WASHINGTON – President Bush said the recession officially declared Monday should act as a clarion call for Congress to quickly approve an economic stimulus plan.
"I am obviously aware our economy is slow. We will do everything we can to enhance recovery," Bush told reporters during an appearance in the Rose Garden with two aid workers newly released from Afghanistan. He spoke shortly after the National Bureau of Economic Research announced that the United States entered a recession in March.
The president said he was aware of the economic problems almost as soon as he took office, and that's why he advocated the tax cuts approved earlier this year. His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, contended that without those cuts, "The recession would be deeper, the recession would probably be longer."
"I remember the debate clearly, people saying the economy was strong. But it wasn't, it was flagging and weakening," Bush said. "I hope Congress moves quickly on an economic stimulus package ... and I can sign it before Christmas."
Congress is locked in deep partisan disagreements over economic stimulus, with Bush administration officials stressing corporate tax cuts and Democrats insisting on new help for the unemployed.
The Senate's top Democrat said he was troubled by the idea of tax cuts for business at a time when companies are laying off workers.
"They're letting people off in numbers that we've got to be concerned about," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said on Fox News Sunday. "I think it would be a tragedy if we left this session of Congress without helping the unemployed at all."
But White House economic adviser Larry Lindsey said: "We have to start creating paychecks instead of unemployment checks." He said anew that President Bush will veto spending proposals he views as excessive.
"What we have to do is target tax relief to the sectors of the economy that need it most, that can use it most, put more money in consumers' pockets and avoid this excessive spending binge that some people in the Senate seem to be on," Lindsey said on Fox.
The exchanges on the Sunday news shows, and gaping differences between Republicans and Democrats on how to revive the economy, preview a fierce struggle as Congress rushes to adjourn before the December holidays.
Bush and Democrats generally agree on the need to extend unemployment benefits, issue a new batch of tax rebate checks and accelerate depreciation tax write-offs for businesses. But Democrats have balked at the White House call to accelerate the income tax rate cuts approved earlier this year and repeal the corporate alternative minimum tax.
The depreciation and corporate alternative minimum tax measures would provide 300,000 new jobs, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said Sunday.
The alternative minimum tax was designed to ensure that businesses that take many deductions and credits still pay some taxes. The administration says abolishing it and speeding up depreciation timetables would free money that businesses could use to hire more workers.
"What the president has recommended is really not about tax cuts for big corporations, it's about accelerating depreciation for businesses of all sizes," O'Neill said on CNN's Late Edition. "Most businesses in the United States are small businesses. They would all have more cash to provide job security and job creation."
O'Neill appeared on CNN and ABC despite bruised ribs sustained during a Thanksgiving weekend football game with his grandchildren. "It hurts to breathe," he said.
He said the stimulus package "should not be about the partisan division," but also sharply criticized the Democrat-led Senate for its handling of the issue. "The Senate has dithered an awful long time in responding to the president's request for a stimulus package," he said. "The Senate needs to get its act together."
The GOP-controlled House has approved a $100 billion stimulus, weighted heavily in favor of tax relief.
Bush also has important items on his international agenda this week.
He meets with the presidents of two key allies in the Afghan war, Yemen and Spain.
Hard-line Islamic clerics in Yemen have called for Muslims to rush to the aid of Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, the Islamic militia that is under attack for refusing to surrender Usama bin Laden. But the government has been working closely with U.S. investigators in recent weeks.
The Spanish government said last week it will not extradite a group of Al Qaeda suspects it has in custody unless it receives guarantees that any suspects would not be subject to capital punishment or military tribunals like those ordered by Bush.