FORT MYERS, Fla. — Pressuring Congress by the day, President Barack Obama on Tuesday hailed the news that the Senate had passed its economic stimulus bill but cautioned that tough negotiations on a final deal remain. He said hurting Americans "need action, and they need it now."
The president interrupted his own town-hall event to announce the Senate's move, prompting people in the audience to jump to their feet in joy.
"That's good news," Obama said. "And I want to thank all the members of the Senate who moved the process forward. We've still got to get the House bill and the Senate bill to match up before it gets sent to my desk, so we've got a little more work to do over the next couple of days, but it's a good start."
Obama's latest sales pitch for an economic stimulus package came on a day of major developments. Beyond the movements on Capitol Hill, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced a sweeping plan to rescue the nation's banking sector — an ongoing bailout that also relies on the wallets of taxpayers.
The new president went so far as to tie the fate of an economy recovery to his own political future.
"I expect to be judged by results," he said. "You know, I'm not going to make any excuses. If stuff hasn't worked and people don't feel like I've led the country in the right direction, then you'll have a new president."
House and Senate negotiations begin
The Senate, with support from just three Republicans, passed an $838 billion stimulus bill, and now House and Senate negotiators will have to work out the final details. More than just process, those talks pose great uncertainty because lawmakers from both chambers are holding tight over key differences.
The Senate's vote came right in the middle of Obama's town-hall event in Fort Myers, a Florida community reeling from home foreclosures and job losses. Obama joked that senators advanced their plan because they knew he was coming to Florida. He said: "They didn't want folks in Fort Myers to be mad."
Fresh off a prime-time news conference, Obama lobbied Congress hard in a comfortable out-of-town setting.
He declared that Americans are out of patience with Washington gridlock as lawmakers dicker over legislative details. But one senator, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, a Republican, accused colleagues of moving too fast on the bill.
Said Obama: "We've had a good debate. That's part of what democracy is all about. But the time for talking is over. Folks here in Fort Myers and across America need help, they need action, and they need it now."
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He also announced that he will unveil an "overall housing strategy" in the weeks ahead, but he's already looking at ways to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. Obama told the audience that there needs to be a system in which banks recognize that it's in their best interest not to foreclose on homes.
Calls for bipartisanship
Obama called for Democrats and Republicans to work together as he appeared at a town hall forum, his second in as many days.
"This is not about partisan politics," Republican Gov. Charlie Crist said in introducing the Democratic president. "This is about rising above that."
Trying to strike the same tone, Obama thanked Crist, saying: "When the town is burning, you don't check party labels. Everybody needs to grab a hose."
Still, buoyed by his own popularity and the nation's desire for help, Obama clearly used the stage to put pressure on Republican lawmakers.
Obama's overt message is that the pain being felt in American homes demands Washington's quick and bold attention. But his more subtle message, delivered through his choice of hard-hit but GOP-leaning locales and in the kind of sarcastic barbs he lobbed at Republicans in his prime-time news conference, was a nakedly political one: Republicans may well pay in voting booths for ignoring the president's call to pass the stimulus.
En route to Florida, Obama said "The American people don't need to be convinced" about the need for action.
"We just wanted to shine a spotlight on how severe this downturn is all across the country, and to make sure that members of Congress understand the sense of urgency that I feel in getting something done," Obama said in explaining his travels to reporters aboard Air Force One.
Obama will travel the country to talk about the new bailout plan, just as he has with the stimulus, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Nearly 12,000 jobs have been lost in the past year in the Fort Myers area, and Florida overall lost 255,000 jobs last year. The Cape Coral-Fort Myers area also had the highest home foreclosure rate in the nation last year. The White House, eager to put a real-people and real-communities face on the president's argument for action, e-mailed statistics around Tuesday to key reporters before dawn.
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