Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 12/04/2012
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:03 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: I have no personnel announcements to make, and I’ll leave it at that.
MR. CARNEY: Actually, I am on a tight schedule today, so -- I have a meeting.
Q So do I. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Well, good. We can move through this with great efficiency. And with that in mind, I will not make any announcements. I think you have seen a list of governors who participated in the President's meeting earlier today. It was a good, solid meeting discussing the fiscal cliff, I think the shared concerns of governors that we address our fiscal challenges in a way that ensures that the economy continues to grow and create jobs.
With that, I will take your questions.
Q Thanks, Jay. Two questions on the fiscal cliff. In the Bloomberg interview, the President was asked directly whether tax rates on the wealthiest Americans have to go to Clinton levels -- 39.6 percent at the top now. Is that an absolute red line? And he never really answered that directly. He talked about a process where rates could go down for everybody eventually next year as part of tax reform. And you talk consistently about how rates need to go up, but what he campaigned on was 39.6 at the end of the year. Is that the case?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me say this. The President has been absolutely clear, as have I, that rates have to go up on top earners, on millionaires and billionaires, everyone making over $250,000. The President made that clear again and again, all year long. And he's made it clear since -- in this post-election period, when we've been engaged in conversations with members of Congress about how to deal with the fiscal cliff and our long-term deficit challenges.
We have yet to see even an acknowledgment from Republican leaders of the fundamental fact that there is no deal that does not include rates going up on top earners. And as the President said in the interview that you cited, and as he has said before, he doesn't hold that position because it's inherently good. He doesn't hold it because he wants to punish wealthy Americans. He holds it because it is mathematically sound.
It is an absolute fact that there is no way to achieve the kind of balance in a broad deficit reduction package, a balance that requires significant revenues, without rates going up on top earners. You cannot achieve it through promised closing of loopholes or capping of deductions. And you certainly can't achieve it through the kind of vague proposal that we've seen from Republicans, which contains no specificity whatsoever, not a single deduction named or loophole identified to be closed.
So rates have to go up. The President believes, and it's part of his proposal that his team put forward to Congress, that we need to have a framework here that envisions dealing with the fiscal cliff and the deadlines we face at the end of the year, but also recognizes that broader entitlement reform, broader tax reform would probably take more than a few weeks that we have remaining here at the end of the year, and that that should be part of a process next year.
But rates are going up. They have to go up. It is the economically essential thing that we have to do as part of a balanced approach to deficit reduction and a balanced approach to dealing with the fiscal cliff. Because he will not accept a deal that has specific cuts in spending, specific cuts in entitlement programs that asks middle-class Americans, seniors, college students who need loans, families with disabled children to sacrifice, to pay a price, on the one hand, and the promise -- the vague promise, the unspecified promise -- of some magical revenue that will appear from wealthier Americans in the future. That is not a deal this President will sign.
Q I understand the process and I understand what the White House is looking for from Republicans. But I'm asking about the President's position, a yes or no question. Is it his position that the top tax rate has to go to 39.6 on January 1?
MR. CARNEY: It's his position that he will not sign an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy Americans. Those tax cuts have rates for top earners at 35 percent. If you do not sign an extension, the rates go back up to 39.6, the top rate. That is a fact.
Secondly, he has not seen a single proposal -- he has not seen a single acknowledgement that a proposal is necessary or will be forthcoming from Republicans that even allows for the essential fact that rates have to go up on top earners as part of a balanced deal.
So we are now where we are in December, and we need Congress -- Republican leaders in Congress -- to be serious about what the parameters of a deal look like. And the only obstacle, or the major obstacle to an agreement, is this refusal to acknowledge that rates have to go up. Because once Republicans do do that, the President believes -- we believe -- that the contours of an agreement are pretty evident and an agreement could be reached.
The President has made clear he is willing to move off of his proposal, that he's not wedded to every detail of his plan. And he has acknowledged in advance that he will have to make tough choices and the Democrats won't get everything they want. But on the fundamental issue of balance and where revenues have to come from, Republicans need to acknowledge reality here, because rates have to go up. That has been a debate that was explicitly engaged in throughout the year. It is a policy position the President has held for four years. It comes as news to no one on Capitol Hill, no one out there in the country, that this is his position. It's a position that's supported by a majority of the American people. And we need to see from Republicans an acknowledgement of that and a willingness to work together towards a compromise that includes revenues that meet the basic test of fairness and balance.
Q It still sounds like --
MR. CARNEY: I'm not going to negotiate the fine details. I think we went through this before.
Q I understand that, but --
MR. CARNEY: Is it 39.8 or is it -- I mean, that's not -- the point is the only proposals that are on the table are ones who extend middle class tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people. The only obstacle to that becoming law is a refusal of Republican leaders to allow a vote take place in the House on the Senate bill. That could happen tomorrow; the President would sign it tomorrow.
It would send great certainty to the American people, middle-class Americans. It would be a great relief to business leaders, especially retailers around the country who want to ensure that consumers out there have the money to spend at their businesses. And it would send a signal broadly to the American people that we can take action on the things at the very least that we agree on.
We sign those into law, those tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people, tax rates return to what they were for the high-income Americans in the Clinton era. When while I saw a prominent Republican senator declare that raising taxes on wealthy Americans would cause economic Armageddon, we know from experience that that is actually not the case, and we know from the Clinton budget in 1993 what the result of that budget deal was and the decisions made then -- the result was the longest peacetime economic expansion in our lifetimes. And the result of it was a situation where President Clinton inherited deficits and passed on to his successor budget surpluses.
Q I'll wrap with this. On the -- if you look at this debate right now from outside Washington, it's very easy to see that this looks like a version of the default crisis, the government shutdown crisis, in which it's going to play out to the end. It will come down to a deadline. Both sides are not just making their positions, but they're campaigning. Is this good government right now?
MR. CARNEY: It's not good government for one party in Congress to refuse to acknowledge what a compromise has to include, a compromised position that is not just the President's position, is not just the Democratic Party's position, but it's the position of the majority of the American people. I mean, I think we've seen data again today that reinforced that fundamental fact.
And it's certainly not good government -- the reference you made to our debt ceiling debacle -- to even hint at the possibility of holding the American economy hostage again to the ideological whims of one wing of one party in Congress. That’s unacceptable. Congress has its responsibility: payment of bills that the United States incurs because Congress passes bills that incur those debts. Congress has to raise the debt ceiling and do it without drama. It should be part of this deal. It should be done. And you talk about something that causes heartburn among America's businessmen and women, and that is the prospect that we would engage in those kinds of shenanigans. Again, that's unacceptable.
Q Jay, speaking of the debt ceiling, does an agreement to raise the debt ceiling have to be part of an agreement to avert the fiscal cliff?
MR. CARNEY: We're not going to negotiate over what is a fundamental responsibility of Congress, which is to pay the bills that Congress incurred. It should be part of the deal. It should be done and it should be done without drama.
We cannot allow our economy to be held hostage again to the whims of an ideological agenda. We are the United States of America. We are the greatest economy on Earth. We pay our bills. We always have. If Congress wants to reduce spending, that should be part of the negotiations that go into making decisions about how we spend -- the programs we spend money on.
And the President is very interested in reducing spending and in reducing our deficits. But you don't default on the economy. We saw what happened in 2011, and it's unacceptable.
Q Did the President have a chance to speak to any Republicans last night at the reception here about the fiscal cliff?
MR. CARNEY: I won't read out conversations. The President and the First Lady met with scores and scores of lawmakers last night, as is the norm in a situation like this. But I'm not going to read out individual conversations.
Q And Speaker Boehner was not one of them, is that right?
MR. CARNEY: I've seen it reported that Speaker Boehner was not part of the receiving line, but the President has conversations with Speaker Boehner with some regularity and looks forward to speaking with him again.
Q Last question, then -- both sides have now given their proposals. You've said what you need to see from the Republican side. What in terms of process now is the next step?
MR. CARNEY: Well, conversations continue between our team and lawmakers and their teams. The President will continue to have conversations as well. I don't have any to preview for you or read out to you. And those conversations will encompass not just leaders of Congress, but business leaders and civic leaders and governors and others who have a stake in the process and the outcome of these negotiations.
But as Secretary Geithner said over the weekend, as I think President Obama conveyed in his interview earlier today with Bloomberg TV, he remains confident that we can get this done. He remains optimistic that once Republicans accept that there is no deal without an acknowledgment and an acceptance that rates have to go up on high-end earners, that we can find a compromise here that resolves the fiscal cliff and takes a very important step towards the kind of broad balanced deficit reduction package that will do enormous good to our economy -- and the kind of package, I should not leave out, that includes targeted investments so that our economy continues to grow and create jobs.
As I've said I think on a number of occasions, deficit reduction in and of itself is not a goal. It should be part of an economic plan that is focused on economic growth and job creation, as the President is very focused on that.
Q Just a second ago, you referred to, when talking about the debt ceiling, taking it off the table needs to be part of the deal. You referred to the economy being held hostage by an ideological view. You're aware that when he was a senator, President Obama voted against raising it.
MR. CARNEY: We addressed that and there was no threat of default at the time. What happened in 2011 -- as we all know, because we all lived it, most of us in this room -- was the threat of default, a willingness expressed on the record and publicly by numerous members of Congress to see the American economy under default and with all the consequent impacts on the global economy and on the American middle class in order to achieve some sort of political victory that was driven by ideology and partisanship.
And that was enormously damaging to the economy, to consumer confidence. We were downgraded, famously. And it is a testament to the American people and the American economy, American business and some of the success we have had working with Congress that we have been able to rebound. The economy continues to grow and create jobs. But the fact is that was a self-inflicted wound and we can't have that kind of nonsense anymore.
Q So it's okay for people to engage in that kind of nonsense if it's --
MR. CARNEY: Jake, I appreciate the question, and we engaged in this a lot at the time and I refer you to my comments about it back then. But the fact that --
Q -- people voting the way that Senator Obama did and except you're using derisive terms --
MR. CARNEY: What happened in 2011 is that Republicans in Congress demanded -- said they would let America default for the first time in its history if they did not get the items on their agenda. That was consequential and it was unprecedented, and the result was bad for everyone.
Q Anyway, moving on -- a few weeks ago, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which is a bipartisan group that includes a lot of Democrats that the President consults with, including Laura Tyson and Alice Rivlin and others, they put out a paper on raising revenue from high earners. They say that there's a middle ground in which Democrats can raise revenues from high earners, Republicans can avoid rate increases, the same amount of revenue. You just don't agree with their number?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I'm saying that independent economists have assessed that. And you can add up the numbers on paper, but when you talk about wiping out the charitable deduction, it's not plausible. When you talk about cutting into the mortgage deduction in a way that taxes middle-class Americans, that violates a very fundamental principle that the President has, which is this should not -- in order to preserve low taxes, low tax rates for wealthy Americans, to ask the middle class to pay the price is not going to happen. It's just not good policy.
Q This is talking about only taxes on those families making more than $250,000.
MR. CARNEY: I would have to look at that proposal. But every proposal that we have seen and every proposal that has been analyzed that imagines that you can achieve the necessary amount of revenue from simply closing deductions or -- capping deductions or closing loopholes does that in one of two ways: one, raising taxes on the middle class by limiting very family-friendly deductions like the mortgage deduction or health care deduction and others, or by taking Draconian action on charitable deductions or others that just aren't good policy or aren't politically feasible or realistic.
It would be hard to explain. I don't think members of Congress of either party would want to explain to nonprofit hospitals, major charities or non-major charities, universities and others that all the contributions that they received in the past will not be forthcoming because of inaction of Congress. I just don't think that's realistic.
Q One last question -- I'm sorry. If the amount of revenue were the same as raising rates, does it matter? As long as the revenue is being raised from wealthier Americans with the stipulation that there's this one deduction that you don't want to take away for charitable --
MR. CARNEY: It is not just one. I'm using one as an example. I'm happy to provide a more detailed response to your questions about this particular proposal. But we have not seen -- and no outside, independent economists have seen -- a credible proposal that says you can achieve the kind of revenues that are necessary for a balanced approach just by closing loopholes or capping deductions.
Q A while ago, you said conversations continue on the fiscal cliff. But a senior GOP aide tells CNN that there are no talks, no private communications of any kind right now -- no back channels, no emails going back and forth. So if this is the case, how can you --
MR. CARNEY: So somebody on background told you that? I just want to point out that we do not -- can I just say in answer to your question --
Q This is more than just one person, now. It’s at least three people who have said that.
MR. CARNEY: We do not schedule meetings for the press and we do not negotiate through the press. We do not, for example, give the press our proposals before we give them to the Republicans.
Q I'm not asking for proposals --
MR. CARNEY: We do not go to meetings with proposals and leak them afterwards, or take proposals from the other side and leak them to the press. That's not the way we're operating here.
I can guarantee you that conversations continue at different levels among different groups. Whether there are emails beings exchanged at this moment I cannot say. But, broadly speaking, there are conversations taking place. The President met with dozens, scores of lawmakers last night and had conversations. I'm not going to get into the details of the conversations. It's inconceivable to me that nobody mentioned the fiscal cliff, but I wasn't present for all of them.
Q He talked with the governors.
MR. CARNEY: I'm talking about the numerous lawmakers who were in the White House last night.
Q Because it's not just one. We have at least three who are saying --
MR. CARNEY: I think I answered -- I understand the desire to try to negotiate these things through the press, but we prefer to do it directly.
Q On Iran and this drone that they claim was a U.S. drone that they shot down, can you give us any more information on that? I know the Navy has said it's not one of theirs. Perhaps it's a CIA drone. I don't know. Is there anything that you can tell us about the drone?
MR. CARNEY: I can tell you that we have no evidence that the Iranian claims you cite are true. I'd refer you to the Pentagon's comments this morning for details about this particular type of UAV. But, again, we have no evidence that the Iranian claims are true.
Q How do you view, though, the fact that they have shot down some drone, whether it’s U.S. or not?
MR. CARNEY: Dan, we have no evidence that the Iranian claims are true. I'm not going to comment on something about which we have no evidence in its truthfulness.
Q Jay, thanks. I want to go back to something that the President was asked about during his interview with Bloomberg. He was just asked about the fact that during his negotiations with Speaker Boehner a year ago, he seemed willing to consider increasing the eligibility age for Medicare recipients and slowing benefit increases for entitlements. And he said he was willing to look at anything that strengthens our system. So can you clarify? Are those proposals that could strengthen the system? Is that what he was signaling?
MR. CARNEY: I will say a couple of things that build on and echo what the President said today and has said in the past. We have put forward substantial and specific savings in entitlement programs, both health care entitlements and non-health care mandatories, to use budgetspeak, including farm subsidy programs and others.
As I said, those savings are substantial and specific. The President has said and continues to say that in negotiations with Congress over the spending side, the spending cut side of this package, he wants to hear other ideas and from all sides -- Republicans and Democrats and from the outside -- and is willing to entertain all ideas. And he has said that he knows he will not get everything that he wants, he will not get every item in his proposal and that he will have to make tough decisions.
I'm not going to negotiate specific items that may or may not be discussed or put forward. I will say, as I did the other day -- I think, yesterday -- about the two that you mentioned, that those two in and of themselves, the savings contained -- projected by taking those two measures are significantly less than the savings the President has put forward.
Again, I'm not ruling in or out discussions about any serious proposal. But my point is the President has demonstrated with specificity and seriousness that he is willing to take steps to garner savings from our entitlement programs, including our health care entitlement programs. He has put forward specific proposals for savings and deficit reduction through increased revenues. What we haven’t seen from Republicans is specificity at all when it comes to revenues, or either an acknowledgement the rates have to be part of it, or any specificity at all -- just one sentence about closing loopholes and capping deductions. And, in fact, the proposal offer that the Speaker put forward says that they want to lower rates for the wealthy; not just leave them alone, but lower them.
Secondly, while there has been a little more detail from Republicans on entitlement reform, we’re not going to do one without the other. The President has been very clear that we are not going to sign on to a deal that locks in sacrifice from the middle class, that locks in sacrifice from senior citizens or families with disabled children on the one hand, and then has as its other element a vague promise of tax reform and closure of loopholes that may or may not produce revenue from the wealthy. You know why? Because whenever that happens, the middle class is left holding the bag.
Q But on that specific point, are those two points a possible compromise?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think I just said the President is willing to discuss serious proposals put forward --
Q So, yes?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not going to negotiate on any specific -- I’m not saying yes or no. I’m just saying that the President looks forward to negotiating and discussing specific serious proposals for spending cuts, including cuts in health care entitlement programs that might be put forward by Republicans or Democrats.
But there is no deal to be had on the spending side without an acknowledgement and an acceptance by Republican leaders that rates have to go up on top earners as part of a balanced approach.
Q The President also said that he didn’t think it was possible to get a comprehensive reform package on taxes and entitlements in the next two weeks, that that would essentially need to be done within the next year. And I guess the question is what would be included in this plan that would compel Congress to act in a year when they haven’t been able to make some of those tough decisions up until this point?
MR. CARNEY: Well, there’s a long history of mechanisms that are set up in this way, including under President Reagan and others. And I think if there’s one area of agreement that we’ve seen between Republicans and Democrats and the White House on how we would move forward structurally here in terms of the framework, it is that it would have that sort of two-step aspect to it that -- a part that would we lock in before the end of the year here and a part that would be further negotiated next year.
Q Would it be another version of a sequester?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to get into the details of a deal that has not been negotiated. But I think there are a variety of ways that you could do this as envisioned I think by both Republicans and Democrats.
Q And one on Syria, Jay. Yesterday, you, the President, Secretary of State talked about the increased concern over Assad’s actions. Given this increased concern, has the President and the Secretary of State started to more seriously consider arming the rebels, no-fly zone, any of those other alternatives?
MR. CARNEY: Our position on that issue has not changed, but we think it is important to prepare for all scenarios. Contingency planning is the responsible thing to do, and we are also actively consulting with friends and allies and the opposition on this issue. But we continue to believe that a political resolution is the best resolution in Syria.
Q Do you have any indication that Assad got the President’s message yesterday and took it to heart, and that the government forces did?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I mean, I didn’t obviously have any direct conversations with members of the -- I haven’t seen any -- it would be hard for me to imagine that they’re not fully aware of the seriousness of the President’s position on this, the seriousness with which we would take the prospect of the use of chemical weapons. And I think that message was delivered very clearly by the President, by others in the administration and others around the world.
So we continue to say that if the Assad regime makes the tragic mistake of using chemical weapons, or fails to meet their obligations to secure chemical weapons, there will be consequences, and the regime will be held accountable.
Q Can I follow up on that, Jay?
MR. CARNEY: Sure.
Q You’ve got a loophole there. Are you saying that they have to use the weapons first before the world can do anything? Preparations to make sarin gas are not enough?
MR. CARNEY: I will just repeat what I said, Connie. If the Assad regime makes the tragic mistake of using chemical weapons or fails to meet their obligations to secure them, there will be consequences and the regime will be held accountable. The President spoke about this very explicitly -- we had this conversation yesterday -- about another component of this is proliferation. So it’s either use by Syria or proliferation of its chemical weapons stockpiles.
Q You said earlier on the fiscal cliff that the President is focused on economic growth. I think in answer to Ben you said it’s economically important to raise these tax rates on the rich. I seem to recall when the President extended all the Bush tax rates in 2010, one of his reasons publicly was that you don’t raise taxes in the middle of a downturn. So given the fact that the economy is still coming along to the point that you want to stimulate it with some new spending, what’s the economic justification for raising taxes right now?
MR. CARNEY: The fact of the matter is that it is vitally important that we extend and, in the President’s view, make permanent tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people. The President would like to see that done tomorrow and would sign it right away. The only obstacle here is the refusal of Republicans in the House to accept that premise.
Secondly, while we are continuing to dig ourselves out of the mess of the Great Recession, the economy has continued to grow and has continued to create jobs. But it is certainly the President’s position that you have to address this broader deficit reduction goal in a way that does not achieve deficit reduction as a goal unto itself, and in a way that harms the economy or harms growth.
In fact, the only reason why we’re having this discussion about the fiscal cliff is because I think there is a shared concern about the impact of tax hikes of the magnitude that would result if you don't extend tax cuts for the middle class and across-the-board spending cuts of the size envisioned in the sequester on the economy because that is using an unfair and blunt device to reduce our deficit.
So we need to do this in a balanced way. And what economists universally agree is that tax cuts for middle-class Americans, tax cuts for 97 percent of small businesses have far greater positive economic impact than tax cuts for the wealthiest of Americans because the tax cuts to ordinary folks tend to go right back into the economy in the most immediate and beneficial way.
And I think that -- it is important every time we talk about this debate that we are talking about 98 percent of the American people -- 98 percent. And 100 percent of the American people -- Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, everybody would get a tax cut if the tax cuts are extended for the top 98 percent. They would just pay more on income above $250,000. But they would benefit from lower rates on income below $250,000.
So, Ed, maybe you make $300,000. I don't know. I hope it’s more. But you would get a tax cut on the first $250,000 of your income, okay? And you would only pay a higher rate on the last $50,000. (Laughter.) So that's another -- but the point is there’s the canard about small businesses the Republicans like to throw out, and it’s been refuted again and again and again by outside independent experts, and we just take issue with the supposition that small businesses by any one -- any common definition out on Main Street, include hedge fund managers, include law partners. The small businesses we need to help most are the ones that have been helped by the President’s numerous tax cuts and tax credits for small businesses. And it would be helped by extension of tax cuts for those earning less than $250,000.
Q You were saying earlier -- not good government for one party to dig in. How can it be good government then when Speaker Boehner puts a plan on the table, and this White House basically says, it’s so ridiculous -- in your words -- that you’re not even going to do a counter offer? Where’s the leadership to say, okay, we don't like that, but here’s a counter? Why can't you put something else --
MR. CARNEY: We are not going to negotiate with ourselves over --
Q He put a plan on the table, you have to admit.
MR. CARNEY: He put a couple of sentences on -- that's not a plan to say that we’re going to magically reduce -- increase revenue through loophole closures and deduction caps with not a single element of specificity. So we don't know who pays. We don't know what we’re talking about in terms of actual legislation to increase revenues. It’s magic beans and fairy dust.
The President has put forward a specific proposal. I acknowledge that while not with any great specificity, there’s a little more meat on the bones in terms of their proposals on the spending cuts side. When it comes to revenues, it doesn't meet the test of balance or the necessary test of specificity.
Q But the fact that he at least put $800 billion in revenues, which Republicans haven’t wanted to do -- there’s now a piece of paper where the Speaker of the House is for -- whether it’s specific or not. I’m just saying, he’s for revenues, which -- that's movement by Republicans. Would you at least say that's a step towards where you are?
MR. CARNEY: I would acknowledge that, broadly speaking, in the wake of the election, the acknowledgement from many Republicans, including the Speaker of the House, that revenue from the wealthy have to be part of this is progress. But it is not enough progress to achieve a deal. The President has been very clear that rates have to go up. It is the only way to achieve the kind of revenue target that allows for a balanced package of deficit reduction. And it’s the only way to ensure that the middle class doesn't get stuck holding the bag, as it has traditionally in these kinds of deals in the past when promises of revenues -- gauzy promises of revenues -- have been paired with very specific cuts that affect real people around the country.
Q We all know you’re very stylish, and supposedly you’re a reader of Vogue Magazine, I’m sure. Anna Wintour going be the ambassador to the United Kingdom?
MR. CARNEY: MRS. OBAMA: I have no personnel announcements to make, and I’ll leave it at that.
Q You just said “magic beans and fairy dust.” (Laughter.) Is that what the White House is talking to the Republicans about then?
MR. CARNEY: No, we are continuing to engage, broadly speaking, with stakeholders about how we move this process forward. I think it is fair to say that --
Q So it’s serious enough --
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s fair to say that perhaps separate -- either separate from or in addition to the proposal that was provided to the press prior to --
Q And the White House --
MR. CARNEY: -- prior to us receiving it, there are others -- there are other conversations happening about how we achieve a deal and a compromise.
I’m not going to read out specific conversations. And I think the stakeholders involved in this process are broader than those you all envision meeting in the Roosevelt Room, because this is a process that affects far more people than the denizens of Washington. And the President is continuing to push the process forward.
We know what the contours of an agreement look like. We simply hope that Republican leaders in Congress acknowledge the fundamental fact that rates have to go up on the top 2 percent in order to make sure that a deal is balanced and doesn't leave the middle class or seniors bearing the burden of these important economic goals.
Q Speaking of burdens, Ben and I are burdened by the inability to understand exactly what the President was conveying on this question of rates, all right? Because it’s not immaterial -- hold up. No, it’s not immaterial --
MR. CARNEY: To quote Warren Buffett, let me unburden you.
Q It’s not immaterial to Republicans who look at this, okay? He said there’s a two-stage process, leaving open the possibility of reexamining rates in the context of tax reform. Ben asked, and I repeat, on behalf of that clarity for the present, is it the President’s position that now to avert the fiscal cliff, at least as it relates to the middle-class tax cuts, rates have to go the Clinton-era rates now?
MR. CARNEY: Right.
Q Then they can be revisited. Not revisited now or tweaked in any way less than that now, but later -- and only later?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it has been a desire on the specific point to have me make, again, proposals and offers to the Republicans that I’m not going to do. The President’s position --
Q Given that opportunity to set that marker, you are deferring?
MR. CARNEY: We’re not going to -- there is a reality here, which is that these tax cuts expire on December 31st. And the fact of the matter is, when it comes to raising rates, we’re not even asking Republicans to vote for a tax hike on the top 2 percent. We’re asking them to simply acknowledge that rates should -- as legislated by Congress in bills written by Republicans allow those tax cuts to expire because we can't afford them anymore.
I mean, you don't need the economic lecture. You and I both covered it. Look at what happened to our economy, at least in part, because of the economic policies that were put in place including two massive -- greater than $1 trillion each -- tax cuts that largely went to the wealthiest. That's not the economic policy we can afford to pursue any longer.
The President is very clear: Rates have to go up. I think we all acknowledge now -- Democrats and Republicans and the White House -- that a process has to be in place here that envisions two stages, because there’s interest in entitlement reform by all sides, there’s interest in tax reform by all sides, but that is not likely to be achieved between now and the end of the year. But there is an agreement that can be reached that is balanced, that's fair, that commits all sides to tough choices, and the President is very interested in achieving that deal.
Q Last thing. On the debt ceiling, you sounded a bit harder today than you did last week. You said, the preference or demand the debt ceiling be adjudicated and dealt with in this cliff deal before December 31st.
MR. CARNEY: It is Congress’s responsibility to pay the bills that it incurs.
Q Those bills don't come due in this context until February. The White House knows that.
MR. CARNEY: The Congress should do its job. We’re not going to entertain the kind of brinksmanship that some in Congress preferred to engage in back in 2011. And I think that Republicans in Congress have heard not just from us and not just from Democrats, but from business leaders of businesses large and small, that that kind of behavior is so antithetical to what we need in terms of helping the economy grow and helping the American people get back to work, that we certainly expect it will not happen again, and we certainly expect that leaders in Congress will acknowledge that and simply do their job.
It is part of Congress’s routine responsibility to pay the bills of the United States, bills that are incurred through legislation passed by Congress. And Congress ought to get on with it.
Q Thanks, Jay. Two questions. One, is the President planning to do anything to throw any weight behind the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization in the lame duck?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have any scheduling announcements or events to read out to you, but the President is very interested in this and wants it done. And the Vice President, as you know, is an author of the original Violence Against Women Act, is keenly focused on this. I just don't have any events or meetings to read out to you, but it is our position and we urge Congress to act.
Q So as far as you know, there’s no specific --
MR. CARNEY: I just don't have any information to read out to you, but I’m happy to get back to you.
Q Okay. Second of all, I saw that the Obama administration has put the payroll tax cut extension back on the table in its proposal. I know that the White House is doing these “my2K” hashtag tweets to engage the public --
MR. CARNEY: You say that like it’s just the kids. (Laughter.)
Q -- but to engage the public in getting involved in the middle-class tax cut. So why wouldn’t you change it to “my3K” now that you’re putting the payroll tax cut back in it?
MR. CARNEY: Well, that's a very good question. And I appreciate the contribution to our communications thinking. (Laughter.) The fact of the matter is we have been very clear that we believe unemployment insurance has to be extended, and we believe that all of the provisions that are expiring at the end of the year need to be part of the conversation here and part of the discussion. And we are interested in payroll tax cut being very much part of that discussion.
I’m not going to get into the specifics of our negotiations, but I would say two things. One is we fought very hard, the President fought very hard for the payroll tax cut and the payroll tax cut extension. Right around this time last year, I think I was entertaining similar questions, which is “why isn’t the President meeting right now with Speaker Boehner; this deal won’t get done if he doesn't.” And the deal was done. And American families benefitted enormously from it during a time when it was important economically.
And we will evaluate that as part of the broader discussions we’re having about taxes. But I’m not going to get into the specifics of what will be part of a final deal if we can get there once Republicans acknowledge some of the realities that confront them.
Q What about the hashtag?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’ll bring that up in our next communications meeting.
Q Thanks. The President tomorrow is speaking to the Business Roundtable?
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Q Can you give us a bit of a preview of what he’s going to --
MR. CARNEY: I think you heard the President gave you an excellent preview on your network just moments ago.
Q Okay, then to follow up, would you say, or is it fair to say that a majority of the BRT members are largely onboard with his proposals?
MR. CARNEY: I would not want to speak for them or characterize their positions. I think you ought to speak to them. I think, broadly speaking, that business leaders have a lot of interest in some of the items that the President is pushing hardest, which is extension of the middle-class tax cut, dealing with our deficits in a responsible and balanced way, making targeted investments -- specifically going to the proposal that we proffered this week -- in infrastructure, putting people to work building our roads and bridges and schools. This is an agenda that I think is very business friendly, and it’s also very middle-class friendly. That’s the point. It is the kind of agenda that has a broad consensus behind it and is designed specifically to help the economy grow, both in the near term and in the long term.
Q Quick follow-up on something else, Hurricane Sandy. Governor Cuomo, acting for the other governors, is asking for a package of -- it’s about $83 billion. Have they actually made a proposal to the President, or has it been just the Budget Director? And will there be a supplemental coming from the administration this week?
MR. CARNEY: Well, as you note, yesterday Governor Cuomo was here and met with senior members of the President’s team to discuss ongoing response and recovery activities related to Hurricane Sandy. And along with the governor, the meeting included Housing and Urban Development Secretary Donovan, Chief of Staff Lew and other members of the President’s team. On the issue of the supplemental -- or a supplemental, we expect to discuss the ongoing support that the federal government continues to provide for affected communities and our state and local partners.
The administration has already obligated more than $2.1 billion to support response and recovery efforts, which includes roughly $1 billion already approved in direct assistance to hundreds of thousands of individuals affected by the storm. As for a supplemental, we are working closely with our partners in the states and in Congress, but I don’t have any more details for you at this time.
Ari. And then Christi.
Q You and the President have both described the use of chemical weapons by Syria as a bright line that must not be crossed without incurring serious consequences. Tens of thousands of civilians have already been killed in Syria. Why wasn’t the bright line way back in the rearview mirror?
MR. CARNEY: Look, we have been very clear about our policy towards Syria. We have engaged internationally and directly, unilaterally, in support of the Syrian people and the Syrian opposition. We’ve provided humanitarian support to the Syrian people and nonlethal support to the opposition. We have worked with our international partners to help the Syrian opposition form itself and to take steps to prepare for a post-Assad Syria in which there is a government that reflects the will and wishes of the Syrian people, and respects the liberties of the Syrian people.
The fact of the matter is that Assad’s brutality has earned him a dismal place in history, and we continue to work with our partners to help hasten the day when that regime is no longer in any control of any part of Syria. In the meantime, on the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons, we have been -- and the President has been -- exceedingly clear about the red line that you mentioned. And we continue to make clear that, if the Assad regime were to use chemical weapons in response to the fact that the opposition has been making gains and that their brutal crackdown has not worked, or if they were to engage in proliferation, there will be consequences. And this is a grave matter, and one that the President takes very seriously as do our many international partners on this issue.
Q On those warnings to Assad yesterday, can you say more about what prompted them? What preparations has the administration picked up on to cause concern?
MR. CARNEY: I would simply say that we closely monitor Syria’s proliferation-sensitive materials and facilities, and we believe as of now that Syria’s chemical stockpiles -- chemical weapon stockpile remains under Syrian control, but we closely monitor them. And beyond that, I can’t really discuss matters of intelligence.
Q Could you also just say that as the rebels advance, is there concern on the part of the administration that --
MR. CARNEY: Yes --
Q -- weapons of mass destruction could go volatile?
MR. CARNEY: Sorry, I said “yes” before I let you finish your question and I apologize. I thought your question was going to be, as the opposition makes advances, do we have concerns about the possibility that the Assad regime, in desperation, might use chemical weapons and the answer to that is yes. Broadly speaking, we have concerns about the disposition of chemical weapons, but as I noted earlier, it is our belief based on our monitoring, that those weapons remain in control of the Syrian regime.
Q Just a quick follow-up?
MR. CARNEY: Okay.
Q The red line --
MR. CARNEY: I’ve got to go after -- I’ll take one more after Goyal.
Q Thank you, Jay. A red line -- Syria has two big supporters, China and Russia. And they are -- both are holding veto powers at the United Nations. So where do Syrian people go or expect to if China and Russia continue to support the Assad regime?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think we’ve noted that the opposition has made gains that the Assad regime continues to lose -- having lost all credibility with its people, continues to lose control over Syria. It is no mystery that we were very disappointed in the failure of the Security Council because of a lack of agreement by some members to take concerted action through the Security Council against Assad. But we continue to work through the Friends of Syria and with our other international partners to pressure Assad to assist the people of Syria and the opposition, and that work continues.
Q -- with Russia and China?
MR. CARNEY: I think I’ve addressed that question.
Q Thank you, sir.
MR. CARNEY: Jon Christopher.
Q Thank you. The world financial community is watching this fiscal cliff process very, very closely with real concern. If the parties fail to reach a deal before January 1, what assurances can you give U.S. investor nations like China, Japan, Great Britain, Brazil, that America will not default on its debt?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we addressed the issue of the debt ceiling and the President’s firm belief that it is inconceivable and unacceptable that leaders in Congress would want to engage in the kind of brinksmanship that we witnessed in 2011 on the issue of making sure that the United States continues to pay its bills and does not default. The President calls on Congress to do its job and to take care of raising the debt ceiling as part of an end-of-the-year deal because this is not something that the greatest nation on Earth should be engaged in, in a regular way where the whole world has to hold its breath to find out whether a faction in the House of Representatives is going to force us into default. It’s just not the way we should be doing business.
Thank you all.
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May 21, 2015
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