WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama launched a drive on Friday to get his $825 billion economic recovery plan through Congress, predicting lawmakers would resolve differences before a mid-February deadline.
“We are experiencing an unprecedented economic crisis that has to be dealt with and dealt with rapidly,” Obama told reporters as he met Democratic and Republican congressional leaders at the White House.
Obama, who has used his first four days in office to roll back some of the policies of his Republican predecessor George W. Bush, lifted restrictions on U.S. government funding for overseas groups that provide abortion or counseling.
The Democrat, who was sworn in on a mandate of change, has pledged swift action to rescue the U.S. economy from the worst turmoil in decades. With a daily stream of gloomy economic data, he has warned there is little time to lose.
Winning Republican support for the stimulus plan will be an early test of Obama’s promise to forge consensus and overcome the partisan politics that divided Washington under Bush.
In another show of bipartisanship, Obama will meet Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to hear their ideas about the stimulus plan, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said. Bush rarely visited Congress, preferring to send aides and sometimes his vice president, Dick Cheney.
Obama’s appeal to Democrats and Republicans to set aside their differences appeared to pay swift dividends, with the most powerful Republican in Congress, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calling for a joint effort to fix the economy.
It remains to be seen though how long the honeymoon will last.
Republicans, who have voiced concern over the shape of the stimulus package, left the meeting praising Obama for being open to suggestions on amending the plan. They had complained earlier that Democrats, who hold a majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives, were ignoring their views.
“I recognize that there are still some differences around the table and between the administration and members of Congress about particular details on the plan,” Obama said.
But he added, “It appears that we are on target to make our Presidents Day weekend (target).”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, told reporters after the meeting she, too, believed Congress was on track to have a bill ready before the February 16. holiday.
McConnell said he was confident Congress would meet the president’s deadline. Republicans on Capitol Hill said their proposed amendments to the stimulus package included tax cuts for workers and new tax deductions for small businesses.
Republicans are upset at the Obama administration’s plans for the stimulus money, saying the $550 billion in government spending would add too much to the deficit and that the $275 billion earmarked for tax cuts is too little.
Republicans also say the package includes projects that would not have any immediate effect of boosting the economy, including, according to House Minority leader John Boehner, a huge expansion of federal funding for contraceptives.
“How can you spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives? How does that stimulate the economy?” the Ohio congressman said.
The president says he aims to create or save 3 to 4 million jobs in the U.S. economy, which has been in a year-long recession since the collapse of the housing market sparked a global panic over bank losses that froze credit markets.
Obama, who has sharply criticized the Bush administration’s management of the economic crisis, has used his first executive orders to signal a sharp change with the policies of his predecessor.
His reversal of the ban on funding for groups abroad that provide abortion services, was immediately welcomed by abortion rights activists, who have long complained that it reduced healthcare for some of the world’s poorest women.
Writing by Ross Colvin, additional reporting by Jeff Mason, David Alexander, Jeremy Pelofsky, Richard Cowan, Tom Ferraro and Deborah Charles; Editing by Eric Walsh