WASHINGTON, February 10 – President Barack Obama warned Congress of "catastrophe" if it did not pass his stimulus plan this week, as America\’s dire economic plight cast a somber shadow over his first news conference.
Obama piled more pressure on lawmakers to complete a long political tug-of-war over the 800-billion-dollar-plus package, with the once mighty US economy suffocated by staggering job losses and mired in a credit crunch.
"I want to thank the members of Congress who\’ve worked so hard to move this plan forward," Obama said, less than two hours after the plan narrowly survived a key test vote in the Senate. The bill is set to clear its next hurdle on Tuesday.
"But I also want to urge all members of Congress to act without delay in the coming week to resolve their differences and pass this plan," Obama said.
The president pointedly blamed the former Bush administration for leaving him with a budget deficit forecast to hit more than one trillion dollars.
But he said that that staggering figure should not halt the vast spending he believes is needed to kick-start the crippled economy.
"Doing too little or nothing at all will result in an even greater deficit of jobs, incomes; and confidence," Obama said, three weeks after taking office in the eye of grueling economic and foreign policy storms.
"That is a deficit that could turn a crisis into a catastrophe, and I refuse to let that happen."
The president, addressing millions of Americans from the ornate East Room of the White House, also vowed to "clean up" debt-laden balance sheets of crippled US banks, a day before the Treasury announces its new bailout plan.
The Senate earlier voted 61-36 to end debate on its 838-billion-dollar version of the stimulus package, reviving hopes the final bill could end up on Obama\’s desk by his self-imposed deadline of February 16.
Obama\’s Democrats needed 60 votes in the 100-seat chamber to overcome Republican blocking tactics and the Senate is expected to hold a final vote on Tuesday.
Next a merged version of the tax cutting and spending package will have to pass another Senate vote and also pass in the House of Representatives.
"I can\’t afford to see Congress play the usual political games … send me a bill that creates or saves four million jobs," Obama said, while vowing he would himself "do whatever it takes to put this country back to work."
Obama spoke hours after returning from a one-day trip to economically blighted Indiana, at the start of a series of campaign-style swings to pressure Congress and get the economic crisis package passed.
The Senate result amounted to a solid win for Obama but highlighted deep divisions in Washington over how to respond to what he called the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"Millions of Americans who are out of work, struggling to keep their homes and make one paycheck last until the next one comes, deserve to hear five words from Congress: Help is on the way," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
But Republicans complain the plan is packed with bloated spending and will run up a deficit already forecast to hit one trillion dollars.
"We are robbing future generations of Americans of their hard-earned dollars because we are laying on them a debt of incredible proportions," said Obama\’s former Republican election opponent Senator John McCain.
The president\’s legislative victory Monday was tempered by the relative lack of support from Republicans, a handful of whom voted for the Senate bill and not one of whom said yes to the House version last week.
Republican Senators Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine broke ranks after helping to forge a compromise that shaved about 110 billion dollars off the price tag.
But Kay Bailey Hutchison, a leading Republican Senator from Texas, expressed deep reservations.
"This is just throwing money in the wind and we don\’t know where it\’s going to be spent," she told MSNBC television. "That\’s the problem with this bill. It\’s 838 billion dollars that is unspecified."
The president, who has drawn fire in some quarters for his handling of the measure, got good news in a new public opinion poll that found 67 percent of Americans approve of the way he has managed efforts to pass the giant bill.
Just 48 percent approve of the way his Democratic allies have acted, and a meager 31 percent say they like the way Republicans have handled what amounts to Obama\’s first major congressional showdown, according to the Gallup poll, which had an error margin of plus or minus three percentage points.