WASHINGTON – House Republicans unexpectedly pledged an immediate review of President Barack Obama's jobs proposals on Friday as he launched a public campaign for urgent passage of his day-old $447 billion program of tax cuts and new spending. "The time for gridlock and games is over," the president declared.
"Nothing radical in this bill," Obama told a large crowd at the University of Richmond on the afternoon after his dramatic speech to Congress. "Everything in it will put more people back to work and more money back in the pockets of those who are working. Everything in it will be paid for."
Obama's contentions are unlikely to go unchallenged by Republicans, who have worked without letup for months to cut spending rather than increase it. But he had barely completed his remarks when Speaker John Boehner and other top House GOP leaders released their letter to him declaring "our desire to work with you to find common ground."
With unemployment at 9.1 percent, they wrote that while their own proposals may differ from Obama's "we believe your ideas merit consideration by the Congress and believe the American people expect them to be given such consideration."
The letter was far different in tone from remarks earlier in the day by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Announcing plans to begin work on the legislation as soon as possible, the Nevada Democrat offered no timetable, and urged "reasonable Republicans to resist the voices of those who would oppose this legislation — and root for our economy to fail."
They must not "continue to bow to tea party Republicans willing to do anything to hurt the president." That is hurting our economy instead, he said.
Taken together, the day's events underscored the primacy of the issue of joblessness in a country where millions have been out of work for months, true unemployment exceeds the government's measurement of 9.1 percent and the economy is barely growing.
"This has been a terrible recession," Obama said in Richmond, although by traditional guidelines, the economic downturn ended more than two years ago.
Public opinion surveys show Obama's approval sinking, but Congress' own marks are exceedingly low, and one of the major unknowns when lawmakers returned from their August vacation was whether political leaders would reach for compromise, or at least disagree more politely than they had this summer.
The president emphasized repeatedly in his speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday night that his recommendations had been embraced in the past — and in some cases authored — by Republicans.
The centerpiece of his plan is lower Social Security payroll taxes for individuals and businesses, along with new tax credits for companies that hire the long-term unemployed or veterans. Obama also wants to extend the program that provides unemployment benefits through 2012, and renew an existing tax break for businesses that purchase new equipment.
The tax component totals $253 billion, according to the White House, and is accompanied by $194 billion in spending increases.
Much of the spending would go for school construction, highways, bridges and other projects, and states would receive funds to pay teachers and first responders who might otherwise be laid off.
Despite expressions of urgency, it could be weeks or months before debate begins on the floor of the House or Senate on the president's recommendations.
The White House is not expected to present Congress with formal legislation until the week after next, when the president outlines additional proposals to offset the cost of his tax cuts and new spending.
Additionally, Democratic officials said the White House wanted to allow time for Obama to make the case publicly for his program before formal debate begins in Congress. The president is expected to fly to Ohio and North Carolina next week for appearances along the same lines as the one he made in Richmond — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's district — on Friday.
Nor is it clear what role a newly appointed debt reduction committee might play in considering Obama's proposals. That panel began work on Thursday and is charged with producing legislation by Nov. 23 that includes a net reduction of at least $1.2 trillion on deficits over the next 10 years.
Unlike routine legislation, any measure produced by the committee is guaranteed a yes-or-no vote in both houses of Congress and cannot be amended.
In their letter to the president, Boehner, Cantor, Reps. Kevin McCarthy of California and Jeb Hensarling of Texas said the House would "immediately begin the process of reviewing and considering your proposals" and would identify "modifications and additional ideas that could achieve economic growth."
They made clear they would seek passage of legislation to roll back government regulations they have identified as job killers.
They also renewed their call for the president to submit free trade agreements to Congress covering Colombia, South Korea and Panama. The White House is demanding simultaneous approval of legislation to renew benefits for workers who lose their jobs as a result of imports.
Obama's tone was playful at times as he spoke in Richmond, with an undercurrent of frustration at congressional Republicans who have tried to impose their agenda on his own for most of the year.
"I'm an optimistic person. I believe in America. I believe in our democracy. I believe that if you just stay at it long enough, eventually, after they've exhausted all the options, folks do the right thing," he said.
"So I'm asking all of you to lift up your voices, not just here in Richmond -- anybody watching, listening, following online -- I want you to call, I want you to email, I want you to tweet, I want you to fax, I want you to visit, I want you to Facebook, send a carrier pigeon. I want you to tell your congressperson, the time for gridlock and games is over.
"The time for action is now. The time to create jobs is now," he said to applause.
In their letter, Boehner and the GOP leadership said they assumed Obama's ideas were not presented "as an all-or-nothing proposition."
That was a point Cantor in particular had made earlier in a conversation with reporters in the Capitol.
He rejected what he said was Obama's insistence on "all-or-nothing," adding, "That's not the way to do business. No one does business that way."
Despite Cantor's assertion, Obama did not use the phrase "all or nothing" his speech, and did not ask lawmakers to pass his plan without any changes.
Associated Press writer Julie Pace contributed to this story from Richmond.