WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama met face-to-face Tuesday with congressional Republicans who have been chafing over parts of a $825 billion plan to pull the country out of recession, and he urged lawmakers to "keep politics to a minimum" and quickly approve the measure.
"The statistics every day underscore the urgency of the economic situation. The American people expect action," the new Democratic president said in brief remarks between private meetings with House and Senate Republicans at the Capitol. "I don't expect 100 percent agreement from my Republican colleagues, but I do hope that we can all put politics aside and do the American people's business right now."
The president made his first trip to Capitol Hill since his inauguration a week ago, aides said, to listen to concerns from Republicans who have been threatening to oppose the measure over what they call insufficient tax cuts and excessive spending.
The House is to vote on the White House-backed measure Wednesday, and Senate committees began their own deliberations over it on Tuesday. Congressional leaders have pledged to have the bill on Obama's desk by mid-February. He is hoping for bipartisan support on his top priority of economic recovery even though his fellow Democrats have large majorities in both the House and Senate.
After the back-to-back House and Senate meetings, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters: "I think we will have Republican support for this bill." He didn't say how much but added: "We'll take what we can get" when the House votes.
Gibbs didn't say whether Obama made any concessions to Republicans, only that the president listened to the GOP's concerns.
The political maneuvering surrounding the stimulus legislation has become intense, only one week into his tenure.
"There are some legitimate philosophical differences with parts of my plan that the Republicans have and I respect that," Obama said.
Even so, he called the House meeting "very constructive" and Republican leaders seemed to agree, though none signaled they were ready to sign on to the measure the House is to vote on Wednesday.
"I think we both share a sincere belief that we have to have a plan that works," House GOP leader John Boehner said. "The president is sincere in wanting to work with us, wanting to here our ideas and find some common ground."
Added Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican: "The most encouraging statement I think the president made today was the fact that he had no pride of authorship in this bill. We take that to mean that tomorrow's vote is only the first step in the process, only the beginning."
Hours before the meeting, officials said, the two GOP leaders had sought at a closed-door meeting with Republicans to rally opposition to the White House-backed measure. Both men said the legislation contains too much wasteful spending that will not help the economy recover from its worst nosedive since the Great Depression, said the officials, who described the session on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to disclose the discussions.
That request for opposition came one day after Obama extended Republicans an olive branch, appealing to House Democrats to jettison a provision that would allow states to provide family planning services for low-income people under the Medicaid program. The item is estimated to save the government about $200 million over the next two years because it assumes lower future Medicaid costs for pregnancy and post-delivery expenses.
The White House-backed legislation includes roughly $550 billion in spending as well as $275 billion in tax cuts. Much of the spending would be for items such as health care, jobless benefits, food stamps and other programs that benefit victims of the recession.
Obama described the package as "one leg in a multi-legged stool" that includes getting credit flowing again, regulating the financial industry, dealing with troubled bank assets and coordinating with other countries in the economic crisis that now spans the world.
"I am absolutely confident that we can deal with these issues, but the key right now is to make sure that we keep politics to a minimum," Obama said.
House Republicans have drafted an alternative measure. Except for an extension of unemployment benefits, it consists exclusively of tax cuts.
Earlier Tuesday, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in a televised interview that Obama was having problems with Democrats, whom he said favor spending over tax cuts as a remedy for the economic crisis.
"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 recovery be accomplished through projects like "fixing up the Mall," a reference to funding to repair the National Mall in Washington. He said Republicans want a bill that devotes 40 percent of its total to tax cuts.
The family planning funding was a particular target of Boehner and other Republicans, and Obama's intervention was timed for his meetings in the Capitol.
The decision angered some House Democrats — Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. had defended the funding in a weekend television interview — and the White House sought to ease the concerns.
"While he agrees that greater access to family planning is good policy, the president believes that the funding for it does not belong in the economic recovery and reinvestment plan," said press secretary Robert Gibbs.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 21-9 Tuesday 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 _, though they went along only with strong reservations.