By Melissa B. Robinson

With time running out in the congressional session, Sen. John Kerry is trying to force Senate action on major small business bill by threatening to block Senate consideration of dozens of White House nominations to federal office.

"I am prepared to keep this hold in place until the Senate considers our bill," Kerry, D-Mass., wrote Wednesday to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

All higher level nominations to federal offices must be approved by the Senate.

Kerry wrote the small business bill with Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said by his aides to be circulating a new draft of the legislation in hopes of finding a compromise. GOP opposition apparently stands in the way of the measure.

Kerry's action could affect dozens of pending nominations for commissioner, acting secretary and other slots at the federal agencies - but not federal judges.

Kerry said he is not blocking consideration of judicial nominations because he doesn't want to interfere with law enforcement.

The White House has complained about the slow rate of judicial confirmations. Of the 60 judges nominated to the federal judiciary by President Bush, only 18, or 27 percent, have been confirmed.

By blocking the other nominations, Kerry, the Small Business Committee chairman, is trying to force at least eight Republican senators to lift the anonymous "holds" they have slapped on an $860 million bill to provide loans and venture capital to small businesses that have suffered financially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Senate rules allow individual senators to unilaterally stop action on bills by placing anonymous "holds" on them.

Kerry, who wrote the small business bill with Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said thousands of small businesses nationwide are "finding it more and more difficult to keep their doors open without the relief they so desperately need in these difficult economic times."

But the administration has said the bill is too costly and duplicates other programs, including an emergency loan assistance for small businesses put in place since Sept. 11.

Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., who had an earlier hold on the small business bill that he has since lifted, called Kerry's retaliatory action on the federal nominations "irresponsible."

Bond aide Emilia DiSanto, minority staff director of the Small Business Committee, said: "We hope it won't get to that."