— Calling it an "urgent time for our country," President Barack Obama asked Congress on Thursday night to "stop the political circus" and approve a nearly half-trillion-dollar plan to help the economy by cutting payroll taxes, raising taxes on the wealthy and rewarding companies that hire new workers.
"We continue to face an economic crisis that has left millions of our neighbors jobless and a political crisis that has made things worse," Obama said in an address to a joint session of Congress.
To answer that crisis, Obama proposed what he called the American Jobs Act, which he said would cut payroll taxes in half for working Americans and most small businesses, and boost spending on public works, like roads, by $105 billion. The plan would make last year's cut in the individual Social Security tax rate, from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent, permanent.
Obama calculated that the "typical working family" would get a $1,500 tax cut and that small companies with 50 employees would save $80,000, which he said would "provide a jolt to an economy that has stalled."
Obama didn't say how much the plan would cost, but advisers told NBC News it would run about $450 billion. Obama said he hopes to pay for it by closing corporate tax "loopholes" and by raising taxes on wealthier Americans.
"We need a tax code where everyone gets a fair shake and everybody pays their fair share," he said. "And I believe the vast majority of wealthy Americans and CEOs are willing to do just that if it helps the economy grow and gets our fiscal house in order."
Earlier this summer, Republicans forced a partial government shutdown over their refusal to raise any taxes at all, but Obama told them they should "pass this jobs plan right away," because "the millions of Americans who are watching right now, they don't care about politics. They have real-life concerns."
Aides told NBC News that a key point of Obama's address was that the measure simply wraps in a variety of deficit-reduction and jobs proposals that have drawn support in the past from both parties.
Obama made the same argument, telling lawmakers there was "nothing controversial about this piece of legislation."
"Everything in here is the kind of proposal that's been supported by both Democrats and Republicans," he said.
Obama challenges Congress
Obama promised to release a detailed plan Monday.
In its latest budgetary outlook, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the federal deficits fiscal year 2011, which ends Sept. 30, at $1.28 trillion, down about $10 billion from last year. A bipartisan congressional debt committee
met for a first time Thursday, assigned with finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reductions.
Administration officials had made it clear ahead of time that Obama would take a pugnacious approach to Republicans in Congress, latching on to what public opinion polls show is widespread dissatisfaction with Washington gridlock.
"Members of Congress, it is time for us to meet our responsibilities," he said, complaining that "already, we're seeing the same old press releases and tweets flying back and forth."
"But know this," he added: "The next election is 14 months away. And the people who sent us here — the people who hired us to work for them — they don't have the luxury of waiting 14 months."
And in case lawmakers missed the point, he called on Americans watching at home to remind them of it, loudly and long.
"Lift your voice and tell the people who are gathered here tonight that you want action now," Obama said. "Tell Washington that doing nothing is not an option. Remind us that if we act as one nation and one people, we have it within our power to meet this challenge."
The White House intends to take the fight directly to senior congressional Republicans, beginning with a speech Friday in the Richmond, Va., district of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and following up Tuesday in Ohio, the state represented by House Speaker John Boehner.
Officially, Republicans hold fire
Republicans offered no formal rebuttal to the address, but in a written statement, Boehner agreed that Obama's proposals "merit consideration."
Cantor told NBC News that "there's a lot in the speech that we can actually begin to work on together, areas like small business tax relief, suggestions that we ought to streamline the process of infrastructure spending, suggestions that we ought to reform the unemployment benefits program in this country."
But he said it was unlikely that Obama would get everything he wanted, saying,
"What I did take exception to was the all-or-nothing approach that the president took."
Cantor told POLITICO that he planned to break up Obama's proposals and pass some of them immediately — specifically, its measures addressing trade, small business, unemployment insurance and regulatory reforms.
The party's presidential candidates weren't so accommodating: