WASHINGTON – Consumer confidence is on the skids, yet President Bush is optimistic that tax rebates and help for homeowners will adequately jump-start the economy.
During the past few weeks, many Americans have received letters from the Internal Revenue Service, explaining the tax rebates that will be sent out soon as part of an economic stimulus package Bush signed into law last month.
Bush said in his Saturday radio address that the checks, as well as incentives for businesses to invest in new equipment, will give the economy a "shot in the arm."
On Friday, the Commerce Department reported that in February, consumers turned in their weakest spending performance in 17 months. Consumer spending edged up by just 0.1 percent last month, the poorest showing since September 2006. If the effects of inflation are removed, spending was flat in February, the third consecutive month of sluggish activity.
Consumer confidence dropped to its lowest level in 16 years, further raising fears of a recession.
Trying to allay rising fears about the direction of the economy, Bush said his administration has taken action to help homeowners keep their homes.
Democrats say more is needed. They want Bush to endorse their housing assistance proposal, which would let bankruptcy judges lower payments for homeowners staring at foreclosure.
The president has come out strongly against the Democrats' housing package, warning that an overzealous governmental response to the nation's housing woes could hurt the economy's ability to recover long-term. He paid a quick visit Friday to a nonprofit debt counseling center in Freehold, N.J., to argue that his administration had acted effectively.
In the Democrats' weekly radio address, newly elected Illinois Rep. Bill Foster said, "Our plan will help more families avoid foreclosure and gives cities the chance to rehabilitate foreclosed homes and put them back on the market."
Foster, who won a January special election to fill retired Republican Rep. Dennis Hastert's seat, also talked Saturday about middle-class tax cuts, using sources of renewable energy to lessen the country's dependence on oil and expanding children's access to health insurance.
The administration's financial moves over the past about six months include expanding the Federal Housing Administration's ability to offer refinancing to homeowners with good credit, allowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy up more home loans and brokering help for struggling homeowners through a private-sector mortgage industry group. That group has agreed to offer a five-year rate freeze for people who have not missed payments or a 30-day foreclosure pause for those who fall behind.
In October, Bush said, his administration helped bring together the private sector group called the HOPE NOW Alliance. HOPE NOW helps streamline the process for refinancing and modifying mortgages, and it runs a national hot line to connect struggling homeowners with mortgage counselors.
"If you're a homeowner struggling with your mortgage, please take the first step toward getting help by calling the hot line at 888-995-HOPE," he said.
Democrats are planning a test vote Tuesday on their measure, which would also let localities with the highest foreclosure rates access federal grants to buy foreclosed properties and provide $200 million in counseling to distressed borrowers. The proposal fell short of the 60 votes it would have needed to advance when the Senate took it up last month, with all but one Republican opposing it.