WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's expansive and expensive plan to jump-start the economy is all but certain to clear its first hurdle when the Democratic-controlled House votes on a $825 billion version that melds new spending and tax cuts.
Republican support, however, is in doubt when voting takes place Wednesday.
With Democrats enjoying a comfortable majority and expected to fall in line behind Obama, they don't need help from GOP lawmakers to win House passage of his top priority of economic recovery. But Obama wants Republican support to illustrate his promise of a new style of politics that rejects partisan gridlock.
Despite his desire for partisan backing, the House was moving the bill toward a passage vote that was expected to be largely along party lines.
Senate committees were working on a separate version of the measure that enjoyed only slightly more support from Republicans. Congressional leaders have promised Obama they would send him the measure, which could be the single largest bill ever to go through Congress, by mid-February.
In the hours ahead of the House vote, Obama was to make his case for swift passage after meeting at the White House with a group of business CEOs to discuss the plan — just as debate on the measure is in full swing up Pennsylvania Avenue.
The president's first days in office have been dominated by his efforts to drum up bipartisan support for the sweeping plan to jerk the country out of the year-old recession that he inherited from former President George W. Bush. The increasingly troublesome economy — and the federal government's response to it — is the first major test of Obama's presidency; how he handles the volatile situation, and the effect of his stimulus package on the economy, could well set the tone for his first year in office, if not his entire term.
He is casting the measure as the first step toward turning around the moribund economy while laying the foundation for long-term objectives, like developing alternative energy sources and rebuilding the country's highways.
"The statistics every day underscore the urgency of the economic situation. The American people expect action," Obama said after closed-door meetings with Republicans on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
The House measure includes about $550 billion in spending and roughly $275 billion in tax cuts in hopes of spurring the economy and helping those directly affected. Much of the spending would be for items such as health care, jobless benefits, food stamps and other programs that benefit victims of the downturn.
As debate on the measure began Tuesday, most Democrats trumpeted it as the elixir for what ails their jobless constituents and pressed for passage; Republicans generally griped about "insane" programs that would be funded in the plan and "minuscule" tax relief for small businesses as they urged opposition.
"This could be one of our roughest times our great nation has faced economically," said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. But he added, with passage of the bill, "this country is going to be healthy, educated and competitive."
"Instead of bringing a bill that will stimulate our economy what we see before us is a bill that will simply stimulate big government," countered Rep. Jeb Hensarling, a Republican from Texas. "You cannot borrow and spend your way to prosperity."
The legislation "isn't an economic stimulus bill but a rampant spending spree," said Rep. Harold Roger, R-Ky.
Democrats made one small change, voting to delete $20 million intended for renovating the National Mall. Republicans had criticized the expenditure as wasteful.
Across Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 21-9 to support a $366 billion spending portion of the plan. Four Republicans voted with the majority — Thad Cochran of Mississippi, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Christopher Bond of Missouri and Susan Collins of Maine — even though they had strong reservations.
Senate Democrats also accepted attaching to the bill a one-year extension of the Alternative Minimum Tax fix aimed at saving primarily higher-income taxpayers about $70 billion. That would increase the Senate bill's total to about $900 billion.
In both the House and Senate, Obama has reached out to Republicans who want less spending and more tax cuts in the legislation, and he has promised to consider their concerns — and alternative proposals — as it winds its way through Congress.
During his meetings with Republicans, Obama indicated he stands ready to accept changes in the legislation. Republicans who attended the sessions said the president did not agree to any specific changes, but pledged to have his aides consider some that deal with additional tax relief for businesses and provisions that were suggested by individual GOP lawmakers.
Associated Press writer David Espo contributed to this report.
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