Aboard Air Force One
En Route Orangeburg, South Carolina

8:00 A.M. EST

MS. PSAKI:  Good morning.  Thanks for joining us bright and early for this trip to Orangeburg, South Carolina, where the President will deliver remarks at South Carolina State University’s 2021 Fall Commencement Ceremony. 

Just to give you a little bit of background on what to expect to hear from him during the speech: The President is the first sitting president to deliver a commencement address at the school in its 125-year history.

He’ll be joined on stage by South Carolina State President Alexander Conyers, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, and White House HBCU Scholar Javonni Ayers, President of the Student Government Association.

During his remarks, the President will honor Congressman Clyburn, who is marching with the Class of 2021.  The Congressman did not march to receive his degree from South Carolina State College in 1961, as the school did not conduct December ceremonies at that time.

The President will highlight the importance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities — otherwise known as HBCUs — and his work to support these institutions, as well as the communities in which they exist.

Several HBCU graduates serve in senior roles in the Biden-Harris administration — of course, the Vice President, the first HBCU graduate ever to serve as Vice President; Director of the Office of Public Engagement Cedric Richmond, traveling with us today; and EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

In just 11 months, the Biden-Harris administration has delivered a historic $5.8 billion in investments to HCBUs, including:

  • $2.7 billion from the American Rescue Plan for direct emergency relief grants, $25 million of that for South Caroline State, which used nearly $6 million to clear student debt balances
  • $1 billion in relief funds distributed from the December 2020 Omnibus spending bill
  • $1.6 billion in debt relief from the Department of Education, including $29 million for South Carolina State
  • $500 million in grant funding from the Department of Education for academic capacity-building and fiscal stability, including $6 million for South Carolina State.

Finally, the President’s Build Back Better Act — which we’re working to get through Congress — provides $10 billion to HBCUs, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and minority-serving institutions.

And the President’s budget includes $807 million in discretionary funding to HBCUs, a $72 million increase from the prior year.  Together, they propose a $950 increase to the maximum Pell Grant award, which will benefit the 75 percent of HBCU students who use Pell Grants.

I know that was a lot but hopefully helpful in your reporting.  Okay, why don’t you kick us off?

Q    Great.  Thanks, Jen.  Obviously, kind of the big story of the week: With regard to Senator Manchin, did the President and the Senator talk past each other?  Was there a misread?  And how would you characterize the relationship right now?

MS. PSAKI:  The President considers Senator Manchin a friend.  He’s somebody who he has had many candid and direct conversations with.  It doesn’t mean they always agree on everything, but that is not the bar that the President sets for his friendships or relationships with members of Congress.

The President is also someone who has been through many legislative battles, many legislative fights, many that have had ups and downs, but ultimately resulted in victory.  Look at the Affordable Care Act an example, from several years ago.

And he is somebody who is committed to pressing forward through ups and downs, and that’s where we are right now.

Q    Do you expect to talk about voting rights today?

MS. PSAKI:  We do.

Q    Obviously, the President — there is a lot of pressure on voting rights.  What do we — what should we expect to hear from the President?  And what might be the path forward at this point?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, you can expect the President will talk about voting rights and use this speech today as an opportunity to renew his call in Congress to protect the sacred right to vote, which is, of course, under attack from Republican officials across the country.

You’ll hear the President talk about the fact that Republican attacks across the country are not just on limiting who gets to vote, but about changing who gets to count the vote and whose vote is counted.  It’s a sinister combination of voter suppression and election subversion, which is un-American, un-democratic, but not unprecedented.

As you know, the Vice President is, of course, leading this effort.  And there’s a number of steps we have taken to date, which we’re looking to build on, but you will certainly hear the President make a passionate case in his remarks today.

Q    Did the President speak with Senator Manchin about the filibuster and the role that that might play in the voting rights conversation right now?

MS. PSAKI:  I don’t have anything more to read out about the President’s conversation with Senator Manchin.  He was a part of the conv- — of the voting rights group the President spoke with yesterday.  So, certainly, part of that is about the path forward, what that looks like, and how to move voting rights legislation into law.

Q    Jen, let me ask you about one other topic.  So, Russia, they actually put out a list of the various demands that they have regarding Ukraine.  You know, they’re repeating some of the things that you guys have already rejected, including, you know, restrictions on Ukraine eventually joining NATO, but they say that they’re ready to talk about their list of demands as soon as Saturday.  What’s your reaction to that?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, we have seen the Russian proposals.  We’re discussing them with our European allies and partners. 

The North Atlantic Council statement yesterday underscored that any dialogue with Russia would have to proceed on the basis of reciprocity; address NATO’s concerns about Russia’s continued dangerous and threatening behavior; be based on the core principles and foundational documents of European security; and take place in consultation with NATO’s European partners.

As you know, earlier this week, Assistant Secretary Donfried met with NATO Allies in Brussels, and National Security Advisor Sullivan spoke with his counterparts from B9 eastern flank allies about these and other issues.

I will note that there will be no talks on European security without European allies and partners.  We will not compromise the key principles on which European security is built, including that all countries have the right to decide their own future and foreign policy free from the outside interference. 

So, we’ve also — and finally, the last thing I would note, Trevor, is that we’ve managed to engage with Russia over strategic concerns for decades.  There’s decades of precedent here and having these conversations through a range of formats: during the height of the Cold War and in the post-Cold war era through the NATO-Russia Council, the OSCE, and other mechanisms.  There’s no reason we can’t do that moving forward to reduce instability.  But we’re going to do that in partnership and coordination with our European allies and partners.

Q    Hey, good morning.  In terms of Build Back Better: Would the President be more optimistic in the new year with maybe kind of a reset, a chance for Democrats to go back to their districts and get a sense of what’s — of what they need to do come ’22?

And then, obviously, the midterm elections are going to be here before we know it.  I mean, realistically, is there enough time — I know, you’re going to say that, you know, “We’ll see.”  But I’m just curious, is there going to be enough time to get these major legislative pieces through between now and the next election?

MS. PSAKI:  That’s absolutely our plan.  The President wants to see this move forward, as I think you saw in his statement, early next year. 

I would note — not that this was your question, but this is a prominent question we get about the Child Tax Credit, which is a component of this, not the only component.  And if we get it done in January, we’ve talked to Treasury officials and others about doing double payments in February as an option.  But the President wants to see this move forward.  It’s a priority for him as soon as Congress returns. 

It is true that I think when members go back to their districts and talk to people in their communities, they will hear about their concerns about rising costs in a range of areas.  And the price — the case the President will continue to make, and members who are strong advocates for this will continue to make, is that this bill, the Build Back Better bill, will lower costs for the American people — childcare, healthcare, eldercare, things that are impacting people’s pocketbooks on a daily basis.  And we’re eager to move it forward in January.

Q    We’re just about a week out from Christmas.  I’m just curious, with COVID cases seeming to skyrocket in many parts of the country, does the President plan to change any of his holiday travel plans?  And is he encouraging Americans to maybe think twice about doing anything special for this upcoming holiday break?

MS. PSAKI:  Well — as we always say, but I like to preface — we rely on the advice and counsel of our health and medical experts.  I know they’ll be doing a briefing later this afternoon. 

But the good news, as much as we’re going through a challenging time where we’re seeing cases rise, is that we know what works.  We know that vaccines work.  We know that boosting works.  You’ve heard Dr. Fauci and Dr. Walensky talk about that just a few days ago.  We know masking works.  We know testing works.  And so, we’re going to continue to double down on the steps and the approaches that we know have been effective to date. 

But I would leave it to them to announce any changes.  I’ve none that I anticipate at this point in time.

Q    So he’s not changing —

Q    Can I follow up on —

Q    I’m sorry.  He’s not changing his holiday plans yet?

MS. PSAKI:  No.

Q    Okay.  Thank you.

Q    Can I follow up on the new variant?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.

Q    It’s — we now are starting to get evidence out of South Africa, as what we’re seeing in Europe, about how it’s affecting not only people’s health, but their economies.  Does the economic team think that there might need to be new measures pushed for in Congress, administratively, to help prop up the economy as the wave sweeps across the United States?

MS. PSAKI:  It’s a good question.  I know one you’ve asked before.  And we’re obviously continuing — constantly assessing what the impact of COVID is on the economy, whether it’s a new variant or a rise in cases in different parts of the country.

They — there’s not a new assessment that they have provided or new recommendations that they have provided to date.  But that’s obviously a conversation that’s happening internally, as we look at not just the new variant, but any cases of — any surges that we’re seeing in communities across the country.  And, of course, we’ll continue to assess any new steps that need to be taken. 

I will note that one of the things that we have done, which is — you know, we, of course, link COVID and the impact of addressing COVID in communities with the economic impact — is we’ve sent surge teams to — we’ve really reupped our surge teams that we’ve sent to a number of parts of the country where we’ve seen increases. 

And just to give you a sense: Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Vermont.  We’ve sent new surge teams to a lot of those areas and communities to help address the rises in cases.  And we’ll continue to assess and do that as well.

Q    And then on — I’m sorry.  Go ahead.

Q    A question about immigration reform and the Senate parliamentarian’s decision on that.  Does the White House have any comment on that?  Does that mean Democrats have to find a new legislative pathway?  And how hard would you like them to push on that?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, the decision by the parliamentarian is deeply disappointing and relegates millions to an uncertain and frightening future.  The President, the administration, and our partners on the Hill vehemently disagree with this decision and will keep fighting to give relief and protection to the many DREAMers, TPS holders, farm workers, and essential workers who are living in fear. 

Ultimately, it’s time for Congress to stop kicking the can down the road and finally provide certainty and stability to these groups, and make other badly needed reforms to our outdated immigration system. 

As you know, that news just came out last night.  And, of course, we would support any effort and mechanism for our partners in Congress to move forward reforms.

Q    Should the Senate — should they just be — I mean, just move — just push right through and do it regardless of what the parliamentarian says?

MS. PSAKI:  I think they are — we would encourage and support any effort that they make to look at any ways to move immigration forward.  But I’m not suggesting we’re advocating for a change in the Senate parliamentarian roles at this point in time.  I’m just suggesting we support their efforts to get immigration reform done.

Q    Is this a chance for the President to kind of say a special thanks to Representative Clyburn after his endorsement from the 2020 primary?  I know it seems like 20 years ago since that happened, but a lot of people credit Clyburn’s endorsement to really changing the game for then-candidate Biden.  Is this a chance for him to say thank you? 

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I would first say that the President and Congressman Clyburn have been friends for decades.  They’ve known each other for a long time.  And certainly he appreciates Congressman Clyburn’s support for his candidacy when he was running for president. 

But he’s somebody who the President has deeply admired for his work and advocacy on the — on behalf of underserved communities, on behalf of minority communities, and just on behalf of the American people and the people in his district. 

So, I would just see it as an opportunity to honor — the President sees this as an opportunity to honor someone who he has had great admiration and respect for for many decades.

Q    On voting rights —

MS. PSAKI:  Oh, yeah.  Yeah.  You guys —

Q    Is the White House seeing any progress right now on getting the voting rights legislation through?  Anything that you can update us on that, on any progress?

MS. PSAKI:  Sure.  Well, the good news is that the door is open to conversation by a broad range of members of the Senate.  And this is a top priority for the President.  He feels that voting rights is a fundamental right for the American people.  He’s eager to get it done.  It’s a — and he is going to do everything he can to get it done. 

He had a conversation with senators yesterday, as you all know.  And I expect those conversations will continue at a staff level, and perhaps at his level, in the days and weeks ahead. 

But I don’t have a day-to-day assessment other than it’s something that there is a broad range of support for and, really, we’re looking for the path forward at this point.

Q    So did the meeting yesterday actually move the needle at all, can you say?

MS. PSAKI:  I think it’s more about keeping the door open to conversation and ensuring that there is — that their members know the President’s deep and abiding commitment to getting this done. 

Q    And then, on the search for the Federal Reserve Board members, is there anything new that you can update us on the timeline on what the President intends to announce?

MS. PSAKI:  I know we are week to Christmas, right?  I don’t have anything to update you on, on the timeline.  It is still something we would like to get done and announce before the end of the year.

Q    Before the end of the year?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I mean, we’re close.  So, soon. 

Q    The President asked yesterday — when he was talking to Senate Democrats — to eliminate the filibuster for voting rights.  Will he call for eliminating the filibuster in voting rights today in his speech?

MS. PSAKI:  The President is not going to talk about legislative strategy today.  He will just reiterate his — make a strong and passionate argument for voting rights, how it’s so imperative and important to the people of the country.

Q    Is there a path forward without eliminating the filibuster? 

MS. PSAKI:  I’m not going to give you legislative analysis from here other than to convey that the President has made clear that his deep frustration with the obstreperous, to use a word — his word — nature of the Republicans’ opposition to allowing voting rights and a range of other priorities to come up for a vote.  I don’t have anything to update you on, on his views on that, at this point. 

Q    Jen, one of the key talking points of this administration has been that the policies are popular.  Given the popularity of the policies, why aren’t they going through?  And why aren’t policies that get public approval helping President Biden’s own public approval at this stage?  What’s the administration’s thinking? 

MS. PSAKI:  On why they’re not moving through Congress?

Q    If they’re popular, why aren’t they moving through?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, I think one piece that’s important for the American people to know and understand is that we have a very slim majority in the House and in the Senate.  And in the Senate, you need every single member of the Senate to support legislation moving forward. 

Yes, the President’s policies are very popular — broadly popular across the country.  But, ultimately, that’s how the legislative process works. 

Now, he also believes that because the Build Back Better Act will help, you know — according to dozens of economists — address inflation over the long term, it will help bring down costs for the American people next year, that it is something we will get across the finish line. 

But he also is not naive about the ups and downs of legislative process making.

Q    Speaking of that finish line, before he left for Rome and Scotland, the President announced a framework that he said would get 50 votes in the Senate among Democrats.  And he used that framework, particularly the climate provisions, to sell America’s commitments on climate to the world at the COP conference. 

So, was he premature in making that judgment that he had the votes?  Overpromising?  How should world leaders feel about, you know, what they’re seeing right now on this bill?

MS. PSAKI:  Well, one of the reasons the President is so committed to Build Back Better is because it includes, as you referenced, urgent action on addressing the climate crisis, something he did talk about on his trip. 

And I think world leaders and others around the world should understand and know the President is going to get this done and we’re going to get it across the finish line. 

And, yes, it’s going to take more time than we anticipated, but that is the nature of policymaking, not just in the United States, but in many capitals around the world.

Q    But was he wrong to say that that framework could get — would get 50 votes? 

MS. PSAKI:  Look, I think the President and many world leaders who are reading this or digesting it understand that, again, there are ups and downs in getting bills across the finish line. 

And what is — what is encouraging is that Senator Manchin has reiterated his support for Build Back funding level — funding at the level of the first framework plan that the President announced in September that you referenced.  And he also supports and is an advocate for lowering costs in a range of areas for the American people — childcare, healthcare, eldercare. 

So there’s really broad agreement on a range of components.  What we’re working on now is the final details to get it across the finish line. 

Okay.  All right, guys. 

Q    Thank you, Jen.

8:16 A.M. EST

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