The Small Business Administration is expected to publish a short-term regulation in the Federal Register in a nick-of-time rescue of the agency's billion-dollar minority contracting program.

The interim regulation buys four months' breathing room for the SBA's 8A program under which certain contracts are set aside for socially and economically disadvantaged firms. Without the interim regulations, 8A would have been forced to shut down today.

The previous Congress passed a law prohibiting the SBA from handing out new contracts or extending old ones under the 8A program after today unless the agency and the firms set up a "graduation" plan defining how long the company involved would be eligible to participate in the program.

As recently as two weeks ago, no regulations had been published or adopted under which the plans would be written. Because there was no time to publish regulations and to allow for a congressionally required 60-day comment, there was a chance the program would expire.

The interim regulation allows the SBA to establish a "graduation" date 120 days from June 1 for all firms involved.

Congress enacted the law requiring graduation plans in response to criticism that the 8A program, which was supposed to be a springboard for disadvantaged firms to reach commercial success, had become instead a permanent shelter from competition.