WASHINGTON – Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says the economic recovery “is close to faltering” and the central bank is prepared to take further steps to support it.

The economy is growing more slowly than the Federal Reserve had expected, Bernanke said Tuesday before the congressional Joint Economic Committee. He said the biggest factor depressing consumer confidence is poor job growth.

“We need to make sure that the recovery continues and doesn’t drop back and that the unemployment rate continues to fall downward,” Bernanke said.

Stocks came off their morning lows after Bernanke inferred that the Fed could adopt additional stimulus measures in the coming months. The Dow Jones industrial average had fallen more than 200 points but recovered most of those losses to be down only 64 points at midday.

Bernanke offered his grim assessment after the economy barely grew in the first half of the year and created no net jobs in August. Consumer confidence fell this summer to the lowest point since the recession. Europe’s debt crisis also has intensified.

After their September meeting, Fed policymakers warned of significant risks to the economic outlook. As a result, the Fed voted to shift $400 billion of the Fed’s investment portfolio from short- to longer-term Treasurys to try to drive down long-term rates.

In August, the Fed said it planned to keep short-term rates at record lows until at least mid-2013, assuming the economy remained weak.

Both decisions drew three dissenting votes on the Fed’s policy committee. The three dissents, all from regional Fed bank presidents, were the most dissents in nearly 20 years.

Republican leaders in Congress also urged Bernanke and the Fed against taking action to lower rates. The GOP lawmakers and Bernanke have clashed in recent months over how best to invigorate the economy.

On Tuesday, Bernanke wasn’t shy in offering Congress more advice: He reiterated his warning that lawmakers should not cut spending sharply while the economy is weak.

In a speech in Cleveland last week, Bernanke called long-term unemployment a “national crisis” and said Congress should take further steps to address it. Bernanke noted that about 45 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for at least six months — a level previously unseen in the six decades since World War II.