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Obama jobs panel pushes tax reform, domestic drilling

Obama speaks about government reform in Washington
Obama speaks about government reform in Washington

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's jobs council called on Tuesday for a corporate tax overhaul, expanded domestic drilling and new regulatory reforms, a set of proposals unlikely to provide a quick fix for high unemployment or gain much traction in an election year.

A panel of top U.S. business leaders advising Obama - whose re-election chances could hinge on whether he can boost the fragile economy - offered its latest job-creation prescriptions at a meeting with him at the White House.

Obama pledged to "push as hard as possible" on their recommendations but also sought to temper expectations. "Obviously this year is an election year, and so getting Congress focused on some of these issues may be difficult," he cautioned his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

The panel, a who's who of corporate titans, has generated dozens of mostly modest proposals since it was created last February. Obama has acted on many of them through use of executive powers.

But some of their bolder ideas have lagged and the overall benefit to the still-sluggish job market remains uncertain. Despite that, Obama said "those small, incremental steps, they add up."

General Electric Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt, who chairs the non-partisan panel, acknowledged there was no "silver bullet" for the country's unemployment woes.

But he insisted that a number of the panel's earlier proposals, such as streamlining infrastructure building permits,

were bearing fruit and the new ones deserved bipartisan support.

That could be a tall order in a divided Congress where much of the Democratic president's jobs agenda has stalled in in the face of Republican resistance and election-year gridlock.

ECHOING REPUBLICAN THEMES?

Republicans, who accuse Obama of pursuing "job-killing" policies, were quick to praise the panel's work, pointing out that their "job-creating" proposals echoed longtime Republican themes on taxes, energy and government regulations.

But given the level of dysfunction in Washington, that seemed unlikely to translate into swift legislative action, especially on an issue as thorny as tax reform.

"With this report, President Obama's own panel of experts has endorsed the approach to job creation House Republicans have been pursuing for more than a year," Republican House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement.

While the council used two earlier reports to present narrowly focused jobs proposals, the latest - with the lofty title "Road Map to Renewal" - laid out a broader strategy to promote manufacturing, education and innovation.

Obama's meeting with the CEOs was the latest in a series of White House events aimed at showing voters he is doing all he can to tackle unemployment as he seeks a second term.

The U.S. jobless rate dropped to a near three-year low of 8.5 percent in December, but employment remains about 6.1 million jobs below its pre-recession level.

The November 6 election is widely seen as a referendum on Obama's economic leadership, and his record is under sharp attack from Republican presidential contenders, including front-runner Mitt Romney.

Among the steps the council sees as urgently needed is long-delayed reform of the corporate tax system, which it says "hurts both business competitiveness and American workers."

"The council urges Congress and the administration to begin work on tax reform immediately," the report said.

The panel called for lowering corporate tax rates to "internationally competitive levels," saying that would boost investment within U.S. borders, and broadening the corporate tax base by eliminating deductions and loopholes.

But the report noted disagreement among council members over whether to shift to a "territorial" system where foreign profits earned by U.S. multinationals would not be taxed. Many businesses and Republicans favor this approach. Others say it will just lead to more off-shoring of U.S. jobs.

The administration said last summer it was developing a broad corporate tax reform plan, an idea Republicans have also pushed for years, but one never materialized.

The mammoth U.S. tax code has not been thoroughly overhauled in 25 years, and most analysts see little chance in an election year. But they expect that growing budget deficits and public dissatisfaction may open the door to reform efforts in 2013.

'ALL-IN' ENERGY STRATEGY

In a proposal likely to be opposed by environmentalists - part of Obama's liberal base - the report calls for an "all in" strategy on energy that would seek to further exploit domestic fossil-fuel supplies to reduce reliance on foreign imports.

But it also urges a stepped-up federal role in developing cleaner energy sources and promoting energy efficiency.

Republicans and oil and gas companies have blasted the Obama administration for scrapping plans to begin leasing some areas off the east coast for drilling in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"The Jobs Council recommends expanding and expediting the domestic production of fossil fuels - including allowing more access to oil, gas, and coal opportunities on federal lands - while ensuring safe and responsible development of those sites," the report said.

In addition, the report called for a series of reforms to further streamline government rules and reduce the regulatory burden on businesses, which it said would enhance U.S. competitiveness.

Even though there is some common ground between Obama's Democrats and opposition Republicans, little movement is expected on these issues between now and the 2012 election.

Obama's strategy has been to cast Republicans as obstructing his economic recovery efforts, especially after they blocked much of his $447 billion jobs plan in September. Republicans charge that Obama has pursued failed spending policies.

(Additional reporting by David Alexander, Ayesha Rascoe and Kim Dixon; Editing by Paul Simao)

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