12:38 P.M. EST

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.  I have a couple of items for all of you at the top.  Yesterday, I discussed the President’s announcement about the historic partnership between Merck and Johnson & Johnson to produce more COVID-19 vaccines.  And, of course, he laid out more details yesterday afternoon.

He also directed states to prioritize teachers for vaccinations in an effort to treat in-person learning, like essential — the essential service it is.  He challenged all 50 states to get teachers, school staff, and childcare workers their first shot by the end of this month.

To help states do that, starting next week we will be using the federal pharmacy program to prioritize vaccinating teachers, school staff, and childcare workers during the month of March.  This is a part of the President’s effort to urge states to prioritize vaccines for all essential workers. 

The Special Enrollment Period, which we talked about a couple of weeks ago — I have an update on that and the number of people who have enrolled.  On February 15th, the Biden-Harris administration opened HealthCare.gov for three months to provide all Americans the opportunity to sign up for health insurance through a Special Enrollment Period.  In the two weeks since, more than 200,000 Americans have gotten covered.  These numbers are encouraging, but we can’t slow down until every American has health coverage.

There is plenty of time left to sign up.  And, of course, people who need health insurance can go to HealthCare.gov to sign up before May 15th.

Today, also — and there’s been a little bit of reporting about this, so I just wanted to go through this to provide some clarity — the President will issue his Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, laying out a vision for how the United States can seize what we view as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to renew America’s advantages at home and abroad. 

The Guidance is designed to communicate the administration’s strategic approach and central priorities for national security policy.  It describes the changed strategic landscape the United States faces today and affirms our enduring core national interests, including protecting the security of the American people, expanding economic prosperity and opportunity, and realizing and defending the democratic values at the heart of the American way of life. 

The Guidance will provide direction to departments and agencies in advance of a new National Security Strategy, which we expect to release later this year, as many past presidents have done.  And we will post this ISG on the White House website later this afternoon. 

I would also encourage everyone to tune into the remarks of Secretary Blinken delivered this morning, “A Foreign Policy for the American People,” which touched on a number of the same pillars.

    This afternoon, the President and Vice President will also meet with members of Congress, which we announced last night, to begin working together in a bipartisan way to end cancer as we know it.

Defeating cancer is of significant personal importance to the President, the First Lady, and the Vice President.  And cancer is, of course, a disease that impacts — affects many Americans, no matter their political affiliation.  This has been a priority of the President’s, as we all know, for many, many years.  And this is his first engagement with members of Congress in the Oval Office about it.

One last piece, just to make sure you all are all following the activities of the Vice President: The Vice President will be visiting a woman-owned small business in Alexandria, Virginia, later today, called Fibre Space.  The Vice President heard how the small business has been impacted by COVID-19 and how they had to adjust their business model.  She also will discuss the importance of passing the American Rescue Plan — of course, as you’ve heard us all talk about a few times — while she is visiting this small business.  

With that, Alex, go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  I want to start with your OMB nominee.  Yesterday, the last outstanding Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, said that she did not tell the White House her stance on Tanden.  What eventually did Tanden’s nomination end?  Why was she withdrawn?  And can you talk a little bit about who you’re looking at for a replacement, particularly Shalanda Young?  Pelosi, Hoyer, and Representative Clyburn came out in support of her today.  Is the White House looking at her as a potential replacement?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me first say that given Neera Tanden withdrew her nomination just last night, I would not expect — or you should not expect any announcement on a future nominee this week.  Obviously, the President’s schedule is quite full.  His focus remains on the American Rescue Plan and the range of meetings and engagements he has already planned and scheduled.

Of course, he has nominated Shalanda Young to serve as Deputy OMB Director, and that nomination, along with about a half a dozen nominees who are — have been nominated to serve as heading agencies, are still sitting and waiting to be confirmed.  And so we would certainly encourage and urge action — and urgent action on moving those forward.

In terms of the nomination, Neera Tanden, as we’ve talked about for some time in here, is someone who’s been — has been leading a — still leads, I should say — a think tank in Washington, D.C.  She certainly saw that the path to her own confirmation was — was narrowed and did not look like there was a path forward. 

I’m not going to get into the details of who was or wasn’t against her, or for her, or was or wasn’t going to vote for her or against her.  We can leave that to members of the Senate to speak to on their own.  But it was a recognition that Neera Tanden made.  We certainly, of course, as we noted in the statement last night, accepted her decision to withdraw her nomination.  And when we have an announcement about the new nominee, we will make that.  But again, as we noted in the statement, the President is looking forward to finding a place for her in the administration, and values her experience and her talents, and is looked for — looking forward to utilizing them.

Q    And then, the threats against the Capitol tomorrow, is the President monitoring those?  Has he been briefed?  And has the administration directed law enforcement to prepare any better than they were prepared, considering the January 6 activities at the Capitol?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we certainly have been watching the hearings that have been happening on Capitol Hill over the last two days — our team has been.  I know the President has caught clips of those, but, of course, he has a full schedule, as you all well know.  And we are ready and eager to work in partnership with leaders in Congress with — on any recommendations that are made to ensure their safety and security and to prevent the events that happened on January 6th from ever happening again.

Go ahead.

Q    If I can, quickly, a little homework around here as it relates to the COVID relief bill.  I know we’ll see you speaking — the President speaking to the House Democratic Caucus later today.  Can you confirm that the President has signed off on these reduced income thresholds as it relates to those direct payments?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me — let me provide a little context here, because some of the reporting — it’s all coming out, so some of the reporting is aligned with accuracy and some is not; no one’s fault.

Q    That’s the true story.

MS. PSAKI:  First — (laughs) — so, one — I talked to the President about this this morning — he’s pleased with the progress that is being made on the rescue plan.  As someone who served for 36 years in the Senate, he is certainly familiar with the journey that it takes from a proposal to a bill being signed.  And, in every instance, in the final stage, which we feel we were in — we are in now, there are suggestions, there are changes, there are negotiations between even different member — different parts of one party.  That’s what — that’s what’s happening now.  And he is open to — has always said he’s open to good ideas and to proposals that will strengthen the package.

What he has been firm on is that the package needs to be large enough to meet the scope of the twin crises we’re facing: COVID and the economic downturn.  He has been firm on the importance of the $1,400 checks going out to Americans, and that — and he has fought for that tooth and nail and is — that is a — that is a bar for him.  And he’s also been firm on the thresholds at which Americans should receive those checks.

So, as we’ve seen in the reporting, it’s 75K and 150K.  He has been clear that those are important thresholds to him.  What we’re talking about here — and I realize you didn’t actually ask this, but just for clarity for everyone — is where the — where is the — is the ramp-up and how far the ramp-up goes. 

Q    Where it ends.

MS. PSAKI:  Where it ends, I should say.  Where it ends.  And he has also been open from the beginning for those — that being more targeted and for there to be a steeper — steeper cliff at which that ramp down ends.

Q    So for clarity, is he — does he support — I know he’s okay with — what you just said out there — is he okay with it ending at $80,000 for individuals, $160,000 for couples, and $120,000 for heads of households?

MS. PSAKI:  He is comfortable with where the negotiations stand.  Of course, there are going to be ongoing discussions.  We don’t have a final bill, as you know.  There will be ongoing discussions.  He is comfortable and knows there will be tweaks at the margin.  What his firm viewpoint is, is that it needs to meet the scope of the challenge, it needs to be the size he’s proposed, it needs to have the core components in order to have the impact on the American people.

Q    And he’s confident that he’ll have 50 Democrats that’ll all support where it stands based on those changes to which you just referred?

MS. PSAKI:  He is — he is certainly.  That’s one of the reasons why he’s meeting with members of Congress.  You can — you can define them any way you like — moderates, progressives, Republicans — because he’s not taking anything for granted, as we work to get this past the finish line.

Q    Let me ask you about these new rocket attacks that took place in Iraq.  Obviously still no formal assessment on who’s responsible here.  A lot of suspicion Iran is behind this.  The President said to me last week — he said to them, “You can’t act with impunity, be careful [here].”  What do you do about this? What is the response we should expect from this administration following this new round of attacks?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, just to confirm some of the pieces you mentioned, we are still assessing the impact of this latest rocket attack, including determining precise attribution.  Of course, it just happened over the course of last night. 

As you noted also, we responded to recent Iranian-backed attacks on coalition and U.S. forces in a manner that was calculated, proportionate, and fully covered by legal authorities.  That will be our model moving forward. 

If we assess that further response is warranted, we will take action, again, in a manner and time of our choosing.  And we reserve that option.

The President was briefed by his national security team this morning, who was, of course, monitoring the details overnight.  What we won’t do is make a hasty or ill-informed decision that further escalates the decision or plays into the hands of our adversaries. 

Q    Let me ask one last question, given the news that came out last night about Texas and Mississippi.  The President was in Texas, met with Governor Abbott just a matter of days ago.  They have now, in both of those states, removed their mask mandates, and they’re reopening at 100 percent, even as this White House says, “Now is not the time for that.”  How do you characterize those decisions?  And what do you say to the governors of those two states that are making them?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, the President’s position on mask wearing is based on the recommendations of health and medical experts and their views that it could save 50,000 lives.  That is why he asked the American people to wear masks for 100 days.

For nearly a year, we’ve been dealing and navigating and coping with this pandemic across the country.  And this entire country has paid the price for political leaders who ignored the science when it comes to the pandemic. 

We talked a little bit yesterday about how people are starting to feel a little bit better in some cases.  You go to the grocery store, and there’s Clorox wipes available.  And a year into this that feels better, but there’s still more work that needs to be done.  We need to remain vigilant, and he believes that, and he’s hopeful, that people in these states will continue to follow the guidelines that have been set out and the recommendations made by health and medical experts.

Go ahead.

Q    Jen, thank you.  I have several questions about teachers getting vaccinated, but to follow up on Peter first:  Does President Biden plan to speak to the governors, to have them reconsider their orders?  And secondly, what are people in those states supposed to do if they’re confused about whether to listen to their governor or the President?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, I would say we’re not asking people just to listen to the President.  Of course, we recommend that, but we’re asking people to listen to health experts, medical experts, the CDC, to Dr. Fauci, to others who are basing their recommendations on how to save people’s lives.  That’s what we’re asking people to do.

The President’s view is well known — we all know it quite well — about why mask wearing is important — again, based on health and medical experts.  He speaks with governors of both parties on a regular basis.  He obviously traveled with the governor last Friday, and I’m sure he will raise this at the next opportunity he has.

Q    And on the President’s goal to vaccinate educators by the end of this month: Last month, he made it very clear that, as you well know, it’s up to states to determine how to prioritize vaccines.  And you reminded us that even though there are federal recommendations, the process is not to mandate states to prioritize anyone. 

What has changed between then and now?  And what power does President Biden have to direct states to prioritize teachers? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, 30 states are already doing this.  So that is the majority of states in the country who are treating teachers as essential workers, and that’s what the President is asking, what he is recommending. 

We, of course — right now, the teachers will have access through pharmacies.  That is — the supply that goes to pharmacies is through the federal supply.  And so that is a — you know, an area where we can work through a program that we have instituted to ensure that teachers are prioritized. 

Q    So, today you’ve said that he is challenging states, he’s asking states, he’s urging states, but yesterday the President said he’s directing states.  So is it just a firm request, or is he using some mechanism and authority to direct them? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, again, he is using a federal program that is — works — that is distributing vaccines to pharmacies across the country to ensure that teachers are prioritized.  It is not — it remains — it does not — it remains the same case it’s been, where it is not a prerequisite for schools to open; it is just a — it is one of the mitigation steps that can be taken for teachers to be vaccinated.  But he believes that teachers should be treated as essential workers. 

There is, of course, the power of the bully pulpit; there is the power of the pharmacy program that the federal government is instituting.  And certainly, as the President of the United States, the leader of the country, he is conveying, “This is important.”  It’s not a Republican or a Democratic issue whether or not our kids are behind.  We have all seen the impact on mental health.  We’ve seen the impact on kids being — doing Zoom from their kitchen tables and kitchen counters.

And everybody wants — the President wants kids to be back in school.  This is part of the effort to ease that.

Q    And one last question on the effort.  You’re using the federal pharmacy program, which was supposed to establish more equity, especially for communities of color.  Dr. Celine Gounder has called the move to prioritize teachers “anti-equity,” since most teachers are white, and it’s taking away from those people who are underserved. 

So what is the administration doing to make sure teachers, and these people who are underserved, will have the same access to vaccines?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, we simply disagree, and not just me or the President, but the head of our Equity Task Force and our health and medical team, for a couple of reasons. 

One is it’s critical to remember that the program is beyond teachers; it includes bus drivers, janitorial workers, childcare workers — a workforce that is broadly, incredibly diverse. 

Second, getting kids back to school is one of the most equitable steps we can take, because what we’ve seen statistically is that black and Latino students are disproportionately experiencing learning loss for a variety of reasons — Internet interconnectivity, parents who are disproportionately frontline workers — and this compounds the damaging effects of policies that already leaves students of color with lower-quality resources. 

So our view is actually that this step is one that is meant to help communities of color, help students who are already being disproportionately disadvantaged by schools being closed.

Go ahead. 

Q    Thanks.  Following up on this, you know, you said again that the CDC’s recommendations were clear that educators don’t have to be vaccinated to safely reopen schools, but we’re hearing this big push, this prioritization with the White House, through the pharmacy program.  So what do you say to critics who say this just isn’t about science; it’s about politics and appeasing the unions? 

MS. PSAKI:  I would say that our actions have been clear, that we’ve been basing our recommendations to school — our work with school districts to reopen on science, on the recommendations of CDC guidelines; and that we’ve been clear it’s not a prerequisite.  It is not a requirement for teachers to be vaccinated. 

However, we also — the President has also been clear he believes they should be prioritized, as many other frontline workers are, because — because they are playing a vital role — a role as essential workers, teaching our kids, educating the future of the country. 

So, you know, this is a challenging issue, but this is a step where the President could take, using his ability, his authority of federal government program, to ensure he’s sending the message that teachers should be prioritized because of the value of their work, the essential role they play teaching the next generation — schools across the country, many of which keep reopening every single week.  As you know, Dr. Biden and our new Secretary of Education are visiting a few today. 

We’ll continue to work with them and push for them.  It’s not a prerequisite, and nothing has changed on that front. 

Q    I’d like to ask about Director Wray but if I can just follow up there.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    What’s your message then to other essential workers?  Are teachers really more at risk in the classroom than Americans who are working at a meatpacking plant?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, look, certainly the President has taken a number of steps over the last couple of days to expedite the availability and the access of vaccines to Americans across the country, working in a range of industries. 

This is a step that he felt was important to take because of the impact on the next generation of kids, of the future of the workforce, future leaders in our country.  And we — it’s very clear that, you know, it’s important for schools to be reopened.  It’s not a political issue or a partisan issue; we all — we all agree with that.

Q    Okay.  And thanks.  I appreciate it.  Just on the — we have — you have all these back-to-back hearings on Capitol Hill about the January 6 riots.  And so much of a blame game, all this finger-pointing — Capitol Police saying they didn’t get information from FBI; the FBI saying they gave what they knew.

Like, how can the President be confident now in Director Wray’s ability to protect against another attack? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, you know, he is — remains confident in FBI Director Wray.  He — of course, we will be monitoring the hearings.  And I think there will be lessons learned, as we come out of the hearings, that will be applied across government, whether that’s in Congress or certainly where they apply in federal agencies.  And as you know, it’s not limited to these hearings.  There are also — now we have an Attorney General, and there are investigations that are underway there, and we certainly want to do everything we can, across the board, to prevent an attack from happening in the future. 

Go ahead. 
Q    Yeah, so on the congressional nominations: Today, your nominee for Health Secretary, Xavier Becerra, was — basically got a tied vote in the Senate Finance Committee.  Are you concerned?  And have you assured yourself, with people like Joe Manchin, that this nomination is also not in jeopardy?  Can you say a word about that? 

And what does it mean that the — you know, you had to — you lost the Tanden nomination?  What does that mean in terms of your ability to get things done?  Or was that just an isolated case?  Is it — does it send a signal for the rest of the other nominations and other legislation if you’re losing Democrats?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, let me start with the last question first.  No, we don’t believe — and any member of the Senate can tell you this, or I’m sure they will tell you this: that they look at each nomination and whether they’re going to vote to support and confirm a nominee on an individual basis; otherwise, every nominee will get the same exact number of votes.  Right?  And they don’t. 

And we had — of course, Cecilia Rouse was confirmed as the first woman of color to lead the White House Council of Economic Advisers with 94 votes.  A number of nominees, who we — who the President has put forward, have received an overwhelming majority of support from Democrats and Republicans.  Miguel Cardona was just confirmed.  Gina Raimondo was confirmed as Secretary of Commerce.  And I can go through and run through the number, of course, who have received strong, bipartisan support.  They’re each looked at individually. 

The President nominated Attorney General Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services because he has a record of fighting alongside Democrats and Republicans to expand access to COVID treatments and to take on abusive practices of tobacco companies.  He has a career of working to — he has a career behind him, working to increase access to quality, affordable healthcare, and to protect under- — protecting underserved communities. 

He helped create the Affordable Care Act — something, of course, the President was in — was serving as Vice President during that period of time, and stood up for it assiduously in court.  And his nomination has been met enthusiastically by healthcare experts, including the American Hospital Association, the Kaiser Family Foundation, multiple former secretaries of Health and Human Services, and of course, our very own Dr. Fauci. 

We certainly understood from the beginning that every nominee would not receive 93 votes, but we are — remain confident and confidently behind the nomination.

And I will also note that Secretary Cassidy — of course, a Republican, as you all know — told the Attorney General that — Attorney General Becerra, I should say — that if he were a betting man, he’d bet he has the votes.  So we’ll see.

Q    Can I just follow up on the other part?  I mean, how do you — do you need to take some measures to ensure that your policies don’t suffer when there’s a defection like Joe Manchin?

MS. PSAKI:  In terms of future policy?  I think what I was conveying, Andrea, is that each of these members looks at each proposal — whether it’s a bill or a nominee — through the prism of that proposal, and I would expect any of them would convey that to you; otherwise, the same people would vote for or against every single proposal that is put forward, and that is certainly not what happens.

The President has, of course, been engaged with Senator Manchin, has been hearing and listening to his proposals and ideas and suggestions.  And most importantly, though, Senator Manchin and others in the Senate are negotiating with each other about what package they can support moving forward as it relates to the American Rescue Plan.  That’s ongoing now.  But Senator Manchin has been clear that he supports a big package.  He believes it should meet the moment.  And so we’re looking forward to working with him and getting this across the finish line.

Q    Is there some sort of negotiation that you have to do where you basically start to offer proposals as part of, say, the infrastructure bill to ensure, kind of, strong support going forward?  You’ve only got — you’ve only got less than half of your nominees for Cabinet-level posts confirmed at this point.  Are you starting to get edgy about that?

MS. PSAKI:  We certainly believe that the Senate should move forward with the approximately half a dozen — or about five, I believe — Cabinet-level nominees who have still not been confirmed, because it is essential we have somebody leading the Department of Health and Human Services, of course, as we’ve been talking about, but also with the other agencies, given the range of crises we’re facing as a country.

Go ahead.

Q    I have a question about minimum wage and then on Capitol hearings.  Would the President be open to sitting down and talking to Senate Republicans who have offered support for a minimum wage hike that is below $15 an hour?  Or is he firm on the $15?

MS. PSAKI:  He’s been open to hearing ideas from a range of members of both parties on a bunch of different topics.  He’s been clear that his proposal is to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, to do it over a period of time, which members of the Senate, including progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders, also support.  That’s what he supports, and that’s what he’d propose at this point in time. 

Q    Would he not entertain anything below $15 an hour?

MS. PSAKI:  He’s happy to hear any ideas, but I’m not going to negotiate from here, obviously.  And he’s been very clear, publicly and privately, about his commitment to raising the minimum wage to $15. 

Q    Okay.  And then, last week, the Acting Capitol Police Chief testified that there have been threats to the joint session that the — that President Biden is going to address Congress — to potentially blow up the Capitol during any address that President Biden gives.  How has that factored into preparations for a potential State of Union?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I wouldn’t speak to any threats under any circumstance from here.  I’d certainly point you to the Secret Service. 

I would say, broadly speaking, what we’ve confirmed and talked about in the past is that when it became clear — which it probably should’ve been from the beginning — but that the American Rescue Plan would not — would take until hopefully about mid-March to get passed and signed into law, we made a decision internally that we weren’t going to have the President propose his forward-looking agenda beyond that.  It meant parts of his Build Back Better agenda still being determined, policy discussions still going on internally until after that bill is signed, after those checks are going out to Americans, after that vaccine money is going out — after the money is going out to schools.

Q    Okay.  Sorry, one last question.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    The Commanding General of the D.C. National Guard said today that it took more than three hours for approval to come down before the National Guard was sent to respond to the insurrection.  But the Pentagon’s Homeland Defense Chief actually disputed that and said that it was only over an hour.  Is it concerning at all to the White House that almost two months later, there is still no consensus on a timeline within — even within DOD on this?

MS. PSAKI:  I would really send that question to DOD and to the hearings that are happening as we speak.  This all happened, of course, during the prior administration, as we all well know.  We’re watching these hearings closely.  We’ll see what lessons are learned from them.  And we’re eager to work with members of both parties on putting forward policies that prevent it from ever happening again. 

Go ahead, Jen.

Q    I have two questions on two different subjects.

MS. PSAKI:  Okay.

Q    First, you know, this agreement to, you know, change the eligibility rules around the stimulus checks was something that got moderate Democrats on board.  Are you concerned at all about the left on this — that, you know, they see this as negotiating against yourself and, you know, maybe not living up to the promise that even the President was making in campaigning with the Georgia runoff candidates? 

Are you concerned that, you know, by cutting some people out of eligibility, that you’re actually giving people — there are people who are going — who are not going to get checks who did get checks during the Trump administration, and that in some way is not living up to his political promises?

MS. PSAKI:  What the President promised and committed to was ensuring that the American people receive $2,000 in checks.  This $1,400 is part of delivering on that promise. 

He also proposed, of course, a higher threshold, as you know, in his own proposal, in his joint session speech that he delivered a couple of weeks ago. 

He has also been clear that he is open to changes on the margins of this package.  While he is very firm on the $1,400 — and, as you know, there’s been negotiations about trying to lower that to $1,000 or change the size of the check — he’s unmovable on that; repeated that to me again this morning.  And he has been very clear that the threshold should be at 75K and 150K for families. 

But he also knows that the sausage-making machine sometimes spits out a different package — almost always it spits out a different package than what is proposed initially.  These are negotiations primarily through Democrats in Congress with each other, but he’s a part of — you know, he rolls up his sleeves; he gets involved in them too. 

And, you know, he’s confident that this is a package, with all of the components included, that — and he’s hopeful that Democrats of all political backgrounds can get behind.

Q    So before the previous package passed, he was already talking about his hopes for this package.  So, before this package passed, I know you’re not going — you’re not rolling out your bigger Build Back Better agenda, but are you already thinking — is the administration thinking, maybe, that another stimulus check will be needed at some point in the summer or fall for people?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we’re only six weeks in, so I can’t predict for you there will never be stimulus checks in the future.  Obviously, we’re still in the midst of an economic crisis.  That’s the reason why the President has been clear about the urgency of acting here. 

The Build Back Better agenda, or more pieces of it — I’ll just reiterate that the format, the order, the size of that has not been determined.  And, you know, there won’t be more details that are finalized or previewed until after this bill is signed and the relief is getting to the American people.  So we’ll see what it looks like at that point in time. 

Obviously, we feel these checks and the components in the package — whether it’s preventing 11 million people from being dropped from unemployment insurance, or essential funding to get schools open, or funding to increase vaccine distribution around the country — is essential to not just the crisis in this moment, but what we’re facing and looking ahead to the coming months.

     Q    On another topic, is the administration providing assistance to Jackson, Mississippi, for the water crisis there?  Is that something that the President has been briefed on or will be briefed on and, sort of, the equity issues around that as well?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure, I’m happy to ask our — our acting head of FEMA about that and where — the status of that and where it sits.  And I can get back to you directly, or others who are interested in that.

Go ahead.

Q    Yes.  Earlier this week, you talked about a U.S. citizen named Anne Sacoolas, who now (inaudible) immunity, but people in Britain think she should come back to stand trial.  You said earlier this week that she had been working during the prior administration.  And I’m wondering if you can just clarify that.  Does President Biden see the case of Anne Sacoolas in any different way than his predecessor does? 

MS. PSAKI:  I think I was stating what is accurate: that she was working previously during the last administration.  I think that’s an accurate statement.  So — and I was conveying that I think I asked — the person who asked about it — I can’t remember who it was — to go ask the State Department, because they would certainly oversee things like diplomatic immunity and all of the questions that were being asked around her case.

Q    Sure.  There was — it was absolutely accurate.  I’m just wondering why you brought it up and why you thought it was relevant since she had not been a political appointee.  And also, lots of people have said that President Biden might look at this case differently.  He talks about the importance of empathy.  And certainly the Dunn family, the parents of the boy who was killed in the car accident, would very much like for Anne Sacoolas to return to the UK for trial.

MS. PSAKI:  Certainly I’m — I’ve, of course, watched the case as many people probably on BBC.  And we watch — have watched coverage of it in the past.  I — I was certainly — I was asked the question, so I think I was just answering the question that was asked and providing context for people who are not familiar with the case.

Obviously the President has not even nominated ambassadors, as I know you frequently ask about in here.  So I was just simply providing that context to people who had not been following it closely.  But again, it’s under the purview of the State Department so I’d certainly point you to them, and I’m sure my old friend Ned Price is briefing today and would be happy to answer your questions about it.

Go ahead.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  A couple of questions.  A moratorium on evictions that the President extended in January —

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

Q    — is set to expire at the end of the month.  Since that has not included — since another extension was not included in the COVID bill, a lot of activists are urging him to issue another executive order extending it further.  So does he think that the moratorium needs to be extended?  And is he willing to do it through an executive order?

MS. PSAKI:  That’s a — it’s a great question, as you know, because it sounds like you follow this closely.  It is actually agency action, so he can direct it or ask for them to look at it, but it is really up to agencies to take those actions. Multiple agencies are involved in this particular action.  I will check with our NEC team and see if there’s more to preview for you as it’s expiring, I think, March — is it March 31st?  So we have a couple of weeks, but I’m happy to talk to them about that.

Q    And one more question.  Last year, the previous — the previous administration extended the tax filing deadline to July the 15th because of COVID.

MS. PSAKI:  Mm-hmm.

Q    We’re still in the middle of a pandemic, so is that something this administration is considering?  And if not, why?

MS. PSAKI:  I would certainly suggest you ask Secretary Yellen’s team and, of course, the public affairs team at the IRS that question who would make that determination.

Go ahead, Hans.

Q    Given the clear importance you’re placing on vaccinating teachers, I’m wondering if there’s been any discussion at all about holding back some of the federal stockpile outside of this, sort of, federal pharmacy program and going directly and having some sort of program to vaccinate teachers?

MS. PSAKI:  I think this is the step that we feel is most effective and immediately impactful in terms of ensuring that teachers can go to their local pharmacies — pharmacies that are already functioning, already distributing the vaccine. 

We’ve seen, I think, in some New England states, there was some reporting about it already being underway, or about to be underway.  So this was the step that our team that oversees the operational components, as well as the health components, felt was most effective. 

You know, we always reserve a range of options.  We understand we’re still at the height of a pandemic, but I don’t have anything to preview, nor am I aware of that being under consideration.

Q    Okay.  So that was my biggest question — is that this was never under consideration, or you don’t know if it was, or if it were?

MS. PSAKI:  Look, there was a determination made.  This was the most effective way to get more teachers vaccinated.  Already 30 states are already doing it on their own, but this was a way to ensure that teachers in states across the country can go to their local pharmacy and do it. 

I can’t tell you how many ideas are considered before an idea is finalized, so I’m not going to speak to that; I’m not sure anyone here would.  But this was the idea that was determined to be most operationally effective.  So that’s — that’s hence why we’re doing it.

Q    There’s plenty of holdout states.  If they continue to almost counterman the President’s orders, what are your options?

MS. PSAKI:  Again, I don’t think we’re there.  Thirty states — it was 24 as of about a week or so ago, so an additional six states have prioritized teachers.  We’re hopeful and we’re encouraging, directing — whatever you want to call it — more to do exactly the same.  And the President will make this case directly to governors.  Our health and COVID team will make this case directly. 

And, of course, we’re working through this federal program where we distribute the vaccine supply to these pharmacies.  So that will continue regardless.

Go ahead.

Q    Given the administration’s commitment to repairing foreign relations, when can we expect to see nominations for important ambassadorships like the United Kingdom’s?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, this is a popular question, including from some people who want to be ambassadors, which won’t surprise you.  (Laughter.) 

I will say — you know, I think historically — I know we feel like we’ve all been here for quite some time — but during the Obama administration, many of these were done during March — in March.  Obviously there’s been a lot on the President’s agenda.  I don’t have any preview for you in terms of the timeline of when he’ll put forward nominees.  And obviously that would be done in conjunction and in coordination with the Secretary of State.  So I don’t have a timeline for you.  I just wanted to convey that historically the timeline has been around the spring.

Q    Thank you.

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Go ahead, in the back.

Q    Thanks, Jen.  A couple on the economic (inaudible) and then one on immigration.  When you look at the American Rescue Plan, $350 billion for state and local governments, but when you hear from economists all across — for example, Moody’s says that number should be $100- to $150 billion.  AEI says strong case for $100- to $200 billion.  Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says $225 billion.  That’s a big gap to get up to $350 billion.  So can you explain why the White House believes that should be the number, and why not bring it down and/or maybe use the money elsewhere?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, to throw some data back atcha: 1.3 million state and local government jobs have been lost since the beginning of the pandemic.  The people we’re listening to are the 400 mayors, Democrats and Republicans, who have conveyed clearly that they need assistance, they need funding to ensure that they can keep cops on the beat, they can keep firefighters employed, and they can keep state and local governments functioning.  We’re still at the height of a pandemic.  The pandemic has not concluded at this point in time.  And they’re also looking ahead to what their needs are down the road.

We’ve also — you know, we proposed, as you said, $360 billion for this package, and we also — and let me add one more statistic, sorry.  Thirty-two states have revenue shortfalls compared to last year. 

So it’s clear there is a need out there, and we are not going to recover from this pandemic tomorrow.  The economic recession will not be recovered tomorrow.  And so it’s important that we listen to and work with the state and local leaders on what their needs are on the ground.

I’ll also note that while we proposed $300 billion — more than $300 billion in our package, there was a proposal of zero from Republicans.  So there wasn’t really a negotiation on this.  This is — we were meeting the needs and the requests of state and local leaders, consistent with what we’ve seen statistically about the job losses.

Q    And on the issue of direct payments, I know you said you can’t predict the future, obviously.  Jen had asked about the need potentially for another check down the line.  But there was a letter that was sent yesterday from 10 — I believe the number was — Democratic senators asking for recurring payments; not one-offs, but recurring.  Does President Biden support the idea of recurring direct payments at this time?

MS. PSAKI:  Payments as a part of the rescue plan, or as kind of a —

Q    The (inaudible) Build Back Better.

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, as a future?

Q    Whenever the Build Back Better plan is released, they calling on recurring payments being a part of that.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I will say there are a lot of ideas that will be put forward.  The President has already started engaging and talking with members and outside groups and stakeholders about what they’d like to see moving forward.

But I — I’m not going to get ahead of the agenda at this point in time.

Q    And on immigration: Since January 25th, at least 108 migrants have tested positive for COVID-19 after crossing the border.  In some cases, they’ve been allowed to hop on buses down for points across the country. 

A couple of questions on this.  One, what is the administration doing to make sure that this doesn’t contribute to spreading of COVID-19?  And is the administration looking at maybe creating shelters for people who test positive?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, first, the majority of people who come to the border — families, adults — are turned away, and that remains the case because we are still abiding by Title 42 at the border. 

In the narrow and limited instances in which migrants are placed in alternatives to detention while their cases are being adjudicated, testing for COVID-19 is done at the state and local level and with help of NGOs and local governments.  So that is a consistent part of our approach and what we do as migrants come in at the border. 

Of course, our guidance, regardless of status, is — testing positive for COVID-19 or experiencing COVID-like symptoms — is to isolate, continue to social distance, wear a mask, and seek medical attention if needed.  But as a part of our process, individuals are — who are adjudicated are tested for COVID-19, in partnership with state and local authorities.

Q    There’s no need to isolate to make sure that they don’t —

MS. PSAKI:  Well, certainly isolation — or isolating, quarantining is a part of — is a part of what our recommended health guidelines are, and certainly part of what happens at the border when there are symptoms that are displayed and when testing is done.

Go ahead.  Oh, sorry.  I didn’t go to April.  I’m sorry.  Go ahead, April.

Q    Yeah, but I had a question from the —

MS. PSAKI:  She just hasn’t had a question yet.  I’m — I’ll come right back to you.  I promise. 

Q    April hasn’t had a question yet.

Q    Okay. 

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead.

Q    Hi, Jen.

MS. PSAKI:  April, you’ve been so quiet back there.  I apologize.

Go ahead.

Q    Okay.  Well, you may not think after I ask all of these questions.

MS. PSAKI:  Oh.  Go ahead.  Go ahead.  We’re not in a rush.

Q    I have a couple of questions —

MS. PSAKI:   Okay.

Q    — on several different topics.  Going back to the issue of vaccines, when is this administration expecting herd immunity?  And I ask that because there are still populations in this nation that are not running to this vaccine, even though you’re — or these vaccines, even though you’re flooding the zone.  Is there a concern that herd immunity will not be reached at the time that you are hoping for because of this mindset in certain communities?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I’m not going to make a prediction about herd immunity, but I will say that you’re touching on an incredibly important point in that, now that we’re at the stage where the President just announced we’ll have enough vaccines to vaccinate all of the American people by the end of May, we will eventually reach a point — to your point, April — where we will have more vaccines than people who want vaccines.  That feels hard to believe at this moment in time, but we are focused on — we are concerned about the level of vaccine hesitancy in a range of communities across the country.  And certainly communities of color are communities where there’s been a higher level of vaccine hesitancy. 

Now, we are working to take a number of steps.  Of course, we have an Equity Task Force, led by Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, to look at this closely, take the appropriate steps, do planning — you know, plan communication, plan outreach that is going to be effective.  But this will be a focus.  We are, of course, concerned because we know we will reach a point, which we’re already seeing — but we’ll reach a point where we have more vaccines then we have people who want to take them.

Q    So — but at some point, understanding, if you listen to the science — if you have a majority in one community taking it and not a majority in another, it’s all for not.  We won’t reach herd immunity, and we still have a problem.  Is there still a concern?

MS. PSAKI:  There’s absolutely a concern about swaths of the population not taking — not feeling that the vaccine is safe or effective, and certainly relying on a problematic and tragic history that has contributed to vaccine hesitancy. 

So this is a significant concern of ours and one that we’ve been focused on from the beginning, and we will be focused on direct outreach, direct communications, and a range of efforts to help address this and reaffirm how safe and effective the vaccines are.

Q    H1 and S1 — D.C. statehood and statehood for Puerto Rico: Where does the President stand on statehood and the reality for statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico this year, particularly when it comes to Puerto Rico?  Because there seems to be a split in the Latino delegation on the Hill about statehood or some other type of process for Puerto Rico.  Where does the President stand?

MS. PSAKI:  The President supports a referendum in Puerto Rico for the people of Puerto Rico deciding the path forward.  On D.C. statehood, he certainly supports and has long supported — (Briefing Room door opens) — hello — (laughs) — has long supported — it’s nice, fresh air — has long supported D.C. statehood.  I don’t have a deadline or a timeline on that, April, but it’s something he continues to support.

Q    And lastly, on reparations — the issue of reparations and the commission.  We understand that President Biden does support the commission.  But digging into the weeds of this, the commission has before it a chance to either give descendants of slaves —

(Interruption by member of the media.)

MS. PSAKI:  It’s quite a day.  (Laughter.)

PHOTOJOURNALIST:  We’re all going home.  Sorry! 


Q    Okay, so starting over again.  So —

MS. PSAKI:  Go ahead, April.  (Laughter.)

Q    So, basically, does the President support the idea of giving descendants of enslaved Africans financial payouts, which some have said that it would indeed bankrupt the nation if that were to happen?  Or does the President support the idea of funding areas that are still disproportionately negative for the black community, like housing, closing the wealth gap through job issues or initiatives, education, et cetera?  Which way does the President fall?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I don’t think he sees it as either/or.  He supports — as I think you know, April, but others may not be as familiar with — a study of reparations and studying the continued impacts of slavery.  And that’s something, of course, that’s a part of this package. 

At the same time, he understands that we don’t need a study to take action right now on systemic racism occurring today.  And that’s why he’s taken a number of steps, even in the last six weeks since he took office, launching a whole-of-government initiative to advance racial equity; reversed President Trump’s executive order excluding undocumented immigrants from reapportionment count; preserved and fortified protections for DREAMers; reversed the Muslim ban; repealed Trump interior enforcement executive order. 

And he is looking for, in every instance where he’s implementing policies — whether it’s on housing, whether it’s on addressing economic disparities, getting assistance to small businesses — ways to address the long and historic racial disparities that we’re seeing across government programs and across our country.

So he’s not waiting to implement new policies.  He is instituting an across-government — an across-the-federal-government approach to addressing racial inequality.

Q    Does he believe a financial payout will close the wealth gap and the income gap in the black communities (inaudible)?

MS. PSAKI:  I think he wants to see the outcome of the study.  And he supports the study of reparations and what the impact would be.

Q    Thank you, Jen.

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me get just to the last — our last friend back here, and then we’ll — yeah.

Q    Thank you.

MS. PSAKI:  No, thank you.  Thank you.  We wanted to — we’ll blame Doug Mills.  Go ahead. (Laughter.)  Just kidding.  Go ahead.  We can’t blame him for anything.  Go ahead.  (Laughter.)

Q    Two questions, if I may — one international, one in-house question.  International: Yesterday, North and South Korea actually stood together to denounce a Harvard University professor’s article.  He claims that the —

MS. PSAKI:  To renounce it?

Q    Denounce.

MS. PSAKI:  Denounce it.  Denounce it.  Okay.

Q    Yes.  He claimed that the “comfort women” during the World War Two were actually not sex slaves, but voluntary prostitutes.  Many Asians and Koreans are furious, especially that the top university in America supports the publication of article under the name of academic freedom.  So will the U.S. (inaudible) increase the tension between South Korea and Japan?  What’s the Biden administration’s stance on this?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m happy to take a closer look at it.  I haven’t seen the article or the denouncements, but I will talk to our national security team and see what we have for you, and we can get back to you directly.

Q    In the future, will there be any, like, trilateral meeting between the U.S. and Japan and Korea in the near future (inaudible)?

MS. PSAKI:  I’m sure at some point there will be.  I have nothing to preview for you, but of course, Japan and South Korea are key components in addressing the threats in — on the Korean Peninsula.

Q    And another issue is in-house issue.  We know today there’s new COVID test rules have been implemented in the White House.  Some suggested that if the White House can provide vaccinations to the White House journalists and cameramen, this daily test issue could be resolved.  Does the White House have any plan to do so?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, let me first say the good news is that we now have enough vaccines to — we will by the end of May — to ensure every American is vaccinated — well, a little bit after that, once they are all in place — including journalists, of course.  And many of you may be eligible before that. 

We put in place new policies.  One, our objective is to protect all of you, to protect the people in the White House, and to abide by COVID-safe protocols.  As you know — and just for full clarity — anyone who is in the briefing room as a part of the briefing room pool is not paying — is not charged for tests.  We cover those tests.  Anyone who is in the pool for the President, we cover the cost of those tests.  And same for the Vice President. 

And our objective is certainly bringing an end to the pandemic and having this room full again without masks, and doing that in a safe way.  So we’ll look forward to that. 

Thank you so much, everyone.  Have a good afternoon.  Or I’ll see many of you.

Q    Can I follow up on Puerto Rico real quick?

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, okay.  Sure. 

Q    Sorry.  Sorry.  This is just — 

MS. PSAKI:  It’s okay.

Q    It’s “niche-y,” but —

MS. PSAKI:  It’s fine.  We like “niche-y” in here. 

Q    Well, the Department of Justice is — has, under Trump, appealed a decision that would have allowed Puerto Ricans to receive supplemental Social Security income.  That — there’s been a huge push, including from the Archbishops of Puerto Rico, for the Justice Department to drop that case.  That has not yet occurred.  And now the Supreme Court has scheduled this case.  Can you tell us what your thinking is on that?  It would free up $3.4 billion worth of funding for Puerto Ricans, whom the President repeatedly said he, you know, supports getting more aid to people in Puerto Rico.

MS. PSAKI:  He did.  He did.  And the President has been clear, and he was on the campaign, that he and his administration will focus on the needs of Puerto Rico and its residents. 

We have been working — we have worked with Congress to address parity in two critical areas via the American Rescue Plan, representing an initial step forward in the administration’s Puerto Rico policy.  In the plan, Puerto Rico will have parity in terms of the child tax credit, which I know is of big concern, and the earned income tax credit, which have been key efforts to reduce poverty and support working families.

We also support legislation to ensure residents of Puerto Rico have access to Social Security benefits, as you noted, and we’ll work with Congress on that.  They’re, of course, separately — just for clarity — as Department of Justice — the Department of Justice would, of course, be able to speak to more effectively than we would on the Supreme Court case.  But as a policy, we are working to address the parity issues. 

Thank you, everyone.

1:30 P.M. EST

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