Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 03/27/2013
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:39 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Two quick announcements at the top before we go to your questions. They’re both scheduling announcements, actually. The first is, at 3:00 p.m. today the President will host a swearing-in ceremony for the new director of the United States Secret Service, Julia Pierson. That will be in the Oval Office, and we’ve arranged for a pool to be there to witness it. So that should be pretty good.
The second thing is about tomorrow. Tomorrow, the President will hold an event here at the White House where he will stand with mothers who want Congress to take action on common-sense measures to protect children from gun violence. The event will take place in the East Room. And in addition to the mothers on stage with the President, there will be law enforcement officials, victims of gun violence, and other stakeholders. So that will be tomorrow. I don’t know the exact time, but we’ll have more on that on the guidance tonight. So, yes, here in the East Room in the White House.
With that, Julie, I’ll let you get us started.
Q Thank you. Just a couple things on DOMA. Did the President get any update from the Solicitor General following the oral arguments today? And was there anyone from the White House who was there to witness the arguments, like yesterday?
MR. EARNEST: It is my understanding that the President has been kept apprised of the arguments made at the Supreme Court on these issues, both through reading the coverage of you and your colleagues but also based on briefings that he’s gotten from his legal staff here at the White House.
It’s also my understanding that the White House officials who attended yesterday are the White House officials also attended today. So that was Valerie Jarrett, Kathy Ruemmler, the Counsel of the White House, and Kathleen Hartnett, who’s an associate counsel here at the White House.
Q There seemed to be, in sort of the initial reading of the justices’ questions, a sense that they were also questioning the constitutionality of DOMA. Did the President, in the short period of time that’s passed since it was wrapped up, have any reaction to the proceedings today?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t heard from him about his reaction to the proceedings today. I know that going into the proceedings that he had full confidence in his team at the Justice Department and others who were responsible for preparing the arguments, and had total confidence in the people who were prepared to walk in there and deliver them. But in terms of his reaction for how it played out, I didn’t get one.
Q We’re seeing a little bit more from the President, at least publicly this week, on immigration reform -- the interviews today, the event on Monday. Is there a reason why he feels like he needs to be kind of more forthright publicly this week as Congress works its way towards a possible deal?
MR. EARNEST: The reason that the President felt like it was important for him to be very public this week, as he has been in previous weeks about immigration reform, is that it remains a top priority of his. This is something that he talked about quite extensively during the campaign; and something since the beginning of this year, when he laid out his principles in a speech in Las Vegas in January, has made clear that this is an important priority, both in terms of the impact that -- reforming in a comprehensive way our broken immigration system because of the impact that it would have on our economy, but also because it’s the President’s view that we need to make sure that everybody is playing by the same set of rules. And by reforming our broken immigration system in a comprehensive way, we can accomplish those two goals.
So the President is looking forward to the opportunity that he’ll have to speak with Univision and Telemundo correspondents this afternoon to talk about why that’s such a priority for him. And I think what he’ll also note, though, to be fair, is the progress that’s being made by the bipartisan group of eight senators who are working on this in the United States Senate.
Q One of the sticking points right now is this wages for guest workers. Obviously, business and labor are split on this. Has the President done any outreach to labor, to Trumka at AFL-CIO on this?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific calls to read out to you. As you know, the White House staff, throughout this process of negotiations -- bipartisan negotiations have been ongoing -- has been engaged. And they have been engaged both to offer some technical assistance, but also to ensure, or at least to represent the administration point of view, to try to steer the proposal in the direction of the principles that the President had laid out.
So we’re pleased with the progress that the groups are making in terms of trying to hammer out an agreement here. And we are also heartened by the fact that Senator Schumer at least has said that he expects that a bill will be filed shortly after the Easter vacation. And if that’s the case, we’re certainly pleased with the progress and looking forward to taking a look at what they have agreed upon.
Q Josh, what’s the next step in trying to reach a grand bargain with Republicans over the deficit?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, Steve, for some time now, the chief impediment to reaching a grand bargain has been the refusal of Republicans to ask the wealthiest and well-connected to pay even a dime more to help us deal with our deficit challenges. I’m sad to report that even months later that that continues to be the case, that we are seeing a group of Republicans in the Congress who are refusing to compromise on this. In fact, you even see some of them that are actually running around the country bragging about their intransigence on this.
That's not in the best interest of the country. It’s not in the best interest of our economy. The President has put forward his own plan, a genuine compromise that reflects the balanced approach that the President supports. It would reduce our deficits based on the agreements that we’ve reached over the last 18 months or so. It would reduce our deficits by about $4 trillion, $4.5 trillion over 10 years, and it would reach that deficit reduction by making smart cuts in government spending, by eliciting some savings from reforms to our entitlement programs, and by asking the wealthy and well-connected to pay a little bit more.
Q So what happens now then?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we are in a place now where it’s difficult for us to reach an agreement when you have a firm block of Republican senators who are refusing to compromise. It’s even more disappointing where -- it’s even more disappointing that the natural compromise that should exist in terms of additional cuts in government spending, some reforms to entitlement programs, both of those -- those are two items that Republicans have long said that they have sought, and asking the wealthiest and well-connected to pay a little bit more. By pursuing that balanced approach, we can reach some significant deficit reduction in a way that's good for the economy. But as long as Republicans are saying we’re not going to ask the wealthiest and well-connected to pay a single dime to reduce our deficit, then it is hard to imagine that we’re going to reach a compromise.
Q So basically the process has stalemated then?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the process is currently being blocked by Republicans who refuse to consider -- even consider asking the wealthiest and well-connected to pay more.
Q So any more meetings planned or any talks about this?
MR. EARNEST: Nothing that I have to read out to you right now. The President has -- since December -- has had on the table an updated compromise plan, one that he originally presented to Speaker Boehner in mid-December. The details of that offer are posted on the White House website. They remain on the table. So if there happens to be a critical mass of Republicans in Congress who take a look at that proposal and say, you know what, we actually would like to reach an agreement that would do something significant about our deficit; that would make some strategic cuts to government programs where we can; that would reform entitlements in a way that would protect those programs for the future, but also enjoy some savings that we could pay toward reducing the deficit; and ask the wealthy and well-connected to pay a little bit more, then that would be the outline of compromise. What we need to see is we need to see Republicans who are willing to demonstrate some political courage to do that.
Q And quickly on another subject. North Dakota is signing a law banning most abortions. Is this something you’re taking a look at on whether it is constitutional?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is -- it’s a state matter, and so I don't have a specific comment on it. I know that the expectation is -- just from reading the reports, I know the expectation is that there are a number of legal challenges that are likely to be pursued. And I know that many people who know a whole lot more about the law than I do are skeptical that these types of laws will stand up to legal scrutiny like that, but that’s not a decision for us to make.
The President’s view on this is pretty clear. He certainly is opposed to measures like that. He believes in protecting a woman’s right to choose. But in terms of if there is a legal process forthcoming, that’s something that will be -- that will wind its way through the process and not something that we’ll -- at least initially -- be involved in.
Q Back on immigration, if we could. Senator McCain in his home state said yesterday that he -- he told some of his constituents that, “I don’t know if we can achieve agreement or not. We’ve been working hard…but I can’t guarantee anything.” Is the White House concerned? And is in fact this push that happened on Monday and then, again, the interviews today, are those linked in any way in a concern that this is stalled at this point?
MR. EARNEST: No, in fact, we’re actually encouraged by the progress that’s being made by the bipartisan group of senators who have been working on this for a number of months now. Senator Schumer said just on Sunday that he was optimistic that they’d be able to file a piece of legislation when they got back from the Easter recess.
I know that Senator McCain and his Arizona colleague, Senator Flake, are hosting a couple of their Democratic colleagues -- Senator Bennet and Senator Schumer -- in Arizona today, again, to take a look at the border, to take a look at the important investments and commitments that have been made by this administration to securing the border.
And we are hopeful that, as they work their way through this process, that we’ll have a bipartisan agreement that reflects many of the principles that the President himself has laid out. We’ll reserve judgment on the product of those discussions until it’s produced, but at this time we are -- we remain encouraged by the progress that they’re making.
Q So Sunday’s statement by Senator Schumer would trump yesterday’s statement by Senator McCain that he, in fact, can’t guarantee they will have a bill and that he is, in fact -- couldn’t guarantee anything and he is discouraged?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the exact comments from Senator McCain. I would -- if he’s suggesting that he’s not going to make any guarantees about what happens in Congress two weeks from now, I would actually suggest that he’s quite -- he’s being pretty judicious, because I think it is difficult to predict what exactly happens in Congress.
But I think that the vast majority of indications are that this bipartisan group has made a lot of progress. That’s progress that the White House has been involved in, as I mentioned earlier. The White House has offered some technical assistance to them as they’ve been working through drafts of legislation and I know that there are others who are involved in those talks who are interested in ensuring or at least trying to steer that group in the direction of the principles that the President has laid out. And by all indications, they’ve made some important progress.
I’m not up here offering any guarantees either. But what I am encouraged by and what the White House is encouraged by are the indications that they’re making some progress and will be prepared in a couple of weeks to file a piece of legislation or around the deadline that they set for themselves a few months ago.
Q So, finally, just to be clear here, so the President hasn’t changed his mind about stepping back, letting Congress work this out, and not inserting himself as he did on Monday and as he is a little bit today with the Spanish-language media? That’s not reasserting himself into the process at this point?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’ll let you guys sort of evaluate whether or not the President is asserting himself or inserting himself into the process. The President has beliefs. The President campaigned on and won reelection on a platform of pursuing comprehensive immigration reform early in his second term. That is a promise that the President has followed through on. The reason -- one of the important reasons that immigration reform is such a legislative priority for both sides is because of the public support that the President has marshaled on this issue.
So it is natural that the President would be involved in the process of putting together a policy that would finally fix our broken immigration system. But in this case, we have allowed a bipartisan group of senators, at their request, to take the lead in the conversations about a bipartisan compromise in the United States Senate. Those are conversations that we’ve been involved with from the beginning, but we’re pleased that we see this group of eight senators -- Democrats and Republicans -- working together to try to put in place a policy that could pass through the Senate with bipartisan support, could pass through the House with bipartisan support, and would be the kind of legislation that the President could sign. That’s the way that the system is supposed to work.
Q I just want to talk to you about North Korea for a minute. And I took seriously what Jay said about the statement. But what I’m trying to get at is if there is any conversation that’s reached the President, or if he’s aligned or put together working groups that view what’s happened in North Korea in the last three or four weeks as materially different the kind of rhetoric and provocations and actions that this government has seen before. Because there are a number of people who are familiar with this issue who do feel increasingly that there is a material difference and that the risks are greater, and that there is something afoot here that is different and possibly more threatening to South Korea and U.S. interests throughout the region than we have seen before. I wanted to ask you if you can tell us anything about whether the administration believes that’s true, if it feels it is materially different, and is doing anything in response to that conclusion.
MR. EARNEST: Well, the thing that we have -- it’s difficult to offer you a specific assessment from here. But I can tell you that the White House and this administration, and certainly through the Department of Defense and other agencies and leaders in this government who are responsible for the safety and security of not just the United States of America but also our allies, have been engaged with our international partners to try to deal with this challenge. I mean, what we’ve seen from North Koreans is more bellicose rhetoric and threats that only follow a pattern designed to raise tensions and intimidate others. The North Koreans are not going to achieve anything through these threats and provocations, and they’re only going to further isolate the North Koreans and undermine international efforts to bring peace and stability to Northeast Asia.
We remain committed to ensuring that the security of the South Koreans, our allies, are protected, and we have the capability that we need to ensure that the United States and our assets are protected.
Q The Treasury Secretary was over in China, had -- was the first civilian leader to see the new Chinese President. Obviously, he has a very good relationship with the President. I’m wondering if there were any conversations or any reports back to the President from the Treasury Secretary, because I have to believe in these conversations North Korea did come up as a general topic.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not familiar with the details of the discussions between Secretary Lew and President Xi, so I’d refer you to the Treasury Department for that.
Q Right. And can you tell us if there is any different posturing here in the building, on a daily basis or even a weekly basis, about North Korea?
MR. EARNEST: What do you mean by posturing?
Q Meetings, briefings to the President?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’d say no.
Q Is anything being lifted up to a higher level of
scrutiny, analysis and presentation of that analysis to the President?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that this is something that is being --
Q Is there a higher level of urgency or curiosity or interest now than there was, say, two months ago?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that there’s always been a pretty vigilant posture when it comes to North Korea, in terms of monitoring their statements, in terms of monitoring their capabilities, and making sure that we have the resources that we need to protect our interests and our allies. We remain engaged with our international partners in the region who also have a stake in resolving this peacefully. It’s hard for me to compare that to previous instances like this, but I can tell you that this is something that we have been vigilant about for quite some time now.
Q But not more so now than throughout the entire administration?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would say at least as vigilant as we have been previously.
Q Josh, I want to ask all of Jim’s questions over again -- (laughter) -- but just to insert gun control instead of immigration reform. Will you guarantee that there’s going to be a big gun control bill that will pass through both chambers?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to try to stand here and predict the future about what’s going to happen in the Congress, but I can tell you that, in the same way that we’re encouraged by the progress that’s been made in bipartisan fashion on immigration reform, we’re encouraged by the bipartisan progress that's been made in the Senate.
There are a number of measures that passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee, last week I believe it was, and we’re going to continue to work with the Senate and with members in both parties, frankly, who are interested in working with the President to put in place measures that would reduce gun violence. As the President himself has said pretty articulately that this is a complex problem, but we shouldn’t let the complicated nature of it prevent us from taking action. And there are some meaningful, common-sense things that we can do to reduce gun violence in our communities at the same time respecting the rights provided by the Second Amendment of the Constitution.
Q Today I believe is 100 days since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, and obviously the President -- that may be one reason why he’s having this event here at the White House tomorrow, obviously to mark that. There’s a national day of action tomorrow, as well on this. But a lot of time -- 100 days has passed since the tragedy. The nation’s attention was focused. Obviously, the fiscal cliff and other things have come up. Is he getting more active now, worried that perhaps he’s lost some momentum on this important issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think I would slightly disagree with the premise of your question because I think that the President has been engaged on this pretty quickly. And I think --
Q But how many events has he had here at the White House on this in this room, pushing with moms or --
MR. EARNEST: Sure. There have been more than 20 events actually, more than 20 events and interviews and public appearances, between the President and the Vice President’s activities, spread out over 100 days. That's more than one a week. So this is something that the President has been engaged on from the beginning. Putting somebody like the Vice President in charge of this is significant. This is somebody that has a long history with these issues from being the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee and intimately involved in the passage of the first crime bill that included an assault weapons ban.
But two days after the tragedy in Newtown, the President spoke pretty eloquently about steps that Congress should take. Three days later, he stood at this podium in this room where he appointed -- or he asked the Vice President to take the lead here, at least initially, in coming up with some ideas. But even in those remarks, he talked about and challenged Congress to pass legislation on banning military-style assault weapons, banning high-capacity magazines, and closing loopholes in the background checks. And that's something that the President said and called on Congress to act on, on December 19th. And since that time, the President has spoken repeatedly about this from weekly addresses. The President had a very eloquent challenge in the State of the Union, where he asked Congress to vote on specific measures that would actually have a tangible impact on reducing gun violence.
Q He’s done all that, and yet his own Senate Majority Leader, fellow Democrat Harry Reid, would not include the assault weapons ban in the package of reforms that's coming up. There’s talk about a separate vote on it as an amendment. But despite all of that talk, all of the speeches, all of the meetings, even the Senate Majority Leader is not guaranteeing that they're going to get an assault --
MR. EARNEST: I think because of all the talk of the President and because of his aggressive advocacy of this issue, there will be a vote in the United States Senate on whether or not military-style assault weapons will be banned from the streets of this country. I think there is -- that represents progress.
Now, does it mean -- I can't stand here and guarantee that it’s going to pass, but it is a question that 100 senators are going to ask themselves when they wake up in the morning and look themselves in the mirror about whether or not they are going to -- about which side they're going to be on when it comes to voting on a ban on military-style assault weapons. And the President will certainly continue to advocate for senators to support that ban.
Q If I can, I want to ask you a question about what’s happening at 3:00 p.m. today. The President is going to be there with Julia Pierson for the U.S. Secret Service Director. First of all, was she the President’s first choice to be Secret Service Director?
MR. EARNEST: The President believes that she’s the right person for the job, absolutely.
Q Does that mean she was the first choice?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to get into that -- to the process here. I don't know that there is even more than one candidate. I mean, Ms. Pierson, as you know, is a 30-year veteran of the United States Secret Service. She’s somebody who has held a variety of leadership roles at the Secret Service from some protective activities to cybercrime, and most recently as the chief of staff of the organization. So this is somebody that has a strong record of leadership at the organization. And she embodies the kind of character and leadership that the President would like to see at the top of that organization.
Q Obviously, that organization faces unique challenges right now. The Washington Post reported some information that I just want to get your thoughts on. They spoke to a series of agents that were interviewed in the last couple of weeks that said that Pierson was a “weak candidate about rank-and-file agents because she has spent relatively little time supervising or working high-priority protective details, spending most of her career in administrative jobs.” Is that a concern for the President to have somebody who has more time in the field than behind the desk?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think the President believes that Julia Pierson has exactly the kind of experience that we want the person who’s going to lead that agency to have. I guess the other thing I would point you to is that I know that the outgoing director, Mark Sullivan, who I know has a lot of respect across the agency, is somebody who has strongly supported her for candidacy and said that she was exactly the right person for the job. So it’s not just the President who believes that she’s the right person for the job, it’s the outgoing Director of the Secret Service who believes that she has exactly the experience and skills necessary to lead that agency.
Q This one -- given the fact that the White House came under a lot of scrutiny in recent weeks or months about what the Cabinet looked like and what some of the top leaders of this top administration looked like and that there weren’t enough women at the time, now we can say that the head of the DEA, the head of the U.S. Marshals Office and now the head of the Secret Service will all be women. Does this represent something significant that America should be taking note of -- that the administration would want to declare with yet another female head?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess what I would say is that Ms. Pierson got the job because of her 30 years of experience and because the leadership skills that she’s shown throughout her career at the United States Secret Service. The fact that she’s the first woman to lead this agency is notable and I think it’s important, but it’s not the reason she was chosen for the job.
She’s chosen for the job because she is the right person at the right time to lead this agency that has a critical law enforcement function -- not just in terms of protecting the President and his family, but also in terms of safeguarding the financial system and other large public events that come under the jurisdiction of the Secret Service. So she’s got a big job but she’s the right person to get it done right.
Q And then digressing on one other topic and I’ll tee it up for the next person if they like, but why if the spending cuts are locked into place with the CR, why didn’t the President just veto the CR? Why wasn’t this something worth fighting for to continue his effort?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President does believe that eliminating the sequester is something that’s worth fighting for. The President said that this was bad policy from the beginning. Republicans said it was bad policy from the beginning, at least many of them did. After it passed, though, we unfortunately saw a lot of tea party Republicans say that this was a political victory. I know another one of them called it a homerun. So that’s unfortunate.
What the President also believes, though, is we can’t have a situation where Washington careens from one fiscal crisis to another. That is -- that has a terrible impact on our economy. And the truth is what we’ve seen is that we’ve actually seen that our economy is starting to actually get some traction in the recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression. So we’re starting to make some progress -- whether you look at jobs numbers or consumer confidence, even housing data recently came out to indicate that home values are -- have increased as much as they have in any time in the last eight years.
So there’s a lot of progress that’s being made in terms of our economic recovery, and we can’t careen from one fiscal crisis to another because that’s only going to block that progress. What we actually need is we need comprehensive compromise, economic policymaking in this town that actually supports that recovery instead of inhibit it.
Q A report by the Society of Actuaries says that insurers will have to pay on average 32 percent more for claims on insurance policies, individual insurance policies that they purchase because of Obamacare, and that that’s likely to be passed on to consumers. It says that there will be a dip some places, but some states are going to see really big increases, like 62 percent in California, 80 percent in Ohio and Wisconsin. What do you think about those numbers?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that you are citing a study that I believe was conducted by a health insurance company that’s critical of the Affordable Care Act. So that part I’m not particularly surprised about. The reason that the Affordable Care Act was put in place was to ensure that we were expanding access to health care for every American, but also because we wanted to actually protect consumers who are repeatedly victimized by insurance companies.
So it’s not particularly surprising to me that an insurance company would conduct a study that was critical of a piece of legislation that was promising to hold them accountable for their actions.
Q But can you talk about some of the numbers -- I know that there is some contention with the way that they -- sort of what they’ve factored in and what they haven’t factored in. What do you think about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know that -- you should check with the Department of Health and Human Services who may have some more detailed information on this. I know that there are some assumptions on there that are spurious at best. But there are a number of things about the Affordable Care Act that at this point are inarguable at this point, if you will.
The Affordable Care Act has already saved consumers an estimated $2.1 billion on their health insurance premiums that probably otherwise were it not for the Affordable Care Act would be an additional $2 billion that were paid into the pockets of insurance companies, like that one that funded this study.
Once the law takes full effect, it will have the benefit of increasing competition, driving down cost, and result in average premiums that are lower today -- I’m sorry, that will be lower in the future than they are today for the same benefits that are being provided. And that’s an analysis that’s conducted by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Q Can I ask you about some comments yesterday, made reportedly by your Health and Human Services Secretary, saying that that there will be an increase in premium cost for some Americans as a result of Obamacare? Do you agree with that?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t see those comments. I mean, what I did see yesterday was actually a blog post from the Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, who said that each year, from 2009 to 2011, the national health expenditure data shows the real rate of annual growth in overall health spending was between 3 and 3.1 percent, which is actually the lowest rate of growth since reporting began in 1960.
Q Will there be increases for some people who are purchasing insurance? Do you concede that? Kathleen Sebelius reportedly has.
MR. EARNEST: Well, what I would actually point you to is I would actually point to the results that we’re already seeing from the Affordable Care Act, which is a savings of $2.1 billion, and the analysis from the CBO that actually says in the future we’re going to see rates that are lower for higher benefits.
Q Is she wrong? Because she’s talking about people paying more for higher benefits.
MR. EARNEST: Again, I didn’t see her comment. I didn’t see her comments.
Q On the guest worker program, does the President think it’s necessary for it to be in there to have a viable, comprehensive immigration reform bill that can get bipartisan support?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is something that a variety of parties who have interests in this are working on. And if it’s included in line with the other principles that the President has rolled out -- laid out in terms of what should be included in comprehensive immigration reform, that’s certainly something that we could support. But we’re going to reserve judgment on what that looks like until it’s actually produced.
Q What’s more important? Coming to an agreement, or bringing labor along and making sure that they’re included?
MR. EARNEST: What the President wants to see is he wants to see a bipartisan agreement in line with the principles that the President has laid out. There is an opportunity for us to fix our broken immigration system in a way that will strengthen our economy and ensure that everybody is playing by the same set of rules. That is the priority, and that’s what the President is looking for.
Q How important is the labor sign-on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, we’re in a place right now where we want a piece -- see a piece of legislation that’s in the best interests of the economy and that reflects our nation’s heritage, as a nation of immigrants but also a nation of laws. And we certainly want to build as much support for that as we possibly can, both from Democrats and Republicans as well as from outside organizations that traditionally support Democrats and outside organizations that traditionally support Republicans.
Q During the arguments over DOMA, the justices seemed to have a lot of questions about why the President has decided to continue enforcing a law that he thinks is unconstitutional. The Chief Justice said, “I don’t see why he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions and not enforce the law if he thinks it is unconstitutional.” Can you explain that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is a responsibility that the administration has to enforce the laws that are on the books, and we’ll do that even for laws that we disagree with, including the Defense of Marriage Act. The argument that we have made before the Supreme Court and the argument that we have made publicly, including in a letter that the Attorney General sent to the Speaker of the House a couple years ago, is the argument that Section 3 -- let me make sure I got that right -- Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. That is a position, broadly speaking, that a lot of Republicans agree with. It’s not unprecedented for an administration to take that position. That’s the position that’s being argued before the Supreme Court today. It’s a position that has a lot of support from people in both parties. But we’ll see what the outcome looks like from the Supreme Court.
Q But President Obama has endorsed signing statements; he’s issued signing statements saying, I believe this law or this part of the law to be unconstitutional so I’m not going to enforce it. So as you say we will enforce laws that we believe to be unconstitutional, he’s also said he won’t enforce some laws that he believes to be unconstitutional.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not sure that that’s exactly what the signing statements have said. But in terms of what our legal posture is for these things, I’d refer you to the Department of Justice. They have done the legal analysis required to reach the conclusion that it is unconstitutional. They also are the ones that are responsible for enforcing these laws. So I’m not going to prejudge what the Department of Justice may have to say about this, based on their own analysis. But what I can tell you is that the argument that the administration has put forward before the Supreme Court today is an indication that our lawyers have concluded that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.
Q On the Fiscal ’14 budget, do you guys have a date yet?
MR. EARNEST: (Laughter.) What day of the week is this? Is it Wednesday? I’ll see at least --
Q Jay said you would tell.
MR. EARNEST: I anticipate we’ll get this question at least two more times before the end of the week. I don’t have a specific date to allow you to mark anything on your calendar just yet, Roger, beyond the week of April 8th.
Q But you will give us a date eventually?
MR. EARNEST: Eventually, we’ll probably have to, unless we could spread out the budget rollout over the course of five full days, which I think everybody in here would be disappointed about except Roger. (Laughter.)
Q Why is it taking so long to set a date?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t say we hadn’t set a date.
Q So tell it.
MR. EARNEST: I just said I wasn’t going to tell you what date it is. But it’ll be the week of April 8th.
Q What’s that about?
MR. EARNEST: It’ll be the week of April 8th.
Q What’s the big secret? What’s the --
MR. EARNEST: Well, because we’re going to have a planning process and we’re working through it. So it’ll be April 8th. The week of April 8th. (Laughter.)
Q One more, Josh. When the President does send up the Fiscal ’14 budget --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, the week of April 8th. (Laughter.)
Q -- the week of April 8th, sometime next month --
MR. EARNEST: Sometime next month.
Q -- the Pentagon is going to be asking for $8.4 billion to continue development and purchase of the F-35 fighter. That’s a project that’s seven years behind schedule and 70 percent over its initial cost estimates. Does the President support that project?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t want to -- because the budget is going to be rolled out in just a couple of weeks, I don’t want to get ahead of what may or may not be included in the budget. So those are the kinds of questions that are perfectly legitimate, and one that we’ll be in a position to answer after the budget has been rolled out. And we’ll have a detailed answer for you at that point.
Q He has supported it in the past, right?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have previous years’ budgets in front of me, so I don’t know how to compare them to previous ones. But we can certainly have OMB take a look at that for you.
Q What kind of level of concern is there or engagement in the White House right now about the situation in Guantanamo Bay? The military says 31 inmates are on hunger strike. Defense lawyers say that number is higher. Is the President concerned about this? Is there any dialogue with the military about this in the White House?
MR. EARNEST: Stephen, I can tell you that the White House and the President’s team is closely monitoring the hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay. For details about what’s actually happening there, I would refer you to the Department of Defense. But I can tell you that the administration remains committed to closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Progress has been made under this and the previous administration. But given the legislation that progress has put in place it’s clear that it’s going to take some time to fully close the facility.
The other thing that I’ve seen from news reports is that there are representatives from the Red Cross that will be visiting the facility sometime this week -- I don’t know if it’s today or tomorrow. That is part of a routine agreement that we have with the Red Cross, where we give them full access so that they can take a look at what’s happening at the prison there.
Q Is there any sense that somewhat -- the situation there is the result of the fact that Congress has stopped funding to transfer people who have already been cleared for release?
MR. EARNEST: To be honest with you, I wouldn’t want to judge about what these individuals may or may not be thinking or what may be motivating their actions there. So, again, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. They may have a better assessment there than I do.
Q Josh, two questions. The Pierson appointment -- what does that do for the Service right now, especially after the Colombian prostitute scandal?
MR. EARNEST: How so?
Q She’s the first woman to be appointed --
MR. EARNEST: She is.
Q Okay, thank you for agreeing. (Laughter.) She’s the first woman to be appointed. But, I mean, there was a prostitute scandal with women, with men, and with prostitutes that are women in Colombia. So, I mean, you asked me, so I’m breaking it down very basic for you --
MR. EARNEST: Okay, I appreciate that.
Q -- so you can help me get me an answer. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, April, what I can tell you is that Director Sullivan, in the immediate aftermath of the events that you so colorfully described --
Q You asked for it.
MR. EARNEST: -- took immediate steps to ensure that the safety of the President had not been affected. The allegations of misconduct were investigated, and swift action was taken against those Secret Service personnel who had engaged in that misconduct.
And I know that there were several members of the Secret Service who, as a result of this misconduct, either left the Secret Service or lost their job. So it’s pretty clear that there were -- that Director Sullivan, in the immediate aftermath of this event, took swift action both in terms of investigating what had happened, ensuring that the President’s safety was never jeopardized, and ensuring that new protocols were put in place to reduce the likelihood that something like this would ever happen again.
Now, it’s also relevant, it seems to me, that the new director has some leadership experience at the agency. She also has some experience in human resources and training, and would be able to, as she leads the agency, to ensure that the protocols that Director Sullivan has put in place are continued and, if necessary, strengthened.
Q Were you trying to send a message with this appointment of a female who has strong leadership in the light of all of this and other allegations?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the President was pretty direct in the paper statement that we distributed from him yesterday about why she was chosen for the job. And certainly her leadership skills and her character and her 30 years of experience at the United States Secret Service are the reasons why she was chosen.
Q And I want to ask you another question. I hope you have it on paper as well. Tomorrow, the President meets with African leaders. Could you give us a readout as to why this meeting -- why now?
MR. EARNEST: You’re asking a very good question but I’m not prepared to answer it right now. But if you want to touch base later this afternoon, maybe you and I can record an interview or we can make sure that your listeners are aware just what the President is up to tomorrow.
Q I would love to, thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Okay, sounds good.
Q Thanks, Josh. A question related to the Affordable Care Act, which you mentioned earlier. First of all, the reduction in health spending, you mentioned earlier, is it the White House’s position that that’s the result of the Affordable Care Act or the administration’s policies? And then, a second question is, the administration requested more funding for ACA implementation, and the CR didn’t get it, of course. Are you concerned that the program is underfunded and it’s going to make it difficult to roll out in full form in about seven months?
MR. EARNEST: Well, in terms of the impact that the Affordable Care Act has had on health care costs, I think I’d actually refer you to the Congressional Budget Office, that they’ve actually noted that based on their nonpartisan independent analysis, that once the Affordable Care Act takes effect it will increase competition, drive down costs, and result in average premiums being lower than they are today for the exact same benefits. So I think that is a pretty clear assessment from a nonpartisan group as opposed to a study that was funded by the health insurance industry -- but a pretty clear assessment from a nonpartisan group about what impact the Affordable Care Act is going to have on the budgets of families all across the country.
Q Just to clarify -- the slowdown you said earlier from the White House post, that’s not -- is that the result of the Affordable Care Act?
MR. EARNEST: I guess I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to.
Q I think earlier you said there had been a slowdown in health spending since 2009-2011, in response to Brianna’s question.
MR. EARNEST: Oh, yes.
Q And I was wondering, are you saying that’s the result of the administration’s policies? Or is that a separate issue?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this was an analysis that was conducted by the CEA, so we can maybe get you some more details on that analysis if you’d like. But I do think that it is probably not a coincidence that after the Affordable Care Act was passed, that we have seen growth rates slow to the lowest levels on record.
Q And then the second question was, is the ACA underfunded, and is that going to make more difficult the implementation of the program?
MR. EARNEST: I do not -- I have not been told. I do not anticipate at all any delay in the successful implementation of the Affordable Care Act. There are some deadlines coming up later this year, and the expectation is that we’ll have these marketplaces set up and ready to roll and begin covering people by January 1st. So there are some important deadlines to be met, and I have no reason to believe that those deadlines won’t be met.
Q Do you have anything on the TennCare decision? The Governor in Tennessee has decided that rather than actually expanding Medicare, as is allowed under the Affordable Care Act, he’s going to take the money and use it to help people purchase insurance on their own. However, in order to do that, he obviously needs permission from the administration, which he doesn't have yet. Have you folks taken a look at that? Are you leaning towards that or against? Or anything you can --
MR. EARNEST: I saw that news right before I came out here. The Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for working with states as they implement the Affordable Care Act, so I’d direct your question to Health and Human Services and they may be able to give you a clearer sense of whether or not they’ll be able to find a workable solution with the state of Tennessee.
Q And just very quickly on the budget -- I just got an email here from the Speaker’s office. It says it’s 12 days until you release your budget. Did you tell them when you’re releasing the budget? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Maybe we have a mole. No, we have not told them when we’re going to release the budget. But they’ve been paying attention to the briefings and know that it’s the week of April 8th.
Q Back to immigration for a second. You brought up Senator McCain and Senator Flake’s and Bennet’s and Schumer’s visit to the border. I just want to clarify -- your impression is that what they're trying to do there is to showcase the achievements of the Obama administration on border security?
MR. EARNEST: I don't want to speak for them. I’m not sure what they're planning to showcase. What I was actually observing is what I think they’ll see when they get to the border. What they’ll see is the results of the significant investment and commitment that this administration has made to securing the border. So we’ve -- there are 22,000 personnel on the border. There are -- I’m just going to look for -- these are some good statistics about what they might see while they're there.
There are some unprecedented investments in technology and infrastructure that have resulted in the construction of 651 miles of fencing; the deployment of mobile surveillance units, of thermal imaging systems; and more than 125 aircraft, including six unmanned aircraft systems, patrolling the Southwest border. And this is all part of why the border is now more secure than it ever has been.
Q Can you give us any information about who from the administration is helping guide them through the Arizona border to give them the field trip?
MR. EARNEST: That's a good question. I assume that it’s Border Patrol personnel who will be helping to guide the tour. But in terms of who exactly it is --
Q And then also, to follow up -- because Senator McCain has indicated to the media “how challenging the border is” in interviews, and because also Senator Leahy has also described his concern about the time, the calendar as it’s going along with his committee, I want to get back to the question: Is there a time period in which the President will say, I want to jettison -- I want to add some momentum to this, and I have a bill in my pocket and I’m ready to put it out there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would point out that Senator McCain has many times expressed his view of the difficulty of trying to secure the border. At the same time, I think that even he has acknowledged in recent months the progress that's been made there in terms of the commitment of resources and the impact that's had on the border. I know that because of our efforts, that apprehensions continue to decrease and seizures actually are increasing. So that’s a pretty good indication that the measures that we’re taking along the border to secure it are having a tangible impact on the law enforcement efforts that are underway there right now. So that part of it is clear.
In terms of what impact this has on the legislative process, it’s our view that they’re making progress, and we’re pleased that they’re making progress. The President has also been clear that if that progress stalls, we’ll be prepared to act, and we’ll be prepared to act in a way that will move the process along. But right now there’s not a need for that.
Right now we’re in a place where members of the Senate on both sides -- Democrats and Republicans -- are working constructively to try to find some common ground to put in place a policy that will finally fix our broken immigration system, and we’re encouraged by that progress.
So, Amy, I’m going to give you the last one.
MR. EARNEST: Amy, go ahead.
Q There have been a string of senators who have come out and supported gay marriage this week, and I wonder if the President has sort of weighed in on that, and if he feels somewhat responsible for kind of clearing the way for these people to come out.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I -- so to speak, I guess. I got asked this question a couple of weeks ago, after Senator Portman made his announcement about his changing view on this issue. I haven’t talked to the President about any of the specific announcements that have been made by other senators in recent days on this issue, but I do think it’s a testament to something I referred to a couple of weeks ago when asked about this.
We’re seeing a pretty significant change in this country, where an issue related to equality and fairness is getting more prominence. And I think it is a testament to the character of this country that we are moving in a direction where we will better fulfill some of the founding principles of the country -- in terms of treating everybody fairly and equally.
And what’s notable, I think, about this circumstance is it’s happening really fast. We’re seeing history change right before our eyes. That’s a notable event. And I think the President himself, when he talked about his own changing perspective on this issue, acknowledged the rapid nature of that change and how significant it was for the country. But in terms of response to specific changes, I haven’t talked to him about that.
So, thanks, everybody.
1:25 P.M. EDT
November 21, 2014
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The President Awards the National Medals of Science and National Medals of Technology and Innovation
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