President seeks grass-roots support for stimulus
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama faces a barrage of questions on his plans to reinvigorate the economy with a massive stimulus bill and additional billions in bailout money for the financial markets.
Trips Monday and Tuesday to cities hurting under the economic meltdown and a prime-time news conference Monday night show that Obama and his advisers are worried about a looming Senate vote on the stimulus bill, which failed to gather meaningful Republican support during rare weekend debate. The question-and-answer sessions with citizens and later with news reporters will allow Obama to appeal directly for grass-roots backing of his plans.
Both trips were added to Obama's schedule as difficulties with the legislation on Capitol Hill increased. Originally, aides had insisted his time would be better spent in Washington to shepherd the bill rather than traveling the more traditional presidential route around the country, pressuring lawmakers from his bully pulpit.
The $827 billion Senate version of the plan was expected to pass the Senate on Tuesday. However, it must be reconciled with the House version, which totaled $820 billion in spending and tax cuts. With Senate and House negotiators preparing to deal, Obama is likely to push for a bill on his desk for his signature by mid-month.
To focus on the stimulus bill, the Obama administration postponed to Tuesday the unveiling of the second part of the $700 billion bailout of the financial industry. Instead, Obama focused on campaigning for the stimulus bill with his trips to areas hit hard by the economic crisis.
Two key players in crafting the version now before the Senate — Maine Republican Susan Collins and Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson — said Monday morning they believe this is the best that can be achieved in the current circumstances.
"This bill is not perfect," Collins acknowledged in a nationally broadcast interview. "We're not claiming that. But in fact I think this bill will help to create 3.5 million jobs. ... We're facing a crisis and it makes no sense to have a partisan divide."
She said the measure on balance is "a good bill. It is needed and I think it will make a difference."
Appearing with Collins on NBC's "Today" show, Nelson said, "I think the things we have focused on will help turn this economy around."
The House and Senate bills overlap in many ways, but the Senate bill has a greater emphasis on tax cuts, while the House bill devotes more money to states, local governments and schools. The differences are likely to mean difficult negotiations when House and Senate conferees meet later in the week to try to reconcile the two measures.
The Senate stripped $108 billion in spending, including $40 billion in aid to state governments for education and other programs. The bill retained items that also probably won't do much for the economy, such as spending $1 billion to fix problems with the 2010 Census.
Still, the bill retained the core of Obama's plan to combine hundreds of billions of dollars in spending to boost consumption by the public sector with tax cuts designed to increase consumer spending. Much of the new spending would be for victims of the recession, in the form of extending unemployment insurance through the end of the year and increasing benefits by $25 a week, free or subsidized health care, and increased food stamp payments.
"The president's top man on the economy is the president," Larry Summers, the chairman of the White House National Economic Council, said on "Fox News Sunday." Summers added: "He listens to advice from all of us, and he sets his direction."
For his first direct pitch to citizens, Obama scheduled a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind. He was to return to Washington for the news conference Monday night. On Tuesday he plans to visit Fort Myers, Fla., an area hit hard by foreclosures.
"Americans across this country are struggling, and they are watching to see if we're equal to the task before us. Let's show them that we are. And let's do whatever it takes to keep the promise of America alive in our time," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address.
The Elkhart-Goshen region in northern Indiana saw its unemployment rate soar to 15.3 percent in December, up a whopping 10.6 percentage points from December 2007. The region has been bruised by layoffs in the recreational vehicle industry. Hundreds of workers have lost their jobs at RV makers such as Monaco Coach Corp., Keystone RV Co. and Pilgrim International.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the meeting would give the president a chance to hear Americans' concerns about the bill, which was set to have a key vote in the Senate on Monday afternoon.
"I think this is another chance for the president to talk directly to the American people about what he thinks is at stake," Gibbs said. "Watching millions lose their jobs, and having in front of Congress — and hopefully in front of him soon — a plan to save or create millions more jobs and get people back to work, putting money in people's pockets, getting help for state and local governments so they don't have to lay off firefighters or teachers or police officers."