Obama takes stimulus plan to Congress
Published: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 1:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 27, 2009 at 1:07 p.m.
WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans were testing President Barack Obama's bipartisan ambitions Tuesday during meetings in the Capitol, where he promises to hear out opposition lawmakers disenchanted with the new administration's plans to spend $825 billion to rescue the economy.
At every opportunity, Obama has taken his case for the unprecedented spending and tax cut measure to the American public, trying to chip away at the doubts of Republicans in both the House and Senate. They complain the measure should be tilted more heavily toward tax cutting.
Tuesday's journey to the Capitol will be his first since taking office last week. Obama's decision to meet lawmakers on their home turf is symbolic of his desire for bipartisan backing for the stimulus plan even though fellow Democrats hold sufficient majorities in both houses to pass the measure, regardless.
But the president faced an uphill battle Tuesday as House Republican leaders urged their Republican colleagues to oppose the stimulus bill, delivering their appeal a few hours before Obama was to meet with them.
Several officials said that Reps. John Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, and Eric Cantor of Virginia, his second-in-command, told Republicans in a closed-door meeting that the legislation contains too much wasteful spending.
The officials who described the closed-door session did so on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to disclose the discussions.
Obama has been moving rapidly in his first days as president to fulfill campaign promises, shifting smoothly from the economy to climate change to the closure of the Guantanamo Bay military prison to foreign affairs.
The Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday heard about plans to bolster operations in Afghanistan, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified that the Pentagon could send two more brigades there by late spring and a third brigade by late summer. Obama has indicated he wants to shift more military resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.
And as he dispatched newly appointed Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell to the troubled region, Obama granted an interview Monday to Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television. The president emphasized the importance of becoming quickly engaged in trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace, telling the satellite broadcaster he instructed Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader and Northern Ireland peace negotiator, to talk to "all the major parties involved."
"What I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating," Obama said.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama heads to the capital for separate private meetings with Republican leaders in the House and Senate "to seek their input. He wants their ideas."
"If there are good ideas — and I think he assumes there will be — we will look at those ideas," he said.
Meanwhile, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell blamed Democrats for the hold-up.
"We're anxious to help him," McConnell said of Obama Tuesday morning on NBC television. "Frankly, the biggest problem is with his own party, the Democratic Party, which seems to be drifting away from what he said he wanted, which is a package that is at least 40 percent tax cuts and earmark free."
Obama, signaling he was prepared to compromise, reportedly spoke with key House Democrats Monday about jettisoning family planning funds for the low-income from an $825 billion stimulus measure.
A final decision was expected on Tuesday, coinciding with Obama's visit to Capitol. The provision has emerged as a point of contention among Republicans, who criticize it as an example of wasteful spending that would neither create jobs nor otherwise improve the economy.
Under the provision, states no longer would be required to obtain federal permission to offer family planning services — including contraceptives — under Medicaid, the federal health program for people with low incomes.
Democrats considered the politically potent change as congressional budget experts estimated it would take slightly longer for the overall legislation to achieve an impact on the economy than the administration projects.
The Congressional Budget Office said the economy would feel the effects of almost two-thirds of the money over the 18 months. The administration claims 75 percent of the funding would be absorbed in that period, and Obama has pledged that the bill he signs will meet that target while saving or creating as many as 4 million jobs.
As Senate committees prepared to take up the stimulus package and the full House prepared to vote on it this week, New York Federal Reserve Bank President Timothy Geithner took over at the U.S. Treasury after winning Senate confirmation despite personal tax lapses that turned more than a third of the Senate against him.
"Tim's work and the work of the entire Treasury Department must begin at once. We cannot lose a day, because every day the economic picture is darkening, here and across the globe," Obama said Monday night at Geithner's swearing in ceremony.
Geithner said the new administration would work first to stabilize the financial system and revive the moribund economy, then move to reform the system.
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