WASHINGTON -- Despite estimates of than 400,000 jobs lost and 250,000 small businesses hurt by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Republican leadership in Congress has stalled a package of emergency economic aid and federal assistance for small businesses and others reeling in the Gulf Coast since Sept. 30. Late yesterday, Sens. John Kerry and Mary Landrieu went to the Senate floor to break the logjam and finally get small businesses the help they so desperately need.

“Up to now, Congress and the White House have said to small business owners: ‘You’re on your own,’” Kerry said. “It’s outrageous to think that after providing $62 billion, Congress has yet to designate a penny for small business relief. We all know that small businesses are at the heart of the Gulf Coast's economy, crucial to the rebuilding effort, and important for getting people back to work, but will small businesses in the Gulf Coast have to wait five months, like they did after 9-11, before they get help?”

A key provision in the bill gives small businesses across the country access to low-interest disaster loans to cope with the increased costs of oil, natural gas, and gasoline. This will especially benefit farmers, truck drivers, and others whose livelihood heavily depends on the price of gas.

“Small businesses are the engine of our economic growth. This was true before Katrina, and it remains true as our small businesses move our economy forward as we rebuild from the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history,” said Sen. Landrieu. “Since Hurricane Katrina first hit our shores, 53,900 businesses have asked for Washington’s help, but so far only 58 of theses businesses have received any assistance. Washington has promised real help for the people of the Gulf Coast -- it is time to stop making promises and to start fulfilling them.”

So far, the Small Business Administration has received 135,000 applications, yet only 2,050 have been approved. Of those, only 105 have been for small businesses. In addition, the Louisiana Department of Economic Development estimates that its program to help businesses on the ground in Louisiana will run out of funding today. Along with the SBA failures, this further jeopardizes Louisiana businesses.

Kerry (D-Mass.) is the Ranking Member of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. He introduced the Small Business Hurricane Relief and Reconstruction Act, S.1807, with Landrieu (D-La.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), and David Vitter (R-La.).

This isn’t the first time the Republican-controlled Senate and White House have stalled emergency assistance for small business owners in need. Kerry authored a similar assistance package to small businesses recovering in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, which was also blocked by Republicans for five months.

In addition to the gas and heating fuel assistance, the package provides:

• Funding to Gulf states to provide bridge loans or grants that will be rapidly approved by state agencies to help businesses that are waiting for SBA loans, other financial assistance, or insurance payments

• A one-year deferral on the interest and payments for SBA disaster and 504 loans

• Access to 30 percent of all federal contracts and 40 percent of subcontracting dollars used in the recovery and relief effort

• Increased opportunities and protections for disaster-related prime contracts and subcontracts

• Expanded Historically Underutilized Business Zone (HUBZone) status, which gives small businesses in the area a preference when bidding on federal contracts

• Increased counseling and business assistance provided through the SBA’s entrepreneurial development centers, including Small Business Development Centers, SCORE, Microloan Technical Assistance, Women’s Business Centers, and Veterans Business Outreach Centers

• Greater opportunities for small construction companies to receive SBA bonding assistance, which is a type of financial loss insurance on the contract

• The ability to refinance existing disaster loans and existing business debt with low-interest disaster loans

Also cosponsoring the bill are: Sens. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.).