KANSAS CITY, Mo. - President Bush pressed Congress to pass an economic rescue package, saying yesterday's labor report marking the end of a 52-month streak of national job growth was another troubling sign that the economy is sputtering.
Bush toured Hallmark Cards Inc. in the nation's heartland to push a plan of tax rebates for millions of people and tax breaks for companies. The stimulus package, passed by the House, has hit roadblocks in the Senate.
The president spoke just hours after the Labor Department reported that employers cut 17,000 jobs in January, the first such reduction in more than four years.
"Interest rates are low, inflation is low, productivity is high, but there are certainly some troubling signs," Bush said. "There are serious signs that the economy is weakening and that we've got to do something about it. Today we got such a sign when, after 52 consecutive months of job creation, we lost 17,000 jobs."
His message to the Senate at the greeting card maker, however, seemed more softly worded than in recent days.
"I appreciate the fact that the Senate is trying to work through this as quickly as possible, so I'm just urging them to get it done," Bush said, "because the sooner this package makes it to my desk - that actually focuses on ways to stimulate growth - the better off our economy is going to be."
The House quickly adopted a $161 billion economic stimulus plan this week that would send $600 to $1,200 rebates to more than 100 million Americans with the hope they would spend the money quickly and give the flagging economy a shot in the arm.
Senate Democrats are pushing to add elements to the House plan that they say will give a bigger boost, including smaller rebates that would go to more people such as low-income older Americans, wealthier taxpayers, and disabled veterans, plus heating aid for the poor. The Senate plan, estimated to cost $204 billion, would also extend unemployment benefits.
Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader and a Democrat of Nevada, said the jobs report showed that Bush's assessment of the economy is "greatly misguided." He pushed for the Senate version of the stimulus package, which would extend unemployment insurance to the jobless.
"We hope Republicans similarly recognize the urgency of helping Americans who are being pushed out of the workforce, and our stimulus bill is one important step in that direction," Reid said.
While acknowledging the negative jobs report, Bush said the underpinnings of the US economy remain strong. "We're just in a rough patch," he said.
Bad economic news has followed Bush on his three-day swing through California, Nevada, Colorado, and Missouri to highlight themes of his State of the Union address and raise more than $4.7 million for the Republican Party and its candidates.
Just before Bush spoke Wednesday in Torrance, Calif., the Commerce Department reported that the economy nearly stalled in the last quarter of last year, growing by just 0.6 percent, half the pace economists expected. A day later, the department reported that consumer spending was up just 0.2 percent in December, the weakest in six months.