President Barack Obama is making good on his promise to hear from Republicans as he pushes for swift passage and bipartisan backing of his massive $825 billion plan intended to jerk the country out of recession.
The unanswered question: whether the new Democratic president will actually listen to GOP concerns about the amount of spending and the tax approach — and modify his proposal accordingly.
With the economy worsening, Obama was making his first trip to Capitol Hill since his swearing-in last week for two private afternoon sessions Tuesday with House and Senate Republicans.
"The goal is to seek their input. He wants to hear their ideas," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "If there are good ideas — and I think he assumes there will be — we will look at those ideas."
"I think the president is genuinely serious about this," Gibbs added.
The presidential spokesman would not, however, reveal what concessions Obama may be willing to make, if any, to demonstrate his seriousness about working across the aisle and securing GOP support. Gibbs, however, noted that there already are tax provisions in the measure, mostly small business cuts, that are direct GOP suggestions to Obama and his economic team.
"We don’t have pride of authorship. We understand that this is a process of give and take to produce what the president believes is the strongest plan to get the economy going again," Gibbs said.
Meanwhile, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell blamed Democrats for the hold-up.
"We’re anxious to help him," the Kentucky Republican said of Obama Tuesday morning. "Frankly, the biggest problem is with his own party, the Democratic Party, which seems to be drifting away from what he said he wanted, which is a package that is at least 40 percent tax cuts and earmark free."
"We think the country needs a stimulus," McConnell said on NBC’s "Today" show. But he also said that he believes most people do not believe it will be accomplished through projects like "fixing up the mall."
Republican leaders sent Obama a letter last week requesting he talk with them about the stimulus. Tuesday’s meetings follow a bipartisan, bicameral White House gathering last week with congressional leaders on the economy.
Under the Obama team’s watchful eye, the Democratic-controlled House and the Senate are in the midst of modifying the package that melds new government spending with a series of tax cuts. It seems to grow with every turn as it wends its way through Congress, and it’s likely to be the largest single piece of legislation ever, once it ends up on Obama’s desk. He wants it ready to sign by mid-February.
As Senate committees prepared to take up the measure and the full House got ready to vote on it this week, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis that found that Obama’s plan would flow into the economy a little more slowly than he predicted.
At this point, two-thirds of the package consists of new spending on everything from unemployment aid to construction projects while the rest is tax cuts for both individuals and businesses. Republicans are griping that the price tag is too high because of nonessential spending and that the tax provisions are flawed.
Obama’s meetings come as the Federal Reserve examines unconventional ways to lift the economy, and one day after several companies, including Sprint Nextel Corp., Home Depot Inc., and General Motors Corp., announced sweeping job cuts as they seek to remain solvent in an economic environment that worsens by the day amid turmoil in the financial, housing and credit sectors.
Given the gravity of the economic situation, the stimulus measure is widely expected to pass Congress with bipartisan support. The question is just how many Republicans will side with majority Democrats to pass it; House GOP leader John Boehner has said he couldn’t support the measure in its current form and McConnell has been noncommittal.
Obama already has had one early victory, persuading Congress to give him the second installment of the $700 billion financial industry bailout money — and that was before he even got into office.
But the stimulus package presents a huge opportunity for the president, who was elected in part by his call for a new-style politics that emphasizes solutions over partisanship to change the way frequently gridlocked Washington works. Getting a significant number of Republicans to back the measure would be a triumph for Obama that would set a bipartisan tone for his presidency and signal that he values Republican ideas — and is willing to give a little to get a little.
For all his courting of Republicans and promises to listen to their ideas, Obama has made clear that it’s his vision that will guide the country.
"I won" the election, he told Republicans on Friday when pressed about his tax policy — a comment both the White House and GOP leaders described as lighthearted, though also matter-of-fact.