The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 3/14/2013

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:53 P.M. EDT

MR. CARNEY:  Sparse crowd.  Must be the weather.  How is everyone today?  Thanks for being here. 

Before I take your questions, I would just like to note that earlier today the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to send the full Senate an important piece of legislation to help keep weapons of war off America’s streets.  As you know, banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines is an important piece of the President’s plan to reduce gun violence. 

We urge Congress to swiftly vote on and pass this legislation and other common-sense measures like requiring a background check for all gun purchases and cracking down on gun trafficking and straw purchasing.  There’s been significant progress this week on these proposals, and the President welcomes that.  We urge Congress to keep it up. 

With that, Julie.

Q    Thank you.  On that topic, Senator Feinstein was asked whether she wanted to see more assistance from the President in trying to pass the assault weapons ban.  What is he going to be doing now to try to get that passed?  Is he going to be doing more, as Senator Feinstein asked for?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, the President, as you know, in the wake of Newtown, asked the Vice President to head up an effort to pull together a comprehensive plan for reducing gun violence in America, and that work was done very quickly and the result was the proposal that the President and the Vice President announced, which has many elements -- some of it legislative, some of it executive actions.  And we are moving forward on all of it.  And we are working with Congress on the legislative aspects of this  -- the President is directly -- and we are obviously moving forward on the executive actions.

I think the question is a great opportunity to remind everyone that in his conversations with lawmakers, including those with Republicans, the President has been raising a number of issues, not just the need to reduce our deficit in a balanced way and not just raising the question of whether or not we can find common ground in pursuit of that, but also whether we can continue to work on the bipartisan progress that we've seen on comprehensive immigration reform and on measures to reduce gun violence. 

So the engagement that we've all been talking about and you’ve been writing about encompasses not just budget issues but precisely these issues.  So that is some of the assistance the President is providing directly, and he will continue to do that.

Q    A lot of the concern among gun control advocates when it comes to the assault weapons ban is not just that Republicans are going to vote against it, but that Democrats who are in conservative-leaning districts or senators from more conservative states are going to vote against it.  So does the President want those Democrats to take a tough stand and vote for this assault weapons ban, or does he understand this political reality that they’re living in?

MR. CARNEY:  The President understands that these are tough issues.  If they weren't, they would have been done.  If this weren’t a tough issue, the assault weapons ban would not have expired and not been renewed.  The President, as senator and since he became President, has always supported restoration of the assault weapons ban and he strongly supports the legislation that Senator Feinstein is moving forward.  And he is having conversations with and has had conversations with lawmakers in both parties about all the aspects of his gun control -- or rather gun violence proposal, including his support for the assault weapons ban, and he has encouraged lawmakers to support it.

He understands that these are tough issues, but he makes the point in every conversation he has about this that nothing he has proposed in all the measures would take a single firearm away from a single law-abiding American citizen.  He is a supporter of the Second Amendment rights of American citizens, and he made clear that his proposals would reflect his support for the Second Amendment, would make sure that we honor Americans’ Second Amendment rights, but that as we did that we also did the things that we can do to reduce gun violence in America, to try to reduce the Newtowns and the Auroras that take place too often in our country, as well as the less notable or newsworthy shootings that happen all the time. 

And that's what he believes we can do together, Democrats and Republicans -- Americans coming together -- because the victims, they’re not identified by political affiliation.  Six-year-olds, 7-year-olds, they’re not Republicans or Democrats.

Q    On another topic -- I know that we're going to be having a briefing later today on the Mideast trip, but I'm wondering if the U.S. has any reaction or comment on the formation of the Israeli coalition that’s --

MR. CARNEY:  We don’t.  We obviously understand the process that’s underway.  We look forward to the trip -- the President looks forward to the trip very much so.  Those of us who will be fortunate enough to go along with the President are looking forward to it.  And we are outside observers to government formations and will remain so.

Steve. 

Q    After today’s talks, what happens then?  I ask about because in the ABC interview the President said at some point he would step back from the process and let the two sides talk to each other.  Are we at that point now?

MR. CARNEY:  No.  And the President will continue to engage. He will continue to have conversations one-on-one, in groups, and in different forms with lawmakers of both parties about his priorities and agenda.  And that includes not just budget issues but immigration reform, reducing gun violence, the need to invest in infrastructure and education, manufacturing -- the kinds of things that traditionally, as you and I know, Steve, from having covered it, have enjoyed bipartisan support.  Infrastructure investment, for example, is an area that has traditionally won the support of Republicans and Democrats, Chamber of Commerce and labor, and we hope that that can be the case going forward.  So he’ll continue those conversations.

What the President was referring to is that when it comes to the budget process, obviously when you get a budget measure, that is worked out first separately in the Senate and the House, and then there’s hopefully a conference that produces an ultimate resolution.  It’s not something the President signs.  It’s a product of the Congress.

But he is engaging in this process, making clear what his priorities are.  He’s put forward very specific proposals.  He will put forward a very specific budget.  But ultimately, obviously, the Congress has to come together after each House passes a budget resolution and work at a compromise.

For the President, that compromise has to include balance.  For the Senate, obviously, a compromise -- a budget has to include balance, when we talk about reducing our deficit moving forward.  Whether there is, beyond that, compromise, whether there is success in finding common ground will really depend on whether Republicans are willing to accept the basic premise that Americans across the country support, which is that we should reduce our deficit in a balanced way, and when it comes to the specifics, that we not only need to get more savings from spending cuts and entitlement reforms, but we have to ask the wealthiest and the well-connected to pay a little bit more through tax reform; to close those loopholes that both the President and the Speaker of the House said needed to be closed  -- caps and deductions; eliminate the perks that exist in the tax code for the few and the well-connected to make it more fair for middle-class folks and seniors so that they don’t have to bear the burden of deficit reduction alone.

As the President made clear, there remain enormous obstacles.  There remains, at least in some corners of the Republican Party, an absolutist position that says, no way, no how, we won’t do balance; we won’t do any more revenue even though the public overwhelmingly supports that approach, even though there are voices in the Republican Party who believe that’s the right approach to take.

So we’ll see.  It will be a choice obviously in the end that Republicans will have to make -- because the President has had very constructive conversations with Senate Republicans in particular who have expressed interest in and support for balance in deficit reduction as part of a bigger deal, entitlement reforms and tax reform that produces revenues for deficit reduction.  We’ll see if there are enough members, Republican members of the “caucus of common sense” to allow for progress to be made on that particular issue. 

But -- sorry, I know this is longwinded and I apologize.  What is important to remember is that is not the only game in town.  And the President hopes that Republicans are willing to join him in the center, if you will, in a balanced approach to deficit reduction, and we will see if that happens.

What absolutely has to happen, regardless of the outcome of that pursuit, is continued bipartisan progress on other initiatives that matter greatly to the American people.  And that includes the very significant progress being made in the Senate on immigration reform by Republicans and Democrats; the progress we just talked about on measures to reduce gun violence; and all the other areas where the American people expect their leaders to come together and find common ground, and that the President believes we can find common ground.

Sorry for that longwinded answer.

Q    No, that’s okay.  Quickly on another topic.  Senators Baucus and Hoeven had introduced legislation that would -- they would approve the Keystone pipeline, take the decision out of the administration’s hands.  Is this something you’re aware of or something that you would --

MR. CARNEY:  I had not seen that.  But, of course, the progress of approving trans-border pipelines has been housed, if you will, in the State Department for quite a long time under administrations that have been both Democratic and Republican because of the international nature of those pipelines, the fact that they cross international borders.  And that’s where this process has been houses and undertaken, and that’s at the State Department.

That process is moving forward and will result in a decision.  I have no news to make on that right now.  But that’s where it has been in the past and that’s where certainly tradition dictates that it should be now -- separated from politics and based on assessments made -- inputs provided at the State Department from a variety of agencies, as well as state governments and the companies involved and things like that.  And then a decision is made whether or not to move forward.

Jim.

Q    Does the President have an opinion on this recent decision by the TSA to allow passengers to bring small knives onto airplanes?  I mean, to a lot of people in the aviation industry -- flight attendants, pilots, even some of the heads of the companies that run major airlines -- they say this is a terrible idea.  What does the President think about it?  Is that a good idea to bring small knives?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I confess I don’t have an opinion of the President to convey to you on that.  I’m sure that the TSA has been asked this question and explained their thinking in making decisions like this -- DHA as well, I assume.  My understanding as a layman -- I mean, as an observer, not as somebody who has worked the policy process, is that this has to do with an assessment of where the most likely threats are.  But I really can't go beyond that because I don't know.  I haven't had those conversations with TSA.

Q    Is the White House prepared for what may become sort of a public relations nightmare in the coming days with so many school kids going on spring break and so many field trips coming to Washington?  Needless to say, there are going to be lots of kids who have field trips and tours planned here at the White House, and they're going to be disappointed, and they’ll be coming up to the gates and so forth.  Is the White House prepared for that?  Are you going to be dealing with that?  What's going to happen?

MR. CARNEY:  We've been dealing with questions about this every day, quite a few of them.  And as the President has said, and I and others have said, this is a very unfortunate circumstance that is a result of the sequester.  And it was an unhappy choice that had to be made. 

The Secret Service, like every other agency, is confronted with significant budget cuts and had to make decisions about how those imposed cuts would affect their personnel.  And rather than asking for more furloughs, asking agents who are sworn to defend the lives of their protectees in service of their country, and asking for more pay cuts, they made the decision that they could not staff these tours, which are very labor-intensive for obvious reasons.

But it's very unfortunate.  And I think it's always important to remember, of course, that when we talk about that unfortunate outcome or result of the sequester, that we recognize that the impacts of the sequester go beyond whether or not people are going to be able to have tours of the White House.  And in some ways you might say some of the impacts are even more unfortunate -- families who lose slots in Head Start, or families who experience layoffs or furloughs around the country. 

In upstate New York, I know there's concern because an airport control tower is being shut down because of the need to reduce spending by the FAA, and I know there's concern about this.  This is a quote -- “Our military trains” -- this is Griffiss International Airport's control tower in Rome, New York. "Our military trains at Griffiss.  The airport offers some of the most unique infrastructure in the Northeastern United States.  And during Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Sandy, it was Griffiss International Airport that served as a staging area for relief efforts.  It is short-sighted and unnecessary to close this control tower.  And I implore the FAA to remove it from the closure list."  And this is a result of sequester and that is a quote from Republican Congressman Richard Hanna.

Similarly, Blake Farenthold, from the Gulf Coast of Texas, talks about the civilian employees of Corpus Christi Army Depot and Naval Air Station could be -- and this is a quote -- "furloughed for up to 22 days.  Our local airport towers in Corpus Christi and Victoria might also face extreme cuts."  And again, that's a Republican member of Congress expressing that concern. 

And they're right.  And there are real impacts out there.  And it's an unfortunate result of the arbitrary, across-the-board nature of the sequester cuts.  That was the -- I use this term facetiously -- the genius in the design of the sequester -- it was written in a way to make it terrible.  That was the purpose. Republicans and Democrats alike wrote it that way so that it would be so onerous that it would compel Congress to take alternative action to reduce our deficit in a more responsible way. 

Unfortunately, that didn't happen.  And unfortunately, Republicans in Congress made the choice not to postpone the implementation of the sequester as they just did on January 1st for two months, to do it again so that kids would be allowed to go on tours, control towers wouldn’t close, various people wouldn't be furloughed or laid off.

Remember, the macro effect here according to outside economists is up to three-quarters of a million jobs lost.  And that's a shame, because the economy is poised -- as we've seen again and again from data in various sectors of the economy -- the economy is poised to do well this year.  And Washington shouldn't be taking action that inflicts harm on the economy.  Washington should be taking action that helps it grow even more and helps it create jobs more.  That's certainly what the President hopes to do with his measures.

Ann. 

Q    Thank you.  One footnote on that and one on the CR.  Has there been any progress in working on school groups getting in?  And are there any specific cuts -- for instance, in the President's trip to the Middle East next week -- where people have been dropped from the manifest or actual trimming here at the White House?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, the conversations we're having with Secret Service are ongoing about whether there's some way, in accordance with what the President said, to make some accommodations for some folks.  But let's be clear.  The decision to cancel tours generally won't be revised because the Secret Service made clear in its decision that the choice was that or furloughs and overtime cuts and the like.  But those conversations continue and we'll let you know what the result of them is when we have one.  I don't have any updates for you.

The President is going to Israel.  He is President of the United States.  It's entirely appropriate for the President of the United States to travel to the Middle East.  And presidential travel requires, for security and other reasons, substantial staffing.  And that's just the matter -- just like congressional travel paid for by taxpayers, require congressmen and women fly home on recess, as they'll do shortly, back and forth to their districts and states.  And that's part of the job.

Q    And real quickly, the CR is moving -- it will be one of the tests after this kind of shuttle diplomacy.  The President has said he didn't want the chaos of the government running out of money.  Will he take that CR even with the additional elements in it, additional -- voting on amendments to add to it, including ones that the ATF says would make permanent limits and things that weaken the ATF enforcement of gun laws?

MR. CARNEY:  I haven't seen any reporting on that specific amendment.  I'm not sure -- there have been a variety of amendments, as I understand, voted on -- some of them defeated, like I think -- according to Dana Milbank, columnist for The Washington Post, and I'm just citing him -- 35 votes now by Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  I'm not sure that's time well spent -- 35.  I think that went down.  But we’ll see.  The President’s interest is in making sure we don't manufacture another crisis.

The process continues in the Senate.  We’ll see what it produces.  We certainly hope that we are able to continue to fund the government without drama, and focus on the challenge of trying to see if common ground can be occupied by both Republicans and Democrats when it comes to reducing our deficit in a balanced way.

Q    Jay.

MR. CARNEY:  Yes.

Q    A couple questions on the President’s encounter with House Republicans.  But first I want to ask you about the trip.  I know we’re going to have a conference call later, but from the podium I’d like you to address a couple of things.

MR. CARNEY:  Sure.

Q    One, there is a perception in the region and here that this is largely a symbolic trip with very little substance attached to it.  There will be very few, if any, deliverables and there will be nothing this President will bring to jumpstart the peace process -- which would contrast considerably with other trips previous U.S. Presidents have made to the region.  Would you address that perception?  And do you think that's either ill-founded, or do you have something else to tell us about may, in fact, happen that we’re not expecting?

MR. CARNEY:  The President will travel to the region and have very important meetings with leaders in Israel, with leaders in Jordan, and with leaders in the West Bank.  And he will also engage with the Israeli people and talk about what the U.S.-Israeli relationship is and will be in the future; the unshakeable commitment of this country to Israel’s security, as demonstrated by the actions he has taken as President that have led the Prime Minister and former Defense Minister and others to say that the United States -- that Israel has never had a closer security relationship with the United States than it has had with President Barack Obama.

This is a very important trip.  And while it is true that we are not bringing a new proposal for the Middle East peace process, it is also true that we support efforts by the Israelis and the Palestinians to take positive action towards face-to-face negotiations that are the only way to resolve this issue, and to establish the two-state solution that both sides say they want and which is the solution that is best for the Israelis and the Palestinians.

And we made clear -- when either side does something unilaterally that we believe is counterproductive to that cause, we make our opinions clear about that.  And that's true of Palestinian actions at the U.N. and Israeli actions on other issues.  And so we’re engaged in this process.  But ultimately it’s a process that will require negotiations between the two parties.  And we will continue our efforts to facilitate that. But that is our position and that is what we believe is the only way to make this happen.

Q    Is there a realistic hope the administration has that while the President is there, either side -- the Israeli government, though it’s still forming and its new coalition, or the Palestinian Authority -- will do anything publicly or make gestures to the other to expedite or move the process forward?

MR. CARNEY:  I’m not in a position to predict what others might do.  I know the President is looking forward to this trip, looking forward to his meetings, looking forward to the opportunity to engage not just with leaders but young folks in Israel and others.  We’re going to have more details about his itinerary and what the trip will contain for you when we have a briefing later today.  But I think it’s an important trip, and the President looks forward to it.

Q    When the President was with House Republicans yesterday, there was a conversation about the perception that some House Republicans have that everything to the President is political.  There was a conversation about 2014.  And in the context of that, he said, well, look, if I was fascinated or obsessed with 2014, I wouldn’t be pushing immigration reform as aggressively as I am.  That's a general description of what the encounter was.  What did he mean by that? 

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I’m not going to read out verbatim quotes, alleged or otherwise, about what either the President said or House Republicans said.

The President has made clear that he wants to get things done, and there has been some commentary and speculation about the President is not serious about immigration reform because he wants to use it politically against Republicans, and nothing could be further from the truth -- which is why he has so persistently supported the bipartisan process underway in the Senate to achieve comprehensive immigration reform; why he has made clear that he wants fast action on this issue. 

And, again, I will leave the assessments about what is the politically savvy thing to do, but I can guarantee you that’s not what he’s focused on.  He thinks comprehensive immigration reform is the right thing to do, and he knows it can only happen with bipartisan support.  He knows that it had bipartisan support back when he got to the Senate and supported legislation that was co-authored by Senator McCain and Senator Kennedy to achieve comprehensive immigration reform -- legislation that, at the time, had the support of the Republican President of the United States, George W. Bush.  And he will continue to push for bipartisan progress, because it’s the right thing to do.

And that’s true on a whole host of issues.  He’s not running for reelection -- the Constitution doesn’t let him.  And he is focused on getting important things done for the country that help its economy grow from the middle out; that strengthen the middle class; that invests in our children so that they’re prepared to enter the workforce in a way that makes America more competitive, so that they can occupy jobs here in the United States that are well paying and part of the industries of the future; and that protect our seniors.  And that’s his entire focus. 

And that’s true when it comes to measures to reduce gun violence.  It’s true when he encourages Congress to take up measures to help this turnaround in manufacturing in the United States to continue -- to build on that trend.  And it’s true with everything he’s doing right now.  And I think that’s the point, I think it’s fair to say, that he was making generally in his meetings thus far and that he’ll make today in his meetings.  That’s what his focus is on.

Q    And when Keystone came up, the President didn’t say anything particularly positive or particularly negative.  Republicans took from that a kind of dispassionate assessment of Keystone, which some regarded as a hopeful sign.  Should they have drawn that conclusion?  And do you think and does the President think the entire issue of Keystone has taken on a unnecessary larger-than-life status with both the proponents and the opponents?

MR. CARNEY:  I think these are excellent questions.  What I can tell you is that no decision has been made on Keystone -- no final decision.  I think the President -- I expect he was clear about that, as he has been.  That process is housed over at the State Department.  It is moving forward and will end in a decision.  And when that decision is ready to be announced, it will be announced.

It is important to back up and look at the fact that, yes, Keystone became a political issue; it was inserted into legislation that disrupted the process and actually delayed it so that it had to be sent back.  And these things are evaluated in a way they always have been.  The fact is, even as we’ve dealt with Keystone and discussions about it, we have continued to move forward with an all-of-the-above energy strategy that includes increasing development of our natural resources in a safe and responsible way.  And that’s led to record-high production of natural gas.  It’s led to a situation where we’re importing less fossil fuel energy, less oil than we have from abroad for the past 16 years. 

And if you look at outside analysts about where the United States is headed because of these trends, we’re headed towards a future that will make us more energy-independent and, therefore, more secure, less dependent on the resources of countries and regions that can be volatile, less subject to the fluctuations in prices of oil and gas.  And that’s a good thing. 

And the approach includes not just oil and gas, but as we’ve talked about a lot, all forms of energy, clean energy technology, which are very important.  There’s enormous -- I think there’s some new information that’s come out recently about solar energy production in this country, which is extremely positive news.  And that’s part of the comprehensive strategy the President’s taken, and that’s what he’ll continue to take for as long as he’s in office.

Welcome.  How are you?  Thanks for being here.

Q    I want to get your reaction to a Washington Post editorial today on the issue of the White House tours.  In their words, they say it’s akin to bureaucratic hostage taking, and that the pushback the administration is getting on it, in their words, is a proper comeuppance.  They end the piece by saying, essentially, the President has the authority to do something about this, and it rests with him.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think that represents a misunderstanding of the sequester, I guess, because the sequester is a law written and passed by Congress that is very specific about what can and can’t be done when it comes to implementation of the sequester.  It was written that way, diabolically you might say, to make it so unfortunate, so onerous that it would never become law and that Congress would be compelled to find a better alternative way to reduce our deficit by $1.2 trillion. 

The President has consistently put forward proposals that achieve that goal in a balanced way -- the submission to the super committee, his budget, his proposal to Speaker of the House John Boehner. 

I would go back to what I said to Jim, this is an unfortunate and unhappy outcome to the sequester.  And you’ve heard the President speak about that and I've spoken about it, and it’s a shame.  Each agency has to make decisions about staffing and budget based on the cuts imposed by the sequester, and the Secret Service is not immune to that and the Secret Service has to focus on its core mission and the Secret Service had to decide, as I understand it -- and I refer you to them because these are choices they made -- whether or not they could continue to provide the substantial personnel and man-hours necessary for the tours, for the security of the tours, without furloughs and pay cuts.  And the answer was they couldn't.

But that's a perfect demonstration of the kind of unhappy choices that the sequester presents, to the extent that it presents choices at all.  So I would just say that it’s important to remember that while it is unfortunate in the extreme that kids, especially, who might have had tours scheduled will not get to see the White House because of this, it is at least as unfortunate, and some might say more unfortunate, that there are kids out there who won't be in Head Start because of the furloughs.  It is at least as unfortunate, and perhaps more unfortunate, that control towers are being closed and therefore staffing -- people are being laid off or furloughed in small airports around the country, including these districts that I just cited where Republican members of Congress are concerned about it -- and they’re right to be.  That's an unfortunate outcome because it affects families, real people and their livelihoods. 

It’s unfortunate that if the sequester is allowed to stay in place, three-quarters of a million Americans will lose their jobs.  That's a terrible outcome.  Our economy will grow by a full half a percentage point more slowly because of the sequester if it’s allowed to stay in place.  That's a dramatically unfortunate impact and effect.

So I think this is an illustration of why we shouldn’t have allowed the sequester to take effect.  Republicans should have, in our view, done what they had done just a few months before, which is pass a short-term measure to delay implementation of the sequester, a measure that would have represented the balance that the public supports, asking the well-off and well-to-do to pay a little bit, not just seniors and middle-class families, and that then regular order could have continued as it is now, but without the sequester.  That would have been the best option.  That's certainly the approach we preferred.

Q    I want to get your response to a report from Reuters.  They’re citing a March 4th planning document that they say the administration is working on a plan that would give intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies broad access to a database of Americans’ financial data.  A number of groups, including the ACLU and other privacy advocates, are expressing concern that innocent Americans’ financial data is going to be caught up in this.  Can you tell us anything about this alleged proposal?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think you said it well -- “alleged proposal.”  I really don't have anything for you on that.  I'm not aware of such a proposal.

Q    Are you denying that --

MR. CARNEY:  No, I'm saying I don't have -- first of all, it doesn’t sound like the report says there’s a plan in place.  But, again, I'm not aware of it.  But I'll take the question and we'll see if we can get an answer for you.

Q    Just following very briefly on the TSA, and the answer may be that you have nothing to provide us on this, but given the fact that only a couple of weeks ago you brought Janet Napolitano to the podium and she said that the White House and the administration would do whatever it could to try to expedite the situation as long lines would get longer and the like -- does the White House believe that there is some value in changing the plan in terms of dealing with weapons, allowing knives on planes or anything not that specifically if that helps expedite the lines and helps make it easier for Americans to get through?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, I don't have a specific White House reaction to a decision made on the merits based on what is best for security at airports, and I would refer you to TSA for that. I would say that it’s certainly the President’s interest that the TSA and other agencies that are responsible for the security of traveling Americans make wise decisions about how they ensure that security.  But I don't have a specific reaction to this policy change.

Q    And even without a reaction, does the President have any intent, or has he had any conversations -- even if you don't know his present opinion -- with any of the major players now -- flight attendants, pilots, the TSA people who are involved?

MR. CARNEY:  I don't have any conversations like that to report.

Q    Okay.  Bill Gates this morning -- on a different topic -- said, sort of basically attacking all the federal government, but ultimately the President leads it -- and he said, “You don't run a business like this.  This is a non-optimal path and that a business that is maximizing its effort would proceed along a different path.”  Given the fact that there were more than a dozen significant CEOs in the White House Situation Room yesterday talking about a series of different topics, I'm curious what the number-one criticism the President heard from them yesterday was.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, there were a couple of meetings yesterday of CEOs, one that focused I believe on cybersecurity; another one that focused on other areas like immigration reform.  And I don't have a readout of criticism.  I haven't seen Bill Gates’s statement, but I think if it refers to the way we've been careening from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis in our budget dealings, I'm sure the President couldn't agree more.  Like most Americans, when we see this kind of unnecessary dysfunction in Washington, it’s not heartening, and Americans are justifiably frustrated by it.

And that's why we need to -- we could have avoided this pretty easily without anyone sacrificing principle.  They could have just done what they’d done before and allowed time for the bigger discussion that we’re having about whether or not we can move forward in a bipartisan way to reduce our deficit. 

The conversations we’re having now could have happened regardless of implementation of the sequester, and they probably would have happened regardless.  They're separate issues.  There was no reason to let the sequester go into effect.  Republicans who had previously decried the sequester and the threat it posed -- warned about job loss, warned about negative effects on our national security -- turned around and then said it was a good thing and a victory for their party and a victory for the tea party and a home run.  And that's just not how we see it because it’s real people who are affected.

And it doesn't help anything.  I mean, this is why -- I think I talked about before, the sequester even as a deficit reduction measure fulfills none of the objectives of either party.  Republicans say they want long-term deficit reduction; the sequester doesn't do that.  Republicans say, correctly, that we need entitlement reforms and we need to deal with the challenges posed by our health care entitlements and the impacts they have on our budget -- and we agree; that's why the President has put forward entitlement reforms.  The sequester does none of that.

Republicans tend to believe -- at least some of them or many of them -- that we should increase our defense budgets, not cut them.  The President believes we have to have higher levels of defense funding than we’re getting from the sequester, and we’ve decried that.  Now Republicans think the sequester is a good idea. 

So they're not getting what they say they want -- no tax reform, no entitlement reform.  But Americans are getting stuck with the consequences, and our economy is getting stuck with the consequences.  Right when the potential for positive growth and job creation seems so evident -- when we look at data like sort of robust housing data, and we look at all the other things that we’ve seen that suggest that we could be, if we don't mess U.N., in for a very solid year, economically -- that would be good for the country, good for the middle class. 

And if I can circle back, as it was in the 1990s, it is true today that the best approach to deficit reduction is one that has as a primary component economic growth.  I mean, that's a key to reducing our deficit.  It’s a key to doing it in a way that benefits the middle class.  That's what the President believes.

Roger.

Q    There are some reports that the President had telephone calls with the President of China today.  Do you have anything on that?  And did our President bring up Chinese hacking?

MR. CARNEY:  I can confirm that the President spoke with President Xi today, and we will have a fuller readout of that conversation so I don’t have any details about it.  He congratulated President Xi on his new positions.  And this is a very important relationship and a very important series of issues that we deal with on a regular basis with the Chinese government. 
And, again, I don’t have specifics from this phone call, but I can tell you that at every level, when we engage with our counterparts in the Chinese government, we talk about all the range of issues that are important between us, all the substantial economic cooperation, security cooperation, and also the issues where we have disagreements and concerns.

Q    Did either President invite the other for a visit?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t have -- again, I don’t have a readout of that.  I can tell you that the President and the administration look forward to working with President Xi and the rest of the Chinese government’s new leadership team, and that the President, as he has throughout his presidency, has put a priority on our relationship with China and the issue set that we deal with when we engage with our Chinese counterparts.

Q    How do you cut the deficit this year in a way that promotes economic growth?  I mean, any cut to spending or increase in taxes is contractionary as far as I understand it, but you just said you want to cut the deficit in a way that promotes economic growth. 

MR. CARNEY:  We want to reduce it over 10 years in a way that allows for economic growth, allows for the investments necessary in education and infrastructure and the like, that allows for longer-term economic growth.

I mean, I think you’re on to a good point here, which is one of the reasons why, at least initially, everybody decried the sequester or the fiscal cliff was the fact it would have been the combination of tax cuts for middle-class Americans, and the arbitrary substantial spending cuts imposed by the sequester would have had potentially a negative contractionary impact on the economy.  So that’s just an argument for wise, thought-out economic policy -- not deficit reduction or balance for deficit reduction’s or balance’s sake alone.

Q    I understand that, but you talk about the sequester’s effect on the economy this year.  But everyone agrees that there has to be deficit reduction this year, whether it’s spending cuts or -- many agree that there need to be tax increases.  That’s also contractionary.  So how much worse is the sequester than the cuts that everybody, including you, agrees need to be done this year?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, that’s why the sequester was written in a way that was arbitrary, so that it was a blunt instrument instead of a scalpel, and had -- negative impacts it will have and is having, negative impacts on our defense industries and on our national security, and all the negative effects that we’ve talked about so often.

You need to do this in a -- budgets are about choices and priorities and aspirations for the country.  And the President believes that deficit reduction is an important goal, but it is a goal in service of a bigger goal, which is a strong economy, economic growth and job creation, strengthening the middle class. And that’s why his budget proposals have consistently contained common-sense measures to reduce our deficit that don’t cause contraction coupled with investments that he believes are necessary to help our economy grow.

I talk about this yesterday -- when we came in with that devastating financial crisis confronting the country, we had to take a dramatic measure to prevent a Great Depression from occurring, and reversing -- making untrue the headlines that predicted up to 25 percent unemployment and a global economic collapse.  We took measures to deal with that.  And then, once the economy began to stabilize, began to grow again, began to create jobs again, he addressed head on the need to, in a responsible way, over a sustained window, to reduce our deficit  -- not in a way that would cause it to contract, but in a way that would help it grow.

Q    But just lastly, you continually talk about this year. You don’t know what the effects of smarter cuts would be in terms of contraction on the economy this year -- if you did the same amount of deficit reduction the smarter way, that would cause contraction -- you don’t know the difference between that and the sequester cuts?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think that we believe and economists believe that there are -- we can be wiser about our choices when it comes to both spending cuts and cuts in tax expenditures and increasing revenues by closing loopholes in a way that poses less of a threat of contraction and actually is helpful to economic -- to investment and economic growth and job creation.

But these are smart questions about the kind of assessments that economists need to make.  And it goes -- we were talking yesterday about balanced budgets.  We could, you and I, and we’re -- I mean, you may have a degree in economics, I sure don’t -- but you and I could sit down with a few pieces of paper and balance our budget.  We could balance it next year.  We could eliminate our defense spending.  We could eliminate every deduction that the middle class gets.  We could eliminate most of the federal government and get to zero on the balance sheet.  And it would be catastrophic to the American people and the economy. 
So getting to zero at the end of your budget document, even if you do it in a real way as opposed to a fanciful way, is not in and of itself good.  It is only good if you do it in a way that’s good for the economy, good for the American people.

Donovan.

Q    Thanks, Jay.  I just wanted to go back -- follow up on something Ann said yesterday.  When are we going to know more about how the sequester is affecting the Office of the White House?  There’s 468 employees covering various functions, and you guys have said that they’re going to face pay cuts or furloughs or --

MR. CARNEY:  Well, like every agency, the impact is, as the President said, not necessarily immediate, but gradual and it will build over time.  But the White House Office and then broadly, the Executive Office of the President, are affected like other agencies by the sequester cuts, and that includes, as I understand, potential furloughs as well as pay reductions.  But I don’t have specifics right now.  And I think as they unfold, which depends on assessments made by OMB and others, we can make those available to you.  But we are in no way immune, just as the Secret Service isn’t.

Q    Is it safe -- at this point, no furlough notices have gone out to --

MR. CARNEY:  I’ll have to check.  I mean, I think there have been some -- there’s been some information that’s been communicated, but I don’t know if there’s been specific furlough notices.

Yes, sir.

Q    Thank you, Jay.  France and Britain have indicated their willingness to bypass the European embargo on the Syrian opposition.  Has that paved a way for the President to revisit his position on this issue?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I would simply say that we are constantly reviewing our policy toward Syria, as I’ve said in the past.  And we have stepped up repeatedly our humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people as well as our assistance to the Syrian opposition. And we are continually reviewing our options, and reviewing those options in light of what our goal is, which is to promote a post-Assad Syria, one that is best for the Syrian people that will, we hope, lead to greater democracy, freedom, economic development, and opportunity for the Syrian people, as well as stability in the country and in the region.

So we’re constantly assessing it.  I don’t have a reaction to -- in terms of our policy to the report you’re citing.  I can just say that our position has not changed in terms of providing lethal assistance, but we are reviewing our policy all the time.

Q    Thanks, Jay.

MR. CARNEY:  Last one, yes.

Q    Just getting back to the outreach.  Can you be a little bit more specific about what the President plans to do going forward?  Are lunches on the Hill now a regular thing?  (Laughter.)  I mean, is this sort of the new --

MR. CARNEY:  Again, I don’t have a specific engagement to announce today, but he will continue to have those conversations with lawmakers.  The purpose here is to see -- is to encourage bipartisan cooperation, to encourage a common-sense approach to the challenges that face us on budget issues as well as the other priorities that he believes we have as a nation.  And those conversations will continue.

When it comes to the fiscal challenges and the budget, he is having these conversations in order to directly present what his positions are, why it is his absolute conviction that we can only do this in a balanced way; why it is entirely appropriate and the right thing to do to reform our tax code in a way that asks the well-off and well-connected to give up some of their special treatment in the tax code in order to help pay down our deficit. 
And by doing that, by choosing balance, we can protect our seniors even as we strengthen those programs that are so important to our seniors.  We don’t have to voucherize Medicare and we don’t have to slash Medicaid by a third at the expense of middle-class families who have to send their elderly parents to nursing homes and need assistance to do that.

These are choices that you only have to make if you make the choice first that you’re basically -- not only are you saying to the most fortunate, the well-off and well-connected, that they don’t have to contribute, but we’re going to give you a $5 trillion tax cut that disproportionately benefits you.  And if it’s really going to be revenue-neutral, there’s not an economist with any credibility who can tell you that you can have tax reform that provides a $5 trillion tax cut that’s revenue-neutral that doesn’t mean that the revenue to support the tax cut isn’t coming from the middle class to the tune of at least $2,000 per family.

So that’s the President’s belief.  We’ll see if there is a willingness -- if there’s enough members of the “common sense caucus” to build a coalition that can move this forward.  But that’s the only way it can move forward.

Thanks, guys.

END   
1:42 P.M. EST

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