September 19, 2005--Hoping to jumpstart the regional economy, the U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a package of emergency federal aid for small businesses in the Gulf Coast.

The recovery package, created in a bipartisan effort by Senate Democrats John Kerry and Mary Landrieu and Republicans Olympia Snowe and David Vitter, comes on top of help with taxes, housing, education, and job training pledged by President Bush later the same day.

In a sweeping move, the Senate effort is offering low-interest disaster loans to small businesses nationwide still reeling from record-high oil and gas prices made worse when Katrina knocked out oil refineries in the gulf.

It will also expand the region's Historically Underutilized Business Zone status, giving local small businesses greater access to federal contracts. Under the bill, at least 30% of all federal contracts and 40% of subcontracting dollars used in recovery efforts will go to local businesses.

Beyond that, the bill offers immediate grants to owners waiting for emergency loan approval from the Small Business Association, along with one-year deferrals on payments and interest on SBA loans. Other initiatives include increased counseling and assistance from the regional Small Business Development Centers, Microloan, Women's Business Center, Veterans Business Outreach Centers, among other services.

"Small businesses are at the heart of the Gulf Coast's economy and will be crucial to the rebuilding effort," Kerry said in statement issued Thursday night. He called the effort a "common-sense and very direct way to help people get their jobs and their dignity back."

Kerry, who visited parts of Louisiana last week, created a similar relief package for small businesses recovering from the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Americans want to know that their government will be there when it counts with leadership that keeps them safe, not speeches in the aftermath to explain away the inexcusable," he said in a statement issued after Bush's live address from New Orleans Thursday night.

Pledging to "do what it takes," Bush offered additional loans for small and minority-owned business in the area. He also announced the creation of an Urban Homesteading Act to provide free building sites to the city's low-income residents, and pegged up to $5,000 for job training and education for each evacuee