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Obama set to wage public campaign for stimulus plan

Framework of bailout plan also looms

By Jim Kuhnhenn
Associated Press / February 9, 2009
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WASHINGTON - President Obama plunges into a difficult test of his leadership this week, struggling to get a divided Congress to agree on his economic recovery package while pitching a new plan to ease loans to consumers and businesses.

The Senate's $827 billion stimulus legislation seems assured narrow passage by tomorrow. Harder work for Obama and the Democrats comes in the days ahead, when the House and Senate attempt to reconcile differences in their two versions.

Obama and Democratic Party leaders had hoped to have a bill ready for the president's signature by Feb. 16 - a goal that appears increasingly unlikely.

At the Treasury Department, Secretary Timothy Geithner delayed the unveiling of a new bailout framework for financial institutions from today to tomorrow. Geithner is considering steps to broaden the use of a new lending facility at the Federal Reserve, provide government guarantees to help banks deal with their troubled assets, and continue direct infusion of capital into banks in exchange for securities and tougher accountability rules.

For Obama, the economy has become a two-front engagement, with one effort aimed at creating or saving jobs and the other at unfreezing the credit markets. Amid the urgency created by nearly 600,000 new unemployed workers last month and new bank failures, Obama's economic prescriptions are coming under critical scrutiny by both Congress and the American public.

The House and Senate bills are about $7 billion apart in cost and overlap in numerous ways. But the Senate bill has a greater emphasis on tax cuts, while the House bill devotes more money to states, local governments, and schools.

Lawrence Summers, Obama's top economic adviser, signaled the struggle ahead as he made the rounds of Sunday morning talk shows. "There are crucial areas, support for higher education, that are things that are in the House bill that are very, very important to the president," he said on ABC.

Representative Barney Frank of Newton, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, warned that reductions in state spending in the Senate bill would hurt communities.

"To get any Republicans at all, you had to adopt a cut that's going to mean policemen and firemen are going to be laid off," said the Massachusetts Democrat. "Aid to the states is to prevent this budget crunch from laying off public employees. "

Senator John Ensign of Nevada, a member of the Senate Republican leadership, dismissed Frank's comment as "fear-mongering."

The Senate bill is finely tuned. With only two or three Republicans on board, it is guaranteed, at most, 61 votes; the bill needs 60 votes to advance and avoid procedural hurdles.

Obama will take his case to the American people today with his first prime-time news conference.

The House and Senate are scheduled to go on recess next week, but congressional leaders have said they will not leave until the bill is completed.

The bank bailout proposal that Geithner will announce tomorrow also carries policy and political risks. Congress approved a $700 billion bailout for the financial sector last fall. But since then, lawmakers from both parties have been critical of how the Bush administration spent the first half of the money.

The Senate grudgingly agreed to give Obama access to the second half of the fund, but only after Obama promised to impose tougher conditions and to devote at least $50 billion of the fund to reducing mortgage foreclosures.

Officials said Geithner will not ask for more money for the program. Instead, his plan is likely to include various approaches to loosening credit and helping banks deal with troubled, mortgage-backed assets.

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