WASHINGTON — Wasting no time, President Barack Obama pitched his $447 billion jobs program of tax cuts and new spending on Friday on the turf of a Republican opponent, challenging Congress to "pass this bill." Republicans were noncommittal.
A day after addressing a joint session of Congress, Obama went to Richmond, Va., the district represented by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a prominent GOP critic of the president.
"I know that folks sometimes think they've used up the benefit of the doubt but I'm an eternal optimist," the president told more than 8,000 people at the University of Richmond. "I'm an optimistic person. I believe if you just stay at it long enough, after they've exhausted all the other options, folks do the right thing."
But Republicans did not line up to endorse the president's plan after Thursday night's address.
"The proposals the president outlined tonight merit consideration," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said after Obama laid out an agenda that leaned heavily on payroll tax cuts to put money into the economy. "We hope he gives serious consideration to our ideas as well.
"It's my hope that we can work together," Boehner added.
While noncommittal, it was one of the more generous reactions from Republicans to a speech from a Democratic president in political trouble seeking bipartisanship to repair a long-ailing economy.
"You should pass it right away," the president told lawmakers more than once, and he pledged to campaign for its enactment "in every corner of this country."
There were other hints that Obama intends to carry the fight to Republicans, including his statement that "there's a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky" — the states that sent Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to Congress.
In a statement issued after the speech, McConnell said, "For months, we've been engaged in a national debate about spending and debt, about the need to get our nation's fiscal house in order, about the need to rein in government. ... Yet here we are, tonight, being asked by this same president to support even more government spending with the assurance that he'll figure out a way to pay for it later."
Obama offered no estimate of the number of jobs his plan would create. He said the tax cuts he is recommending would mean $1,500 a year for the typical working family and $80,000 for businesses with 50 employees of average pay. Unemployment has been stuck at 9.1 percent for two consecutive months and not even the administration is projecting significant improvement anytime soon.
With a nod to deficit hawks — independent voters among them — Obama also said he would outline legislation in coming days to offset the bill's $447 billion price tag so it wouldn't add to federal deficits.
While the bill's $253 billion in tax cuts could well draw support from Republicans, an additional $194 billion in new spending likely will prove a harder sell. The president asked for the money to fund highway and other construction projects, modernize schools, stabilize blighted neighborhoods and help states hire teachers and first responders.
"The president's plan is nothing new," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the senior Republican on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee.
Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he was "concerned that what we've heard from President Obama this evening is an echo of his administration's unsuccessful strategy of the last few years, which has resulted in unsustainable spending that has skyrocketed the budget deficit and pushed our nation further into fiscal crisis."
"Rather than offer a new road map for recovery and reform, he merely dusted off a tired agenda of old ideas wrapped in freshly partisan rhetoric," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate and a member of the special committee just embarking on talks to cut future deficits by $1.2 trillion or more.
The reaction of Democrats in Congress was supportive of the president but in terms more partisan than he had used.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he hoped the proposals would "present a litmus test to Republicans. I hope they will show the American people that they are more interested in creating jobs than defeating President Obama."
Democrats control a majority in the Senate but lack the 60 votes to pass legislation over Republican objections.
They have little power in the House, where Republicans are in control.
But the party's leader in the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, challenged the majority in terms similar to Reid's.
"Republicans have a choice to either work with Democrats on the immediate need to create jobs or waste more time when American families are demanding action," she said.
The centerpiece of Obama's plan is a reduction in the Social Security payroll tax for millions of workers as well as for employers.
The tax for individuals was cut from 6.2 percent of wages to 4.2 percent for the current year but would rise again on Jan. 1 without action by Congress. Instead, Obama proposed cutting it further for 2012, to 3.1 percent.
The same 3.1 percent tax would apply to employers, half of what they now pay. In addition, businesses would receive additional tax breaks for hiring veterans or individuals who have been without work for more than six months.Comment on this story
A fact sheet distributed by the White House said if enacted, the president's proposals would prevent 280,000 teacher layoffs, modernize 35,000 schools and establish a new National Infrastructure Bank to modernize roads, rails and other public facilities.
The White House also said an extension of unemployment insurance the president is seeking would prevent 5 million Americans from losing their benefits and encourage states to put initiatives into place along the lines of a Georgia program in which individuals collecting unemployment benefits can do temporary work.