Obama Calls On Congress to Act Fast on Stimulus
Jobless Rate Hits Highest Level Since 1994
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Saturday, November 8, 2008; Page A01
With fresh evidence that the U.S. economy is shedding jobs even faster than expected, President-elect Barack Obama said yesterday that his top concern is passage of a multibillion dollar stimulus package to create jobs.
In his first news conference since winning the presidency, Obama said he would tackle the nation's financial crisis "head on" and called on Congress and the White House to approve a stalled stimulus plan that could include money for new public works projects and aid for the nation's teetering automakers. If it does not get passed soon, he said, "it will be the first thing I get done as president of the United States."
Obama's remarks followed a meeting in Chicago of his top economic advisers and a spate of dire news on the economy. The government said 240,000 jobs were lost in October and the unemployment rate surged to 6.5 percent, its highest level since 1994. GM and Ford reported massive losses for the third quarter and warned that they need government aid because if the economic situation fails to improve, they run the risk of not having enough cash to operate.
"Tens of millions of families are struggling to figure out how to pay the bills and stay in their homes," Obama said, standing before a row of economic luminaries such as former Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin and former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker. "Their stories are an urgent reminder that we are facing the greatest economic challenge of our lifetime, and we're going to have to act swiftly to resolve it."
The president-elect called on members of both parties to "set politics aside for a while" to deal with the economic crisis. Yet politics continued in Washington as congressional Democrats and the White House clashed over the stimulus package and free trade agreements.
The White House signaled yesterday that it is likely to oppose stimulus proposals from Democrats, arguing that the ideas mentioned so far would have little immediate impact and that the $700 billion rescue plan approved last month needs more time to play out.
The outlines of the Democrats' stimulus plan are similar to the version the House approved Sept. 26, providing a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits as well as increased funding for food stamps, infrastructure projects and to states for Medicaid costs. Also on the table is a proposal to double the $25 billion in low-interest loans to automakers to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.
Speaking to reporters before Obama's news conference, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the administration would review any legislation but that the stimulus proposals floated by Democrats are "very limited and very forward-looking and long range," such as large-scale public infrastructure projects that could take years to complete.
Fratto also dismissed proposals for another extension of unemployment benefits, noting that one extension had already been approved and that some states could extend benefits further with federal matching funds.
Issuing a threat to the Bush administration, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Democrats were prepared to forgo a planned lame-duck congressional session unless President Bush commits to a compromise stimulus bill.
"We still don't have any agreement," Hoyer said. "Clearly there's no point in us doing something if the administration is going to take the position that they're not going to sign something."
Leaving Congress shuttered would close the door on Bush's legislative accomplishments, a particular blow to his free-trade agenda as the long-sought pact with Colombia still awaits House and Senate approval.