- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2009

UPDATED:

Fort Myers, Fla. — President Obama received a standing ovation Tuesday when announcing the Senate had passed his $838 billion economic stimulus plan during a town hall where he heard tales of economic sorrow and called for a renewed bipartisan spirit.

“The Senate just passed our recovery and reinvestment plan,” he said to sustained cheers as 1,500 at the town hall meeting rose to their feet. “That’s good news.”

“We’ve got a little more work to do; it’s a good start,” he added.

Mr. Obama during the town hall said bipartisanship is crucial, even though only three Senate Republicans had voted for the plan and it had zero support from House Republicans earlier this month.

“When the town is burning, you don’t check party labels — everybody needs to grab a hose,” Mr. Obama said, standing with the state’s Republican governor. “That’s what Charlie Crist is doing here today.”

Mr. Crist, a Republican who campaigned for Mr. Obama’s opponent last fall, is a key supporter of the plan. He agreed with the president’s characterization and called for its swift final passage.

“We need to do it in a bipartisan way. Helping our country is about helping our country. This is not about partisan politics; this is about rising above that,” Mr. Crist said.

Mr. Crist noted his state has had to make tough cuts without raising taxes and “to be candid, it’s getting harder every day.” He said it was important to pass the stimulus plan to help education improve infrastructure and health care for “the most vulnerable among us.”

Mr. Obama said governors often better understand economic crisis.

Before taking the stage just after noon, the president was cheered by the Florida residents gathered for the preticketed town hall at the Harborside Event Center.

As Mr. Obama fielded a question about health-care reform, the Senate passed by a 61-37 vote the stimulus plan, which must be reconciled with the previously passed House version before a final bill can be sent to Mr. Obama’s desk.

Mr. Obama thanked lawmakers for their work and quipped: “You know why it passed? They knew I was coming down to Fort Myers. They said, ‘We don’t want folks in Fort Myers mad at us.’”

When Mr. Obama traveled to Elkhart, Ind., on Monday for a similar town hall, he took Republicans and Democrats along on Air Force One. But Tuesday, his nine guests were all Democratic members of Congress.

They are Reps. Robert Wexler, Kendrick Meek, Suzanne Kosmas, Ron Klein, Alan Grayson, Kathy Castor, Corrine Brown, Debbie Wasserman-Schwartz and Allen Boyd.

Pastor James Bing of Friendship Baptist Church offered the opening prayer at the town hall, adopting a somber tone.

“Some of us have come here today with hope destroyed,” he said.

Mr. Bing noted that jobs have been downsized and “people we once depended on have left us.”

“In 100 ways, our hopes are dashed,” he said. “We pray that you will restore our hope today and help us to face the future with courage.”

According to the White House, the unemployment rate has jumped from 6 percent to 10 percent since last year in Fort Myers. That’s 3 percent higher than the national average, and the region lost 12,000 jobs in the past year.

The area also has been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis, with the highest foreclosure rate in the nation at 12 percent of homes getting foreclosure-related notices in 2008, according to the White House.

Lee County, of which Fort Myers is the county seat, in November backed Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain 54 percent to Mr. Obama’s 44 percent.

Mr. Obama talked about Steve Adkins, the president of a Fort Myers construction firm that was forced to lay off half its workers last year as Mr. Adkins sold his home.

Like he did in Elkhart ib Monday, Mr. Obama took several questions from the audience.

One woman broke down in tears talking about her fiscal woes, getting hugs from others and a presidential promise he would have his staff speak with her after the event.

He also fielded questions on tax credits, unemployment benefits and transportation infrastructure.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Florida that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, came to the White House on Tuesday to formally invite the president to address a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24.

Mr. Boyd, a conservative Blue Dog Democrat, told reporters on the plane he was “certainly” open to changing his original vote to support the stimulus.

“I think we have to do something on the stimulus. I’m of the belief that government can’t prevent this economic free fall from happening, but we can blunt in short term and soften the impact,” he said.

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