President-elect Barack Obama laid his huge economic stimulus plan before Congress on Monday and received warm support from Republicans on his first full day of work in Washington.
Top Republican leaders from the Senate and House emerged from their meeting with Mr. Obama to say they expected to pass the $800 billion plan within six weeks, though details of the stimulus were still being worked out.
“We welcome the opportunity to be included in the discussion,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “I’m convinced, as a result of listening to the president-elect, that he is interested in what Republican ideas might be offered.”
Mr. McConnell said Republicans would most enthusiastically support tax cuts that the Obama transition team says would comprise 40 percent of the expenditure, or about $300 billion.
Mr. Obama touted the need for bipartisanship at the beginning of an hourlong meeting with Democratic and Republican leaders.
“Where in the past sometimes we fought about issues in terms of Republican [and] Democrat, we are in one of those periods in American history where we don’t have Republican or Democratic problems, we have American problems,” Mr. Obama said.
“The American people I think are counting on us to act swiftly, boldly but responsibly in dealing with these issues,” said the president-elect.
But tension remained between Mr. Obama’s desire that “Washington work on an expedited schedule,” as one participant in the meeting said the president-elect requested, and Republican wishes that there be a full public vetting of the bill to ensure that the money is spent well.
“The next step should be, if he is going to operate in good faith - along with Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi - they will produce a bill that has no pork barrel spending, no earmarks, no waste,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, during an interview in his office.
Mr. Cantor, one of the four Republican leaders to attend the meeting with Mr. Obama, also said any tax relief would need to be “meaningful.”
“We cannot afford another trillion dollars in spending to basically go down the tubes and not the have the impact long term,” he said, indicating his displeasure with the efforts so far under President Bush to turn the economy around.
Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, acknowledged privately to reporters that a bill will be passed after Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, rather than by that point as she had said in a letter last week. But her office was noncommittal on whether more than one hearing will be held to review the legislation.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said that the $800 billion figure floated by the Obama transition office in recent days is the low end of what it will likely cost.
“We have not received, of course, the exact package from the president-elect and his folks, but he has indicated that there’s at least 20 economists that he’s talked with, and all but one of those believe it should be from $800 billion to $1.2 or $1.3 trillion,” Mr. Reid said after his meeting with Mr. Obama.
Besides the tax cuts, the plan’s price tag is expected to include about $400 billion for infrastructure and public works nationwide and about $100 billion for business incentives. About half the tax cuts would give $500 to individuals and $1,000 to families that make less than $200,000 a year, including workers who do not make enough money to pay year-end federal income taxes.
Mr. Obama said he was not talking up a tax cut in order to attract Republican support.
“For the last two years, I’ve talked about the need for middle-class tax cuts. So the notion that me wanting to include relief for working families in this plan is somehow a political ploy when this … was a centerpiece of my economic plan for the last two years doesn’t make too much sense,” he said.
Mr. Obama wants to avoid handing out the tax cut in a lump-sum payment that people would likely save or use to pay down debt rather than pump into the economy. This happened to much of the $152 billion stimulus rebate paid out early last year, so Mr. Obama instead wants to distribute rebates in the form of reduced payroll taxes to make successive paychecks fatter.
Mr. McConnell proposed loaning infrastructure money to states at a nominal interest rate - 5 percent over the first five years and then 9 percent - to encourage governments to spend more carefully.
During his first full day in Washington since returning from a 12-day Hawaiian vacation, Mr. Obama made two trips to the Capitol, sandwiching a meeting with economic advisers at his transition offices in between.
He met in the morning with Mrs. Pelosi and in the afternoon with Mr. Reid just prior to the full meeting with leaders from both parties.
Mr. Obama spoke to reporters at each meeting, and the tone of his remarks on the future of the U.S. economy was grim.
“We are in a very difficult spot. The economy is bad. The situation is getting worse,” he said after the meeting with his economic team.
“On Friday, we’re going to get the final jobs report from this year. And every indication is that we will have lost, in 2008, more jobs than at any time since World War II,” he said. “It’s clear that we have to act and we have to act now, to address this crisis and break the momentum of the recession, or the next few years could be dramatically worse.”
But publicly the president-elect appeared to be enjoying himself, flashing a wide smile as he walked with Mr. Reid down the Ohio Clock Corridor outside the Senate chamber on his way to the meeting with leaders from both parties.
Mr. Obama, who was trailed by incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, Legislative Affairs Director Phil Schiliro, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, and others, stopped in the middle of a cacophony of camera shutters and flashes to greet newly elected Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat.
Mr. Begich, who defeated longtime Republican Sen. Ted Stevens in November, had come with his wife, Deborah Bonito, and son, Jacob, 6, to watch Mr. Obama walk by.
“We’re so thrilled for you,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Begich, and then posed for pictures with his family.
The mood among Democratic leaders was giddy.
“It was really terrific,” Mr. Reid said of the bipartisan meeting. One participant said each lawmaker spoke and offered suggestions or input and Mr. Obama responded directly to each person.
Mrs. Pelosi declared “a new day here in the Capitol.”
Mr. Obama started the day by going with his wife, Michelle, to drop off their daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, at their first day of school, at the exclusive Sidwell Friends School.
The Obama transition office also announced that as of Dec. 15 they had raised $3.8 million to help pay for the transition effort. The president-elect’s office released the full list of all 53,583 donors, who they said donated an average of $70.62.