- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2009

President Obama huddled Friday with top congressional negotiators over a massive $825 billion stimulus bill to boost the economy, hearing Republican concerns about the package but sticking to a mid-February deadline to get the package passed and to his desk.

Mr. Obama told the bipartisan gathering that the daily briefings he receives from his top economic aides have been unremittingly grim in recent days. The closed-door get-together in the White House Cabinet Room was designed to lobby for quick action and tamp down complaints from Republicans who charge they are not being heard.

Republicans lawmakers gave Mr. Obama good marks for listening to their points, but said they remained concerned that the Democratic majorities in Congress will not be as accommodating when the massive $825 billion stimulus is hustled through the legislative process.

“We have serious concerns with the path congressional Democrats are taking, not the least of which is that virtually none of the money in their bill goes to small business to create jobs,” said House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia after the meeting.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, who presented the new president with his party’s alternative stimulus program at the meeting, said that he and others expressed concerns over some of the proposed spending.

“I’m concerned about the size of the package, and I’m concerned about some of the spending that’s in there,” he said. The House Republican alternative relies heavily on tax cuts instead of new government spending to prime the economy.

But leaders of both parties said the prospects remained good that a bill could be passed by Mr. Obama’s mid-February deadline, even as the president warned that the news on the country’s economy is growing grimmer by the day.

“Frankly, the news has not been good. Each day brings, I think, a greater focus on the problems that we’re having, not only in terms of job loss, but also in terms of some of the instabilities in the financial system,” Mr. Obama said at the start of the meeting.

The press was then ushered out so the meeting could be held in private, a normal occurrence for most meetings at the White House under other presidents.

A Republican source familiar with the conversation told The Washington Times that Mr. Obama told GOP leaders their goals seemed “achievable.”

The source, speaking on the condition of anonymity to freely disclose details from the private meeting, said opposing party leaders were pleased the president listened to their ideas.

Democratic leaders offered “talking points” and no real specifics about their proposals during the meeting, the source added. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel noted that Mr. Obama plans a “fiscal responsibility” summit next month to deal with the long-term need to address the federal deficit even as the short-term spending and tax cuts go forward.

At one point, Mr. Cantor asked to pass around the five-point GOP plan, which “caught the Democrats and President Obama a little bit by surprise.”

The source said the remainder of the meeting was dominated by a discussion of the Republican ideas, and the Democrats did not seem pleased.

“The president then said of the Republican plan that ‘nothing on here looks outlandish or crazy to me,’ and that some of the goals could be achievable,” the source said.

A Democratic leadership aide familiar with the discussion said the Republican description was “basically right,” and that the president agreed to consider the GOP plan, but stressed, “There was nothing even close to a commitment expressed by Obama.”

After the meeting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said in a National Press Club address that “I think [Mr. Obama] is open to our ideas. We will see, as we go along, how many of them are incorporated.”

He added, “I think we will come behind a package. I hope it will be a package that most of my members can support.”

Senate rules give the minority Republicans far more leverage to bargain over the shape and scope of the bill. But asked whether he thought Republicans might be able to block passage of the stimulus bill altogether, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said simply, “No.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, insisted that Republicans “have had their voices heard,” mentioning tax cuts designed by the Obama administration that she said were Republican ideas.

“Many of the tax cuts that are in the bill were some of the suggestions made by the Republicans already, net operating loss, the tax credit for jobs,” she said. “A number of those are in there now.”

But House Republicans reacted angrily to Mrs. Pelosi’s claim.

“Speaker Pelosi just claimed that Republican voices have been heard in discussion of the House Democrats’ trillion-dollar spending bill. That is simply not true,” said Boehner spokesman Michael Steel.

He said the tax provisions had been suggested not by Republicans but by the Obama administration, and had been stripped from the bill by House Democrats.

Mrs. Pelosi on Friday repeated a threat to keep Congress in through the traditional Presidents’ Day recess next month if the stimulus bill failed to pass by then.

The full House is expected to vote on the stimulus bill Wednesday in the House, while the Senate Finance Committee is set to begin its deliberations Tuesday.

Mr. Obama also said that the stimulus would be “one leg in an, at least, three-legged stool.” He said that reform of government waste and stricter oversight of how taxpayer money is spent by financial institutions are also needed.

Those attending the White House meeting included Democratic House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, Democratic Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Senate Minority Whip Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

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