After hearing President Barack Obama plead Thursday for speedy passage of his $447 billion jobs package, Maryland lawmakers were divided about whether the plan would reduce the nation's stubbornly high unemployment.
State Democrats expressed near-universal support for the American Jobs Act, which would cut payroll taxes by more than $240 billion, extend unemployment benefits and direct $100 billion to infrastructure improvements. Maryland's two Republicans were more skeptical and raised concerns about the cost.
"It would have a phenomenal impact," predicted Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat who noted Obama's proposal to help struggling homeowners refinance their mortgages. "These are things that the Republicans have supported in the past."
Rep. Andy Harris, a Baltimore County Republican who also represents the Eastern Shore, was less optimistic that the proposals included in the plan would affect the nation's 9.1 percent unemployment rate. He compared the measure to Obama's controversial 2009 economic stimulus.
"We didn't hear a whole lot new," said Harris, who added that Obama offered few specifics about how to pay for the plan. "This is basically 'stimulus two.'"
The president said his jobs package, which he will send to Congress later this month, can be put in place without adding to the federal deficit, but specifics were not available Thursday. Obama said the changes needed to pay for the effort would be folded into a broader attempt already underway to cut federal budget deficits.
White House officials did not provide estimates of the number of jobs they expected the plan to create. The Obama administration was pummeled by critics when it forecast that the nation's unemployment would peak at just below 8 percent under the 2009 stimulus package.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she expects voters will support additional government spending to help tackle the nation's jobless rate as long as the money is used for specific programs that have an immediate impact on unemployment.
"We have to have a greater sense of urgency about what we can do now," the Maryland Democrat said. She described the White House plan as "a good first step."
Mikulski said Congress has a number of proposals queued up that would have an immediate effect, including a long-stalled highway bill that pays for transportation projects. The legislation must be passed by the end of the month or Maryland and other states could lose federal funding.
Many of those programs, however, have faced opposition from the Republican-led House of Representatives, particularly given the emphasis on reducing government spending. The highway bill, for instance, has stalled over spending and the size of the federal gasoline tax, which funds many of the nation's construction projects.
Western Maryland Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett struck a more conciliatory tone than Harris, though he also expressed reservations about cost. Bartlett pulled out notes he took during the address in which he tracked the policies he said he agreed with, including tax cuts and unemployment insurance reform.
"Who doesn't want to reduce taxes?" he said. "But we need to also reduce spending."
Bartlett described the tone of the speech — in which Obama repeatedly told lawmakers they should pass his jobs plan "right away" — as "confrontational" and "angry."
"I tried to pay attention to the words he said rather than the way he said them," Bartlett said.
Several Marylanders were invited by the White House to attend the address, including a 30-year-old Catonsville woman who said she had worked as a bartender and maid before going back to school for a degree in information technology. Marlena Clark, 30, now works for a Crofton-based information technology and communications firm.
Clark was invited by Jill Biden, the vice president's wife, who has long promoted community colleges. Clark said that the troubled economy has forced many workers to retrain for new careers and said that Anne Arundel Community College, where she received her degree last year, helped write her ticket out of minimum wage.
"From being a maid and a bartender, I had no tech background. I just progressed with it," said Clark, who is now a systems engineer at Force 3, which performs contract information technology work for the federal government and private firms. "A lot more people need to go back to school."
A Baltimore couple, Sabrina and Dannie Mangrum, were also invited by the White House as an example of a family that would benefit from the tax cuts Obama proposed. Sabrina Mangrum, a student teacher at John Eager Howard Elementary School, said the economy has affected her family by forcing everyone to be more cautious with money.
"We have a different mindset: You save when you can and spend only when necessary," she said.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, also attended the address and sat just behind first lady Michelle Obama in the House chamber. His presence drew criticism from both the national and state Republican parties, which noted that Maryland was tied for the fastest pace of job loss in the nation in June.
In a statement, O'Malley said he supported Obama's proposals, which he described as "common sense."
Several Democrats, including Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, cast the debate over jobs in the context of reducing the nation's deficit. The messaging came as a panel of 12 lawmakers tasked with cutting budget deficits by $1.5 trillion held its first meeting Thursday.
"You can't balance the budget without creating jobs," Cardin said. "Gridlock is not an option."
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