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Obama Backs Millionaire Surtax, Pushes for Action on Jobs Bill

Obama Presser Oct 6.jpg

President Barack Obama gestures during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (AP)

President Obama on Thursday endorsed Senate Democrats' decision to insert a 5 percent surtax on millionaires into his $447 billion jobs bill, as Republicans continued to push for a test vote on the floor. 

The president, speaking at his first press conference since proposing the American Jobs Act last month, said he's "comfortable" with the tax change made by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid this week. He said he still wants to reform the tax code, but "in terms of the immediate action of getting this jobs bill passed, I'm fine with the approach that they're taking." 

The president pitched his jobs bill -- or some version of it -- as the best option on the table for a vulnerable economy and a vulnerable Congress, warning that voters will "run them out of town" if they don't act. 

"They know we need to do something big and something bold," Obama said, adding that he "can't campaign against (lawmakers) as a do-nothing Congress" if they do act. 

Republicans oppose the millionaire surtax. House Speaker John Boehner's office has called it a "desperate tax hike" gimmick. 

But Republicans, while not necessarily in favor of Obama's bill, have said they support parts of it and have pushed in the Senate for a vote -- in part to expose fractures in the Democratic caucus. 

Reid earlier this week turned away an effort by Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to bring the measure to the floor, describing the move as a political stunt. But Reid's office said Thursday they will hold a procedural vote related to the bill, as part of a separate debate on a major China currency bill. 

The procedural vote, which would require 67 senators to support it, is very unlikely to succeed. But it comes as Republicans try to counter the president's claim that they've been intransigent. 

After Obama claimed Thursday that he's kept an open-door policy with Republicans, Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck noted that Boehner and House Republican Leader Eric Cantor offered to meet with the president last month. "We weren't given the opportunity," Buck said in an email. 

Amid the series of disputes, the president took a stern tone with Congress on Thursday, while also using his press conference to address recent scandals that have tarnished his administration. The focus was on the economy, as he grapples with a jobless rate hovering above 9 percent and warnings that the economy is in danger of sliding back into recession. 

The president acknowledged things have gotten worse. 

"There is no doubt that the economy is weaker now than it was at the beginning of the year," Obama said, blaming the slack in part on the Arab Spring, the tsunami in Japan and, most importantly, an economic crisis in Europe. He described the latter as "the biggest headwind the American economy is facing right now." 

The president promoted his bill as a buffer against further uncertainty across the Atlantic. "This jobs bill can help guard against another downturn if the situation in Europe gets any worse," he said. 

Without the bill, he said, "there will be fewer jobs, there will be weaker growth." 

The press conference comes ahead of an expected vote in the Senate next week. 

Obama has been rallying support around the country, but has had trouble rustling up support in Congress. 

Boehner said in an interview Thursday that the president has thrown in the towel, and is campaigning in lieu of governing. 

But Obama said at his press conference that he's repeatedly gone "out of my way" to find common ground with Republicans, sometimes at his own political peril. 

He suggested proposals Republicans have put on the table so far will not do the trick. He applauded Republicans for supporting patent reform and new trade deals, but argued they won't jolt the economy in the near-term. He dismissed the GOP push to roll back government regulations. 

"Their big economic plan to put people back to work right now is to roll back financial protections," he said. "Does anybody really think that that's going to create jobs right now?" 

The president also commented briefly on the sustained protests in New York City and elsewhere under the name Occupy Wall Street. While saying the country needs a vibrant financial sector, Obama said, "the protesters are giving voice to the more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works." 

Thursday's press conference was about more than just the jobs bill. 

House Republicans have asked the White House to appoint a special counsel to investigate Attorney General Eric Holder's assertion that he didn't hear about the botched Operation Fast and Furious gun sting until earlier this year despite emails indicating he had been briefed regularly since about June 2010. 

Obama said Thursday he has "complete confidence" in Holder and in the process reviewing what went wrong. 

"He's indicated that he was not aware of what was happening in Fast and Furious and certainly I was not," Obama said. "And I think both he and I would have been very unhappy if somebody had suggested that guns were allowed to pass through that could have been prevented by the United States of America." 

The president also addressed concerns about Solyndra, the solar-panel firm that declared bankruptcy in September after receiving nearly $530 million in government loans. 

Obama defended the loan guarantee program and others like it as vital to the country's ability to remain competitive against countries like China that are pouring immense government resources into "cutting edge technologies." 

The president said start-ups in the clean energy field can attract private investment, but sometimes need additional help to "scale up." 

"There were going to be some companies that did not work out. Solyndra was one of them," Obama said. "The Department of Energy made these decisions based on their best judgment." 

The president touched briefly on foreign policy. Responding to Adm. Mike Mullen's recent claim that Pakistani intelligence are tied to the militant Haqqani network, Obama said the country is uneasy about the future of its neighbor Afghanistan. 

"I think that they have hedged their bets in terms of what Afghanistan would like. And part of hedging their bets is having interactions with some of the unsavory characters who they think might end up regaining power in Afghanistan after coalition forces have left," Obama said, while suggesting he's not in favor of cutting off aid. 

The president also accused China of "gaming the trading system to its advantage," as the Senate weighs a bill that goes after China for undervaluing its currency. Obama expressed concern that the bill might conflict with existing agreements, but did not threaten to veto.