Congress must act despite disagreements, Obama says

President Barack Obama answers a question during his first prime time televised news conference in the White House in Washington on Monday. Evan Vucci, The Associated Press

AP

President Barack Obama answers a question during his first prime time televised news conference in the White House in Washington on Monday. Evan Vucci, The Associated Press

By Jennifer Loven

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, pressuring lawmakers to urgently approve a massive economic recovery bill, criticized Republicans who have balked at the legislation Monday night and said, “I can’t afford to see Congress play the usual political games.”

Obama used the first prime time news conference of his presidency to warn that a failure to act swiftly and boldly “could turn a crisis into a catastrophe.”

With the nation falling deeper into a long and painful recession, Obama defended his program against Republican criticism that it is loaded with pork-barrel spending and will not create jobs.

“The plan is not perfect,” the president said. “No plan is. I can’t tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act will only deepen this crisis as well as the pain felt by millions of Americans.”

When the stimulus bill passed the House last month, not a single Republican voted for it. On Monday an $838 billion version of the legislation cleared a crucial test vote in the Senate by a 61-36 margin, with all but three Republican senators opposing it.

Obama said he had made a deliberate effort to reach out to the GOP, putting three Republicans into his Cabinet, and “as I continue to make these overtures, over time, hopefully that will be reciprocated.”

“So my bottom line when it comes to the recovery package is: send me a bill that creates or saves 4 million jobs.”

Obama acknowledged the difficulty of mending political divisions between Republicans and Democrats.

“Old habits are hard to break,” he said. “We’re coming off an election, and people sort of want to test the limits of what they can get. There’s a lot of jockeying in this town and who’s up and who’s down, testing for the next election.” Obama said the federal government was the only power that could save the nation at a time of crisis.

“At this particular moment, with the private sector so weakened by this recession, the federal government is the only entity left with the resources to jolt our economy back to life,” he said.

Rejecting criticism that the emphasis on federal action was too great, he said that 90 percent of the jobs created by the plan would be in the private sector, rebuilding crumbling roads, bridges and other aging infrastructure.

“The plan that ultimately emerges from Congress must be big enough and bold enough to meet the size of the economic challenge we face right now,” Obama said. Again and again, he stressed that the economy is in dire straits.