Obama calls for new government aid for small businesses

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; 2:52 PM

President Obama on Friday outlined proposals to make it easier for small businesses to get government-backed loans and to refinance their mortgages, saying both steps would help accelerate the nation's slow recovery from the ongoing job crisis.

After meeting with small-business owners at Oasis Mechanical Contractors in Lanham, Obama called on Congress to quickly enact the proposals, as well as a slew of other job-creation initiatives he has unveiled in recent weeks.

The Senate is set to begin debating the measures next week, and Obama said he is open to any suggestions from lawmakers that would tweak his ideas. "But what I strongly urge is that we work quickly and work together to get this done," he said. "America's small businesses are counting on us."

Ahead of Obama's speech, the Labor Department reported that the nation's unemployment rate has dipped to 9.7 percent, despite employers cutting another 20,000 jobs in January. "These numbers, while positive, are a cause for hope, not celebration," the president said.

Obama pointed out that, when he took office last January, employers were shedding nearly 800,000 jobs a month. As job losses have substantially slowed, he said, there is mounting evidence that "we are climbing out of the huge hole we found ourselves in."

During his appearance in Lanham, Obama proposed a temporary increase in the maximum Small Business Administration Express loans size from $350,000 to $1 million. The SBA guarantees 50 percent of those loans, reducing the risk for lenders.

Obama also proposed temporarily allowing the refinancing of owner-occupied commercial real estate loans, under an SBA program that now provides loan guarantees for the development of real estate and other fixed assets.

The White House envisions these proposals as complements to a series of other proposals by the president, to bolster infrastructure, subsidize home weatherization projects and provide tax credits for small businesses hiring new workers, being included in a jobs bill now being assembled in Congress.

In recent weeks, Obama has shown new urgency around the issue of job creation, speaking about it nearly every time he ventures into public. During a Democratic National Committee fundraiser Thursday night, he declared the issue to be his top priority.

"Our most urgent task is job creation -- that was our number one priority last year and our number one priority this year," he said. "And the first task was to make sure the economy is growing. It is growing. But we've got to do more. So we're going to give tax breaks and loans to small businesses to help them hire new workers and raise wages and invest in new plants and equipment."

But passage of Obama's job-creation ideas is far from certain. The White House greeted the new jobs numbers as evidence that the president's policies, from the bank and auto bailouts to last year's economic stimulus package, are working. But congressional Republicans disagree.

"This report shows why Washington Democrats need to end the uncertainty caused by proposals like the government takeover of health care, the 'cap-and-trade' national energy tax, the out-of-control spending, and the slew of tax hikes in the president's job-killing budget," said House Minority John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

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