Local Chamber of Commerce reacts to stimulus resolution

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ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM/AP) — After a long night in the Senate Chambers, the Stimulus Bill Resolution passed this morning, moving the highly anticipated economic relief package forward.

Now, Democrats will muscle President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan through the chamber without Republican support. Vice President Kamala Harris was in the chair to cast the tie-breaking vote, her first.

The nearly two trillion dollar bill includes individual stimulus checks for 1,400 dollars each, 25 billion dollars for the restaurant industry alone, a block on federal tax increases for small businesses and it pauses raising the federal minimum wage. Individual checks and the small business benefits work together to boost the economy.

“It’s a whole infrastructure… it’s a whole ecosystem that right now this is one of the biggest crises that we’ve seen,” Kamala Keeley, President and CEO of the Chemung County Chamber, said.

For some residents, it will serve as a needed source of income, as unemployment benefits dry out. For others, it is a means to support local industry in the Twin Tiers.

“They want that money back in the economy. They don’t want you to put it back into your savings account,” Julie Henry, Executive Director of the Wellsboro Chamber of Commerce, added.

In the Twin Tiers, the economy is divided into a few main sectors: tourism, which has almost been a non-factor during the pandemic, residents who live here and spend their money locally, keeping jobs in retail and the restaurant industry, and manufacturing, which creates a wealth surplus for the area.

“The key thing here is to get the economy moving enough to get our people back to work,” Henry said.

To maximize the benefits of this package, small businesses will need to exhaust many options.

“What businesses need to do is look at all of the tools they have at their disposal whether it is grants, or loans or other relief packages, and decide what their best course of action is to get through this,” Keeley stated.

This will take a coordinated effort between government, business and the community to get the economy back on track.

“You can shop local and you can do it safely,” Henry said.

“We’ve made so much progress. I think now it is up to the community to make sure we can keep it going,” Keeley added.

Democrats in the chamber applauded after Harris announced the 51-50 vote at around 5:30 a.m. The action came after a grueling all-night session, where senators voted on amendments that could define the contours of the eventual COVID-19 aid bill.

The budget now returns to the House, where it will have to be approved again due to the changes made by the Senate. Final passage will unlock the next phase in drafting of the virus relief bill, with the work divided among several congressional committees.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer D-N.Y., called passage of the resolution the “first big step to putting our country back on the road to recovery.”

By moving on a fast track, the goal for Democrats is to have COVID relief approved by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires. It’s an aggressive timeline that will test the ability of the new administration and Congress to deliver.

The push for stimulus comes amid new signs of a weakening U.S. economy. Employers added just 49,000 jobs in January, after cutting 227,000 jobs in December, the Labor Department said Friday. Restaurants, retailers, manufacturers and even the health care sector shed workers last month, with state and local governments also letting go of non-school employees.

The unemployment rate fell to 6.3% from 6.7%, but there was a decline in the number of people who were either working or looking for a job in a sign that some people are dropping out of the labor force. The U.S. economy is about 12 million jobs shy of its pre-pandemic trends.

Biden, who has been meeting with lawmakers in recent days to discuss the package, will talk Friday at the White House with the House committee chairs who will be assembling the bill under the budget process known as “reconciliation.”

Biden also plans to make remarks Friday on the economy as he keeps up the pressure on Congress to “act big” on his relief package.

With a rising virus death toll and strained economy, the president’s goal is to have COVID-19 relief approved by March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid measures expire. Money for vaccine distributions, direct payments to households, school reopenings and business aid are at stake.

The marathon Senate session brought test votes on several Democratic priorities, including a $15 minimum wage. The Senate by voice vote adopted an amendment from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, opposed to raising the wage during the pandemic. Ernst said a wage hike at this time would be “devastating” for small businesses.

None of the amendments to the budget are binding on Democrats as they draft their COVID plan, but passage of a wage increase could prove difficult. Even if a $15 wage can get past procedural challenges in the final bill, passage will require the support from every Democrat in the 50-50 Senate, which could be a tall order.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a vocal proponent of the wage increase, vowed to press ahead. “We need to end the crisis of starvation wages,” he said.

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