ST. LOUIS, Mo. – Tax credits for health insurance, business tax cuts, and changes in government regulations for small businesses are a few priorities that President Bush said Monday he thinks would help revive an economy that is recovering but is not out of the woods yet.
Bush is proposing raising the limits on how much small businesses can deduct for investments in new equipment, and he wants to enable them to pool their employees into a single health plan to get cheaper rates.
"One of the good ideas... is to allow for what we call 'associated health plans,' which says that if you're a member of the NFIB, for example, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, that they can pool a multitude of small businesses together, thereby driving down the cost of health care," Bush told small business employees in a suburb of St. Louis, where he previewed a speech he planned to deliver Tuesday at a Labor Department conference for women entrepreneurs.
"Now, it makes sense. It is good for small businesses. It is very good for the people that work for small businesses. And it is beyond me why Congress can't figure out why this shouldn't work. And so I'm calling on them to give this plan a hard look and get it passed for the good of the American economy."
Surveys done in several states show that health insurance costs have increased by 30 to 50 percent for small businesses, an increase that most can't absorb, said Amy Jensen, a spokeswoman for NFIB, which represents 600,000 entrepreneurs.
Jensen said companies are demonstrating a return to good economic times, and have started hiring employees and buying equipment, but the NFIB, which supports the president's plan, "never want(s) to jump ahead of good tax policy."
Elements of Bush's plan are not new, in fact, but remnants left out of a compromise economic stimulus bill that the president signed earlier this month after months of haggling between the Senate and House. That bill extended unemployment benefits by 13 weeks but didn't contain all the tax cuts he wanted.
In a speech at a plant that makes power distribution boxes and other electrical components, Bush looked back at least year's tax cut and said it was the right thing to do at the right time for small business owners.
"Many small businesses are unincorporated, many small businesses are sole proprietors or limited partnerships, and by cutting the personal rates ... what we're in effect doing for the small-business community is encouraging cash flow. And more cash flow on small-business owners means more jobs. One of the crucial things we've done to address the economic recession and its slowdown and the effects it caused on working people is to say, 'Let's give people their own money back,'" he said.
Several indicators suggest an economic recovery is under way, but the White House is concerned over whether it would generate enough jobs. The nation's unemployment rate is 5.6 percent; in Missouri, it is 5.3 percent.
Aides said the president continues to push for job creating tax cuts despite signs that the economic rebound is well underway because he wants a stronger recovery than would otherwise occur.
But there is a political component to his thinking as well, aides said. Bush's father said the economy was recovering as he ran for re-election in 1992, but it was recovering faster in some parts of the country than others, and people looking for jobs didn't like to hear that the recession was over.
This President Bush, aides said, would be the last to declare that the current slowdown is over. At the same time, wavering on the economy allows the president to push one of his pet projects, a faith-based initiative.
"We've got pockets of persistent poverty in our society which I refuse to declare defeated. I mean I refuse to allow them to continue on. And so one of things that I'm trying to do is to encourage a faith-based initiative to spread its wings all across America to be able to capture this great compassionate spirit," he said.
During his trip, Bush told reporters he talked to Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf early Monday morning about the terrorist attack in Islamabad over the weekend that killed two Americans and three others.
The president said Musharraf doesn't know yet who's responsible for the attack in which a grenade was thrown into a church popular with Americans.
"He is deeply concerned about American loss of life and wanted to share that with me," Bush said. "We both talked about the need to find the people who would kill for political reasons.
"It goes to show that a part of the world is a dangerous place at times. The tougher President Musharraf is, the more steadfast the United States is, the stronger we stand, the more lives we'll ultimately save."
Like most of his domestic travel these days, the president included a political component to his trip. Bush is trying hard to help Republicans hang on to control of the House and win back control of the Senate. Monday night, he was headlining a fundraiser for former Rep. Jim Talent, who is running against Sen. Jean Carnahan in a special election this year for a Senate seat. The event was to draw between $1 million and $1.5 million for Talent.
Bush seems to be single-handedly taking care of Missouri's Republican political power structure. He nominated John Ashcroft as Attorney General after Carnahan's late husband beat Ashcroft in the 2000 election. Talent lost the governor's race that year. The White House enlisted Talent to run against Carnahan, and has kept the Republican field clear for him, an unusual practice the White House has undertaken.
Fox News' Jim Angle and Wendell Goler and the Associated Press contributed to this report.