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Feb. 12, 2009 at 10:00 PM
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Gregg withdraws, says post not 'good fit'

WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., citing "irresolvable conflicts" on the stimulus plan, withdrew his name from consideration as commerce secretary Thursday.

Expressing admiration for President Barack Obama's reaching across party lines, Gregg said, "However, it has become apparent during this process that this will not work for me as I have found that on issues such as the stimulus package and the census there are irresolvable conflicts for me."

During a news conference late Thursday afternoon, Gregg downplayed the U.S. census -- which the administration wants to pull from the Commerce Department and put under the auspices of the White House -- as an issue for his withdrawal.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement, "Senator Gregg reached out to the president and offered his name for secretary of commerce. He was very clear throughout the interviewing process that despite past disagreements about policies, he would support, embrace and move forward with the president's agenda."

Once it became clear that Gregg couldn't support some of President Barack Obama's economic policies, "it became necessary for Senator Gregg and the Obama administration to part ways. We regret that he has had a change of heart," Gibbs said.

Gregg is the second commerce secretary nominee to withdraw from consideration. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson pulled out of consideration because of a federal investigation into an alleged "pay to play" scheme in New Mexico.

Gregg said he thought it was better to withdraw now, rather than later, once he realized "it wouldn't be a good fit."

"I do believe that I can be more effective for this presidency in the Senate than on his Cabinet," Gregg said. "This was simply a bridge too far for me. I said yes, that was my mistake, not (Obama's)."

Congress poised to act on stimulus package

WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- The U.S. House and Senate will vote on a $789 billion stimulus plan in time to send the measure to the Oval Office by President's Day, officials said.

The House has scheduled a vote for Friday and the Senate leaders expect a vote by Saturday, The Hill reported Thursday.

By Thursday evening, The Hill said, most Republicans in the House and Senate said they had not received copies of the legislation, a package of spending increases and tax cuts intended to spark recovery of the U.S. economy.

The final bill would provide $507 billion in spending programs and $282 billion in tax relief, The New York Times reported. It includes a smaller version of Obama's middle-class tax cut proposal, which would give credits of up to $400 for individuals and $800 for families within certain income limits. It also would provide a one-time payment of $250 to recipients of Social Security and government disability support.

Lawmakers said the bill set aside more than $150 billion in public works projects for transportation, energy and technology and $87 billion to help states meet increasing Medicaid costs.

The measure is the product of a conference committee that reconciled differences between stimulus plans passed by the House and Senate. In the House, 11 Democrats voted against the proposal and no Republicans voted for it, while in the Senate just three GOP members supported the stimulus measure.

Republican leaders in the House were trying Thursday to limit the number of GOP members who might vote for the stimulus plan Friday, The Hill said.

"Legislation is the art of compromise, consensus building and that's what we did," Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, said Wednesday when announcing a compromise bill was reached.

In a statement, Obama thanked Congress for putting together a measure that he said would save or create 3.6 million jobs.

"I'm grateful," Obama said, "for moving it along with the urgency that this moment demands."

"The bill going forward is one we're all proud of," Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "It has bipartisan support -- at least in the Senate."

Obama predicts big things for stimulus

PEORIA, Ill., Feb. 12 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama told workers in hard-hit Peoria, Ill., Thursday that good things will happen once his U.S. stimulus package becomes law.

Heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc. is laying off more than 22,000 workers, many of them in the Peoria area. But Obama said better times are coming.

"Once Congress passes this plan and I sign it into law, a new wave of innovation, activity and construction will be unleashed all across America," the president said, citing energy initiatives, school upgrades and an improved healthcare system.

"Rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, repairing our dangerous dams and levees so we don't face another Katrina -- think about all the work out there to be done," the president said. "And Caterpillar will be selling the equipment that does the work."

Obama touted the plan's middle class tax cuts and extension of unemployment benefits.

"We've got to spend some money now to pull us out of this recession, but as soon as we're out of this recession, we've got to get serious about starting to live within our means, instead of leaving debt for our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren," he said.

Obama repeated an assertion he had made Wednesday that if Congress passes the stimulus plan, Caterpillar "be able to rehire some of the folks who were just laid off." However, ABC News reported Thursday that Caterpillar Chief Executive Officer Jim Owens -- who supports the stimulus legislation -- said it would "take some time" for the stimulus package to lead to hiring at the company.

"The truth is we're going to have more layoffs before we start hiring again," he said.

Owens said the stimulus plan is "a little light on the heavy construction."

Italy to boost presence in Afghanistan

ROME, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Italy plans to send more of its troops to Afghanistan, in response to a request from U.S. President Barack Obama, an Italian official said Thursday.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said Italy would raise its troop levels in the war-torn country from some 2,300 to 2,800, ANSA reported.

Frattini said it was time for European Union countries to ''play their part,'' noting that Italy has the third-biggest troop contingent in Afghanistan.

Frattini said the Italian military would increase its role in training Afghan police, ''something which is very close to President Obama's heart because it will strengthen security in the country.''

Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi also said Thursday that Italy would answer Obama's call for more troops.

''Obama has asked his allies to give him a hand and we won't shrink from the task,'' the premier said.

Obama and Berlusconi Wednesday had a lengthy telephone conversation, in which Obama thanked Berlusconi for Italy's ''strong support'' in Afghanistan, the White House said.

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