Kansas City, Mo. President Bush pressed Congress to pass an economic rescue package, saying Friday's labor report marking the end of a 52-month streak of national job growth was another "troubling" sign that the economy is sputtering.
Bush toured Hallmark Cards Inc. in the nation's heartland to push a plan of tax rebates for millions of people and tax breaks for companies. The stimulus package, passed by the House, has hit roadblocks in the Senate.
The president spoke just hours after the Labor Department reported that employers cut 17,000 jobs in January - the first such reduction in more than four years.
"Interest rates are low, inflation is low, productivity is high, but there are certainly some troubling signs," Bush said. "There are serious signs that the economy is weakening and that we got to do something about it. Today we got such a sign when after 52 consecutive months of job creation, we lost 17,000 jobs."
His message to the Senate at the greeting card maker, however, seemed more softly worded than in recent days.
"I appreciate the fact that the Senate is trying to work through this as quickly as possible, so I'm just urging them to get it done," Bush said. "Because the sooner this package makes it to my desk - that actually focuses on ways to stimulate growth - the better off our economy is going to be."
The House quickly adopted a $161 billion economic stimulus plan this week that would send $600-$1,200 rebates to more than 100 million Americans in hopes they would spend the money quickly and give the flagging economy a shot in the arm.
Senate Democrats are pushing to add elements to the House plan that they say will add a bigger boost, including smaller rebates that would go to more people such as low-income older Americans, wealthier taxpayers and disabled veterans, plus heating aid for the poor. The Senate plan, estimated to cost $204 billion, also would extend unemployment benefits.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the jobs report showed that Bush's assessment of the economy is "greatly misguided." He pushed for the Senate version of the stimulus package, which would extend unemployment insurance to the jobless.
"We hope Republicans similarly recognize the urgency of helping Americans who are being pushed out of the work force, and our stimulus bill is one important step in that direction," Reid said.
While acknowledging the negative jobs report, Bush said the underpinnings of the U.S. economy remained strong. "We're just in a rough patch," he said, adding that Congress could help by passing free-trade pacts, reforming the housing administration, renewing his education law and keeping taxes down.
Bad economic news has followed Bush on his three-day swing through California, Nevada, Colorado and Missouri to highlight themes of his State of the Union address and raise more than $4.7 million for the Republican Party and its candidates.
Just before Bush spoke Wednesday at a helicopter factory in Torrance, Calif., the Commerce Department reported that the economy nearly stalled in the last quarter of last year, growing by just 0.6 percent, half the pace economists expected. A day later, the department reported that consumer spending was up just 0.2 percent in December, the weakest in six months.
Bush's trip was overshadowed by a busy week on the campaign trail. Republicans and Democrats vying for Bush's job debated in California. And the GOP's Rudy Giuliani and Democrat John Edwards both bowed out of the race.
That didn't stop Bush from having some fun.
At Hallmark, he stepped into a veritable kid's dream - an interactive playhouse filled with art supplies and colorful props. As kindergartners buzzed from station to station, Bush patted the kids on their heads and leaned way over so he could talk to them face to face.
When he sat down to make his own card with a red marker, Bush looked at reporters and asked, "Who deserves a valentine?"
Hallmark is having some fun this Valentine's Day with a line of cards that poke fun at politicians. One card, featuring Bush as cupid, reads: "My arrows are weapons of mass seduction!" Another with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as cupid says: "I'd vote for Valentine's Day fun! (and, by the way, speaking of votes ...)
Bush said one Hallmark employee made him a card that said: "For your daughters."
"It was sweet, but it just didn't have any warning in there about how to conduct myself for the upcoming wedding," the president joked, referring to the future marriage of his daughter, Jenna.