By Bob Cusack

Senate and House lawmakers are close to finalizing a deal that would bolster the Small Business Administration's (SBA) beleaguered 7(a) loan program.

In the last week, the Bush administration, top lawmakers and industry lobbyists have been in intense negotiations about revamping the high-profile loan program that was shut down earlier this year. The initiative has since been revived, but with limitations that industry groups have said must be removed.

SBA says the 7(a) loan program paid out more than $46 billion during the last five fiscal years and has helped create or retain more than 1.7 million jobs in that time.

The assistance program has attracted presidential politics. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, lashed out in January at the administration for shutting down 7(a) "at a time when the country has lost 3 million jobs."

Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee Chairwoman Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced legislation March 11 aimed at fixing the loan program through fiscal year 2004. Kerry, the ranking member on the committee, is a co-sponsor of Snowe's measure.

Sources say that the House has still not committed to a deal that the Senate, industry groups and the Bush administration endorsed late last week. The tentative deal would eliminate a $750,000 cap imposed by SBA and allow lenders to resume so-called piggyback loans, which allow businesses to use the same collateral for multiple loans. The proposal would allow SBA to grant more than $12.5 billion in loans in fiscal year 2004.

K Street lobbyists grumbled last week that the House had apparently rejected the deal. But sources say progress with the House Small Business Committee was made over the weekend.

Craig Orfield, spokesman for Snowe's committee, said the panel had not received an official commitment from the House. But he added it was premature to criticize the House, claiming there "were a lot of moving parts" to the bicameral compromise.

At press time, Snowe was considering moving her amended version of the bill by unanimous consent on the floor. But there were concerns that the move could be opposed by a couple of senators.

The majority and minority offices of the House Small Business Committee did not comment on claims that the panel disliked the tentative legislative deal to fix the loan program.

Several major business groups have been negotiating with policymakers on the 7(a) loan program, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Financial Services Roundtable and American Bankers Association.

In a related issue, a top SBA official has criticized the National Association of Government Guaranteed Lenders (NAGGL) for opposing recently passed legislation that extended another loan program.

Anthony Bedell, SBA's associate administrator for congressional legislative affairs, told the Coleman Report, a trade publication, that it was ia strategic errori for NAGGL to oppose House legislation extending the SBA 504 loan program because it failed to address 7(a). Despite NAGGL's efforts, the 504 program was extended earlier this month.

Bedell said NAGGL's lobbying "didn't help themselves with House leadership."

NAGGL President Anthony Wilkinson told The Hill yesterday that Bedell's comments are inaccurate. He said his group continues to work well with House and Senate leaders.

Wilkinson added that NAGGL has been critical of the administration because it has underestimated the demand of its small-business loan programs.

"That's why we're in the mess we're in," Wilkinson said.