Whichever side wins, the efforts' success will probably depend on whether they boost the confidence of both consumers and the businesses they support.

"The drop in small-business optimism shows that the terrorists scored a direct hit on Main Street, not just Wall Street," says economist Dunkelberg.