President Bush embraced as much as $150 billion in tax relief on Friday to jump start the lackluster economy. If Congress passes an economic stimulus package, the country will be "just fine," he said.
Mr. Bush said in a White House announcement that such a growth package must also include tax incentives for business investment and quick tax relief for individuals.
The big question is how much money would each person get? The president didn't go into detail - for fear of upsetting negotiations with Congressional Democrats. But behind the scenes, White House officials have told Congress they'd like a rebate of $800 for a single person, $1,600 for a couple - as well as small business tax breaks, reports CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante.
To be effective, Mr. Bush said an economic stimulus package would need to roughly represent 1 percent of the gross domestic product - the value of all U.S. goods and services and the best measure of the country's economic standing.
Later, visiting a manufacturing plant in Frederick, Md., about 50 miles north of Washington, Mr. Bush said: "We need to get this deal done and get it out."
"I believe we can come together on a growth package very quickly," the president said. Earlier, he had said, "There is a risk of a downturn."
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said 1 percent of GDP would equate to $140 billion to $150 billion, which is along the lines of what private economists say should be sufficient to help give the economy a short-term boost.
Paulson said the largest part of the stimulus package would be targeted to individual taxpayers. One Republican official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Bush was hoping to target about $100 billion toward individuals and about $50 billion toward businesses.
"The cost of not acting has become too high," Paulson said. "We must act now."
While Mr. Bush focused solely on taxes, Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress have been working on a broader package that also would include a temporary increase in food stamps and an extension of and perhaps increase in unemployment benefits.
The president and Congress are scrambling to take action as fears mount that a severe housing slump and painful credit crisis could cause people to close their wallets and businesses to put a lid on hiring, throwing the nation into its first recession since 2001.
"Letting Americans keep more of their money should increase consumer spending," Mr. Bush said.
But will consumers spend the windfall or just hang on to it?
"In an environment such as we have today, where asset prices are down, where consumers are worried about their balance sheets, about their debt, they might very well save it," analyst Michael Shapiro of the University of Michigan told Plante.
He outlined several criteria for the package to meet: It must be "big enough to make a difference in an economy as large and dynamic as ours," it must be built on "broad-based tax relief," it must take effect right away but be temporary, and it must not include any tax increases.
Specifically, he called for tax incentives for businesses, including small companies, to make new and major investments this year. "Giving them an incentive to invest now will encourage business owners to expand their operations, create new jobs and inject new energy into our economy in the process," Mr. Bush said.
He also called for tax relief for individuals - probably to come in the form of one-time rebates. But he did not say what size checks Americans would get or the amount of other tax incentives that could be in the package. Nor did Mr. Bush detail how the nation would pay for such a plan.
"Americans can spend this money as they see fit: to help meet their monthly bills, cover higher costs at the gas pump, pay for other basic necessities," he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has talked of a package totaling $100 billion or more. House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio spoke of a bill in the range of $100 billion to $150 billion. Aides have said Mr. Bush does not believe the stimulus spending should be offset - or paid for - by any tax or spending changes elsewhere. Some deficit hawks want this but it isn't expected to be part of any package.
Speaking for about seven minutes, Mr. Bush called passing a growth package "our most pressing economic priority."
He acknowledged Americans' fears, while defending the economy's fundamental strength and its continued growth - albeit slower.
"We're in the midst of a challenging period," Mr. Bush said. "And I know that Americans are concerned ... But our economy has seen challenging times before. It is resilient."
Paulson said the markets are due for a needed correction, and that swift, temporary action by the government can help lessen the impact on individuals and the economy as a whole.
The government last sent out tax rebate checks during the 2001 recession, reports CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason. Between July and September of that year, individuals were sent $300 checks; married couples: $600. In all, 90 million households received $38 billion in rebates.
Economists said a reasonable range for tax cuts in the new package might be $500 to $1,000. Congressional aides said the White House plan is looking at rebates of up to $800 for individuals and $1,600 for married couples, but Paulson said the administration wants to be "intentionally not specific" in public to avoid poisoning the well with Congress.
Mr. Bush first signaled his support for the approach of income tax rebates for people and tax breaks for business investment in a conference call Thursday with bipartisan congressional leaders.
Democratic congressional leaders agree that tax relief should be in the package, but are working on a broader measure. Lawmakers are discussing a $500 rebate for individuals, said aides to lawmakers involved in the talks, with details for couples and people with children still being negotiated. The rebates would likely be limited to individuals with incomes of $85,000 or less and couples with incomes of $110,000 or less, the aides said, speaking on condition of anonymity because no final decisions had been made.
Senior aides to House Democrats and Republicans said the measure also would contain tax breaks for businesses investing in new equipment, increases in food stamps, and higher unemployment benefits. They spoke on condition of anonymity, since the talks are ongoing and lawmakers have promised not to reveal details.
Mr. Bush, clearly sensing the urgency, has even dropped his previous requirement that Congress make his tax refunds and breaks for businesses permanent, Plante reports, adding that Pelosi said she'd like to pass something in the next two weeks.
"Democrats welcome President Bush's willingness to work together with Congress to provide urgent relief to the millions of Americans facing economic hardships," Pelosi said. "Now we will work together on the details."
Paulson indicated that the White House approach would not include rebates or relief for those who do not pay income taxes. He also signaled Bush's distaste for non-tax-related ideas, saying the White House goal is simplicity and speed. "We're not looking to decorate a Christmas tree," Paulson said.
White House estimates show that a stimulus in the range of what Mr. Bush talked about could create 500,000 additional jobs this year, Paulson said.
White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said Mr. Bush chose to lay out "principles" with few specifics to the American people now, while bipartisan negotiations with Capitol Hill continue privately. The White House feels Mr. Bush was out of the mix for too long, because he was away for eight days in the Mideast while Democratic leaders talked almost daily about the need to stimulate the economy - and how.
So the White House scheduled two appearances by Mr. Bush on the economy Friday. At the lawn equipment manufacturer in Frederick, he toured assembly lines and briefly - and playfully - operated a standing lawnmower.
"While there's some uncertainty right now, if we act quickly and in a smart way, that helps growth. We're gonna be just fine," he said.