- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will meet with congressional leaders at the White House on Monday afternoon in an effort to press Congress to move swiftly on an $800 billion-plus economic stimulus package.

Obama said Sunday he was confident Republicans will come around to support the final version of the legislation, repeating what his top aides and officials have been telling reporters in recent days, that the final package would be close to its objectives — to save or create 3 to 4 million jobs — and Republicans would be able to back it.

With the president continuing to forecast a dire short-term economic outlook, senators from both parties signaled a readiness to negotiate, particularly on Republican proposals aimed at reinvigorating the housing market. The housing collapse in the second half of last year set in motion the worst U.S. economic decline in 80 years

“It’s going to take a number of months before we stop falling,” Obama said in a television interview linked to NBC’s coverage of the U.S. professional football championship, the Super Bowl.

See related story:GOP criticism of stimulus intensifies

The president had a bipartisan group of 15 lawmakers at the White House on Sunday to watch the game as he continued personal interaction with legislators — part of his pledge to change the bitterly partisan atmosphere that has gripped the U.S. political system in recent decades.

The stimulus plan passed in the House of Representatives last week without a single Republican vote in support, and faces intense scrutiny in the U.S. Senate this week. Obama has been fighting hard for quick passage of the stimulus package, declaring it was needed immediately to help stem the economic slide. He also contends both political parties need to unite behind the effort that could send the U.S. budget deficit quickly soaring past $2 trillion, creating a fiscal and political time bomb.

“I am confident that by the time we have the final package on the floor that we are going to see substantial support, and people are going to see this is a serious effort,” he said Sunday. “We are going to be trimming out things that are not relevant to putting people back to work right now.”

See related story:Markets head for lower opening

Initial efforts — a personal visit to the Capitol building to meet lawmakers of both parties and cocktails with them at the White House — paid no dividend last week when every House Republican rejected the measure as too heavily loaded with government spending and too little keyed to tax relief.

If the stimulus plan is to survive a Senate vote, Obama will need Republican support because his fellow Democrats, while in the majority, do not yet hold the 60 seats needed to overcome delaying tactics by Republicans would keep the plan from going to a vote.

On Sunday, a key Democratic senator, New York’s Charles Schumer, said he was open to Republican proposals that would provide a $15,000 tax credit to every home buyer and lowering mortgage interest rates to 4.5 percent.

“I think we will get real agreement on the housing part,” Schumer said on CBS television.

Republicans in both houses have attacked the Obama plan — especially as it was voted out of the House of Representatives last week — calling it a grab bag of Democratic spending initiatives that will not quickly stimulate the economy and only serve to burden the federal government with new and lasting budget obligations.

The top Republican in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and his Texas colleague, Kay Bailey Hutchison, told Sunday television interviewers they want the stimulus package to be: “Timely, temporary and targeted.”

In tandem with the stimulus program, the Obama administration was moving to reformulate how to spend the second half of a $700 billion financial bailout plan put in place in the last months of the administration of President George W. Bush to avoid the collapse of the country’s financial system.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said the administration was considering a government-run “bad bank” to buy up financial institutions’ so-called toxic assets. But some officials now say that option is gone because of the potential cost, with some estimating it could take as much as $2 trillion to cleanse financial institutions’ balance sheets.

Still, many ideas under consideration could end up costing hundreds of billions beyond the original price tag. Obama advisers would not rule out seeking more than the $350 billion already set aside.

The Bush administration’s spending of the first $350 billion of the bailout package drew heavy bipartisan and public criticism because it went overwhelmingly to bankers who have not put much of the money into the credit system. Obama only gained access to the second $350 billion with written assurances to Congress that the funds would reach Americans facing home mortgage foreclosures and in need of credit for autos and other big ticket items.

While facing Republican opposition in Congress, Obama’s stimulus plan was receiving support from most Republican governors because it would send billions to states for education, public works and health care. State treasuries are drained by the financial crisis, and governors are desperate for money from Washington.

During the final three months of 2008, the national economy recorded its worst contraction in a quarter-century, declining 3.8 percent. That rate could accelerate to 5 percent or more this quarter.

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