Obama: massive rescue package 'on target'

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President Barack Obama, keen to get his economic program rolling,today met top Democrat and Republican leaders and said Congress appears "on target" to approve a massive new stimulus package by 16 February.

After meeting with the leaders from Capitol Hill, he said he understood the package was "a heavy lift" for many lawmakers but emphasized it was needed in the face of the nation's deepening economic crisis.

Obama turned his attention to the biggest worry of Americans — a recession expected to be the deepest since the Great Depression of the 1930s — after a day of rapid-fire announcements on foreign affairs. They included an order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for terror suspects and appointment of envoys to Afghanistan and the Middle East.

On Friday, stocks fell sharply on Wall Street for a second consecutive day as corporations reported weak earnings and more layoffs, moves that could further reduce job prospects for Americans and diminish consumer spending, the main engine of the US economy.

In the few days he's been in office, Obama has been having a hard time finding common ground with Republicans on his economic recovery plan. The minority Republicans have charged that the Obama team's proposals are too costly and don't do enough to create jobs.

The stimulus legislation, priced at about $825 billion and expected to grow, advanced in House committees this week despite Republican protests.

Obama said Friday that he realizes that some Republican lawmakers dislike parts of the stimulus proposal, but said the crisis demands action soon.

Despite differences, he said Republicans and Democrats were unified by "a recognition that we are experiencing an unprecedented, perhaps, economic crisis."

On Friday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus was expected to unveil a Senate version of the tax cutting portion of the bill. The legislation could have a more bipartisan look in the Senate, where it takes 60 votes out of 100 to overcome procedural blocks.

Obama is scheduled to meet with House Republicans next week, at the their request. But by then the House bill could be on the floor awaiting a vote.

"Yes, we wrote the bill. Yes, we won the election," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday. "But that doesn't mean we don't want it to have sustainability and bipartisan support, and the president is working hard to get that done."

House Minority Leader John Boehner protested: "While we appreciate the chance to work with the president, it appears that House Democrats are going to continue to barrel ahead without any bipartisan support."

Obama on Thursday took on two of his toughest foreign policy challenges — Afghanistan and Mideast peace.

On his second full day in office, Obama also sought to reverse one of the most contentious policies of the Bush administration by signing an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorist suspects while leaving undecided how to dispose of unresolved war crimes cases there.

The new commander in chief visited the State Department to underscore a major theme of his young administration: that diplomacy will play a more central role in American foreign policy — not just in seeking peace in the Middle East but also in defending the United States against global terrorist threats.

He said there would be no lasting peace in Afghanistan unless "spheres of opportunity" are expanded for Afghans and their neighbors in Pakistan, where al-Qa'ida and other extremist groups have found haven.

"This is truly an international challenge of the highest order." Obama said.

He named former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as a special coordinator of US policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On the Middle East, Obama struck themes familiar from his predecessor's administration. He backed Israel's right to defend itself, decried rocket attacks on Israel by the Islamist movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip and lamented "substantial suffering" and loss among civilians in Gaza.

"Lasting peace requires more than a long cease-fire, and that's why I will sustain an active commitment to seek two states living side by side in peace and security," the president said, referring to Israel and a Palestinian state.

He said George J. Mitchell, the retired Senate majority leader, will be his special envoy to the Middle East.