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Obama tries to sell Republicans on his stimulus plan

Trying to build support for his $825-billion economic stimulus plan before a crucial vote, President Obama traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday but continued to meet a stubborn wall of complaints from Republicans that the cost of the package was unacceptable.

Republicans praised Obama for listening to their concerns, but many said afterward that they would not support the proposal.

The House is set to vote on the package today. There seemed little chance that Republicans, who lack sufficient numbers, could have much effect on the plan before it headed to the Senate.

Asked if the session with Obama had swayed votes, Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young (R-Fla.) said, “I doubt that. This package has his brand on it, and I don’t think he’s prepared to change much.”

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“I don’t think too many Republicans are going to vote for this stimulus package because most of us don’t believe it will work,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) said after emerging from the meeting with the president.

Still, Obama appeared to be trying to pressure Republicans to get aboard.

“The main message I have is that the statistics every day underscore the urgency of the economic situation. The American people expect action,” Obama said between separate meetings with House and Senate Republicans.

“There are some legitimate philosophical differences with parts of my plan that the Republicans have, and I respect that,” Obama said. “I don’t expect 100% 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.”

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But as Obama made the rounds on Capitol Hill, waves of energized Republicans hit the cable airwaves and rolled out news releases condemning the plan. They argued that the package contained too much government spending on infrastructure and on other projects, and not enough tax cuts.

And despite Obama’s attempts to reach out, they complained that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) had locked them out of the legislative process.

“Unfortunately, the bill House Democrats are bringing to the floor this week was not developed under any spirit of bipartisanship, and we see the result: an $825-billion omnibus spending package that will do more to satisfy a spending agenda than create jobs in America,” said Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.).

Both sides seized on a new Congressional Budget Office report that concluded the bulk of the spending in the plan would come within the first 18 months -- but because of interest payments, its total cost would rise above $1 trillion.

Democrats said the report suggested the economy would receive a quick jolt from the bill. Republicans howled about the cost.

“So we now know that we’re going to go out and borrow a trillion dollars and spend it in the form of a stimulus,” said Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). “Much of this spending is slow, occurs well after the recession has gone away and is wasteful.”

Democrats say only a large-scale investment such as the one they are proposing can boost the economy, and that a smaller package runs the risk of having little or no effect.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs hinted that room for compromise on the package still existed.

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“This is a process that will wind its way through. I don’t think today was the beginning or the end, but just part of that process,” he said.

Republicans were to meet Tuesday evening with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and the level of tax cuts in the package was sure to be on the agenda. Gibbs said Obama had told his economic team to evaluate Republican suggestions.

The measure the House is expected to vote on today is designed to provide immediate stimulus to the economy through tax cuts and federal spending on so-called shovel-ready construction and other projects, such as bridge and highway improvements and school renovations. In addition, the bill would fund improvements in the electric power grid, Internet accessibility and other projects intended to encourage and sustain longer-term economic growth.

The bill also contains billions of dollars to strengthen the nation’s social safety net by extending unemployment benefits, helping those who lose their jobs maintain health insurance, and providing aid to states whose social services budgets are overtaxed.

In all, $550 billion of the total would fund aid to states and other spending, and $275 billion would go toward tax cuts -- including $500 for individuals and $1,000 for couples who earn too little to pay federal taxes.

In the Senate, Obama’s stimulus plan got its first modicum of bipartisan support as the measure came under scrutiny in two committees. The appropriations committee approved a $365.6-billion portion of the bill, 21 to 9, with four Republicans voting in favor. House committees have split strictly along party lines.

The other $522-billion portion of the Senate package -- covering tax breaks, healthcare assistance and other provisions -- was approved by the finance committee, 14 to 9, late Tuesday. The panel adopted several amendments with bipartisan support, but on the final vote the only Republican to back the bill was Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine). No Democrat on the finance committee voted against the bill.

The total for the Senate version of the package comes to about $887 billion.

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Included in the finance committee’s plan was $70 billion for a bipartisan amendment to limit the reach of the alternative minimum tax.

The tax was established to ensure that wealthy people did not use deductions and loopholes to eliminate their entire tax liability. But in recent years, because the tax was not indexed for inflation, increasing numbers of people have come within its reach. The amendment would keep about 24 million taxpayers from paying more under the alternative minimum tax.

There have been signs of compromise. Democrats will drop a provision from the House bill that would have made more money available for contraception and family planning services. The move deprived Republicans of what was rapidly becoming an outsized talking point, one they repeatedly invoked to suggest that the stimulus plan was being shaped by a Democratic liberal agenda.

“The most important thing about this vote [today] is keeping the process going . . . not to get involved in some ‘Animal House'-type food fight on Capitol Hill,” Gibbs said.

Despite their opposition to the stimulus plan, many House Republicans came away from their meeting with Obama saying the president had impressively laid the groundwork for cooperation.

“I thought it was a great gesture on his part and it begins a dialogue,” Ryan said. “He did a good job starting us off, at least, beginning to talk to one another. And that will help him in the future.”

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joliphant@tribune.com

janet.hook@latimes.com

Christi Parsons, Peter Nicholas and Richard Simon of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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