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Obama pushes stimulus with hard-hit Americans

ELKHART, Indiana (Reuters) - Warning against delay and bickering in Washington, an energized President Barack Obama launched a new drive on Monday to win passage of an $800 billion (535 billion pound) economic recovery plan he said would help put millions back to work.

U.S. President Barack Obama takes part in a town hall meeting Concord Community High School in Elkhart, Indiana, February 9, 2009. REUTERS/Jim Young

“Endless delay or paralysis in Washington in the face of this crisis will bring only deepening disaster,” he said as he took his case for the huge rescue package directly to hard-hit Americans after running into opposition in Congress.

“I am calling on Congress to pass this bill immediately,” Obama told a crowd of 1,700 at a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Indiana, where the White House said the unemployment rate had soared to 15.3 percent from 4.7 percent in the past year.

“Folks here in Elkhart and across America need help right now, and they can’t afford to keep on waiting for folks in Washington to get this done,” Obama said.

He said the plan would create or save 3 million to 4 million jobs over the next two years, “but not just any jobs -- jobs that meet the needs we’ve neglected for far too long and lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth.”

The president, in office three weeks, is trying to regain momentum after a week in which a key cabinet nominee withdrew in a flap over unpaid taxes and his push for a stimulus plan hit unexpected snags in the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Obama flew to Elkhart, a centre for recreational vehicle manufacturing, to appeal directly to people hurt by the recession. He scheduled his first White House news conference for Monday evening to make a national appeal for Congress to move quickly on his economic plan.

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The House of Representatives has approved an $819 billion economic recovery plan, while the U.S. Senate is expected to pass an $827 billion measure, but delays in fashioning a compromise could prevent Congress from delivering a final bill to Obama by his deadline this weekend.

“We can no longer posture and bicker and resort to the same failed ideas that got us into this mess in the first place,” Obama told the campaign-style town hall meeting, adding that the measure should be approved despite its imperfections.


A stimulus plan of that size would be about 5.5 percent of GDP or more than a quarter of the size of the federal budget. It aroused big opposition from Republicans who want to revive their appeal as a party of small government.

Obama acknowledged errors when questioned about the tax problems that have hit some of his nominees, including former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who had been selected to lead the president’s ambitious healthcare reforms.

“You can’t expect one set of folks to not pay their taxes when everybody else is paying theirs,” Obama said. “I made a mistake,” he said. “I don’t want to send the signal that there are two sets of rules.”

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The White House was focussing most of its attention on Monday on pushing Congress to approve the stimulus package. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner delayed a much-awaited announcement on a separate bank rescue plan until Tuesday to concentrate on the effort.

A procedural vote on the Senate stimulus bill was set for 5:30 p.m. EST (10:30 p.m. British time). If the bill survived that vote it was likely to receive final approval on Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Congress would not adjourn for its February break, scheduled to begin this weekend, until it finishes work on the stimulus measure.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs expressed optimism that Congress would send Obama the bill by the weekend.

“We’re focussed on getting something to the president’s desk as quickly as we can,” Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One en route to Elkhart.

“We’ve made tremendous progress. But there aren’t any victory laps until we start putting Americans back to work,” Gibbs said.

The Indiana visit gave Obama a chance to return to a campaign-style format at which he excels while talking to people directly feeling the pinch of recession.

The prime-time news conference in the White House East Room later would let him make his economic case to a national audience and allow him to try to clear the air after admitting he “screwed up” his handling of the Daschle’s nomination.

Writing by David Alexander; Editing by David Storey