Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 2/8/12
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:11 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Hello, everyone. Good afternoon. Thanks for being here. Before I take your questions, just a couple of things. First of all, the President, earlier today, hosted -- or rather chaired one of his regular Afghanistan/Pakistan meetings with his National Security Council team -- national security team in the Situation Room.
Secondly, I wanted to mention that in the State of the Union address, the President laid out a blueprint to return to America's values, including reducing the influence of money and lobbyists in Washington. Last week, Congress was on track to take the right first step by doing something they should have done long ago, banning insider trading by members of Congress. The Senate, in an admirable show of bipartisanship, came together to pass the STOCK Act, because it was the right thing to do. The bill passed 96 to 3, and that doesn’t happen very often, as you know.
Now, this morning, very early when it was still dark out and I was sitting at my kitchen table reading the newspaper, I was shocked to see that even this simple bill would ensure that -- that would ensure, rather, that everyone plays by the rules is being weakened, behind closed doors, by House Republicans, who seem to be caving to pressure from Wall Street lobbyists.
We hope that's not what's happening. This should not be a partisan issue. After all, one of the amendments on registration requirements that, according to these press reports, is being stripped out of the bill by House Republicans was inserted into the bill by a Senate Republican. The anti-corruption amendment stripped out was offered by both Senator Leahy, a Democrat, and Senator Cornyn, a Republican.
This is something that Democrats and Republicans in the Senate worked together to write and pass. It would be a shame if House Republicans, led by the Majority Leader, at the urging of Wall Street interests and other inside-the-Beltway forces, watered down the tough but common-sense measures supported by Republicans and Democrats alike. The President has said that now is the time to take bold steps to fix the corrosive influence of money in politics, and this is something that Congress should take action on right away.
With that, I will move to your questions. Ben.
Q Thanks, Jay. On the Af/Pak meeting you mentioned, any announcements to make on the --
MR. CARNEY: No, I have no announcements. I just know that there is interest in general if the President oversees these meetings and wanted to let you know that it's happened. We may have more of a readout -- it ended not long ago.
Q Okay. On the contraception issue, Speaker Boehner is promising to repeal the rule through legislation. Senator McConnell has talked about the same. I'm curious about your reaction to that. And if that were to happen, is that the kind of measure that the President would veto? Does he feel that strongly?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that's -- there's a lot of speculation embedded in that question, and I’m not going to go there.
I think on this issue, from the very beginning we have said that we will listen and work with individuals who have concerns as we work to implement the law. As I said yesterday, on January 20th, when this decision was announced, Secretary Sebelius said: “We will continue to work closely with religious groups during this transitional period to discuss their concerns.”
And I would note that 28 states have similar contraception coverage requirements, and eight states, as I’ve mentioned before, do not even have the exemption that this provision requires for churches and houses of worship.
We want to work with all these organizations to implement this policy in a way that is as sensitive to their concerns as possible. But let’s be clear. We are committed -- the President is committed -- to ensuring that women have access to contraception without paying any extra costs no matter where they work.
Q So while you’re pledging to work with groups who have concerns, the Congress -- or at least the House right now is pledging to undo the rule. What is your reaction to that part of it?
MR. CARNEY: Right now I think we are focused on the implementation of this rule and doing what we said back on January 20th when Secretary Sebelius announced it, which was work with those who have concerns to see if there’s a way to implement this policy to ensure that women everywhere have the same level of health care coverage and the same access to preventive services, but to do it in a way that might allay some of the concerns that have been expressed.
This President has -- as you know, in his past, he has worked with when he -- his first job in Chicago with churches and organizations that do a lot of good work. He is very sensitive to concerns like these and he wants to find a way to implement this important rule because he is committed to making sure that women have access to this coverage -- he wants to find a way to implement it that can allay some of the concerns that have been expressed. And that is why the transition period was announced at the same time that the rule was announced.
Q One more on this -- it’s about that transition period. They have until -- the organizations have until August of 2013. Is the White House hopeful at having some sort of solution in place, the allaying of concerns before then?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I wouldn’t want to predict a date by which this process might produce a result. I think it’s best to let that process take place. There are ways -- and I think people in the broader community here who have been looking at this issue have been talking about the fact that there are ways to approach this that would ensure the rule is implemented so that women have access to these important health care services no matter where they work, but also that hopefully would allay some of the concerns expressed. I don’t want to get into whether this approach might work or that one or who might feel better about it if this solution were put forward. We’re not at that point in the process.
Q One last one on a different topic -- the payroll tax. The negotiations seem bogged down. I know the President wants this tax cut extended. But I’m curious what the White House’s take is about the state of play right now. Are you confident that it will get extended, or is there a genuine nervousness that this might expire at the end of the month?
MR. CARNEY: We continue to be confident that Congress will pass the extension of the payroll tax cut for the rest of the calendar year. It is still inconceivable to us that Congress would want to raise taxes on 160 million Americans on March 1st at a time when hardworking Americans need that extra money to pay their bills, to make ends meet.
There is an element of déjà vu to this process. I think that it was clear by the end of December why this needed to get done. It is clear from the economic reports that we’ve had in the last several months that the economy is growing and producing jobs, and that we are moving in the right direction, and Congress should not muck that up. And the President believes, as he has said in the past, that folks on the Hill need to act without delay and without drama to get this done.
Again, this is a case where everyone says -- Republicans on the Hill, leaders on the Hill, by and large, say now that they believe extending the payroll tax cut through the end of the year is the right thing to do. It's good policy. It’s good for the economy. It’s the right thing to do for hardworking Americans.
Democrats obviously agree. The President strongly agrees, and we ought to get this done. So we still have time to work on this, and we hope Congress focuses and gets its work done.
I’m going to mix it up. Brianna.
Q On contraception, it’s not just the Speaker and Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans, but the candidates have all seized on it on the campaign trail, including Mitt Romney. They obviously see an opportunity to not only drive a wedge in the support of some Democrats for the President, but also trying to rally their base. Does the President feel that he’s vulnerable to that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President is focused on putting in place the right policies for women across the country. He’s focused on finding a balance that is sensitive to the concerns expressed by some religious groups.
The former governor of Massachusetts is an odd messenger on this given that the services that this rule would provide for women around the country are the same that are provided in Massachusetts and were provided when he was governor, including contraception, including covered with no co-pay or deductible, and a religious exemption for houses of worship and churches and church-controlled organizations such as parochial schools, but not to universities and hospitals. I mean, this is, I think, ironic that Mitt Romney is expressing -- criticizing the President for pursing a policy that's virtually identical to the one that was in place when he was governor of Massachusetts.
Q So does the President agree with Rick Santorum on the issue then? (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: I haven’t heard what Senator Santorum has said on the issue.
Q And then one other question on this, sort of speaking to the evangelical support for Catholics who are opposed to this, Rick Warren tweeted that he stands in solidarity with Catholics. He said, "I’d go to jail rather than cave in to a government mandate that violates what God commands us to do. Would you?" As you know he has a lot of Twitter followers, and tons of people who are interested in what he’s saying. Are you worried that that rallies the Republican base?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we’re not worried about Republicans or Democrats, the political component of this. We’re concerned about making sure that women get access to these important services; that women are treated equally around the country, regardless of where they work. But we are very sensitive to and understand some of the concerns that have been expressed, and that is why as part of the original announcement of this by Secretary Sebelius we put in place a process where further discussions could be had that would address, hopefully, some of these concerns and maybe allay some of them.
I can’t sort of itemize or give great detail on what those discussions will look like. I mean, as I think Ben noted, the full implementation of this policy doesn’t take place until August of 2013, and this conversation is only just underway. But I think it’s important to note that the President takes those concerns very seriously, and he also takes -- takes seriously and is committed to the policy. And we will press forward with these discussions to see if there’s a way to proceed, to move forward in implementing this policy that allays some of these concerns.
Q Can I follow on that?
MR. CARNEY: Let me --
Q You could just say yes. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: I want to get out of the front row and then come back, do my -- yes, Mr. Wolf.
Q What has been -- thanks, Jay -- what has been the President’s reaction to this reaction on the contraception issue since the 20th? Is he surprised by the reaction, either political or religious?
MR. CARNEY: I think, as I’ve been saying, the President understands these concerns. That’s why he agreed with the approach that Secretary Sebelius took, which sought that appropriate balance, which ensured that there was an exemption for churches and houses of worship, unlike in some states in the country, and why he supported the part of this that included a process by which further discussion could be had that would see if there was a way of implementing this for institutions and groups that had expressed concerns that might allay or resolve some of those concerns.
So I don’t think -- I mean, I think he understands, and understood from the beginning why this is a sensitive issue and why -- and it informs his decision to proceed in the way that he has and to try to seek this balance.
Q Just at the very earliest stage, is there any sense of how discussions would take place? I mean, in one case you have 18 months, but is there any sense here of who would talk to who in terms of trying to -- whether HHS would be involved, the White House -- trying to come up with some sort of a resolution?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a roster of individuals involved in those kinds of discussion. Issues involving health care policy would normally include folks who do health care policy, both -- in a variety of places in the administration. So those are the kinds of conversations that would take place in terms of the policy side of this.
Q There was reporting yesterday that your assertion that the next year and a half, the next year we spent looking for a way to implement the policy was a sign that you're looking to compromise. And you pushed back strongly on those reports. Tell me why that shouldn’t be seen as an attempt to find a compromise?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I just wanted to be clear, as I'm trying to be again today, that the President is committed to implementing a policy that will ensure that women across the country, no matter where they work, will have access to the same health care coverage and the same preventive care services, including contraception.
It is also true, and has been true since the day that this was announced, that we intend as an administration, as Secretary Sebelius said, to work with religious groups that have concerns about this to see if there's a way to implement that policy that eases some of those concerns. And both are true. But I wanted to be clear yesterday and I want to be clear today that the commitment to ensuring that women have access to this important -- to these important health care services remains very strong.
Q So it's not a compromise because you won't walk back from access without a co-pay?
MR. CARNEY: Correct.
Q There's also difficulty within the Pentagon on this. The Army's chief of chaplains suggesting priests not read a letter from an archbishop he felt might lead to disobedience, frankly.
MR. CARNEY: Well, my understanding -- and I'll refer you for specifics to the Pentagon, obviously -- but my understanding is chaplains were absolutely free to express their opinions about this and did.
Q But he didn’t want them to read a sentence of the letter from the archbishop.
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to the Defense Department. But I would certainly hope that in reporting on this you noted that chaplains were absolutely free to express, as they should be, their opinion on this matter.
Q Can you confirm that the President's former chief of staff, Bill Daley, along with the Vice President, encouraged the President not to make this decision, but then the President then sided with some of his female advisors, including the HHS Secretary?
MR. CARNEY: I'm not going to get into internal deliberations and who was on which side of discussions and debates internally. I will say that, broadly speaking, the reports that line certain people up in some ways on this issue were inaccurate, both broadly and specifically in terms of some of the individuals. But I’m not going to engage in a guessing game about who thought which way on which issue.
Q And then on Iran. Iran’s ambassador to Moscow said today that Iran is capable of carrying out military strikes on U.S. interests all around the world if Iran is attacked. Is that a concern?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not going to engage in a back-and-forth with this particular official, but rest assured we’re extremely confident in our military’s ability to do their job, and also rest assured that force protection for those Americans deployed overseas is our top priority.
Q And then just on Syria, if I could. I know you’ve addressed this before but I want to ask you again. Senator McCain and others are talking about whether we should arm the opposition in Syria. Has that been completely ruled out?
MR. CARNEY: We are pursuing a political path in an attempt to resolve, with our international partners, the situation in Syria -- or rather, to help the process move towards a peaceful political transition, democratic transition in Syria, working with friends of Syria all around the globe. We believe that a political solution is the right way to go.
Now, we never rule anything out in a situation like this, but we are pursuing a path that includes isolating and pressuring the Assad regime so that it stops its heinous slaughtering of its own people, and that in the coming days we will continue our very active discussions with friends and allies who support the Syrian people, along with the opposition Syrian National Council, to crystalize the international community’s next steps in that effort to halt the slaughter of the Syrian people and to pursue that transition to democracy.
Q And how would humanitarian assistance be delivered? How much are we talking about? Has there been a dollar figure put on it?
MR. CARNEY: No, I appreciate the question, and I know I raised this yesterday. We are, of course, looking at humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, and we have for some time. We’re consulting with our international partners, and we anticipate this being one of the focuses of the discussions that we’ll have with friends of Syria in a friends-of-Syria meeting that may be held in the near future -- because there is near universal concern about the plight of the Syrian people as they are subjected to this brutal assault by the Assad regime.
But I don’t have specifics about content or delivery. I mean, these are just discussions that we anticipate having with our international partners.
Q Thanks, Jay. In the past, the administration has put forth names of officials who supported your policy decisions. For example, during the American Jobs Act, when the President first rolled that out, we heard from a number of mayors. Why not release names of religious leaders who support the HHS decision?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not sure I -- anybody who supports the decision to -- and the general approach to providing important health care services to women across the country is certainly welcome to express that opinion. This is not -- again, this is -- I think that we’re engaged in a process that seeks to find a balance between a policy that ensures that women get access to these important services and that -- no matter where they work, and also deals with the understandable concerns of some religious groups. And we’re in the process of doing that.
Q Would it bolster your argument to be able to put forward a list of religious leaders who --
MR. CARNEY: We’re not trying to win an argument here. We’re trying to implement a policy that will affect millions of women -- well, all women in this country -- and also to do so in a way that's sensitive to people’s religious beliefs. And that reflects the approach the President takes, and it reflects the approach that Secretary Sebelius has taken.
Q And on the payroll tax cut discussions that are going on right now, there have been some rumblings that they might be considering a short-term deal again. Is this something that the President would sign off on? Would he support this? Or would he only accept a yearlong extension?
MR. CARNEY: It is, like I said, inconceivable that the same folks in Congress who almost prevented the payroll tax cut from being extended for two months would want to go through that again. So we believe that there is consensus on Capitol Hill among Democrats and Republicans that we need to do this, and we need to do it for the full calendar year.
I mean, we just need only point to the recent economic growth and the unemployment figures to note that the economy, while growing and creating jobs, needs this action to be taken to continue along the road to recovery.
I just can't imagine that folks in Congress are going to want to explain to their constituents that they blocked the extension of this tax cut, ensuring that taxes were raised on most of their constituents, because they couldn't sort out some easily resolvable issues with their fellow members of Congress. We think that this can be done. We absolutely think it should be done for the remainder of the calendar year.
Q And just one more on Syria. You’ve said in the past that you do think Assad’s fall is imminent. Given the fact that there’s been increased violence over the weekend, last night, do you still see the situation in that light?
MR. CARNEY: There’s no question that President Assad has lost control over parts of his country. There’s no question that he’s certainly lost the support of his people long ago, thanks to his brutality and his refusal to participate in the kinds of reforms that would have led to a democratic transition in Syria. There’s no question that because of the efforts of the international community to put the squeeze on the regime financially that his assets and his capacities are dwindling. And there’s no question that those around him within the military and governmental leadership are beginning to doubt the wisdom of sticking by him. So, yes, we believe that his days are numbered.
And that's why we find it disappointing, to say the least, that votes were taken in the United Nations Security Council to block that important resolution. It is simply a mistake to side with a regime that is going to go down in history as a brutal repressor of its own people. It is a mistake to side with a regime whose days are numbered, to isolate yourself from the Syria people. That's the wrong action to take. The right place to be is with and in support of the Syrian people who are insisting on a peaceful transition to democracy.
Karen, then Jake.
Q Thanks, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: And then I’ll move back, I know it’s been -- go ahead.
Q You talked about the administration’s commitment to reaching out to religious groups and getting their views. Is the President himself going to be involved in that process? Has he done any kind of outreach on that yet?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think there’s been some reporting about some of the conversations the President has had, but I don't have any scheduling or any calls or meetings to announce from here that he may have in the future.
Q Does he want to be personally involved in that?
MR. CARNEY: I think the President is very aware of and engaged in this issue. But I don't have any, again, meetings to preview for you or conversations to announce.
Q And when you’re emphasizing the effort to find a balance, isn’t that the same thing as finding a compromise? And what is the timeframe on this?
MR. CARNEY: I just want to be clear. The language that is used to describe it is up to you guys. What I am only trying to be clear about is that the commitment to make sure that all American women, no matter where they work, have access to the same health care coverage and the same preventive care services including contraception is absolutely firm. That's the President’s commitment. That is explicit in the policy proposal.
The discussion -- and it’s an important one, but the discussion is how can we, in implementing this policy, try to allay some of the concerns that have been expressed. And the President is very sensitive to that, as is Secretary Sebelius and others. But that's the issue. So, describe that as you will, but there is no change in the commitment to ensuring that women have access to these important services.
Q And can that goal be achieved with some exceptions? And if you’re looking at finding a balance, what is the timeframe on that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let’s be clear that there is -- there are exemptions within the rule as it exists, including churches and houses of worship.
Q But maybe further exemptions?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don't want to negotiate or speculate about what discussions may be had and what policy proposals may be contained within them. What I will say is that the President is committed to ensuring that women have access to these services no matter where they work, and that all women are treated equally in regard to this in terms of no co-pays and no costs for the services provided.
Q And what is the timeframe on that discussion about finding a balance? Do you think that you might be able --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I was asked that earlier. I don’t have a timeframe to provide to you. Within the announcement that Secretary Sebelius made, she described it as a transition period of a year. So I would say some amount of time between one day and a year is when this will evolve.
Jake. And then Jackie.
Q President Obama is going to be introducing his outline for a budget. Fed Chair Bernanke has said the lack of a budget having been passed by the Senate has had an adverse effect on growth because it’s created uncertainty. Harry Reid has said that he doesn’t think there’s a need to introduce a budget this year. Who does the President think is right, Harry Reid or Ben Bernanke?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think the President, as you noted, will be presenting his budget. That budget, it’s important to remember -- and you all covered it -- has spending caps set based on the Budget Control Act that was signed into law by this President last August. That spending -- those spending levels represent significant cuts agreed to by Democrats and Republicans, and by this President. And his budget will reflect the need for that -- will reflect those cuts, but also reflect the priorities that he thinks are very important, and I think the priorities that -- to wrap in part of your question here -- that Senator Reid believes are important as well, as do many members of the Senate and the House.
Q So, therefore, the Senate should pass a budget as well?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a -- well, I don’t have an opinion to express on how the Senate does its business with regards to this issue. The fact is, because of the negotiations over the debt ceiling that resulted in the Budget Control Act, we have an unusual situation here in that the top lines for the budget going forward have already been set and agreed to by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Q I’m not actually asking your opinion, but the White House’s opinion. The position of the White House is that --
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a --
Q The White House has no opinion about whether or not the Senate should pass a budget? The President is going to introduce one. The Fed Chair says not having one is bad for growth, but the White House has no opinion about whether --
MR. CARNEY: I have no opinion; the White House has no opinion on Chairman Bernanke’s assessment of how the Senate ought to do its business. What the President believes is important is that the Budget Control Act that was signed into law by him last year provides the top-line spending caps for the coming budget. And he will obviously meet those in the budget proposal he puts forward. And he looks forward to the Senate acting on the policy initiatives contained within his budget that will reflect the priorities he laid out in the State of the Union, and also will reflect the priorities he laid out when he put forward his deficit and debt reduction proposal back in September.
So I don’t think there is any -- there will be, nor is there now, any doubt about the President’s view on where we ought to move with the budget.
Q And just to follow up on the Syria question earlier from Norah. There have been reports that because of all that’s going on in I think it’s Homs, there was a hospital that lost power and a number of premature babies died as a result. I don’t know if that’s a true story or not. Obviously in situations like this there are a lot of rumors. Does the White House know anything about the extent of the violence, factually, what’s going on? I assume we have people on the ground there to a degree or another. Are we monitoring exactly what is happening?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I can say that we have all here seen the reporting and some of the horrific video images of the escalation of violence that’s taking place in Syria over the last few days, and it’s clearly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians, and been accompanied by troubling statements from senior regime officials who have pledged “to cleanse the country of renegades and outlaws.” That is hardly reassuring, and only reinforces the fact that the Assad regime is engaged in a brutal campaign to slaughter its own people -- a people that has -- this process began when the Syrian people peacefully demonstrated in support of reform and transition to democracy.
So I don’t have any details to impart to you on the kinds of information we might have with regards to what’s happening in Syria beyond the news reports, but the news reports are bad enough.
Q Thank you.
MR. CARNEY: Jackie.
Q Jay, staying on Syria. You had said earlier that you were discussing with international partners the subject of humanitarian aid. Are you ruling out the U.S. providing humanitarian aid unilaterally?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not ruling that out, but we’re working with our partners. There is a broad coalition of friends of Syria that extends around the globe and includes nations in the region. So we have -- as we have from the beginning, we will continue to work with our allies and partners on this issue and with nations that are as concerned as we are about the brutality that’s taking place in Syria.
Q And in the wake of the Russian Foreign Minister’s trip to Damascus, do you have any reaction from the White House about Russia’s call for the Western world to have the government there, the Assad government, engaged in “dialogue” with the opposition? Do you see that as at all realistic or potentially meaningful?
MR. CARNEY: I think, as you may recall from the earlier days of this situation in Syria, there was an opportunity for the Assad regime to engage in dialogue with the opposition, with the Syrian people who were demanding peaceful transition. Rather than take that opportunity, Assad brutally cracked down on his own people, and that crackdown continues to this day.
We don’t think that that opportunity is available anymore. It’s clear that Assad has chosen a path and that choice has resulted in deaths of many, many Syrians, including innocent children, and it’s a horrific result of that choice.
So I don’t -- as we’ve said before, as I said yesterday, I believe, regarding the Foreign Minister’s visit to Syria, it’s not clear what the purpose was. What is clear is that siding with the Assad regime at this stage will not get Russia anything except for the alienation of the Syrian people.
Alexis, and then Laura.
Q Jay, there are members of the President’s party who say that they’re mystified why the White House would want the contraception issue to continue percolating like this day after day; if his concept is trying to communicate his support for women and their health, et cetera, that that is getting drowned out perhaps by the concerns that he’s trying to allay. So I’m just trying to get at this idea between a day and 18 months. Could we expect the President soon to speak himself about this, to try to communicate better about what it is that he’s trying to do?
MR. CARNEY: Alexis, I appreciate the question, but I don’t have any announcements to make about presidential statements of news conferences or --
Q Like maybe next week in the budget?
MR. CARNEY: -- or anything of that nature. And my point about -- which I concede was delivered somewhat glibly about the timeframe here, is that I don’t -- I’m not going to set an artificial deadline. The policy that was put forward and announced by Secretary Sebelius makes clear that the period of transition is there for a reason. And as these conversations and this dialogue continues, we’ll have a better sense of timing on it. But I don’t have any to predict to you today.
Q But I just want to ask, would you agree that the idea that as this conversation continues is the thing that has the President on the ropes?
MR. CARNEY: Well, your assessment here is not one that I agree with you -- agree with. Are you asking --
Q The White House does not agree that the President is on the ropes because of the concept of this conversation continuing?
MR. CARNEY: No, I don't agree with any of the phrases within that sentence or question. (Laughter.) He’s concerned here about getting a policy right and its implementation right, and being sensitive, as he always is, to the concerns of religious groups about religious freedom and the convictions they hold.
So that's the approach that was taken in the development of this policy. It is the approach that is being taken in the conversations that will continue in an effort to implement it in a way that allays some of the concerns that have been expressed.
Laura and then Mara.
Q Thank you. I have two questions.
MR. CARNEY: Mara and Laura.
Q I have two questions about the STOCK Act. The first is I understand the objections that you expressed at the top, but notwithstanding those, if that bill were presented, would the President sign it?
MR. CARNEY: If which bill were presented, the Senate bill?
Q The House bill -- the House bill.
MR. CARNEY: Well, has the Senate voted on -- I mean, the House hasn’t voted on the bill.
Q Oh, I know, but I’m trying to --
MR. CARNEY: And I’m hoping that the House doesn't do what the reports suggest it's doing, the House Republicans. I think -- try explaining that to your constituents, that you watered down this legislation to give -- because Wall Street and hedge funds and others didn't like it. We just think that's a terrible idea.
And this should be -- this was an example of, in the Senate, of broad bipartisan support. The provisions that the House Republicans are seeking to remove are ones that were put forward by Republicans in the Senate. So it’s just -- this is an opportunity to do something that's right, that will send a signal to the American people that Congress agrees with them that there needs to be transparency and political reform in Congress.
It seemed like for a while that there was broad consensus, bipartisan consensus to get this done. And unfortunately, based on my early-morning reading, that may not be the case. So we urge Congress, and the House in particular -- House Republicans in particular, to abandon the effort to water it down and instead focus on getting it done.
Q I mean, Nancy Pelosi has said that she’s going to support it and urged people to support it. So I’m trying to understand -- and maybe you’re not prepared to say whether those concerns are serious enough to prevent a signature.
MR. CARNEY: I'm not sure that Leader Pelosi has said that she would support something that hasn’t even emerged yet from the backrooms of the House Republican leadership meeting. So I think that -- and then there’s a question, obviously, as is the case in all these things, that if the House dramatically changes the bill, then what happens in terms of reconciliation.
We support the bill, the proposal, as the President said in his State of the Union address, that would ban insider trading among members of Congress. We support the bill as it emerged from the Senate by a vote of 96 to 3, including amendments put forward by Senators Grassley and Cornyn. We hope that House Republicans will do the same.
Q And what is your -- what is the White House’s view on extending these provisions to the executive branch?
MR. CARNEY: I understand that there’s been a furtive -- I mean, not a furtive, that’s the wrong word -- a very public, although humorous, attempt by some among the House Republicans to suggest that that’s an issue, when the absolute fact is that there are far more stringent rules and restrictions on the executive branch already in place, as I’m sure they know.
And I would quote from an article on a slightly separate issue today in I think The Washington Post. Public Citizen, as you know, is a government watchdog group. Craig Holman said, “The executive branch has far stricter ethics standards than Congress does. And Congress has set these standards. The executive branch can’t steer contracts or work to businesses where family members work. They can’t even own stock in industries that they oversee -- unlike Congress. It’s complete hypocrisy.”
So, again, we are fine with the STOCK Act as it emerged from the Senate. We certainly look forward to the House taking action, as it, appropriately, should on this bipartisan measure. And the President will sign it into law. I am just struck by the effort to water it down behind closed doors, presumably because of objections by financial institutions and their lobbyists.
Q A follow-up on Laura’s.
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Q There’s been a little bit of confusion about this insider trading. Is insider trading currently legal for members of Congress? It sounds like something that’s already --
MR. CARNEY: I believe it is not banned. That’s the point of the legislation.
Q It’s not banned, even though insider trading, by definition, is something that’s not legal? I’m just wondering if there’s something that will be made illegal by this legislation that isn’t --
MR. CARNEY: I think it explicitly bans insider trading as well as does a number of other things that are included in the bill. I would address your --
Q So your understanding is right now insider trading is not illegal for members of Congress?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s certainly not explicitly banned. And I would point you to the authors of the legislation.
Q Okay. And my second question just about contraception -- which I’ve tried to stay away from at least for 48 hours --
MR. CARNEY: Okay. (Laughter.)
Q -- is do you feel that this -- I mean, this has gotten a tremendous amount of questions, obviously, taken up a lot of time here. Do you feel that this is a controversy that is a press-driven controversy, as many things can be? Or is this a real debate that’s really gripped a lot of people? Or do you think this is one of those things that we are ginning up?
MR. CARNEY: No, look, I think, and more importantly, the President thinks that the concerns expressed by some religious groups and religious individuals are understandable. And that’s why, even prior to those concerns being expressed, the policy included a transition period where discussions would be had -- would take place around an effort to implement the policy in a way that allayed those concerns.
So I think that it’s important in terms of our actions and reactions here to note that from the beginning we understood the sensitivity of this. That is why we sought the balance that we did in the policy itself, why churches and houses of worship are exempted, and why this transition period was a part of the rule and why we’re having these conversations.
So obviously in a case like this, sometimes folks try to make political hay out of it, and that's the way the system works and the process works. But the President believes and we believe that there are legitimate concerns out there, and that's why the policy was written the way it was.
Q But, Jay, you haven't reached out to the Catholic bishops. I called them just yesterday. They said they haven’t gotten a call. They're the most outspoken on this topic. If you’re starting a conversation, who are you conversing with?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, the policy was announced -- first of all, I think -- I’m not going to dispute your reporting, but I think that there have been a lot of conversations in the process that led up to the announcements of this, and there were -- there are and will be conversations going forward. Certain individuals may say they haven't had a call, but others have been engaged in this conversation and will be engaged. So I think that's been amply reported -- in some cases, unfortunately.
Q Jay, the President is about to leave for the Nats Park, or has already left. Could you tell us what his agenda is, what he will --
MR. CARNEY: He looks forward to meeting with Senate Democrats to talk about the agenda going forward, to talk about the budget that he’ll put forward soon, to talk about the absolute need to ensure that the payroll tax cut is extended for the calendar year to make sure 160 million Americans don't have their taxes go up. He’ll talk about the other actions that he hopes to work with them on that will continue to move this economy forward, promote growth and job creation -- the usual topics.
Q Why is Jim Messina along with him?
MR. CARNEY: I assume to engage in that conversation as well. But I’ll have to take the question -- or maybe you can ask the campaign.
Q Last week --
MR. CARNEY: Who’s louder? (Laughter.)
Q Yesterday, regarding the President’s position on the right of same-sex couples to marry, you said that this is a process that involves his faith. What other decisions about providing protections and civil responsibilities has the President based upon a decision on his faith?
MR. CARNEY: I want to be clear -- and I appreciate the question -- that I was simply referring to statements the President had made in the past about this issue. And it’s not about -- I don't want to -- I am in no way going further than anything the President himself has said about his views on this issue. And I want to be clear, and thank you for the opportunity to be clear on this.
What I want to add about yesterday is that, as you know, the President has long opposed divisive and discriminatory efforts to deny rights and benefits to same-sex couples. He believes strongly that protections should not be taken away from committed gay and lesbian couples who want to take care of their families.
And while we don't comment on specific litigation, that is his general position on this, as I think you know and have reported on.
Q Jay, you mentioned conversations that are underway on this contraceptive policy, conversations that are underway allaying concerns, a period of transition. Do you think the Boehner is jumping the gun when he talks about repealing this, since you believe that this is all still in progress?
MR. CARNEY: We’re just going to focus on the effort we have underway. The President is committed, as I’ve tried to make clear, to ensuring that this policy is implemented so that all Americans have -- all American women have access to the same level of health care coverage, and doing that in a way that hopefully allays some of the concerns that have been expressed.
We’ll leave comments that you mentioned and others -- we note them, but we’re focused on trying to get the policy implementation done in the right way.
Thanks, very much.
Q Can I just clarify something about the STOCK Act? Are you saying that you favor, oppose, or you don't care about whether or not the executive branch is covered?
MR. CARNEY: I’m saying I don't -- redundancies are fine in the --
Q It’s okay with you. It’s just not necessary?
MR. CARNEY: Right. As everyone who knows the policies that are in place and that apply to the executive branch knows this is a complete --
Q Gorilla dust.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, a barrel full of gorilla dust.
Q Okay, but you don't oppose it if it’s in the bill?
MR. CARNEY: I do not.
MR. CARNEY: Thanks.
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May 21, 2013
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