WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama pressed Congress Monday night to urgently approve a massive economic recovery bill, using the first prime-time news conference of his presidency to warn that a failure to act "could turn a crisis into a catastrophe."
With the nation falling deeper into a long and painful recession, Obama defended his program against Republican criticism that it is loaded with pork-barrel spending and will not create jobs.
"The plan is not perfect," the president said. "No plan is. I can't tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act will only deepen this crisis as well as the pain felt by millions of Americans."
Obama addressed the nation from the East Room of the White House in a news conference that lasted almost exactly one hour. He hit repeatedly at the themes he has emphasized in recent weeks, including at a town hall meeting to promote his plan earlier in the day in Elkhart, Ind.
Obama said his administration inherited a deficit of more than $1 trillion along with "the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression."
"That is a deficit that could turn a crisis into a catastrophe. And I refuse to let that happen. As long as I hold this office, I will do whatever it takes to put this country back to work."
Video: Obama: Stimulus pitch in Elkhart Earlier in Elkhart, a community reeling in job losses during the recession, Obama told a town hall meeting : "Doing nothing is not an option." He was to visit Florida, another region smarting badly from the economic meltdown, on Tuesday.
At his evening news conference, Obama said: "If there's anyone out there who still doesn't believe this constitutes a full-blown crisis, I suggest speaking to one of the millions of Americans whose lives have been turned upside down because they don't know where their next paycheck is coming from."
Domestic and foreign policy
Taking questions from reporters, Obama also addressed these topics:
— Afghanistan: He said it was too early to give a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. An estimated 33,000 U.S. troops currently are in Afghanistan, and the Pentagon is expected to almost double that presence. "We are going to need more effective coordination of our military efforts with diplomatic efforts with development efforts, with more effective coordination with our allies in order for us to be successful," the president said.
— Military coffins: His administration is reviewing a Pentagon policy that bans the media from photographing flag-draped coffins of fallen U.S. soldiers. The president wouldn't say whether he would keep the policy in place.
Other political news of note
House passes National Defense Authorization Act
The House has passed the National Defense Authorization Act, the major funding measure for the United States military for fiscal year 2014. The vote was 350 - 69. It now goes to the Senate, although the upper chamber is currently tangled in debate over executive nominations.
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— Iran: He is "looking for openings" in the coming months to start face-to-face talks. Obama repeated the usual list of U.S. complaints against Iran, including alleged financial support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and "bellicose language" directed at U.S. ally Israel. He also said Iran's nuclear program threatens to rock the Middle East and could set off a new arms race.
— Pakistan: Obama said there's "no doubt" that there are safe havens along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan where terrorists are operating. He said his envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, will be trying to convince Pakistan that it is endangered by that situation just as the United States is.
— Bank bailout: He was not sure if the government would need more than the remaining $350 billion of bank bailout funds to restore the ailing U.S. financial system. He said his first task would be making sure those funds were spent wisely and with transparency.
— Alex Rodriguez: Obama described the baseball star's admission that he used a banned substance "depressing news on top of what’s been a flurry of depressing items when it comes to major league baseball." He added: "It tarnishes an entire era to some degree."
Obama said he had made a deliberate effort to reach out to the GOP, putting three Republicans into his Cabinet, and "as I continue to make these overtures, over time, hopefully that will be reciprocated."
"So my bottom line when it comes to the recovery package is: send me a bill that creates or saves 4 million jobs."
Obama acknowledged the difficulty of mending political divisions between Republicans and Democrats.
"Old habits are hard to break," he said. "We're coming off an election, and people sort of want to test the limits of what they can get. There's a lot of jockeying in this town and who's up and who's down, testing for the next election."
Speedy passage of legislation to pump federal money into the crippled economy has become a major test of Obama's young presidency.
On the day that an $838 billion version of the legislation cleared a crucial test vote in the Senate, Obama warned darkly of the consequences he contended would result from inaction. By a 61-36 margin, with all but three Republican senators opposing it, the package was advanced toward a vote on final Senate passage Tuesday.
Officials have frequently suggested the current recession, which has catapulted the unemployment rate to 7.6 percent and erased 3.6 million jobs, is the worst U.S. economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. But no one has been suggesting the economic downturn could be permanent.
The Senate was expected to give its version of the stimulus final approval on Tuesday.
It remained to be seen, however, how much Republican support it would draw, as rare congressional debate over the weekend failed to gather meaningful GOP backing. And the Senate version must be reconciled with a $820 billion House bill.
The two measures overlap in many ways, by combining hundreds of billions of dollars in government spending with tax cuts designed to increase spending by consumers. But the Senate bill has a greater emphasis on tax cuts, while the House bill devotes more money to states, local governments and schools.
Obama has demanded a bill on his desk by next Monday's Presidents Day holiday, a timetable that would require the difficult House-Senate negotiations and subsequent votes in both chambers to be complete by the end of this week.
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