WASHINGTON - President Obama said his administration and Congress would reach agreement within weeks on an $825 billion stimulus plan to cope with the economic crisis.
While there are "some differences" between his administration and lawmakers on the details, Obama said the legislation was "on target" for passage by the middle of next month.
"We are experiencing an unprecedented, perhaps, economic crisis that has to be dealt with," Obama said yesterday as he began a meeting with nine Democratic and Republican leaders at the White House, his first such session with lawmakers since taking office Tuesday.
He also called for greater oversight of spending by financial institutions that get bailout money.
Obama is confronting a weakening economy and eroding investment values.
Average home prices in November dropped 8.7 percent from a year earlier, the most in at least 18 years, the government said this week. Housing starts fell 16 percent last month. The number of Americans filing first-time claims for jobless benefits climbed to a 26-year high, and the Standard & Poor's 500 Index has lost 7.9 percent since the start of the year.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), who was at the meeting, said afterward that lawmakers expected to get the legislation to Obama's desk before Feb. 16, Presidents' Day, when Congress takes a break. "If not, there will be no recess," she said.
Legislation crafted by House Democrats includes $358 billion for public-works projects, $192 billion in other spending, and $275 billion in tax cuts.
The Senate has begun work on part of its version of the stimulus plan, which includes $275 billion in tax provisions, including cuts for businesses and producers of renewable energy that differ from the House package.
Senior citizens receiving Social Security would get a $300 bonus payment under a plan unveiled by the Senate Finance Committee yesterday.
The panel also proposes a $2,500 tax credit to help pay for college and $87 billion in help to states struggling with their 2009-10 budgets for the Medicaid program for the poor and disabled.
The Senate Appropriations Committee also released a summary of proposed spending items, including $140 billion on infrastructure and science, with $27 billion of it going to states for highway construction and repair.
There's nothing in either the House or Senate measure that directly addresses the foreclosure crisis or provides direct help to homeowners.
Congressional Republicans say Democrats are moving too quickly to enact proposals that may prove ineffective.
House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) gave Obama a list of his party's ideas at the meeting, including reducing the two lowest income-tax rates to 5 percent and 10 percent from 10 percent and 15 percent. That would save a married couple up to $3,200 a year in taxes, Republicans said.
The Republican plan also proposes more generous tax breaks for small businesses, making unemployment benefits tax-free, and providing a $7,500 tax credit to home buyers who can make a minimum downpayment of 5 percent.
The Republicans urged Obama to reject future tax increases to offset the additional government spending.
"I recognize there are still some differences around the table and between the administration and members of Congress," Obama said, adding that both sides are unified in seeing the need to act.
But he also bluntly rejected some GOP proposals to reduce spending in the plan, lawmakers and aides said, arguing that he believes he has a mandate to promote his own ideas.
"I won," he reminded them, according to some who were in the room.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said there was "significant discussion" of a Congressional Budget Office analysis released this week that said most public-works spending in the stimulus plan won't take place until after 2010.
White House budget director Peter Orszag, in a letter to lawmakers, said the administration was committed to ensuring that "at least" 75 percent of the $825 billion stimulus package is spent by the end of the next fiscal year.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he was pleased by the tone of the meeting and the willingness of Obama and congressional Democrats to listen to Republican ideas.
"I do think we'll be able to meet the president's deadline," McConnell said as he left the White House.
Obama is to meet with the House and Senate Republican caucuses next week.
He criticized the way some companies getting federal bailouts were spending the money. He cited "reports that we've seen over the last couple of days about companies that have received taxpayer assistance then going out and renovating bathrooms or offices."
While Obama didn't mention any companies, his comments followed reports that John Thain, the former Merrill Lynch & Co. chief executive officer ousted Thursday, spent $1.2 million redecorating his downtown Manhattan office last year as the company was firing employees.
Thain oversaw the sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America Corp. weeks ago.
Merrill's $15.4 billion fourth-quarter loss forced Bank of America to seek more aid from the government, which last week agreed to provide $20 billion in capital and $118 billion in asset guarantees.