Unless a miracle occurs, it's too late to reverse drastic cuts to the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a public-private partnership that assists small manufacturers in their efforts to increase competitiveness, for fiscal 2004. The omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal 2004 -- which at mid-January awaited final Congressional approval -- slates just $39.6 million for the MEP, which amounts to a 63% cut to its previous funding. In fiscal 2003, Congress funded the Manufacturing Extension Partnership at $106.6 million. That doesn't mean supporters of the program have given up the fight. In mid-December a group of 34 senators, led by Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., co-chairs of the Senate Task Force on Manufacturing, sent a letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget urging funding of the MEP program at $110 million in fiscal 2005, which begins Oct. 1. House supporters sent a similar message. ". . . if federal funding is not restored, [in the longer term] many centers will cease operations. These reductions will have real and significant impacts on our economy," the Senate letter states. "Manufacturing was a significant contribution to the economy's growth in the 1990s, and small manufacturers are the engines that increase productivity and job growth." The Bush administration is expected to submit its fiscal year 2005 budget request to Congress in February. In the shorter term, slashed funding for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership means that in fiscal 2004 MEP centers will "downsize drastically," serving far fewer manufacturers, says The Modernization Forum, the MEP's trade association. The Modernization Forum is among those pushing most fiercely to get MEP funding restored. The organization has been urging MEP supporters to deluge Washington, D.C., with opposition to the program's funding cut. Its Web site encourages MEP supporters to sign an online letter urging that full funding be restored. Those online statements are automatically sent to President Bush, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and the supporters' Congressional representatives. And the message is clear: "Given the state of American manufacturing, it's incredible that we are unable to find funding to keep such an effective program alive and fully operational," the statement says in part. By early January, more than 5,500 manufacturers had sent some 28,000 letters, says Mike Wojcicki, president of The Modernization Forum. While the letter-writing campaign was initiated to protest cuts to the fiscal 2004 budget, Wojcicki said those cuts likely were by then a foregone conclusion. "What the outcry is about . . . is letting Congress and the administration know that a bad decision has been made, and putting them on notice when they're doing the '05 budget [that] this is a program that has to be funded." The letters, he says, also "put pressure to do something in the current year."