Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 3/12/10
2:10 P.M. EST
PRESS CORPS: Yay!
PRESS CORPS: Ohhhh!
MR. GIBBS: Nice to see you. Let me get a few pictures over here. What was that groan for? Come on.
Q Show us again, come one.
Q You can’t go yet, I’m not ready.
MR. GIBBS: Don’t worry, we’ll do a couple of non-serious announcements in my --
Q What position did Gibbs play, anyway?
MR. GIBBS: This is -- I am, first of all, as you can tell, not in my normal attire -- though it does signify Friday here at the White House, casual Friday as we newly instituted. (Laughter.) I am making good on my aspect of my wager with Dimitri, my Canadian counterpart, who is somewhere several hundred miles north laughing.
Q Are you itching yet?
MR. GIBBS: I am not. No, I’m a little warm. The number 39 is for Ryan Miller, who of course was the United States goalie and the tournament MVP. I have one official government announcement: We’ve instructed the embassy, our embassy and our ambassador to make arrangements to deliver one case of Molson Canadian and one case of Yuengling lager from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, America’s oldest brewery, to the Prime Minister’s office today. I’m sure Dimitri will take most of that home and consume it.
Let me do the week ahead and then we’ll get back into more semi-serious attire for the rest of your hockey questions.
PRESS CORPS: No!
Q Fifteen minutes!
MR. GIBBS: Fifteen minutes -- I thought we were doing this on the metric scale. (Laughter.)
Q That’s 30 minutes. (Laughter.)
Q Fifteen Canadian. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Exactly, right. (Laughter.) What’s the exchange rate?
The President has no scheduled public events this weekend. On Monday, as you know, the President will travel to Strongsville, Ohio, where he will deliver remarks on health insurance reform. On Tuesday the President will attend meetings here at the White House.
On Wednesday the President will meet with the Taoiseach of Ireland, Brian Cowen, at the White House. In the evening the President and First Lady will host the Taoiseach and Mrs. Cowen at the annual St. Patrick’s Day reception held in the East Room, and the event will be pooled press.
On Thursday and Friday the President will be here in Washington, D.C. and we’ll have a chance to talk, I’m sure, about the trip here in a few moments. Let me get a little bit semi-organized.
I will say -- no offense to my Canadian friends here -- but we couldn’t have done this fully without -- (applause) -- also -- let me put my specs back on -- of course this just has 10 for 2010 on it. Nick and U.S.A. Hockey -- the happy providers of this jersey -- it’s a little smaller in size, which I think Nick did on purpose so that at the conclusion of this I would give the jersey to him. (Laughter.)
Q What else are you taking off? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: No, that’s Rahm, ma’am. That’s the Chief of Staff. (Laughter.)
Q It’s lucky you didn’t make a bet about wrestling. (Laughter.)
Q One more fashion spin, please.
MR. GIBBS: You like the USA, 2010 USA. (Applause.)
So I don’t think I should take any questions wearing this, but -- you know what, we’ll take a couple.
Go ahead, sir.
Q Okay. Now that the trip has been delayed, how is the President going to use those extra two days?
MR. GIBBS: Phil, the President has met with and talked with, as you know, many members of Congress over the past several days. I anticipate that he will talk with the leaders and members of Congress in -- talking to them about the benefits of passing health care reform. So I anticipate that that kind of -- that kind of thing will happen.
This came about as a result of a conversation that the President had with Speaker Pelosi, Majority Leader Reid, who --all three agreed that it would be helpful to have a few extra days here, talking to members. But they also agreed that this was an extremely important trip for the United States of America for the President to go to Indonesia and to Australia.
Q But Congress is going to be around for a week after the President leaves. So is the 20th now the new 18th? (Laughter.) I mean --
MR. GIBBS: I don’t --
Q In terms of deadlines. Is now the 20th now the --
MR. GIBBS: Look, I’m simply going to say the President, as we announced today, will leave for the trip at 10:00 a.m. on the 21st.
Q So the President is okay with Congress continuing discussions of health care, even while he’s traveling, or does he want this all wrapped up with a bow by the 20th?
MR. GIBBS: I think -- we’ve been talking about this for more than a year. I think the President wants, members of Congress want a vote as soon as possible that will lead to improved health care for millions of Americans.
Q But does the President expect to leave having the House pass --
MR. GIBBS: Look, I will leave deadlines up to the Speaker.
Q If the President fails -- if Congress fails to get this across the finish line or very close to it before next Sunday’s scheduled -- rescheduled departure date for Asia, is there a chance that this trip could be delayed again or even canceled altogether?
MR. GIBBS: In speaking with Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid, all three agreed this was an important trip for the President to make.
The Asia-Pacific region of the world is tremendously important to the United States for a number of reasons. We will -- we’re going to visit, obviously, Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population, an emerging democracy. The President will follow up on his speech from Cairo in a speech in Indonesia -- a key partner, obviously in our counterterrorism efforts -- before traveling to Australia, obviously a very important trading partner and an important ally in our efforts in Afghanistan.
I will say that if you -- as the President said in Tokyo, that for years the United States has been absent from the Asia-Pacific region. We are -- we can’t lead in this region of the world without strong bilateral relationships with Indonesia and Australia. They’re key in our ability to keep our country safe. They’re key in our ability to grow our economy through increased exports. And they’re key to tackling big challenges. Indonesia is the fourth-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. Obviously they’ll be incredibly important to international agreements on climate change.
So the President believed it was important to give the issue of health care and the effort to get votes on health care a few more days, but also believes, as do those leaders in Congress, that it’s important to keep this trip on our schedule with two important partners.
Q One other issue. The President looks to be homing in on his Fed nominees. Can you confirm that Janet Yellen is the leading candidate for nominee as vice chairman, and that Sarah Raskin and Peter Diamond are under consideration for other vacancies? Can you give us any kind of sense of the timing, whether he’s going to make an announcement before the trip, after the trip?
MR. GIBBS: Look, we -- she is obviously somebody who -- a former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers; somebody with great expertise in macroeconomic issues; the current president of the Fed in San Francisco. And she is a leading contender for the vice chair nomination.
As you know, we are hoping to fill the vacancy of the vice chair in time for the end of the current term, which is June. And I would say Sarah Raskin and Peter Diamond are also under strong consideration for additional vacancies. I don’t have a timing announcement, though, on any of those.
Q Are we speaking a matter of weeks?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I don’t want to speculate on when the timing would be, except obviously for Janet Yellen, who’s under strong consideration, I would say anybody that is appointed to the vice chair would need to be done -- our hope obviously, as I said, is to get it done before the current term expires.
Q And she is the leading candidate?
MR. GIBBS: I would say she is a leading contender, yes.
Q A leading contender?
Q Has it been 15 minutes yet? Do you want to put your jacket on?
MR. GIBBS: Do you feel uncomfortable, Jake?
Q I feel like if I show this to the viewers of ABC News, World News --
Q Then we have to explain the whole thing. (Laughter.)
Q -- they’re going to be a little confused why on a story about health care you’re wearing a hockey jersey. I’m saying --
MR. GIBBS: It can’t be any stranger than some of the other stuff I see on the news, so I don’t -- (laughter) -- I’m not entirely sure what -- somebody give Jake the Canadian one and we’ll just do a quick two-shot and we’ll --
Q Faceoff. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Yes. Would you feel more comfortable if I switched?
Q I’m just glad it was a hockey, not a wrestling, bet. (Laughter.)
Q Or sumo wrestling. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I was going to say something, but I --
Q Say happy birthday.
MR. GIBBS: True.
Q Other than talking to members of Congress, what is so important that the President needs to be here for those extra two days? I understand that the members of Congress were asking President Obama to do this, that you’re not imposing his presence, but what can he -- what difference will it make?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, Jake, I think the President will use the time, as I said earlier, to speak either individually with or in small groups with members that may be at this point undecided on how they’ll vote. The President I think will take the opportunity to once again reiterate his case for why this reform is so important, why it’s important to do this now, why it’s important not to stop or to start over, why we’re dealing with dramatic spikes in health insurance right now, and why we have to deal with this problem.
Q Why do you think so many members -- I mean, 216 members of the House who voted for it in November, voted for the House bill, are still there -- and that’s a majority. Why do you think so many of them are having second thoughts?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Jake, I think some of them are likely waiting for finished CBO scoring. I think that’s a natural thing to wait for and I think they’ll have time to evaluate that scoring and to evaluate the legislation in full.
But, again, I think the President believes that he can make a very strong case for why this is important to do right now.
Q And, lastly, as you know, a lot of House Democrats are distrustful of the Senate -- of Senate Democrats, and they’re worried that with the way the parliamentarian has ruled they’re going to be tricked somehow into passing the Senate bill and then the fixes to the Senate bill, and the Senate won’t pass the fixes and they will have been tricked into passing the Senate bill that a lot of them don’t like without those fixes.
Is President Obama reassuring them, telling these House Democrats that if the reconciliation, if the fix doesn’t pass the Senate bill in itself, he won’t sign that bill? Or --
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again -- and I mentioned some of this yesterday -- I think some of this -- I don’t want to wade into the parliamentary politics on Capitol Hill, except to say this, the President is talking with -- not just with members of the House on the vote that they’re going to have to make, but also with members of the Senate to ensure that the corrections that the President sees as so important -- not just the House, but the President sees as so important -- are also acted on. And so I don’t -- this is -- it’s a dual track. It works together, but the President is working on both of those issues.
Q You think -- will -- is it possible, in any way you look at it, that one would happen -- that the Senate bill would pass but the fixes would not, and the Senate bill would become law? Because that’s what House members are worried about.
MR. GIBBS: They’re concerned. I think that’s why the President is spending time also dealing with senators to ensure that they are supportive of those legislative fixes on their side of it, too.
Q Thanks, Robert. Representative Dreier, in referring to the President’s delay, said today, “We know that they are doing everything within their power to try and twist arms and encourage people to vote for something that is extraordinarily unpopular and I believe would be devastating for our nation’s economy.” What do you say to Americans who are still having a difficult time buying the President’s plan?
MR. GIBBS: Like Mr. Dreier? (Laughter.)
Q Well, Dreier and others. He’s not the only one.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I would probably tell Mr. Dreier the same thing Mr. Dreier from California. People in his state are getting the letters that we’ve talked about here for the past several weeks; the letters that say, “I know you’ve paid your premiums, I know you haven’t gotten sick, but you’re in the individual health insurance market, and your health insurance rates are going up 39 percent next year.” That’s what we’re dealing with. That’s what we have to take on.
We have to provide the ability for a small business in the state of California and throughout this country, or in Mr. Dreier’s district, or a family that’s struggling with the high cost of health care, to get them some help.
The President is doing this because he believes that this is the right thing to do for our country -- to have a health care and health insurance network that works not just for health insurance companies but works for average, everyday working Americans. That’s why he continues to pursue this, and that’s why he’ll see it to passage soon.
Q Does it frustrate the President at all that he’s been making this big push, pointing out what the insurance industry has been doing with the premium hikes -- does it frustrate him that the message still isn’t getting through to some?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t think the message -- I think the President is -- I think the President feels some momentum on this issue. I think the President believes that while many thought this issue was going to go away or was dead a few weeks ago has gotten new life, I think largely because we’ve seen insurers send out the letters that I’m talking about.
Q On the AfPak meeting, can you tell us more about that?
MR. GIBBS: Let me give you a quick readout, and then we can go through a couple of questions. The President met with his national security team as part of the regular updates that he receives on Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was part of the monthly video teleconferencing. The next one I believe is scheduled for April 16th. The meeting began with a briefing from General McChrystal, who noted a continued progress in the Marja offensive and the strengthening partnership with Afghan national security forces.
The President and his team discussed a range of issues related to security and governance. The President also received a briefing from Ambassador Patterson, our ambassador in Islamabad, on our security cooperation with Pakistan and support for the Pakistani people.
Of note that General McChrystal told the group, including obviously the President, that we were on schedule on our force flow in getting additional forces approved by the President into Afghanistan by the end of the summer. They discussed in surrounding Marja that we were largely through the clearing phase and more rapidly moving to a phase of hold, which puts a premium obviously on good governance. And we spent quite a bit of time discussing the Afghan national security forces, the army and the police forces, the training and some adjustments that the President and the team have been working on around recruitment and retention of police and army forces dating back to the President’s original meetings in the Situation Room prior to his decision in December.
Q And one quick thing. Is the administration pleased with the Pakistani government in the effort fighting terrorism, or does Pakistan need to do more?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, we have had -- we’ve enjoyed I think a almost unprecedented level of cooperation with them, dating back probably almost a year now, to extremist movements that threatened the Pakistanis and I think in many ways alerted them to many of the concerns that we had long had. We feel like we’re making progress each and every day, and I think in the update that he got from Ambassador Patterson that was conveyed.
Q I’m sure the President is aware that it’s against international law to annex occupied land. Why do we keep giving, as Vice President Biden did, iron-clad commitments to Israel when it violates international law? And the President says that our relationship is unshakeable. How can that be?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we enjoy a strong and important relationship with the country and the people of Israel. And we are --
Q Even when it violates the law? I mean, you go into this whole thing -- why should they be -- get this reprieve?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, we enjoy a strong relationship with the country and the people. We are committed to their security in a very important and dangerous --
Q How about the Palestinian security?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me finish my answer, Helen -- in a very important region of the world. I think the Vice President, though, could not have been clearer on, as I said and as the Vice President said, on both the timing and the substance of the announcement that was made during his trip, that we have asked each side to refrain from the type of announcements that would shake the trust needed to sit down together and make some decisions on moving forward on a peace process.
So I think the Vice President was extremely clear on his trip there. I know the President looks forward to speaking with the Vice President. He’s -- he’ll get back very, very early tomorrow morning, and I anticipate that they’ll either -- they’ll likely talk either later in the weekend or first thing on Monday about what the Vice President saw, not just in Israel but in the region, as we try to move things forward.
Q We’ve already seen the violation on the part of one party. What is the U.S. going to do about it?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think that the Vice President was extremely strong in condemning what the Israeli government announced during his trip.
Q You said that the President is feeling some momentum on health care. Congressman Weiner, who has long been urging the President to be more involved, said that as a result of the President’s recent increased involvement, there is now a tidal change in the last 72 hours up there. Do you agree that the change has been that great in degree? And if so, was it because of the President’s uptick in involvement? And if so, why didn’t he do it sooner?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I don’t -- I probably said this a thousand times, but I’ll add another one to it. I doubt the President -- I doubt we’d be where we are on health care, after this long, if the President wasn’t personally invested in, from the very beginning, on getting this done.
I think, Chip, as the President said at the State of the Union, it’s pretty clear, by some of the polling numbers, we’re not doing this out of -- for sheer political benefit. I think there are -- you don’t have to -- you can swing a cat in this town and hit somebody that believes that the President should just give this up for political considerations.
The President, I think, has been pretty clear about why he’s made decisions during his time as President -- not because they’re easy, not because they’re in the next day’s political interests, but because they’re the right thing for the country.
So I think what has provided health care with the most momentum, quite honestly, in the past several weeks, are the insurance company rate increases. I think they have crystallized for many across the country what happens. We’ve seen report after report from Wall Street about what happens if reform fails. They all agree that insurance companies, like the ones that raise rates, are likely to be the big winners out of this.
Q And in delaying the trip, to what degree was that because of pressure from Democrats in Congress? And did he -- did Nancy Pelosi specifically ask him to do this?
MR. GIBBS: No, the President talked to the Speaker and the Majority Leader. They discussed what would be most beneficial for this process, and agreed together to move the trip back a few days. But the President and, as I said earlier, the Majority Leader and the Speaker believe it’s important that the President go on this trip. Again, this is a very important region of the world. If we don’t help lead in this region of the world, other people will. It is in our national interest to have strong bilateral relationships with emerging democracies like Indonesia and important partners like Australia.
I’ve seen some people say, you know, well, why does the President have to do this, because there’s not some big multilateral conference that he’s attending, or this -- as I said, we’re at -- we have long -- long ago have been -- for quite some time we’ve been absent from, again, this important region of the world. We have important partnerships that lead to increasing our security, increasing our economic growth, and increasing the likelihood that we deal with important problems in having strong bilateral relationships with places like Indonesia and Australia.
Q And the central reason that the three of them decided that delaying the trip was the thing to do?
MR. GIBBS: To give a little bit more time to get health care done.
Q One other question. You had said earlier in the week that the President was not calling individual members yet but --
MR. GIBBS: He had not at that point.
Q Okay, he has now.
MR. GIBBS: He has -- I mean, obviously he’s talked to -- he’s had meetings with. There have been other events that individuals have been here for. I know obviously on Monday he had talked to members who had visited for, like, a PAYGO reception or things like that. He has made individual calls now and I anticipate he’ll continue to do that.
Q Is he spending most of his day or a good portion of his day doing that?
MR. GIBBS: He’s spending part of his day. I mean, again, he spent -- the Afghanistan meeting, Afghanistan/Pakistan update was scheduled for 60 minutes and the meeting went 90 today.
Q Any chance we could get a call list of who he’s called?
MR. GIBBS: Not likely. (Laughter.)
Q You said the President is leaving at 10:00 a.m. Sunday --
MR. GIBBS: I think it’s 10:00 a.m., yes.
Q -- the 21st, regardless of whether the House has voted or not?
MR. GIBBS: The President is going on a trip on the 21st.
Q Regardless of whether the House has voted or not?
MR. GIBBS: The President is going on the 21st.
Q You announced on Twitter this morning that -- this development and that the First Family would not be joining him.
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Can you shed any light on why that particular decision was made?
MR. GIBBS: Scheduling-wise, the way now the trip sits in the week is not as good for two young girls who have to go back to school at the conclusion of that trip. I will say this: This was -- and I should have said this yesterday, Chip, to your question -- even under the old itinerary, the President was not scheduled to stop at the house that he spent time in when he lived in Indonesia, nor was he scheduled to go to the school that he attended. So I should have said that yesterday in answer to your question. But the way now the trip sits in the week, it’s not as conducive for them to go. And I will say when you get your renewed itinerary, you’ll see it’s a brisk trip.
Q Members of the House who met with the President last week said that he told them that success on other high-priority pieces of legislation is predicated on success on health care -- energy, immigration. Does the President believe that he will have a diminished chance of passing other items this year if health care is not passed in Congress?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I’ve not spoken directly with the President about what you’ve heard members say. I think the President -- leaving aside what it does for any other issue, as I said earlier I think the President believes strongly in the desire to see progress on an issue that we’ve talked about for decades, to do something positive on behalf of those that are struggling with high costs, and dealing with insurance companies on preexisting conditions, and it’s important to get something done.
Q Finally, the immigration groups, the leaders that were out in the driveway yesterday, said that they pressed the President for a bill in the Senate by the end of April. Does the President want a bill in the Senate by the end of April? Does he buy into that deadline?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I will say that in addition to meeting with activists, in addition to meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, as you know, the President met yesterday with Senators Schumer and Graham, pleased to get an update on their progress in forging a proposal to fix our immigration system.
The President -- they asked the President and he agreed to review their framework, and we’re in the process of doing that now.
Q Can I follow on Mike?
MR. GIBBS: Sure.
Q Isn’t it more important for the girls to go to this trip and miss a few days of school, despite how brisk the trip is?
MR. GIBBS: Well, it’s a decision I would leave to the parents, and I think it’s -- having a six-year-old, I think it’s important that they also spend some time -- Lord knows we’ve had enough snow days -- they spend some time in school.
But again, that’s way above -- that is above my pay grade by many, many rungs on the ladder.
Q And by the way, that phrase “swing a cat,” if you swing most cats, you get scratched, you know.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I may do that right up here with the front row. (Laughter.)
Q Robert --
MR. GIBBS: I’m getting a little warm so I may change here in a second. Go ahead.
Q Looking ahead to this Ohio stuff on Monday, is there going to be a retooled message? Will there be a -- like, more of a sense of urgency in the closing days? What can we look for there?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think you’ll hear the President -- I think the President will spend time hitting a lot of the themes that he hit on Wednesday and on last Monday: going through why reform is important; going through what it will do the minute he signs the legislation on behalf of millions of Americans; discussing what happens, again, if we decide now is not the time. And I think he’ll reiterate again what I said earlier, in the fact that we’re doing this not because it’s easy; we’re doing this not because the President is concerned about or looking to the next election, but looking to the next generation. And I think he’ll reiterate that it’s the important thing to do.
Q One housekeeping question. As Mike mentioned, you made this trip announcement on Twitter this morning. It still hasn’t shown up on any of our usual vehicles through your office officially. Is Twitter now going to become your vehicle of choice to tell us major things --
MR. GIBBS: Part of the reason -- part of the reason I did that, I bet some of you got emails that I sent you several hours after I actually sent them to you because there were some email issues here at the White House and we felt like it was important to get a confirmation of that out.
I would say Twitter is a quick medium to get information out, and we’ll probably use it more often.
Q You know, there are about 20 or 25 other Robert Gibbses on Twitter -- (laughter) -- some of them who deign to use your picture -- I don’t know why -- (laughter) -- or the presidential seal or the podium. Are you concerned that one of these guys is going to hijack your message and, you know, maybe burn you at some point?
MR. GIBBS: No. I will say this, I mean, again, I think if you go to -- I don’t know how many Robert Gibbs there are, but if you go to @presssec, you’ll see that there is a verification for --
Q There is, indeed.
MR. GIBBS: So obviously --
Q Several of them use that -- use a formulation with “presssec” in it, too.
Q They’re very funny.
MR. GIBBS: I think some of them are quite humorous. I would, again, look for the verification, and of course we only make big announcements in hockey jerseys. So I’d say look for that.
Q On the Fed announcements, you mentioned there are three that are leading contenders. Does that mean there are lagging contenders? How big is the pool?
MR. GIBBS: I wouldn’t get into characterizing. I would just -- I put a few monikers on those names to describe where they are in the process.
Q But there are other names in the process?
MR. GIBBS: There are other names, sure.
Q And what does it mean to be a leading indicator? Does that mean they --
MR. GIBBS: A leading contender.
Q A leading contender.
MR. GIBBS: It means you’ve done well in your weight class, you’ve done -- no. I would say -- I would put those at the top of the President’s list.
Q Have they spoken to the President? Has the President offered them the job?
MR. GIBBS: When we have official announcements, we’ll put them on Twitter. (Laughter.) I’m joking. I’m joking. I’m joking. I’m joking. Come on, I’m wearing a hockey jersey, for God’s sake. (Laughter.)
Q Well, it makes it funnier, I guess.
MR. GIBBS: It does.
Q Is it fair to say, Robert, that next Thursday and Friday the President will devote almost all of his attention to dealing with health care -- the votes and the pending conversations he may be needing to have with House Democrats?
MR. GIBBS: Major, I’m sure he’ll dedicate a good -- a portion of his day -- look, understanding that the -- there’s not a shortage of things that we could spend time with the President on that are very pressing. The President starts -- generally starts each day with a daily intelligence briefing; almost always has an economic daily briefing; a series of meetings with senior advisors.
Again, I assume he’ll spend certainly a portion of his day dealing with the issues of health care, but I have no doubt that we’ll -- we’ll put on additional meetings on other topics that are of importance, whether they’re the economy or whether they’re national security.
Q And the meeting yesterday, Senator Graham represented afterwards that he told the President face to face that if reconciliation is used for health care in the Senate, that will kill any hope of putting immigration on the agenda as a doable item for the remainder of this legislative session. Does the President have any reaction to that?
MR. GIBBS: I have not talked to him directly about that statement. I doubt the President would have agreed with that.
MR. GIBBS: As we’ve talked about in this instance and about this issue before, reconciliation is something that has -- is a legislative tool that’s been used on many, many occasions, particularly as it relates to things like health care. And we talked about the fact that the Children’s Health Insurance Program was done through reconciliation; the COBRA program was done through reconciliation. I don’t know that Senator Graham believed that --
Q So would it be the President’s perspective that that would be an alarmist --
MR. GIBBS: Well, hold on, let me -- I don’t believe that -- I don’t believe that Senator Graham thought that it would do damage to the legislative priorities of a President when in 2001 and in 2003 tax cuts went through reconciliation. So I wouldn’t characterize it except to say I doubt the President agrees with it.
Q Okay. One issue that’s come up for Luis Gutierrez, who I believe attended the meeting with the President yesterday with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus --
MR. GIBBS: I don’t have a list of the -- we had a list of -- I think we put out a list of invitees. I do not know who was there. I can certainly check and see if Representative Gutierrez was there.
Q Okay. One issue he raised today -- he still remains concerned, and he was when he voted for the House bill, about restrictions in the Senate bill, which of course is the underlying legislation, and there are no known fixes being proposed on immigration that I’m aware of -- please tell me if I’m wrong -- that the Senate language is simply too restrictive and it doesn’t allow undocumented workers, even with their own money, to purchase in the health exchange system, and would keep them -- prevent them from doing that for five years. He now says publicly he will vote no. Is that a concern to the White House? Is there something that the White House is open to in dealing with that issue in fixing the legislation? Or is that something that needs to --
MR. GIBBS: Let me check with Legislative Affairs. I know that -- I don’t know the degree to which -- I was not in yesterday’s meeting so I can certainly try to check on that.
Q Robert, yesterday you said some of the President’s big priorities after health care are financial regulatory reform and the Citizens United case. What did you mean by that? In other words, what can you do specifically about that ruling?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the legislation right now with Senator Schumer and Congressman Van Hollen that would address some of the things that were opened up as a result of that Supreme Court ruling.
We’ve certainly looked at that legislation, and I think counsel and others are evaluating that and other vehicles in order to address -- to address what the Supreme Court opened up in their ruling.
Q One more question while you have the USA sweater on there. I draw your attention to a Web site that’s posted a letter to “Barack the Red” -- not what you think it means.
MR. GIBBS: Do I need to get my Canadian jersey back?
Q No. (Laughter.) They write, “These are trying times. Unemployment is in double digits … Audacity? Check out number eight, Alexander Ovechkin. Hope? This season has found the Capitals with better postseason prospects than any other year.” They plaintively write at the end here, “The Capitals bandwagon is filling up quickly, but we need a leader.” (Laughter.) Will the President commit to going to a Washington Capitals game this season?
MR. GIBBS: I can’t say --
Q It would be his first hockey game ever, right?
MR. GIBBS: I can’t say -- no, I think he’s been to -- I’ll check and see if he’s been to a game in Chicago or not -- less so in Hawaii. I will check on whether he’s been to a game before. I don’t know whether he’ll do that before March 18th, but --
Q He’s got a couple extra days now. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Come on, guys. It’s Friday, for God’s sakes. (Laughter.)
Look, I think he would very much enjoy going. Obviously the last time he ventured out to a sporting event, Georgetown looked like they did yesterday, not like they did in the previous several weeks. So, look, I know he enjoys going out there. I know that -- I think we’ve gotten invitations from the owner to go. And I know he’d be -- he can borrow my jersey.
Q Robert, I wanted to ask you about the Afghanistan meeting today. Did the issue of reconciliation -- not health care -- (laughter) -- but the reconciliation with the Taliban come up? Officials have said in the past that they think that the U.S. should only do that from a position of strength.
MR. GIBBS: I will say, Helene, I left with about two or three minutes to go in the meeting. They were just getting to -- or I should I say I left when I thought two or three minutes were left in the meeting. I will find out if there were additional conversations. This was something the President was bringing up as I left the meeting after about an hour and a half. So let me see if there’s any additional information on that.
Q Thank you, Robert. Two questions on Pennsylvania. First, last week both major parties chose candidates for the western Pennsylvania seat of the late John Murtha. The President campaigned for Bill Owens in New York last year and for Ms. Coakley in Massachusetts. Does he plan to campaign for Mr. Critz?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t have any scheduling information on that, and I can certainly check with Political Affairs.
Q And the other thing: Do you have an answer yet on Mr. Sestak’s charge?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t have any more information on that.
Peter. Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry -- go ahead.
Q Robert -- thank you, Robert. When all is said and done, isn’t it really more for image that the President -- are you going to take off your --
MR. GIBBS: Yes, it’s getting a little warm in here, and it’s not just me.
Q Looks pretty good.
MR. GIBBS: Go ahead, I’m listening. I can do two things at once, guys.
Q Absolutely. When all is said and done, isn’t it really a good argument that the President is going to go to -- going to postpone his trip really for image and not really for substance? You said before that he does have a telephone -- a cell phone on the plane; he’s in touch with everybody; he could do it here. But, frankly, there’s a lot of heat I think being generated that he’s away from maybe some people think he should be here. So how do you respond to those kinds of concerns?
MR. GIBBS: Look, the President shouldn’t go at all?
Q No, not that -- yes, you’ve made the point it’s a good trip. But --
MR. GIBBS: Well, no, it’s an important trip; right.
Q An important trip.
MR. GIBBS: Maybe I don’t -- I’m failing to understand -- give me the first part of your question.
Q The President is now not going -- now postponing his trip. Couldn’t the argument be made that it’s more for image, that he really can do everything, as you’ve said before, on the trip that he can do here, and now he’s reversing course?
MR. GIBBS: No, I -- look, I -- as I said, certainly the plane comes, in many ways regrettably, with all that equipment that would allow him to be in touch. I think everybody believed that him being here was more important.
The trip -- we didn’t postpone the trip for any image sake. I think the -- in the discussion that the President had with the Speaker and the Majority Leader in the Senate, it was agreed upon that, quite frankly, we could do -- we could give a few extra days here to what they needed as well as keep -- and I will say our scheduling guys have done a heroic job of keeping the trip intact in an important region of the world.
So this is not done for anything other than a few extra days to work on getting health care reform through the process, as well as keeping that important trip.
Q Has he got a few people that he’s specifically earmarking to talk to that he thinks might be able to change their minds, those who voted for and now might vote against, or people he thinks he might be able to --
MR. GIBBS: Look, without getting into a lot of names, I think we’ve all seen folks that have said they want to take a look at what the new legislation is. Again, I think people are rightly waiting for an evaluation from CBO as a way of answering some of the questions that they have. I think the President certainly will talk to people about, again, why he thinks the bill is important and why he thinks it does so many good things on cost and things like that.
Q Thanks, Robert. On immigration reform, will the President work to round up more Republican co-sponsors for the bill that Schumer and Graham are working on?
MR. GIBBS: Let me not get ahead of the President’s evaluation process of the framework that they walked him through some yesterday.
Q And also, do you expect that the President may give a public statement or a speech of any kind on immigration, maybe before the rally in Washington on the 21st?
MR. GIBBS: Let me check with scheduling. I know the -- look, I will say this, I know the President committed to Senators Schumer and Graham, to the Hispanic Caucus, and to activists, as I think you read in his statement yesterday, the importance of and his strong belief in getting comprehensive reform done. He’s a supporter of that, and obviously it is our strong hope that we can make progress on this.
Q Robert, there’s talk on the Hill about putting the President’s student loan proposal into the health care bill. What does that have to do with health care, and why would that go in there?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t think any final decisions have been made. Obviously one way of getting important reforms through the legislative process would be in this vehicle. I think this is -- these are reforms that are good for students; they’re really good for taxpayers; they’re bad for special interests.
I don’t think -- again, I don’t think any final decisions have been made on Capitol Hill. I would point you up there. I know the President is a strong believer in a reform system that would cut out the middleman on borrowing money for millions of kids to go to college.
Q Is it because -- I mean, but it also would save money. Is it because it would bring down the overall cost of the package, including the health care part?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t have anything on that. Again, I know this is an important reform for the President.
Q Thank you, Robert. On Afghanistan and the meeting this morning, as General McChrystal -- is he satisfied with the NATO involvement in the Marja offensive -- the British and the Canadians were involved. And knowing that NATO hasn’t been able yet to reach the goal of several thousand NATO soldiers on the ground, has the President or does the President intend to reach to NATO leaders, and the Canadian Prime Minister in particular, on this topic?
MR. GIBBS: NATO came up in the sense of discussing their contributions and in walking through the commitment that we need, quite honestly, from all of our partners, particularly in the realm of training. We did not discuss in the meeting any additional steps that the President might take.
Again, the President and many on the team understand the importance of what we have to do in -- not just in force contributions. As I mentioned, General McChrystal believed that the pace of force flow from what the President had asked for was on schedule. But we have critical improvements that have to be made as it relates to an Afghan national army and critical improvements that have to be made in an Afghan national police and the importance of getting additional trainers from NATO countries to Afghanistan as quickly as possible.
We are -- in these meetings, the President has gone through and looked at monthly recruitment and retention goals because at some point we’re going -- we’re not going to be there forever. And the Afghan national army -- and in many districts not only are we going to need improved governance but we’re going to need a police force that can keep the peace.
So that came up, but there were no -- there was no discussion of additional calls by the President.
Yes, sir. Oh, Stephen, you didn’t have -- I thought you had some.
Q Actually, just on that subject, will the President perhaps make a new request to Australia during his trip for more help in Afghanistan for perhaps trainers rather than combat troops?
MR. GIBBS: Let me check with NSC on that. That was not discussed.
Q Robert, back on the issue of the public option, now that it’s off of life support and it’s now one of the casualties of the fight for health care reform, is the President looking at passage and then possibly going back after the passage to tweak it? And the reason why I ask that -- some members of the Congressional Black Caucus who were for the public option and now are saying, okay, there have problems before when we passed something and we’ve come back to tweak it, like on Medicare, Social Security. Is that the President’s mindset as well, and did he talk to them about that? Did they have that kind of discussion yesterday?
MR. GIBBS: I will check with folks that -- I was not in that meeting because that was taking place during my briefing. I don’t know whether that was something that was discussed. I know that the -- again, the President is focused on the legislation that we have at hand and in trying to get that through and I think that’s what, again --
Q So he’s not looking down at the road at re-tweaks. He’s just looking --
MR. GIBBS: Right now we’re focused on -- we can’t re-tweak anything that we can’t get passed, and that’s what our focus is at the moment.
Q Robert, as you know, you had a little bit of a hiccup there at the end with the confirmation of Ben Bernanke at the Fed. Neither one of these three potential appointees seem to have a lot of small business experience; they’re fairly mainstream folks from the financial world. Five senators have just put out a letter to the President requesting that these three appointees have real-world experience, experience with the middle class and small business owners. Do these three folks have that kind of experience, and how do you respond to those concerns?
MR. GIBBS: I’m happy to look at the letter. I think that these are strong contenders. They have strong credentials. They have good experience. I’m happy to look at the letter and maybe have a better comment on it then.
Q Boehner and McConnell have put out their names for the deficit commission. Do you have any reaction to those names? And when do you hope that commission gets up and working?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think it’s a positive development for the commission that while there was some concern about whether Republicans would put forward names they now have, and I think that’s an important and a positive development, we think and hope that the rest of those names will be coming forward soon.
Look, I think the President believes that this is an important -- an important commission to look at all of the aspects of what this government spends money on and to evaluate its sustainability in the future.
Obviously you’ve got many -- many of those choices have put forward, in the case of Congressman Ryan or in others, their own plans in the past, and I’m sure that will -- that will govern many of the recommendations and advice that some of those members have. Again, our strong hope is that in the next few weeks, not only will the commission be filled out but we’ll have staff in place and that the commission can meet soon in order to generate recommendations, hopefully that Congress can act on quickly.
Q Robert, my understanding is that they’re going to start marking up the reconciliation bill at the same time that we’re going to be dealing with trying to get the Senate bill passed. What’s the White House role in that? And also, won’t that be a little bit confusing to be working on sort of two tracks of health care at once?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, look, I think the -- obviously the House will take up the measure. The Budget Committee has to take up in the House reconciliation, begin that process. I think the Speaker has said that that will be posted on the Internet for some period of time.
I don’t think it will be confusing because I do think that, at this point, people understand that this is a -- this is a two-step process that has to get done before we can wrap health care up altogether.
Thanks, guys. Have a good weekend.
3:03 P.M. EST
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