US President Barack Obama made an unusual visit to congressional Republicans to rally support for his US$825 billion economic stimulus package, as the Democrat followed up on his campaign promise to try to break down partisan divisions.
The House of Representatives was to vote on the measure yesterday, and Democrats hold sufficient majorities in both chambers to pass the bill regardless of how Republicans vote.
But Obama’s decision to meet with opposition lawmakers on their Capitol Hill home turf on Tuesday is symbolic of his desire for bipartisan backing for the plan, and working with Republicans helps to protect his image as a different kind of politician and president.
“The American people expect action,” Obama said as he shuttled between closed-door meetings.
Republicans who attended the sessions later said the president did not agree to any specific changes but did pledge to have his aides consider some points that Republican lawmakers raised dealing with additional tax relief for businesses.
House Republican leaders welcomed the Democratic president a few hours after urging their rank-and-file to oppose the stimulus bill, and it was far from clear that Obama had managed to pick up any actual support during the day.
Republicans are trying to regroup after last fall’s elections, in which they lost the White House and seats in both houses of Congress. While some conservatives seem eager to mount a frontal attack on Obama and his plans, others are pursuing a strategy of criticizing congressional Democrats rather than the president.
“I think we both share a sincere belief that we have to have a plan that works,” House Republican leader John Boehner said after meeting with Obama. “The president is sincere in wanting to work with us, wanting to here our ideas and find some common ground.”
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration expected some Republican lawmakers to vote for the measure yesterday in the House, adding that he hoped there would be more in the Senate and even more later when a final compromise was reached.
So far, the Senate has been showing signs of greater bipartisanship.
Congressional leaders have pledged to have the bill on Obama’s desk by the middle of next month.
“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,” Obama said.
One Republican later quoted the president as saying any changes would have to come after the House gives what was expected to be largely party-line approval yesterday to the Democratic-backed bill.
Debate began late in the day on the bill, which includes about US$550 billion in spending and roughly US$275 billion in tax cuts. Democrats made one small change, voting to delete US$20 million intended for renovating Washington’s National Mall that Republicans had criticized as wasteful.
In the Senate, traditionally more bipartisan than the House, a companion bill grew to roughly US$900 billion. That included a new tax break for upper middle-income taxpayers, at a one-year cost of US$70 billion.