WASHINGTON – Congressional Democratic leaders said Tuesday that they feel urgency to enact an economic stimulus plan and are confident they can work with President Bush to craft it quickly. The president also expressed confidence but said any deal must be done right, not just fast.
"The urgency that we feel at home is now even more urgent as we see the impact of our markets on others," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after lawmakers of both parties met with Bush at the White House.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the goal is to get a deal through Congress and on Bush's desk within roughly three to four weeks, before lawmakers break for the Presidents' Day recess.
"I really feel good that we have an opportunity to do something together," Reid said.
Earlier, Bush himself said he was confident that Congress and the administration will be able to approve a stimulus package to jump-start the economy and calm fears of recession that have shaken financial markets worldwide.
The unusual bipartisan harmony and pledges for fast action underscored how rattled the American public is — and how leaders of both parties want to be seen as responding to those concerns quickly.
The lawmakers, like Bush, would not discuss the specifics of what a compromise plan would look like. They say that is a matter for private negotiation.
The president has broadly outlined a stimulus plan that would include tax cuts for individuals and businesses. Bush said any plan, to be effective, would need to represent roughly 1 percent of the gross domestic product, or about $140 billion to $150 billion. Democrats have their own ideas.
So far, all sides are stressing cooperation, not potential division about the details.
"This is about one thing in this package: Is it a stimulus?" Pelosi said "So whatever it is that we are considering, it must meet that one criterion: Does it stimulate the economy? Does it put money into the hands of those who will spend it?"
When the Democratic leaders were asked if they agreed with Bush's statement that the economy is "inherently strong," Pelosi said, "I certainly hope so."
Reid predicted that the House — led by Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner and working with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson — would pass a package first and send it to the Senate. He said the size of a deal proposed by Bush was "a good number."
The action came on the same day that the Federal Reserve Board announced that it cut a key interest rate by three-quarters of a percentage point.
Bush invited the bipartisan congressional leadership to discuss an emergency rescue package centered on tax rebates and business tax cuts but also likely to include increases in unemployment benefits and food stamps.
"I've got reasonable expectations about how fast something can happen," Bush said as the session began. "But I'm also optimistic something will happen."
Speaking in a packed Cabinet Room, Bush said both the administration and Congress want to find a solution quickly, but that he knows the legislative process can prove tedious
"Everybody wants to get something done quickly, but we want to make sure it gets done right," the president said. "And make sure that everybody's realistic about the timetable. Legislative bodies don't move necessarily in an orderly, quick way, and therefore these leaders are committed, and they want to get something done."
Later, as he announced the creation of a council charged with improving the nation's basic understanding of managing money, Bush noted the mortgage crisis. Banks, brokerages and insurers have announced staggering write-downs, largely due to bad subprime mortgage bets.
"I just wonder how many people, when they got subprime mortgages, knew what they were getting into," Bush said. Despite the economy's woes, he said he was confident in the long-term strength of the U.S. economy. He described his meeting with lawmakers as "very positive."
On Wall Street, stocks plunged at the opening of trading Tuesday, propelling the Dow Jones industrials down about 400 points after the Fed's announcement of its rate cut failed to assuage nervous investors. U.S. markets joined stock exchanges around the globe that have fallen precipitously in recent days amid concerns that a downturn might spread around the world.
The slumping of the global economic market since Bush proposed the outline of an economic package added a greater aura of urgency to the talks at the White House. It also raised the question of whether Bush is willing to go for an even more expensive package. White House press secretary Dana Perino did not rule that out, although she said Bush believes he has proposed the correct figure, and no one is pushing for a bigger one at this point.
Paulson, the administration's point man on the stimulus bill, discussed details with top lawmakers in both parties in advance of the meeting between Bush and leading lawmakers.
"I have been very encouraged by the way that both parties have come together, bipartisan support for moving quickly to do something that will make a difference this year in our economy that will be meaningful, that will be temporary and something that we can hopefully get done quickly," Paulson told reporters.