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Pressure mounts on lawmakers as Obama begins selling stimulus to public

The Baltimore Sun

Washington -With the Obama administration facing a make-or-break week for enacting a major economic stimulus package, officials increased pressure on lawmakers yesterday to waste no time sending the bill to the president for his signature.

President Barack Obama planned to hit the road this week to sell the package directly to the public. He'll spend today in Indiana and tomorrow in Florida, and he will hold his first prime-time news conference tonight.

The White House wants the president's stimulus message transmitted without distraction - so much so that it delayed the planned rollout of the Treasury Department's revised formula for rescuing the financial sector from today until tomorrow.

"There's a desire to keep the focus right now on the economic recovery program," Obama's top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, said yesterday. "We're in a very serious situation. This is worse than at any time since the Second World War."

Summers appeared on ABC's This Week and Fox News Channel's Fox News Sunday.

His comments came as the Senate prepares to approve an $827 billion compromise version of the economic stimulus package - one that is markedly different from the $819 billion bill that was passed last month in the House of Representatives. House and Senate leaders will meet this week to reconcile the two versions with hopes of delivering the bill to the White House before President's Day, when Congress is scheduled to take a weeklong recess.

The Senate plan features about $100 billion more in tax cuts and less spending on aid to states and on education. Summers said there was "90 percent" overlap between the two - and that "we've got to get closure on the last 10 percent."

But negotiating a final version of the 800-page bill won't be easy. Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from San Francisco, called the Senate's changes to the measure "very damaging." And Summers said yesterday that some parts of the House bill "are very, very important to the president," noting money for higher education in particular.

But the closer the final package veers toward the House version, the less likely that it will receive support from the three Republican moderates - Sens. Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania - who were integral in brokering the Senate deal. All three have made no commitment to support the bill that will emerge from the House-Senate conference committee.

Democrats hold 56 Senate seats, and the chamber's two independents caucus with them. But that is only 58 votes; 60 are required to prevent a filibuster. So the support of at least two Republicans is crucial.

Obama appears intent on increasing the pressure on those Republicans and on hesitant Democrats to get behind the plan. Today, he will go to Elkhart, Ind., where he will hold a campaign-style town hall meeting about the economy. He will do the same tomorrow in Fort Myers, Fla.

Both cities have been hammered by the recession. Unemployment in Elkhart jumped to 15.3 percent from 4.7 percent a year ago. The jobless rate in foreclosure-troubled Fort Myers has reached 10 percent.

In between, Obama will conduct a prime-time news conference in Washington, where the economy is certain to be the primary topic.

As of now, the overwhelming majority of congressional Republicans remains deeply critical of the package, complaining that it is too expensive and contains too little in the way of tax cuts.

"We are going to amass the largest debt in the history of this country, and we are going to ask our kids and grandkids to pay for it," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

Appearing yesterday on CBS' Face the Nation, the former presidential candidate called the measure "generational theft."

Other Republicans, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, compared the stimulus bill to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's federal spending programs during the Depression, saying, "The New Deal did not work."

That prompted a pointed response from Summers yesterday on This Week.

"Those who presided over the last eight years, the eight years that brought us to the point where we inherit trillions of dollars of deficit, an economy that's collapsing more rapidly than at any time in the last 50 years, don't seem to me in a strong position to lecture about the lessons of history," he said.

Summers emphasized that passage of the stimulus needs to be paired with the Treasury Department's revised Troubled Assets Relief Program to effectively aid the economy.

The new Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, will outline tomorrow how the Obama administration plans to spend the second half of the $700 billion earmarked last fall to bail out the financial sector.

Members of Congress and the public have complained that the first $350 billion was spent without transparency and went to banks that did not in turn help struggling homeowners.

Administration officials would not confirm specifics yesterday, but it is expected to include $50 billion toward foreclosure relief for homeowners. It is also expected to inject more capital into ailing banks and to insure banks against losses from so-called "toxic" mortgage-based assets - those whose mortgages exceed their market value. The plan might also include government-backed incentives to encourage the private sector to purchase some of those assets.

Summers said on Fox News Sunday that using private capital to help clean the assets off the books of distressed banks is preferable to using federal money alone.

"With the right strategic approaches, Secretary Geithner believes that we can bring in substantial private capital, and that's something we all ought to be able to agree on," Summers said, "that where we can catalyze private capital, that's a better root to solving this problem than government resources."

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