Obama Seeks Congressional Support On Economy

President-elect Barack Obama says the economy is sick and getting worse. Obama spent his first day back in Washington on Capitol Hill urging congressional leaders to work quickly on a massive economic stimulus package. He also said his administration will post the plan on the Internet.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro sitting in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning. This is the day a new Congress begins with bigger Democratic majorities. The lawmakers face one overriding issue, the economy. They're asking how a Wall Street trader made $50 billion disappear, and we'll hear from an alleged victim of Bernard Madoff in a moment.

SHAPIRO: We start with an effort to help the economy recover. President-elect Obama is asking Congress for help. He met with both Democrats and Republicans yesterday. The president-elect has not spelled out a price tag for his stimulus plan, but lawmakers say it could top one trillion dollars. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President-elect Barack Obama says the storm clouds over the nation's economy are getting darker. And Friday's unemployment report is likely to deepen the chill. With that in mind, Mr. Obama traveled past the White House to the Capitol yesterday urging his former colleagues in the Legislature to waste no time approving a stimulus measure designed to bring a little sunshine into the forecast.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: The most important message today is that the situation is getting worse. We've got to act boldly and we've got to act swiftly. We cannot delay.

HORSLEY: Although Democrats originally hoped to have a stimulus measure ready for the new president's signature as soon as he takes office, that now appears unlikely. But Mr. Obama doesn't expect to wait long. Despite skepticism from Republicans and some Democrats, Mr. Obama hopes Congress will pass a stimulus measure by the end of January or early February at the latest.

President-elect OBAMA: We are not going to get bogged down in a lot of old-style politics on either side. There's not going to be a lot of finger pointing or posturing. The American people need action now. That's what I intend to provide as president of the United States.

HORSLEY: A significant share of the stimulus package is likely to take the form of tax breaks for both workers and businesses. That could make the plan more palatable to Republicans than if it were based solely on new government spending. After a meeting with his economic advisers yesterday, Mr. Obama insisted the proposed tax cuts are not just a political gesture meant to curry favor with the GOP.

President-elect OBAMA: For the last two years, I've talked about the need for middle class tax cuts. So the notion that me wanting to include relief for working families in this plan is somehow a political ploy, when this was a centerpiece of my economic plan for the last two years, doesn't make too much sense.

HORSLEY: Whatever the motivation, the likely inclusion of tax cuts in the stimulus package may help to win bipartisan support. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell predicts that portion of the bill will be met with widespread GOP enthusiasm.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): The best way to stimulate the economy obviously is to put money directly into pockets of taxpayers.

HORSLEY: Still, McConnell argues that new government spending in the stimulus package must not go for frivolous projects. He suggests that if states were required to pay back any money they receive from the federal government, they might be more careful about how they spend it. House Republican Leader John Boehner also worries about the overall size of the stimulus measure at a time when the government is already running big deficits.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): This is not a package that's ever going to be paid for by the current generation. It's going to be paid for by our kids and grandkids. And so while we want to get the economy moving again, the overall size and how we craft this is going to be very important.

HORSLEY: The Obama camp has been talking about a stimulus package in the range of three-quarters of a trillion dollars. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said yesterday it might be even bigger.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): I have not received, of course, the exact package from the president-elect and his folks. But he has indicated that there's at least 20 economists that he's talked with. And all but one of those believe it should be from 800 billion to one point two or three trillion.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama stressed that however much money the government spends on the stimulus, the process should be transparent and predictable. In contrast, the uncertainty he says has hampered some of the government's previous bailout efforts. Eventually, Mr. Obama says, the government must get control of its deficit spending, just not right away.

President-elect OBAMA: Right now, the most important task for us is to stabilize the patient. The economy is badly damaged. It is very sick. And so we have to take whatever steps are required to make sure that it's stabilized. But we also have to recognize that if we're going to grow this economy over the long term, if we're going to create a better future for our children and our grandchildren, then we can't be fiscally irresponsible about how we do it.

HORSLEY: Ultimately, Mr. Obama says, that will require tradeoffs and hard choices. But for now he's looking to craft a measure that will include something to please everyone. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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