TORRANCE, Calif. (AP) – President Bush pressured Congress to jump-start the economy and pass free trade deals with U.S. allies on Wednesday while tackling one other piece of unfinished business: making millions for the Republican Party before he leaves office.
The president's popularity is sagging and the rise of Sen. John McCain's profile after his victory in Tuesday's Florida primary — coupled with Rudy Giuliani's exit from the presidential race — only underscore Bush's declining influence.
Yet, the two-term president remains the top moneymaker of the GOP. He is raking in at least $4.7 million for Republicans in a three-day swing through California, Nevada, Colorado and Missouri while highlighting themes of his State of the Union address.
Bush's push to get Congress to pass an economic stimulus package was fueled by Wednesday's report that the gross domestic product — the value of all goods and services produced in the U.S. — rose only 0.6 percent during the final three months of last year, half the pace economists expected.
"There are signs that our economy is slowing. There's some uncertainty in the economy," Bush told workers at Robinson Helicopter Co. in the Los Angeles area.
But he fended off fears of recession.
"In the long run, you've got to be confident about your economy," Bush said against a backdrop of red, orange and yellow helicopters polished to a high shine. "Inflation is down. Interest rates are low. Productivity is high. Our economy is flexible. It is resilient."
Bush praised the House for passing a $146 billion stimulus package, which has hit snags in the Senate.
"If you're truly interested in dealing with the slowdown of the economy, the Senate ought to accept the House package, pass it and get it to my desk as soon as possible," he said.
Back in Washington, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Finance Committee, was breaking with the president and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who both want the Senate to rubber-stamp the same measure the House passed on Tuesday.
Grassley said he will support a bill by panel Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., that would pump $196 billion into the economy over the next two years. Grassley backs a proposal to add billions to the House bill to include older Americans, disabled veterans and the unemployed, change rebate amounts and deliver checks even to the richest taxpayers, who are disqualified under the House-passed measure.
"I understand people having their points of view, and we welcome points of view in Washington — there appears to be a lot of them up there," Bush said. "But whatever the Senate does, they should not delay this package. They should not keep money out of your pocket."
Bush also urged Congress to pass free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, which would curb tariffs on U.S.-made goods. Seventy percent of the helicopters Robinson makes are bound for foreign markets, including Colombia, where it has a service center and dealership. Under a free-trade agreement, Colombia would end its 10 percent tariffs on Robinson's helicopters.
Some Democrats have grown more skeptical of trade pacts considering soaring U.S. trade deficits and the loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs since 2000. Opponents of the deal with Colombia say the nation has not done enough to curb violence against union organizers, including a number of murders.
"It's going to be a tough vote," Bush said. "Some say trade hurts our economy. These are good, decent people. I just beg to disagree."
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier in the day, Bush said that he was open to negotiating with lawmakers on legislation that would reform the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. Last month, the Senate failed to reauthorize a four-decades-old program giving financial and retraining help to people who lose their jobs because of foreign competition.
"My main goal is to make sure that federal tax monies are focused on an individual who lost a job as a result of trade," he said. "That's where the focus needs to be. Secondly, I'd like to see that money being — more of it being able to use the community college system, a nice seamless connection between the two. I'd like to see our workers be given more say about where they spend the money."
After his visit to the chopper factory, Bush was to attend a luncheon at the Los Angeles home of Robin and Elliot Broidy to raise about $1.7 million for the Republican National Committee. Later, at a dinner in Hillsborough, a Democratic enclave in the San Francisco Bay area, he was helping raise $1.5 million more for the RNC. Other fundraisers are scheduled during the next few days in greater Las Vegas, Denver and Kansas City, Mo.
At the factory, Bush was introduced by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said Robinson Helicopter was only one business in the state, which exports an estimated $130 billion in goods and services each year.
The movie star-turned-governor said he told Bush that he had learned to fly helicopters while making action films.
"So if you want me to take you on a spin on one, I'm more than happy to do that," Schwarzenegger said.
"I've got my own helicopter driver, thank you," Bush joked.