NEW: Obama blasts Republican opposition to his $447 billion jobs bill
GOP leaders accuse the president of dividing the country for short-term political gain
Obama visits North Carolina and Virginia -- key battlegrounds in the presidential race
The White House wants Congress to pass Obama's jobs bill incrementally
President Barack Obama continued hammering Republicans over their opposition to his $447 billion jobs plan Tuesday, casting the GOP as handmaidens of the rich unwilling to support fair sacrifices in order to help a struggling middle class.
After visiting a computer lab and robotics workshop at a southern Virginia high school, Obama told a jammed auditorium at another school in Emporia that Republican opposition to his job plan makes no sense.
Republicans want to roll back environmental and financial regulations instead of taking concrete steps to create jobs, Obama said.
“That is a plan, but it’s not a jobs plan,” he said of a GOP counter-proposal to his jobs plan. “It’s a plan to go back to doing the exact thing that we were doing before the financial crisis that put so many people out of work.”
He called on the crowd to “give Congress a piece of your mind,” prompting applause as he said: “Tell these members of Congress that they’re supposed to be working for you, not special interests. …They need to deliver because they’re not delivering right now.”
The Virginia stops followed a morning visit to a school and community center in Jamestown, North Carolina, where Obama said “folks in Washington don’t seem to be listening” to calls for help.
“I want to work with Republicans,” the president insisted. But political leaders need to “focus less on trying to satisfy one wing of one party,” he said – an apparent reference to populist tea party conservatives.
America needs “an economy that works for everybody, not just for folks at the top,” Obama said. “Now is the time to act. Now is the time to say ‘yes we can.’ “
Obama’s remarks came on day two of a three-day campaign-style swing through the two pivotal battleground states that he won in 2008 but are considered toss-ups in next year’s presidential race.
The president has toured schools, stopped to shake hands and eaten lunch at local restaurants on the trip. An unplanned stop to greet well-wishers on the side of the road delayed Tuesday’s speech in Emporia by more than half an hour.
While crowds have chanted his name and cheered his presence, one woman in a Virginia tobacco country waved a large Confederate flag as Obama’s motorcade passed by.
The trip promoting the jobs bill comes after Senate Republicans blocked consideration of the plan last week. Democrats are now promising to force votes on individual components of the plan, starting with $35 billion for states and localities to hire more teachers and first responders while preventing current ones from being laid off.
That part of the plan could come up for a vote before the end of this week.
“If (the Republicans) vote against the proposals I’m talking about … they don’t have to answer to me,” Obama told the North Carolina crowd. “They have to answer to you.”
For their part, GOP leaders accused the president of trying to divide the country for his own short-term political gain while repeating what they’ve characterized as a failed 2009 economic stimulus plan.
“It’s no secret that the vast majority of Americans aren’t happy with Washington right now,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. “It’s also no secret that the president of the United States is trying to use this displeasure with Washington for political gain. And I think that’s a pretty sad commentary on the state of affairs over at the White House these days.”
McConnell added: “It’s perfectly obvious why the president would find the path of division appealing, because on the number one issue we face – jobs and the economy – the president’s policies haven’t worked as advertised.”
Veteran Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, whom Obama defeated in the 2008 election, criticized the president Monday for using the taxpayer-funded trip for what McCain called political campaigning.
“On the taxpayer-paid dime, the president is now traveling, attacking the Republican plan,” McCain said on the Senate floor. While noting Obama’s right to level such criticism in a political venue, McCain added: “Is that appropriate on the taxpayer’s dime, since it is clearly campaigning?”
Republicans are at particularly sharp odds with Democrats over how to pay for the plan. GOP leaders oppose a provision that would fund the measure through a 5.6% surtax on annual incomes over $1 million.
Republicans have accused the president of engaging in so-called “class warfare,” while Democrats say wealthier Americans need to share in the cost of fiscal responsibility.
On Monday, a Senate Democratic leadership aide told CNN that Democrats will seek a 0.5% surtax on annual incomes over $1 million to pay for the component of Obama’s jobs bill dealing with teachers and first responders.
However, a top Senate Republican leadership aide immediately responded that Republicans – and some Democrats – probably would not be willing to go along with a tax increase to pay for the measure.
Among other things, Obama’s overall blueprint includes an extension and expansion of the current payroll tax cut, an extension of jobless benefits, new tax credits for businesses that hire the long-term unemployed and additional money to help save and create jobs for teachers and first responders such as firefighters.
The largest measure in the package is the payroll tax cut, which comes at a projected cost of $265 billion. Employees normally pay 6.2% on their first $106,800 of wages into Social Security, but they are now paying only 4.2%. That break is set to expire at the end of December. Obama wants to cut the tax in half, to 3.1%.
A second key measure, estimated to cost roughly $44 billion, is the extension of emergency jobless benefits to help the long-term unemployed. Lawmakers first expanded benefits to cover 99 weeks in 2009, and have since reauthorized the expansion five times.
CNN’s Ted Barrett, Kate Bolduan and Virginia Nicolaidis contributed to this report.