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White House plugs for stimulus bill as clock ticks

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush White House pushed harder Monday for an economic stimulus bill, calling on Senate Democrats to back an administration plan to provide refundable tax credits to workers who have lost jobs because of the recession.

The next five days will determine the fate of the administration-backed economic stimulus package in Congress as members rush to complete negotiations and other legislative business before adjourning for the year.

Talks on a stimulus bill continued through the weekend.

White House and congressional sources said the most encouraging progress occurred during informal calls between key Senate Democrats, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Larry Lindsey, the top White House economic adviser.

The weekend talks focused on fine-tuning health care benefits.

Included in the calls were Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, John Breaux, D-Louisiana, the leader of an emerging centrist coalition on an economic stimulus bill. The White House is pushing a tax credit that would allow workers to receive immediate aid at state unemployment offices at the time they apply for health benefits. It also would allow jobless applicants to file for tax refunds to recoup money already spent on health insurance premiums they paid themselves after losing company-backed coverage.

"We want to focus our assistance on displaced workers," said Mark McClellan, a White House economic adviser. "We're willing to negotiate the details."

Senate Democrats have been pushing for a direct federal subsidy for workers to pay for health-insurance premiums. The White House says that approach would cost too much, take too long to implement and provide benefits to workers who voluntarily left the workforce, not just those who were laid off.

Senior White House officials would not predict whether the bill would succeed, but said Bush is committed to sealing a deal before Congress goes home.

The public face of negotiations

Congressional leaders expressed guarded optimism Sunday that they can still agree on a package before leaving for Christmas and the New Year's holiday.

Appearing on Sunday shows, Democrats and Republicans engaged in partisan tussling over the corporate tax cuts, with each side accusing the other of slowing legislation that President Bush has requested.

"I've been at the table now for two weeks," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, appearing on NBC's "Meet The Press." "I haven't seen one item where the Democrats have said, 'Yes, we will now accept some of your priorities.'"

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, laid the blame at the GOP's feet. "[Republicans] want you to believe that [Democrats are the problem], but I have yet to see where the evidence is, " he ssaid onCNN's "Late Edition."

The chief sticking point between the Republicans and Democrats is a proposed corporate tax cut, which the GOP endorses as a stimulus for job growth. Democrats favor more direct spending, including providing extended unemployment benefits and health insurance to people laid off in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Bush initially proposed extending unemployment benefits and giving money to states to help with health insurance for laid-off workers, but he is also pushing for tax cuts. Those proposals included the repeal of the alternative minimum tax for corporations and speeding up the effective date of individual tax cuts already passed by Congress earlier this year.

Daschle estimated the chances of passing a stimulus bill "at least 50-50."

Armey also sounded positive. "I think the odds are good," he said.

-- CNN White House Correspondent Major Garrett contributed to this report.


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