President Obama's top economist, in her valedictory speech before stepping down Friday, urged Congress to "find the will and wisdom" to spend more money to create jobs - challenging the waning appetite for stimulus spending on Capitol Hill ahead of November's elections.
Describing the recession as "terrifying and so difficult to cure," Christina Romer, head of the Council of Economic Advisers, said the economy needs more government stimulus spending to tackle a stubbornly high unemployment rate. She told a National Press Club audience that she does worry about the nation's long-term debt, which stood Tuesday at $13.45 trillion, but said that shouldn't preclude additional short-term spending.
"Concern about the deficit cannot be an excuse for leaving unemployed workers to suffer," she said. "We have tools that would bring unemployment down without worsening our long-run fiscal outlook, if we can only find the will and the wisdom to use them."
Her call comes near the end of the administration's much-touted "Recovery Summer," an effort to try to rehabilitate the image of Mr. Obama's signature $814 billion stimulus package, passed in the first weeks of his presidency last year.
The administration says the spending and tax cuts are sustaining more than 3 million jobs, but polls show voters aren't convinced. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate soared for a while past 10 percent and stands now at 9.5 percent, despite Mrs. Romer's initial projections that it wouldn't go past 8 percent if Congress approved the stimulus money.
Echoing other White House officials, Mrs. Romer said the administration knew the economy was bad when Mr. Obama took office in 2009 but that it was impossible to know the depth of the recession when officials were crafting the stimulus package.
That law remains contentious on both sides of the aisle, with liberals decrying it as too small and conservatives saying it spent too much and has too little to show for the expense.
Mrs. Romer defended the bill as "unprecedented and pragmatic," saying it is on track to accomplish what it was intended to do. Still, she acknowledged that current unemployment rates are not acceptable and underscore the need for more spending to create jobs.
Some Republicans have said that they are willing to work on specific spending. Sen. George V. Voinovich, an Ohio Republican who is retiring at the end of this year, sent a letter to Mr. Obama on Tuesday urging bipartisan work on a major road-building bill.
He called for paying for more projects by increasing the gas tax, which he said is a "user fee" that deserves to be boosted for the first time since 1993.
But bipartisan agreement has generally been hard to come by, and Mr. Obama earlier this week called on the GOP to lift its "blockade" of a $30 billion proposal aimed at helping credit-strapped small businesses. Republicans counter that the government's huge red-ink levels are holding back the economy and have demanded more spending be offset with cuts in other areas.
Republicans filibustered the small business bill just before their summer recess, arguing they weren't given the chance to offer enough amendments.
Before lawmakers adjourned in early August, they approved a $26 billion package of aid to states to keep teachers and firefighters on the job. That bill was the subject of a fierce fight, however, as Senate Democrats had to beat back another GOP filibuster.
Even some Democrats, particularly "Blue Dog" conservatives, are resisting calls for more government spending. The $26 billion aid proposal had to be scaled back in light of their concerns and was only about half of what the administration initially requested.
The public also is souring on spending. A Pew Research/National Journal poll in July found 51 percent said they wanted the government to reduce the deficit, while 40 percent backed additional spending to boost jobs. The number backing more spending was down 8 percentage points over the previous year.
At the same time, the poll found support for cutting the deficit rather than cutting taxes - a blow to Republicans who are pushing to extend all of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, including those for the wealthiest filers, that are due to expire at the end of this year.
Although Mrs. Romer said she would like to see the government "spend more and tax less," she said tax cuts for higher-income earners do not have as much of a stimulative effect on the economy as those for middle-class workers. Democrats have supported extending tax breaks for the middle class while balking at retaining those for the highest income brackets.
The White House has not named a successor to Mrs. Romer, who is returning to academia.
c Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.
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