WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Capitol Hill on Tuesday to try to build momentum for an $825 billion package he says is urgently needed to keep the U.S. economy from sinking into an even deeper recession.
A week after taking office, Obama is grappling with an economic crisis that seems to worsen by the day. U.S. companies such as the heavy-equipment maker Caterpillar Inc. are announcing huge layoffs as troubles in the housing and financial sectors mount.
But Obama’s meeting with lawmakers comes after the president achieved one victory on the economic front: the confirmation of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
With his economic team in place, Obama hopes he can win passage of the stimulus plan by mid-February.
The Capitol Hill meeting is somewhat unusual. Obama’s predecessor, former President George W. Bush rarely visited Congress, preferring to send aides and sometimes his vice president, Dick Cheney.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama’s meetings with House of Representatives and Senate lawmakers would be less negotiating sessions than a chance to gather input.
“He wants to hear their ideas. If there are good ideas -- and I think he assumes there will be -- that we will look at those ideas,” Gibbs told reporters.
The House may begin debate on the stimulus bill on Tuesday, though any votes would not take place until Wednesday.
While there is broad support in the Democratic-led U.S. Congress for bold measures to jump-start the economy, Republicans and some moderate Democrats are worried about the measure’s huge price tag at a time when U.S. budget deficits are already projected to stretch into the trillions.
REPUBLICANS QUESTION CONTRACEPTIVE, TUITION SPENDING
Some $275 billion of the package would go toward tax cuts. The other $550 billion would pay for public works projects, alternative energy initiatives and the bolstering of unemployment benefits and other safety-net programs.
Obama hopes to win bipartisan support for the plan, but some Republicans disagree with Obama on how the tax cuts should be structured and have questioned whether some spending elements in the plan, including money for contraceptive programs and college tuition assistance, would provide any kind of short-term jolt to the economy.
Responding to criticism that the package contained too little immediate help, Obama’s aides have said three-quarters of the spending would work its way into the economy within the first 18 months.
According to a report issued late on Monday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, about 64 percent of the stimulus package would be poured into the economy within 19 months.
Obama has sought to emphasize that he wants to listen to Republican and Democratic ideas.
The Democratic tax cut plan would direct benefits more toward lower-income workers, even those who do not pay income taxes, while the House Republicans would help all taxpayers.
When some Republicans pressed Obama on Friday to change that part of the plan, he replied that he won the election and was sticking to the plan he had campaigned on.
Gibbs said the comment was meant to be light-hearted and was not an attempt to pursue “cowboy diplomacy” in the negotiations.
In addition to the stimulus package, another issue that could come up at the Capitol Hill meeting is the shaky condition of the U.S. financial system.
As the credit crunch worsens, Obama’s aides are looking at various proposals for helping struggling homeowners and stemming the turmoil in the banking sector.
White House aides have not ruled out the possibility that Obama might seek addition funds to help the financial sector beyond the $700 billion approved by Congress last fall.
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Jeremy Pelofsky; Writing by Caren Bohan
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