Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 12/16/2011
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:16 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here. Thank you for your patience.
Before I get started, I wanted to read a statement from me on the President’s phone call with Russian President Medvedev. President Obama spoke with the Russian President today to congratulate him on the World Trade Organization’s decision to extend a formal invitation to Russia to join the WTO. The Presidents -- collect, that’s plural -- the Presidents hailed this achievement as yet another result of the reset in bilateral relations, which will benefit both the United States and Russia.
Russia’s membership in the WTO will lower tariffs, improve access to Russia’s services markets, hold the Russian government accountable to a system of rules governing trade behavior, and provide the means to enforce those rules. Russia’s membership in the WTO will generate more export opportunities for American manufacturers and farmers, which in turn will support well-paying jobs in the U.S. President Obama told President Medvedev that the administration is committed to working with Congress to end the application of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to Russia in order to ensure that American firms and American exporters will enjoy the same benefits of Russian WTO membership as their international competitors.
The two Presidents also discussed the recent elections and subsequent demonstrations in Russia. President Obama raised the reports of flaws in the way the elections were conducted, and welcomed President Medvedev’s commitment to investigate these allegations. President Obama also noted the peaceful demonstrations held throughout Russia, and praised how Russian government authorities enabled the permissive conditions that allowed those demonstrations to occur peacefully and lawfully. President Obama noted how this expression of civil society is consistent with the modernizing Russia that President Medvedev has sought to foster over the last four years.
The two Presidents said they looked forward to meeting next year -- meeting next, rather, at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea, in March 2012.
That is my readout. I think we’ll get something to you.
Q Any calls with Putin?
MR. CARNEY: This is the only call I have to read out to you, President to President, if you will. Also, before I get started, I just want to say that I know you all have a lot of questions about the negotiations happening now on Capitol Hill to resolve and come to a conclusion on the payroll tax cut extension and unemployment insurance extension, and I know those -- the questions you’re asking are the same, I’m sure, that the American people, or at least those Americans who are paying close attention, are asking. And I appreciate them, but I just want to warn you that I’m not going to have a lot of details to give to you, because I don’t want to give you a status update on a situation that obviously is quite fluid.
As you have seen, we take heart in the statements by the leaders in the Senate from both parties, as well as others on Capitol Hill, that progress is being made and this will be resolved, which will mean that the President’s priority of ensuring that Americans do not have their taxes go up on January 1st will be met. We look forward to that happening, and are cautiously optimistic that it will happen. Having said that, I’m not going to have a lot of details to give you on the process.
Q Thanks, Jay. I’ll try --
MR. CARNEY: But you’re welcome to ask anyway.
Q Thank you. I’ll try a couple -- at least one in particular, I think, that’s very fundamental to this. The President was direct last week when he was with Prime Minister Harper when asked about the connection between the payroll tax and Keystone. He said, “Any effort to try to tie Keystone to the payroll tax cut, I will reject. So everyone should be on notice.” The House and Senate Republicans have insisted today that the Keystone language be attached. So it’s a pretty basic point here that if the Keystone language is attached, would he in fact sign it into law, or would he reject it, as he said last week?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me say a couple of things about that. First of all, the President made clear that he opposes these kinds of extraneous issues being inserted into a tax cut bill. I think it’s quite clear that an oil pipeline has nothing to do with the payroll taxes that everyone in this room who gets a paycheck pays every week or two weeks when they get their paycheck, and that every American out there -- 160 million Americans, rather -- pay. The President’s focus is on getting that bill passed to ensure that Americans don’t have their taxes go up in 15 days.
What he was referring to at the time hypothetically had to do, as I mentioned the other day, with the idea that a bill -- any kind of provision that would try to force a decision or mandate a decision -- or approval, rather -- mandate approval. I would also note the statement that the State Department put out pretty clearly the other day in response to the language that exists currently in the House Republican payroll tax cut proposal, and what that would mean in terms of short-circuiting an absolutely necessary process to properly and carefully review the alternate route or routes in Nebraska that need to be studied here.
Having said all that, I’m not going to prejudge a final product that does not yet exist.
Q Well, but the President wasn’t asked specifically about -- or he didn’t get into language of, if it mandates me to do this, that’ll be fine, but if it calls for a provision that the State Department rejects -- he said, “Any effort to tie the two I’ll reject.”
MR. CARNEY: No, I understand.
Q So I was just trying to get clear that people want to know if the tax cut extension will be approved or not, would he sign it into law, or does it depend on what it looks like?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I’m not going to get ahead of the process. Let’s see where it ends and let’s hope it ends with Congress not leaving town, going on a month-long vacation, having decided that it’s okay for 160 million Americans to get a tax hike on January 1st. The President’s priority is ensuring that Americans do not get that tax hike.
This money is vital -- this tax cut is vital to every American family that’s trying to make ends meet. It’s vital to the economy. As countless economists, independent economists have said, the payroll tax cut as well as the unemployment insurance are provisions that are some of the most effective provisions when it comes to giving momentum to economic growth and adding jobs. So that’s his focus.
Q You said -- but in that you said, “we’ll see where it ends.” Just so I’m clear, that sounds pretty different than a veto threat, yes?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, I would point you to what the President said. I would point you to what the State Department said about the specific language that was later put forward in the House Republican proposal. What absolutely is the case is that this is pure politics, as we’ve seen from statements by Republicans who -- one who said something like, Well, I don’t really -- essentially implying he didn’t really know much about what it was for, but if the President is against it, he’s for it. Right? And, I mean, there’s really a hard argument to make here that a pipeline has anything to do with whether or not middle-class Americans get a tax cut next year. So it’s extraneous.
MR. CARNEY: I’m sorry. I’m answering Ben here. But the -- again, let’s -- it is not appropriate for me at this point to negotiate from the podium to say that this specific provision or this language is unacceptable, but this language is okay because the folks who are working that out have enough on their shoulders as it is.
Q Very last one. You were also clear yesterday the White House would not accept a promise from the House GOP about passing the omnibus, leaving town and then coming back. You’ve said that was unacceptable. It seems like that’s exactly what’s happening.
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me just be clear. There are different ways of looking at this in terms of what a deal would look like. There’s a guarantee and there’s a promise. And again, without getting into specifics, the President insists that there be an absolute assurance that Congress will not let Americans experience a tax cut -- a tax hike, rather, on January 1st, so that is why members are working hard right now to try to fashion an acceptable compromise. And we’re engaged in that process, and we hope that it bears fruit because it’s essential that Americans don’t have that tax hike.
It would be awkward, I think, for members of Congress to have to go home and explain on vacation why folks who are out there struggling to pay the rent or the mortgage or tuition, car payment that they’re going to see more taken out of their paycheck come January 1st because Congress couldn’t get its act together on this thing that Republicans and Democrats, at least now, support.
Now, let’s look at where we began here. The payroll tax cut extension is being debated now as it has been for several months because the President put it on the table. He made it a central plank of his American Jobs Act. Earlier in this process, Republican after Republican cast doubt on whether Republicans even supported giving tax cuts to the middle class. They pooh-poohed the suggestion that it helps the economy, I guess deciding that they knew better than economists who are independent and who know very well that there are few better ways to help the economy than a payroll tax cut or unemployment insurance. So they’ve changed their tune. That is a welcome metamorphosis. And hopefully it will result in Americans getting that tax cut next year.
Q So you think if they leave, they will come back? You believe that?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t want to -- that’s up to the leaders on the Hill to work out.
Q If I could try again on the pipeline, the Keystone pipeline.
MR. CARNEY: You heard -- you did hear the beginning, right?
Q I did hear --
MR. CARNEY: Yes, okay.
Q It sounds like you’re saying that you would not rule out the President signing a bill for an extension of the payroll tax break that would include language related to the Keystone project? Is that correct? You’re not ruling that out?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not here to go beyond anything we’ve said with regard to this matter already, which is the President’s statement, the assessment by the State Department of the specific language in the House Republican bill, and I think the point I made yesterday or the day before about the company that’s requesting the permit, noting that they haven’t even identified an alternate route yet so the whole 60-day thing is pretty specious.
Having said that, there is a process at work -- I’m not going to analyze what language would be acceptable and what wouldn’t. I will let the process run its course.
Q But there is the possibility of some diluted --
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t have another answer for you.
Q There’s the possibility of some diluted language on Keystone that might pass muster for the administration?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any other answer to give you.
Q Now that the House has put the budget -- the spending bill on the way to full congressional passage, can you give a sense of how soon you might expect the payroll tax break issue would be resolved?
MR. CARNEY: Well, as soon as possible. I don’t have --
Q Today? Through the weekend?
MR. CARNEY: I think as I said earlier, it’s just -- these things are very fluid, and I think for as long as I’ve been doing it in this job and observing in Washington that the last days and hours of a congressional session are very hard to predict, and they tend to -- issues tend to be resolved at the last minute. So beyond that, I wouldn’t get specific in my predictions about how this will play out.
But it’s important that it get done. It is essential that it get done because if it doesn’t, as I’ve said before, Congress will be testing the proposition of whether or not they can go below 9 percent in public approval and whether or not they can go above 45 or 50 percent in the judgment of the American people that it’s the worst Congress in history.
Q Just looking at the omnibus bill, were your concerns all addressed satisfactorily? And will the President sign that?
MR. CARNEY: This is a pretty fluid situation. I’m not going to get into specifics. We obviously had some issues, as I’ve mentioned. And those issues have been and are being addressed. What I can say is that we are heartened by the tone that we’ve heard up on the Hill and the cooperation that we’ve seen on both sides and a -- the stated goal here being that both the spending bill, as well as the payroll tax cut and UI extension, will get done and done in a way that doesn’t harm the economy, that doesn’t stick it to the middle class, but done in a way that’s acceptable to this President.
We’re still midstream here in this process, so I’m not going to offer any detailed assessments of the product.
Q The deal on the omnibus takes away funding from the Department of Energy for the provision that would essentially eliminate -- effectively ban old, incandescent light bulbs. Senator Barbara Boxer has called this a poison pill. I’m wondering, first of all, if you share her concern. I understand you’re not going to draw any lines because it’s a fluid situation. But do you share her concern? And since the President has talked so much in the past about the new light bulbs, how significant a step backwards is this from the perspective of the White House?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s certainly not something that we’ve supported, this removal of this provision. But I would point out that it was something that was put into the law by the previous administration. But beyond that I’m not going to, again, get into specifics about what provisions are acceptable or not.
Q Do you not even have an opinion?
MR. CARNEY: Well, no, I -- we don’t support that.
Q That’s not an opinion. That’s -- I mean, the President --
MR. CARNEY: That’s a statement of fact. Yes, we -- we think it’s a --
Q But the President has expressed concern --
MR. CARNEY: We think it’s a bad thing to do, but I’m not going to make a statement about -- again, I’m not going to go through individual provisions of the omnibus or the payroll tax cut deal such as it is and say this is a deal-breaker and this isn’t.
Q I’m not asking for that. How significant a step backwards would this be for energy efficiency considering the President has talked about this at length?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would -- for that assessment I would refer you to the Department of Energy.
Q The President has talked about this issue.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I know he has, but I don’t have an assessment of the impact it would have on energy efficiency.
Q Thank you.
MR. CARNEY: Sorry. Jake, did you have another one?
Q In the phone conversation the President had with President Medvedev, did they discuss at all some of the recent rhetoric by the Russian President on the missile defense system in Europe?
MR. CARNEY: Not that I’m aware of. The readout I gave you, which was pretty, I think, thorough, covered all the topics that I’m aware of that they discussed.
Q Also, on the same day that the President was speaking to a Jewish organization -- I’m sure you saw this ad that was put out in several national newspapers from the Emergency Committee for Israel -- and it raises the question, why does the Obama administration treat Israel like a punching bag? Is the Obama administration treating Israel like a punching bag?
MR. CARNEY: Do you think the --
Q I’m just asking you the question.
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to the President’s pretty extensive remarks just a short while ago on this administration’s absolute, resolute, unshakable commitment to Israel’s security; its unprecedented support for Israel’s security, through a variety of means. And that assessment is not just one that we’ve made, but one that Prime Minister Netanyahu has made and others in the current Israeli government, as well as others who are considered respectable voices within Israel.
So I would simply reiterate that this President’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable. And that’s this administration’s policy, and it has been demonstrated I think amply by the steps that we’ve taken in the last nearly three years in regard to Israel’s security.
Q Why, then, do you think there is still this skepticism, and something like this, where --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I -- again, I confess that I haven’t seen that. I don’t know who put it out. But the idea that somebody out there doesn’t agree with everything this President does is not a new one, on a host of issues. It’s true for every President. So I’m not going to -- I don’t -- the fact that I disagree with the opinion expressed there doesn’t change the fact that folks might have an opinion that differs from mine or the President’s, and it doesn’t change the fact that they have the right to express it. What I know is what this President’s record is, and it is exceptionally strong.
Q Yes. The First Lady is going to be leaving in a few hours for Hawaii. Obviously she isn’t able to go with the President. But I wanted to ask, isn’t it quite an extravagance -- four people to go in two jets to Hawaii -- particularly given the state of the economy, the state of the budget, and also given the directive that was just put out about limiting air travel by the administration?
MR. CARNEY: Two things, Mike. First of all, I think you ought to check your sourcing on that. I think the original story was an interesting one. But the First Lady and their daughters --
Q -- another story, but --
MR. CARNEY: The First Lady and their daughters will be traveling today, as originally planned, for their annual holiday trip to visit their family in the President’s home state of Hawaii. As previous First Ladies have done, they will travel on a military aircraft.
Q But, I mean, couldn’t they wait, everybody go on one -- so there’s one jet instead of two.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think it was that --
Q I mean, Air Force One is $185,000 an hour to operate, and that’s a long flight.
MR. CARNEY: Again, as previous First Ladies have done, they will travel on a military aircraft. As previous First Ladies have done, they will travel separate from the President on a -- and that has been a practice in previous administrations. As you know, the President has made clear for a long time now that he will stay to ensure that Congress gets its work done.
Q Is he not leaving tomorrow?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let’s see what happens in Congress.
Q The Senate is going to be in session.
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a scheduling announcement to make, but I think you’re effectively putting two and two together there. (Laughter.) I didn’t mean that at all as a -- but I think it stands to reason that if --
Q I’m available for work on the budget team. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: If the -- the President is remaining in Washington to ensure that the American people -- 160 million Americans don’t have their taxes raised on January 1st.
Q If I could try one more time on Keystone --
MR. CARNEY: Certainly.
Q -- given what Ben has already outlined and the Republicans’ insistence on the Hill -- is there a compromise here?
MR. CARNEY: Well, they say there is, and we hope there is. In the holiday spirit, I’m going to cautiously assess that there is a compromise available here. One obvious --
Q If language on Keystone is --
MR. CARNEY: One obvious avenue here, if the desire is to give 160 million middle-class Americans a tax cut and not to play politics, then you just craft a bill that focuses on the tax cut.
Q Or at least an accelerated timeline on Keystone?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, that has nothing to do with the tax cut. I’m just saying, if what’s really -- what folks are concerned about most on the Hill is that middle-class Americans who are struggling every day to make ends meet don’t see their taxes go up on January 1st because of congressional inaction, then they should just move a payroll tax cut bill that everybody can agree on.
Now, we’re hoping that’s what’s going to happen. Unfortunately, politics has clearly infected this process. As I noted, the fervor that used to animate Republicans when it came to tax cuts was absent in this process. Although it was present when it came to defending the tax benefits and tax rates of millionaires and billionaires, it was absent when it came to middle-class folks and those struggling to get into the middle class.
There’s been a little more interest lately expressed by Republicans in extending the payroll tax cut, and increasingly, day by day, a commitment to do that. That is a good thing. That is a sign that the debate has moved in the right direction. That politics is still a part of this, I concede. Hopefully, we will reach a compromise that everybody can live with.
Q And you talked about politics being injected -- I spoke with a senior Democratic leader in Congress, who said that the White House and Senator Reid had engaged in politics by injecting the idea of a shutdown on the omnibus bill was ultimately a distraction from what this Democratic member said was a winning argument on the payroll tax cut. Is there a regret here in the White House that that --
MR. CARNEY: This Democratic member said that anonymously, I guess? I’m just asking. I wasn’t -- you’re not just saying that for --
Q They would say it anonymously, sure, yes, they wouldn’t want to publicly criticize the President.
MR. CARNEY: The President’s approach through this process has been focused on the -- what he believes is the absolute necessity of extending the payroll tax cut. And that’s been his policy focus. It’s been his strategic focus. Everything he’s done has been designed to ensure or to make more likely that Congress will actually do the thing it should do here, which is help the American people.
So he certainly -- we make no apology for that approach. We think it’s the right approach. We think that the American people if, come New Year’s Day, they wake up not just with -- some of them -- a hangover but with the realization that they have a tax hike on the horizon, then they’ll want to know what the heck Congress was up to and why it didn’t get this simple business done.
But again, let me go back to the start, which is to say that we are --
Q Do you think people are going to -- (laughter) --
MR. CARNEY: -- we are hopeful, and we take as encouraging some of the indications from the Hill that there is an effort underway -- well, we know there’s an effort underway, and we take as encouraging the assessments by some on the Hill that this can get done. We certainly hope it will.
Q And then finally, can I just ask you about some of the attacks that were leveled at the President last night in a Republican debate, specifically Mitt Romney who said that he has the experience running business and learned from their successes and failures, and “I’ll have credibility on the economy when he doesn’t”? He said, “We have a President, someone who doesn’t understand how the economy works.”
MR. CARNEY: Well, all I know is that the President’s record is what it is, and that the folks who are contending for the opportunity to run against him all espouse a policy philosophy when it comes to economics that is virtually identical to the policy philosophy that got us into this mess. So we look forward to that debate, and that includes all the leading and not leading contenders in terms of the proposals that they’ve put forward, the positions that they’ve taken are -- they echo perfectly the positions and proposals that were unfortunately adopted that led to the worst economic crisis anyone of us has seen. I don’t think there are any folks old enough here to have lived through the Great Depression, so this is the worst we’ve seen. And hopefully, it’s the worst we’ll ever see because this President is going to get reelected, and he’s going to continue to pursue policies that build up the middle class, that grow the economy, and that build the economic foundation that is essential for this country to win the 21st century.
Q Following on Norah’s question about Democrats, there are some on the record not being that harsh, but Senator Begich of Alaska, for example, saying I think it was today that he thinks the President is wrong on Keystone and that -- in his words -- “It doesn’t make sense to delay the decision.”
I think Mark Smith will back up my math here that if you have -- I think there are eight Senate Democrats -- Landrieu, others, who if you add that up with 48 Senate Republicans about, are pretty close to 60 to break a filibuster in terms of a bipartisan group in the Senate that are saying you should move forward on the pipeline. So unlike other issues where Republicans have picked off, say, one Democrat, and you guys have said, well, it’s really not a bipartisan effort, it does seem like it’s fairly bipartisan, doesn’t it, when you have about eight Senate Democrats saying move forward?
So how does the President approach this when he has a significant number of his fellow Democrats saying move forward?
MR. CARNEY: I appreciate the question, Ed. The President hasn’t stated a position on whether or not the Keystone pipeline should be granted a permit or not -- I messed up my English -- whether or not the Keystone permit should be granted.
What he has said is that there are criteria that must be considered. The process is run by the State Department in accordance with a long -- decades-long tradition, appropriately, because of the international nature of the project. Because of the opposition in part of Republicans and the Republican governor in Nebraska, there was a decision made in that review process to look for an alternate route, and that has necessarily expanded the duration of the process, the review process, because you can’t approve something before you have something to review, as I understand it, not being a scientist. But I think that’s a pretty reasonable approach to take.
So the President simply -- this is a process run by the State Department. Because of the concerns, the legitimate concerns about the aquifer in Nebraska, there is now a process which will lead to the designation of an alternate route or alternate routes. That process needs -- that needs to be reviewed because public health has to be taken into consideration. All the other impacts that this kind of thing can have need to be taken into consideration, and that’s why, as I understand it -- and I refer you to the State Department -- the duration of that process was identified.
Now, again, the President is not making a judgment on whether the permit should or should not be granted once that process is completed. That process is housed in the State Department. The State Department, if that process is allowed to take place, will make its recommendation once that review is done.
But what it shouldn’t be is short-circuited because folks think it ought to be, because that’s just not how it should work because this is the kind of thing, and it’s not unprecedented, that has -- there are a lot of factors here, a lot of impacts in terms of jobs and energy security, the environment and public health that have to be considered and weighed. And that’s what that review process is all about.
Q And a Republican senator, Orrin Hatch -- please don’t shoot the messenger -- but he today called -- he said, “The real is issue is the President is a scaredy cat.” And it was his words, not mine.
MR. CARNEY: No, I understand.
Q And he’s suggesting that -- again, it’s been said before -- you’re trying to kick this past the election.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would simply note to the senator that one of the most prominent voices expressing concern about the original proposed route was the Republican governor of Nebraska. His concerns were valid, as were the concerns of others, again, based on the assessment by the State Department, which is why the process was expanded, or the duration of the process was expanded. So that’s how it’s supposed to work.
Q Last thing. Quick follow-up on the First Lady. She had a Marine Corps “Toys for Tots” event today and a 20-year-old Marine asked her to be his date at the Marine Corps Ball next year. And he claims --
MR. CARNEY: Is that right?
Q -- that she said she would love to do it, but had to check with her husband. Has the President -- (laughter) --
MR. CARNEY: Hey, if the President is watching this, this might be the first he’s heard of it. But --
Q I apologize. I didn’t mean to cause -- (laughter) --
Q The President watches --
Q You can shoot the messenger. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Oh, you didn’t know? He always watches. (Laughter.)
Q Is that under review at this point?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t know. But I think it’s a -- the First Lady’s commitment to military families is very strong indeed. So I’m sure she was flattered by the invitation.
Let me move around. Yes.
Q Senator Ron Wyden has said that critics of his new bill, the Wyden-Ryan plan, hadn’t read the bill, and that seniors will still be able to stay on Medicare, and that it’s just injecting some competition for private insurance companies. So what is your reaction to that? Does the President really understand the plan, the proposal? And what’s wrong with competition for Medicare?
MR. CARNEY: We’ve read the bill. And you saw what I said yesterday and heard what I said yesterday, and our assessment of it.
We are for strengthening Medicare. The proposals the President has put forward, both through the Affordable Care Act and the proposals he’s put forward this year in his budget and his long-term deficit and debt reduction plan include savings in Medicare that are designed to strengthen Medicare so it is there for seniors in the future. And we are always open to ideas -- to new ideas, to different ideas, ideas that we haven’t come up with but other smart people have, that strengthen Medicare.
What we don’t think is the right approach are ideas that weaken Medicare; that create an uneven playing field, if you will, that in our analysis of this proposal -- which was in a brochure form of about eight pages, so it was pretty easy to read, pretty quick reading -- would not strengthen the program but would weaken it, would weaken Medicare unnecessarily.
And that’s why we took the position we took. Not because we’re against ideas that don’t originate in the White House, but because we are focused on those ideas that will strengthen Medicare, which has been an enormously successful program that has aided millions and millions of seniors since it was created, and needs to be there for seniors in the future. That’s the foundation of our approach.
Q Is there any plan to work with Wyden on developing some kind of compromise?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, we will work with folks in Congress next year and the years after who have ideas that can strengthen not just that program but others. I don’t know of any plans right now that -- we’re kind of focused on this endgame for the end of the year right now, these other issues. But again, we’re open to ideas that we think can strengthen Medicare, but we don’t need to do the kind of radical surgery on the program that essentially ends it as we know it, and that makes it prohibitively expensive for millions of seniors who then have no choice but to go into plans that don’t offer them the kind of services that they need.
So that’s -- the focus here is on strengthening Medicare.
Q Is there anything other than getting the payroll tax cut through that the White House is pushing for as strongly as Republicans are pushing for Keystone to be in it?
MR. CARNEY: Unemployment insurance extension. I mean, there are various -- this gets into acronyms and that kind of stuff, but there are things that need to be done, whether they’re a part of the payroll tax cut bill or not. But the “doc fix,” as you know, needs to be done. But what’s essential, we believe, as part of the payroll tax cut, is the unemployment insurance extension. And folks have talked about SGR being part of it, and other things. But those are things that have to get done before the end of the year.
But that’s it. I mean, the President’s priority is not letting Congress leave town having ensured that Americans will have their taxes go up in 15 days. So we’re very hopeful that members of Congress of both parties, both houses, will prevent that from happening.
Q But because it’s a negotiation, what are you willing to negotiate on?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, we have been very willing, as we’ve said from the beginning, to negotiate on pay-fors that are acceptable. We’ve been very willing to negotiate on a variety of things. I would simply say, why is there horse-trading here if Republicans are actually for giving middle-class Americans a tax cut? They’re not doing the President a favor by giving middle-class Americans a tax cut. And by being so lukewarm, and in some cases opposing middle-class tax cut, they’re not doing the American people a favor.
This needs to get done. And it’s the kind of thing that has traditionally had bipartisan support; it’s traditionally had strong Republican support. And we hope that, because of that and because of the, I think, unwelcome response that members of Congress would get if they don’t get this done, that they’ll figure out a way to do it.
Q On another issue. Republican senators, including Lindsey Graham and John McCain, just sent out a release saying that the release of this Lebanese terrorist, Ali Mussa Daqduq, to the Iraqi government, “sends exactly the wrong message to our allies and enemies in the region.” Do you have any response to that?
MR. CARNEY: I do. Because of the President’s concerns about the crimes of Daqduq, Mr. Daqduq, that he is alleged to have committed, we worked a wide range of options consistent with U.S. and Iraqi law to effect Daqduq’s transfer to a U.S. military commission. We did so because we felt that was the fastest possible way to bring him to justice. We are continuing to discuss this with the Iraqis, and, as of this morning, he has been transferred to Iraqi custody, as you note.
We take this case extremely seriously, and for that reason have sought and received assurances that he will be tried for his crimes. We have worked this at the highest levels of the U.S. and Iraqi governments, and we continue to discuss with the Iraqis the best way to ensure that he faces justice.
Glenn. Oh, I’m sorry, Kristen, I owe you one. Then Glenn.
Q Thanks, Jay. Just following up on that. Your last sentence, “we continue to discuss with Iraqis the best way to ensure that he,” Daqduq, “faces justice” -- can you go into a little bit more detail about what some of those ways are, and how confident the administration is that he will in fact face justice?
MR. CARNEY: Not really, to be honest with you. I can tell you that those conversations are continuing; that we are -- we obviously have our -- we’re dealing here with a sovereign Iraq, and we have our -- the handling of this case has been in accordance with both U.S. and Iraqi law. And we are continuing to discuss the matter, and we have received assurances, as I said, that he will be tried for his crimes.
Q One of the big concerns that’s been raised is that he could potentially be handed over to Iran. How concerned is the administration that that might happen?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, we’ve been assured at the highest levels that he will be tried for his crimes.
Q And some of the family members -- at least one -- was quoted in The New York Times as saying this decision is basically synonymous with letting him go free, because so many former people in this similar situation have gone free. What would you say to those family members? What’s the administration’s message to them?
MR. CARNEY: Well, that we take this matter extremely seriously, which is why we have worked on it at all levels, including the highest levels, and why we are continuing to work on it in accordance with both U.S. and Iraqi law, and why we sought and received the assurances that we have received. We take it very seriously. We understand those concerns, and we’ll continue to have these discussions and work this issue.
Q And one more about the payroll tax cut. One of the ideas that had been discussed earlier today was a possible short-term extension. Is that something that the President would agree to, a stopgap measure?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I appreciate the question. I don’t want to get into negotiating from here. The President’s priority is that Americans don’t have their taxes go up on January 1st. Our preference, obviously, is for a proposal to mirror what the President put forward back in September in the American Jobs Act, which is for a full-year extension of the payroll tax cut, and in the case of his proposal, an extension and expansion. At the minimum, we need an extension here so that Americans get that $1,000, on average, tax cut in 2012 rather than have the $1,000, on average, tax hike.
Q Thanks, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Glenn, I think I owe you -- yes, and then Alexis.
Q Two questions: one Keystone, one payroll tax. The President’s former National Security Advisor, Jim Jones, today did a call sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute in which he said that he thought the -- delaying the Keystone would “be a threat to” -- sort of -- “national economic security,” and would constitute a “significant setback.” Do you agree with that assessment? And were you guys surprised that the former National Security Advisor would --
MR. CARNEY: I hadn’t heard of that report, Glenn. I mean, our position on this is clear. The route was changed because of concern expressed by a variety of folks, including the Republican governor of Nebraska, that then required the State Department, which runs this process, to begin a new review to look for alternate routes. That needs to take place. It would be wrong to do it otherwise because of the important issues at stake here, including public health, the environment, the economy, economic security, energy security.
I would point out, as you’ve heard me say before, that the President’s approach on energy security is very broad-based. It’s an all-of-the-above approach. That’s why he’s expanded drilling and the search for oil and gas. That’s why he has pursued aggressively clean energy technology -- and, I would say, expanding that and making sure it happens in a responsible and safe way in the wake of the Gulf oil spill.
But as regards Keystone, there’s a process here that’s important for something of this nature and magnitude, and that process has to run its course. And this is not about making a judgment about whether, in the end, a permit should be approved or denied; it’s about making sure that the process is thorough so that the decision, when it is made, is made based on all the best information available.
Alexis -- and then Chris, I’m sorry. Yes, sorry.
Q A quick follow-up on the payroll tax. You guys were talking very passionately and very consistently over the past month about the need for tax equity, and the need to make the wealthy pay their fair share. It seems like that conversation has really stopped in the last 48 hours. You guys are talking about a deal --
MR. CARNEY: Well, we certainly --
Q Why should the American people believe that you folks are really committed to that? And what would be the path forward to seeing that tax equity if not this particular process over the payroll?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I was discussing this yesterday, I believe. The fact is the President’s position is clear from the American Jobs Act; it has been clear since he’s been a candidate; it is clear today, and it will be the same after today and throughout his presidency.
With regards to the payroll tax cut measure and the other elements of the American Jobs Act that Republicans blocked, yes, we have a situation where Republicans made it clear that rather than put 400,000 teachers back in the classroom, rather than fund infrastructure and put construction workers back to work, rather than give 1.6 million [sic] Americans a tax cut, they protected the -- in the case of the broader American Jobs Act, the loopholes and benefits and tax prerogatives of the wealthiest Americans. In the case of the Senate Democratic versions here, they refuse to give a tax cut to 160 million Americans because they wouldn’t ask 300,000 millionaires and billionaires to pay a little bit more. We won’t stop talking about that. It’s a matter of simple balance and fairness.
It is also the case that we have to get this payroll tax cut done or else middle-class Americans, working Americans, are going to have a tax hike on January 1st, at a time when we’re trying to continue to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
So we’re hopeful that that will get done. It doesn’t change the President’s overall position on the balanced approach we need to take in our economic policy, whether it’s with regards to measures that are designed to help the economy grow and create jobs, or measures that reduce the deficit and debt. Everybody should be in this together. The burden should not be borne by seniors or folks with disabilities or the folks who can bear it least.
Q When you start talking about spending bills early next year, are you going to make -- granted that the payroll tax cut is tied to this now -- but when it isn’t, early next year, when you’re presumably dealing with other spending measures, are you guys planning to make increasing taxes on the top end a precondition to some of those discussions? Can you give us a sense as to where --
MR. CARNEY: First of all, I’m not aware of any spending measures that will be coming up in January, right? I mean, if the spending -- if the omnibus is completed. I mean, I think that the broader debate here will certainly continue. That I can guarantee.
Q Jay, let me follow on what Glenn was asking you. This has been an interesting year -- this is a reflective question -- this has been an interesting year of divided government for the President. He has expressed many times over the year his frustration in dealing with what you just called “the worst Congress in history.”
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m just saying that’s what many, many Americans -- more than 40 percent -- are calling it. I’m hopeful that they’re going to change and not be the worst.
Q So before -- as the year limps to a close, this year of divided government, I’m interested in asking -- the President has tried various techniques this year. What would he say he learned about dealing with divided government this year? And what might he say worked that he wants to carry into the next year?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m sure that you’ll have an opportunity -- you and the press will have an opportunity to ask him that question at some point. So without being too specific, I’d say that he has and will continue to try all approaches that he thinks have a chance of succeeding when it comes to implementing the economic policies and other policies that will benefit the American people.
The economy and jobs is his principal focus, but that holds true for other areas, too. He’s not wedded to a strategy here. He’s wedded to getting results that help the American people. He is committed, in the case of the current debate, to getting a payroll tax cut done so that Americans don’t have their taxes go up. But if it does get done, our work will not be done. There will still not be the kind of economy that we need to build in this country, that economic growth will not be fast enough, unemployment will still be too high. So he will continue to push proposals that grow the economy, that help it create jobs, and he will continue to push proposals that are balanced that deal with our deficits and debt. And the means by which he does that working with a divided government, working with a divided Congress, are less important than results. And so he’s agnostic on that, I believe, because the focus is helping Americans deal with their everyday problems: their bills and their jobs and their economic security, their health care. That’s what he’s focused on.
Q Thanks, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Thanks.
Q Any chance for a week ahead, Jay?
MR. CARNEY: Is today Friday?
MR. CARNEY: No, I haven’t got one because we’re hopeful that at some point we’ll get done and you all will get out of here. Take care.
4:04 P.M. EST
May 24, 2013
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