Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 1/30/13
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:52 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: I have no announcements to make, so I'll take your questions. Jim.
Q Thanks, Jay. On the economy, the Commerce Department reported a contraction in GDP in the last quarter; we've had declining consumer confidence for two months. A big factor in the shrinkage has been reductions in spending in defense it seems. The sequester is coming up. We hear talk on the Hill of just letting that kick in. What’s the administration doing on that front? Are you willing to let the sequester kick in, as a lot of people on the Hill are saying? Or are you coming up with alternative cuts that would ease that pain?
MR. CARNEY: Well, there’s a lot in your question, so let me go first to the broader fact, which is that we have seen consistent job growth over almost three years. Home prices are starting to climb back. Consumer confidence overall has been rising and consumer spending has been rising. But there’s more work to do and our economy is facing a major headwind, which goes to your point, and that's Republicans in Congress.
Talk about letting the sequester kick in as though that were an acceptable thing belies where Republicans were on this issue not that long ago, and it makes clear again that this is sort of political brinksmanship of the kind that results in one primary victim, and that's American taxpayers, the American middle class.
You're correct that the GDP number we saw today was driven in part by -- in large part by a sharp decrease in defense spending, the sharpest drop since I think 1972. And at least some of that has to do with the uncertainty created by the prospect of sequester.
To the end of your question, I would say that the President has had and continues to have very detailed proposals, including spending cuts, that would completely do away with the sequester if enacted, that approaches deficit reduction -- not just the $1.2 trillion called for by the sequester, but even beyond that -- in a balanced way. And the President looks forward to moving forward and making continuing progress with Congress to reduce our deficit in a balanced way.
But we've been having a similar debate now for a long time and that is do we make progress in a balanced way on our deficits, or do we inflict harm on our economy here in Washington at a time when our economy is actually showing very positive signs, and where independent economic forecasters predict that, as long as Washington doesn’t get in the way and do something foolish to our economy, that we should have continued economic growth and job creation this year at a steady pace.
So it can't be we'll let sequester kick in because we insist that tax loopholes remain where they are for corporate jet owners, or subsidies provided to the oil and gas companies that have done so exceedingly well in recent years have to remain in place. That’s just -- that’s not I think a position that will earn a lot of support with the American people.
Q But, as you know, tax reform can't be done in short order. Tax reform with revenues is even more difficult. Is there something that the President has in mind to deal with this quickly? Harry Reid has suggested doing this in increments. Would that be something that the President would be willing to consider?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President has been and continues to be interested in doing the biggest deal possible. Now, that was true when he worked towards a grand bargain with the Speaker of the House in the summer of 2011; it was true late last year when he worked on a big deal that, unfortunately, the Speaker walked away from at the end of last year.
What seems to be true now is that we're doing this, as the President has said, in increments. We've achieved $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction. We need to do more in order to reach that level of $4 trillion over 10 years that would put us on a sustainable fiscal path for a decade.
The mechanisms of getting there are something that we'll evaluate as proposals are put forward. But the President's position on how we can achieve this is detailed and clear. The offer he made to Speaker Boehner, which I think was broadly recognized as coming at least halfway to the Republican position as a good-faith offer that would have achieved, if enacted, broad deficit reduction, remains on the table if Republicans are interested in engaging on that.
So what we can't do is -- I mean, it's disheartening, although we have moved, at least temporarily, beyond the flirtation with default, to see Republican leaders say, I've got sequester in my back pocket. It's not a game. It's the American economy. Or, we should let the government shut down because it would be good for "member management" -- that’s another House Republican leader on the record. I think the American people, those who pay attention to this issue in detail, are rightly appalled by those kind of tactics that do harm to their lives, do harm to the economy, in the name of achieving some political objectives here in Washington.
Q Quick question on the Mideast. Israel conducted an airstrike in Syria, according to reports, near the border with Lebanon. I wondered if the President was aware of that. Does he endorse that military action?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t have any comment for you on those reports. I'd refer you to the government of Israel for questions about deliberations or actions that they may or may not have taken. So I just don’t have anything for you on it.
Q On sequestration, Senator Reid mentioned yesterday taking a look at oil and gas tax breaks as one way to avert sequestration, and I think that’s what you just mentioned, too, when you talked about subsidies. I guess I'm wondering how actively is the White House working on that as a tool for averting sequestration on that specific point. And how concerned is the White House that getting rid of these loopholes would affect what is one of the few bright spots in the economy, all the jobs and economic activity created by oil and gas?
MR. CARNEY: One of the few bright spots? I would contest that. I think there have been, as I just noted, month after month of positive job creation. And there was positive economic growth in 2012 and 2011, and we continue to believe, as outside forecasters believe, that unless actions by those in Washington take us in a different direction, we will see positive economic growth and job creation this year.
So the idea that you need to subsidize an industry that has enjoyed record profits -- that taxpayers have to subsidize it -- just doesn’t make sense in a time when we have to make choices about how best to use our resources.
Speaker of the House Boehner put forward, in theory, at least, a proposal late last year that said he could find $800 billion in revenues through tax reform alone -- closing of loopholes and capping of deductions. So surely what was a good idea then can’t suddenly be a bad idea now.
It’s achievable -- significant revenue is achievable through tax reform. And it has to be part of a balanced approach, an approach which has always in the President’s proposals seen more spending cuts than revenue, and that reflects the kind of balance that allows us to make sure that the burden of deficit reduction is not borne solely by senior citizens or the middle class but more broadly; that asks the wealthiest, including corporations, to pay their fair share; asks people to play by the same set of rules. That’s just an approach that is broadly supported by the American people. And it makes sense, as it did in getting us to the $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction we’ve achieved so far, it makes sense in getting us further along the road.
Q Today’s report seemed to point to the need for growth, obviously. I guess I’m wondering, is the White House -- how actively the White House is looking for -- at shifting the balance from cuts, from deficit reduction, to growth measures.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m glad you asked that question because, as you know, I’m sure, and others here know, every proposal the President has put forward in these series of negotiations and debates with Republicans about deficit reduction have -- every proposal has included significant investments in our economy -- in infrastructure, in education, in putting teachers and police officers back on the street.
Now, every one of those proposals has, by and large, been opposed by Republicans, but they represent the President’s view that deficit reduction is not a goal unto itself; it should be in service of the broader goal, which is positive economic growth and job creation, and that we need to continue to invest wisely to ensure that our economy grows.
Investing in infrastructure, for example, doesn’t just create jobs in the near term; it helps build a foundation for sustained economic growth in the decades to come. Investing in clean energy technologies and industries serves a trifold purpose -- it helps create jobs now; it helps ensure that we will compete and, in some cases, dominate in the industries of the 21st century; and it ensures that those good-paying jobs in the future continue to find themselves here rather than abroad.
So that’s always been the President’s strategy. It’s contained within the proposals that he made to Speaker Boehner at the end of the year, and he will always continue to insist that even as we reduce our deficit in a responsible and balanced way that we make sure we’re taking the steps necessary to allow our economy to grow.
The sequester is a perfect case in point. Across-the-board cuts to education, to research and development would have damaging effects on our economy and our long-term economic prospects. They would also have damaging effects on border security. People tend to forget the sequester is divided in two: defense and nondefense. The nondefense portion includes funding for border security, an issue that is very topical these days. So we should do the responsible thing and make sure we move forward with balanced deficit reduction.
I’m going to go back and forth. Christi.
Q Jay, a 15-year-old girl names Hadiya Pendleton was shot in Chicago yesterday. She was a bystander, it seems, in a shooting in a park not far from the President’s house. A week ago, she was here to perform for the inaugural ceremonies. I’m wondering if the President has heard about it and if you could share a reaction.
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s a terrible tragedy any time a young person is struck down with so much of their life ahead of them. And we see it far too often. The President and the First Lady’s thoughts and prayers are with the family of Hadiya Pendleton. All of our thoughts and prayers are with her family.
And as the President has said, we will never be able to eradicate every act of evil in this country, but if we can save any one child’s life, we have an obligation to try when it comes to the scourge of gun violence. The President has more than once, when he talks about gun violence in America, referred not just to the horror of Newtown or Aurora or Virginia Tech or Oak Creek, but to shootings on the corner in Chicago or other parts of the country. And this is just another example of the problem that we need to deal with.
Q Jay, on that, there’s a petition to urge the President to attend Hadiya Pendleton’s funeral in Chicago. Is that something that he would consider doing?
MR. CARNEY: I have no scheduling announcements to make. I’m not even aware of the petition.
Q Has he reached out to the family?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any communications to read out.
Q And when you look at a tragedy like this, it comes at a time when Chicago has seen such a scourge of gun violence. This is a city that has some of the strongest gun control laws, strictest gun control laws in the country, and yet has seen this -- a real outbreak of gun violence. Does that give us any lessons for dealing with the issue?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think there are a lot of issues that are particular to a single city within a broader state and country having gun laws of one kind versus gun laws elsewhere. I think that’s -- people address that issue when they talk about Washington, D.C. that’s just across the river from Virginia.
But I think the broader point is that, as I just said, while we may not be able to prevent every act of gun violence -- surely we won’t be able to prevent every act of gun violence -- we need to take action to reduce gun violence. We need to take action on common-sense measures that do not infringe upon our Second Amendment rights, that do not take away a gun from any law-abiding American citizen, but that makes sure that we’re doing everything we can in a responsible way to reduce this violence, to protect our children, including Hadiya Pendleton and others.
The fact that we can’t solve this problem entirely doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to solve it in part.
Q And what do you say to somebody like Democrat Heidi Heitcamp, who -- a member of the President’s party, come out skeptical of the idea that the gun control laws are the way to go about this? And she’s not alone. Obviously other people -- Joe Manchin -- several Democrats in the Senate who think this is just not the right way to go. What is the President doing to convince members of his own party in the Senate that are against the measures?
MR. CARNEY: Well, he has had conversations with various lawmakers on this issue, including those who have a strong record of support for Second Amendment rights, and I would note that the President has a strong record of support for Second Amendment rights. The point he’s making, and I think the point that a lot of people have been making, including lawmakers have been making, in the wake of Newtown is that we can do common-sense things that still protect those Second Amendment rights and that address this problem and address it in a broader way than just through gun control legislation, although that’s an important piece of it.
And that’s why you saw the President move quickly, with the Vice President’s assistance and leadership, to put forward that package of proposals, because we need to do something about this.
Q Dr. Harper, Intermountain Christian News. Regarding religious liberty faith issues, a lot of Christian churches want to know about how this relates to the problems we’re going through as a nation economically and otherwise, that would believe that our religious faith liberties -- faith and religious liberties and life come from Jesus, not man.
MR. CARNEY: I’m sorry, is -- I didn’t get the question.
Q Oh, I’ll rephrase that. Basically, the Christian churches in our nation are concerned about the moral decline in our nation and how faith and religious liberty issues and life are crucial, from the Declaration of Independence, and how that they would believe that our rights come from Jesus, not men. How would the administration respond to that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not sure that I have an administration response. I would tell you that the President, as a man of faith, believes very deeply in the importance that it plays in his life and understands clearly the importance it plays in the lives of so many millions of Americans.
Q Is the GDP report good news or bad news?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t think any time you see a reduction in economic growth, that it’s good news, but I think we need to understand what lies underneath it. The sharp drop in particular in defense spending, which is consistent with what we know has been going on in preparation for the possibility of sequester -- that was the case towards the end of the year when sequester was supposed to kick in on January 1st, and now of course we have a new deadline for that.
The broader point, I think, is that -- and I think there’s been some reporting to reflect this -- that there remain even within this report indications, whether it’s housing or consumer spending or business investment, that we continue to be poised for positive economic growth and job creation. And we need to make sure that in Washington, we are not taking actions that undercut that progress that we have been making and can continue to make and will continue to make. We need to take steps that encourage it and foster it and help it along.
And that’s why the President believes we have to be balanced and that we shouldn’t flirt with things like default or shutdown or sequester. We should get about the business of reaching compromise in a way that reflects broad public sentiment about how we should do it, and make sure that -- to a point earlier, that we’re, even as we reduce our deficit, we’re making the necessary investments to allow our economy to continue to grow.
Q And to the point you made about consumer spending and housing growth, you remember because you were, I remember because I was there, when he was a candidate for the presidency, Senator Obama often said that’s not necessarily a recipe for a healthy U.S. economy -- consumer-driven or -- which sometimes incurs debt, and a real estate bubble. We need a broader, more fundamental sense of economic growth and economic stability. Is there anything in this most recent GDP report that indicates that’s not happening?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I haven’t seen anyone suggest that the fact that the housing market has been rebounding from the burst of the housing bubble, that that’s a sign of -- that that’s a bad economic sign. I think that’s a positive economic sign. I think business investment increasing is a positive economic sign. And I think that when we talk about broader economic growth, whether it’s manufacturing or other areas of the economy, the breadth is what matters here.
And we have seen over the course of many quarters now broad economic growth. Not enough. That’s why the President insists we continue to take action. That’s why it remains his number-one priority that we take measures that help the economy grow and create jobs, and that we do it in a way that protects and expands the middle class.
Q I gather this is what you’re trying to say about sequestration -- would be something akin to mindless austerity right now? Is that something that you would agree with?
MR. CARNEY: I think the point of sequester, sequestration -- and I imagine the people in their homes shudder every time they hear us use those words because they sound like Washington-speak -- but the point of the trigger that created these across-the-board cuts evenly divided between defense and nondefense was to make them so onerous that that fact would compel Congress to come up with specific, sensible deficit reduction.
The President put forward a proposal to the super committee that reflected the balance that was inherent in every serious bipartisan proposal, including the Simpson-Bowles proposal. A refusal at the time to allow revenue to be a part of that meant that the super committee did not produce. And the President has continued to push this principle forward. It’s the principle that is broadly supported by the American people and it’s the one that makes the most sense for economic growth.
Q But is it imperative to avoid it at this stage? March 1st is a looming deadline. It is not imaginary. It’s not theoretical. Is it imperative --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think I made clear at the very top here that we disagree with those in Congress who increasingly seem to suggest that it would be a good thing or a welcome thing to have in your “back pocket” to make happen, or to use as a means of “member management.” Inflicting damage on the economy as -- to achieve some political goals here in Washington seems like a very bad idea. We do not support it.
Q Would you send legislation to avoid it?
MR. CARNEY: We have legislation to avoid it.
Q That is along the lines of dealing with oil and gas tax subsidies or something else incrementally to push it out just a couple, three months?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don't -- the President believes that we should be able to deal with this in the remaining portion of the goal of $4 trillion of deficit reduction as a whole, and that proposal that remains on the table is available to Republicans if they choose to take it.
We are interested in avoiding sequester. And I don't want to prejudge how negotiations or conversations or proposals to do that might come forward. But we do not agree with the principle that seems to be increasingly voiced by some Republicans on Capitol Hill that somehow sequester is a good thing.
Q Can I just follow up on that? Unlike a government shutdown or a default, the sequester is an example of something that happens if Congress doesn't do its job. Congress did its job and created the sequester and you helped design it. And you said the point of it was to be so onerous that no one would want it to happen. Well, it sounds like people are rethinking that and are willing to have it happen. And I’m wondering did you miscalculate when you designed this thing that was supposed to be so horrendous that people would be forced to their senses as an alternative?
MR. CARNEY: I could read you quote after quote after quote from Republicans saying how desperately important it is to avoid sequester because of the impact -- the negative impact it would have. And if they've changed their minds, they've changed their minds for apparently nakedly political reasons. Now, that’s not --
Q What would those be? The naked political reasons?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it says here in the Wall Street Journal, Speaker Boehner suggests that having sequester in his back pocket is a good thing, in terms of negotiations. Now, that’s not a positive way to approach an issue that does harm to our economy, and even the uncertainty the possibility creates has contributed to the GDP number we've seen today.
So our point is there are responsible ways to deal with this. The American public believes that we ought to be responsible in the way that we deal -- the ways that we deal with it. And the President has put forward a good-faith proposal that met Republicans more than halfway in the effort to achieve significant deficit reduction in a responsible, balanced way that doesn’t allow for the across-the-board cuts in defense or nondefense spending that everybody understands to be a bad thing. And we look forward to working with Republicans and Democrats to enact that approach, because it's the right thing to do.
Q Can you just review -- are you talking about chain CPI? What exactly are you talking about?
MR. CARNEY: The widely reported proposal the President put on the table with the Speaker of the House remains on the table. And that includes the spending cuts, the health care entitlement reforms, and the revenue. So the portion of that proposal that was enacted when we dealt with the so-called fiscal cliff obviously you take out, but there remains -- everything else there remains the President's position. And it demonstrates that he is willing to make tough choices. He is willing to enact spending cuts, as long as we address deficit reduction in a balanced way. And we need and expect a similar-minded approach to this problem from Republicans, one that serves the American people and the American economy.
Q Speaker Boehner also reportedly says the President told him personally this country does not have a spending problem. Did that happen?
MR. CARNEY: Well, you know, there is a lot of reports about conversation internally. I don’t have a readout of any of the President's personal conversations with the Speaker or anyone else to provide to you. I think anyone who looks at this issue, including the leading deficit hawks in Washington, will tell you that health care spending is the major driver of our deficits in the future. So that’s why the President believed that we needed to address health care spending through the Affordable Care Act. That’s why he has put forward significant entitlement reforms that help address the issue of health care spending going forward.
So I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent -- I’m not confirming a conversation; I’m simply saying that it, of course, is a fact that our health care entitlement spending is something that we need to address and the President has actively and substantially addressed it, and continues to address it in the proposals he’s put forward.
What is also true is our nondefense discretionary spending -- putting aside entitlements, putting aside defense -- is at its lowest level since Dwight Eisenhower. So the President has been very serious about spending cuts. Don’t forget, he signed into law $2.5 trillion in spending cuts, and wants to do more as long as we do it in a balanced way. Because it’s not fair to say that oil and gas companies or corporate jet owners or others who enjoy benefits -- hedge fund managers -- through the loopholes in our tax code should be held harmless while we ask senior citizens to pay more. That’s just -- he doesn’t believe that reflects the balanced approach we need to take.
Q So given the level of nondefense discretionary spending, does the President believe we do not have a spending problem?
MR. CARNEY: Wendell, I’m not sure what rhetorical game you’re trying to engage in. What he said -- I mean, what is true is that we have a health care spending problem. That’s why the President addressed it in the Affordable Care Act. That’s why he’s addressed it in the proposals he’s put forward, and he has addressed it in discretionary spending cuts and he has put forward more spending cuts. There are spending cuts in his proposal before the Speaker of the House.
Now, you can take that and make it mean something else but that would not be honest.
Q On another matter, Jay?
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Q Marsha Blackburn has challenged the President’s comments about skeet shooting at Camp David. She’s skeptical of them and she says she’s a better skeet shooter than he is and wants to be invited to Camp David for a contest. Your reaction?
MR. CARNEY: I have none. (Laughter.)
Q The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre today testified on the Hill and he in part refuted the idea that universal background checks would make a difference, in part pointing to the administration’s record not prosecuting those who have been found to have illegally purchased guns. Can the -- what’s the administration’s response?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it’s a logical fallacy to suggest that universal background checks won’t make a different. We do absolutely have to enforce the law and we also need to improve our background checks system. That’s something that -- an issue on which the NRA and Wayne LaPierre is in a very distinct minority, if that’s their position.
So I also can tell you that everyone here was heartened to see Gabrielle Giffords testify today. She and her husband are going to be the White House later today for a meeting with the President, which the President is very much looking forward to.
Q And when is the President next going to be speaking out on guns?
MR. CARNEY: Well, he will continue to make this issue a priority, and I’m sure you will hear from him on this issue in the future, but I have no scheduling announcements to make.
Q Will he appear publicly with Gabrielle Giffords this afternoon?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have that expectation. He’s just looking forward to seeing her.
Q Jay, if I could move to immigration for a moment. Senator Marco Rubio said after the President’s remarks yesterday that he was concerned that the President didn’t seem to have enforcement trigger that would have to be in place before he’d grant the path to citizenship. And he said his reason for that was that if there wasn’t such a trigger in place, we would as a country face the prospect of having another huge influx of illegal immigration, similar to what happened after the ‘86 law. What scope for compromise do you see on this issue with Republicans like Mr. Rubio? And do you accept the contention that there is a risk of large numbers of illegal immigrants if that sort of a linkage isn’t in place?
MR. CARNEY: Let me say a couple of things. First of all, the President’s commitment to and seriousness about enforcement of our borders and our laws against illegal immigration is demonstrated by the record. And that’s a fact that was echoed in comments by Senator McCain. We have made significant progress in border enforcement, and this President is committed to it. You heard him talk yesterday that one of the four pillars of his comprehensive approach is to continue the progress we’ve made in border enforcement. So I think that’s an important point to note when we talk about this.
The President believes -- and he made this clear yesterday -- that we have to have as part of comprehensive immigration reform a clear path to citizenship, one that includes fines and fees; one that includes background checks, making sure that you meet all the criteria that are necessary, and then you get to go to the end of the line. But there has to be a clear path, a path that ends in citizenship.
Now, in terms of those specific comments, we’ve heard a variety of things from those who are active on this issue in both parties in the Senate and there is not clarity at all, as I’ve heard it, in terms of what the view is on this issue or what would be included when legislation is produced. So we’re not going to prejudge legislation that hasn’t been written yet. But the President believes we have to have a clear path. He also believes and is committed to border enforcement and border security.
Q Can I just follow up? Does the phrase “a clear path” and “a clear path from the outset” rule out enforcement triggers?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t want to prejudge --
Q Will he decide when it --
MR. CARNEY: I don’t want to rule out or rule in something that --
Q There’s a debate --
MR. CARNEY: But there’s not a debate based on anything that is specific.
Q Well, there’s a debate on what --
MR. CARNEY: And there’s been -- I think you’ve heard a variety of things from different members of that group about what that means. And we will wait to judge legislation when legislation is written.
What I think is clear, as Senator McCain said, is that this President, and working with Congress, has been committed to enhancing our border security and our enforcement. That is demonstrated by fact after fact, some of which I listed the other day. And this President is committed to continued progress in border enforcement. And that's an important component of comprehensive immigration reform. The President sees it as a both-and, that we have to do both in order to make this work.
Q But not a precondition?
MR. CARNEY: Again, you’re asking me to make a judgment about something that is not -- does not exist in legislation. I want to wait -- we want to wait and see where legislation ends up on this issue. Our point is the record is clear about the President’s commitment to border security and it is a fundamental principle in his proposals that we need to do more.
Q Would he support a guest worker program for low-skilled workers?
MR. CARNEY: We will look to the Senate to -- or the Congress to develop proposals on this issue if the Congress desires. And we would want to make sure that it protects workers, including immigrant workers and that it is actually based on data-driven workforce demands, rather than political whim. So we’ll -- again, I’m not going to prejudge something that hasn’t been written up in legislation.
First Peter, then Zach.
Q Continuing on the conversation of immigration -- as part of the principles that the White House put out yesterday on streamlining legal immigration, it noted that it also “treats same-sex families as families by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with the same-sex partner.” Is the President willing to give on that issue in an effort to get the legislation passed?
MR. CARNEY: That position is consistent with the President’s views. It is consistent with legislation that has previously been introduced in Congress, and the President’s proposal tracks that previous legislative proposal. The President has long believed that Americans with same-sex partners from other countries should not be faced with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love. So that's -- his position is entirely consistent with where he’s been and where the legislation has been.
Q Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, on the issues of guns versus immigration -- on the issue of immigration he said, “I will work tirelessly to make reform a reality in the Senate.” But he was far less sort of forward and optimistic in his comments when it came to the issue of guns, saying, “I’m committed to ensuring that the Senate will consider legislation that addresses gun violence.” Does the President concede that immigration is going to be a much easier course for him than guns right now in an effort going forward?
MR. CARNEY: You would never hear the President make judgments like that. He does not believe that any of this important work is easy, and if it were easy it would have been done already. So both issues are important. Both issues have the President's support, and he will continue to work with Congress to take action on both fronts.
Q So nothing to be read into that his first trip of his second term was on the issue of immigration as opposed to guns?
MR. CARNEY: Well, but his first -- prior to that, the first big event, if you will, of his second term, was on the issue of gun violence.
So there is an effort always I think to get us to rank priorities. I think the President has a series of top priorities, none greater than continued economic growth and job creation, but also immigration reform, addressing gun violence, dealing with our energy policies. These are all important priorities. And the American people didn’t send members of Congress or the President to Washington to work just on one issue.
Peter, did you have --
Q I was just going to ask one more question on a different topic, though. In remarks yesterday, General John Allen said that a “knockout blow” needs to delivered to the Taliban and other criminal networks to ensure that gains made by American combat troops after they leave. Is the U.S. confident that the Afghans will be able to, in his words, "knock out" the malicious elements of the Taliban without the help of the United States?
MR. CARNEY: Well, as you know, the United States continues to have significant troop presence in Afghanistan. We are winding down that presence, as the President has made clear is his policy. And as we have done that and as we continue to do that, we continue to assist Afghanistan in the building up of and training of the Afghan National Security forces.
That’s the right policy. In the end, there has to be both reconciliation in the long term in Afghanistan, but there have to be Afghan forces that are and can be responsible for their own security. That process of turning over security lead to Afghanistan security forces is already underway, and will continue as American forces draw down.
Sorry, Zach. Yes.
Q Two questions. First, on the sequester, does the President believe that going past the March 1 deadline would be a kind of mortal economic blow like the fiscal cliff and debt limit? Since the administration would have the power to sort of manage the sequester, does it have -- is there more room after the deadline to sort of come up with a -- we know you have a proposal for how do so, but is there room to manage, unlike with the fiscal cliff and the debt limit?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think all of us here today would hesitate to rank terrible things in order of their terribleness. So the fact is we shouldn’t get to that point. And we shouldn’t and, fortunately, didn’t yet get to the point where default was contemplated in any real way this time, because the last time it was merely contemplated it had severe negative effects on our economy.
We've already seen data that reflects, in most economists estimates, the impact of uncertainty caused by the sequester. It's clearly a bad thing. We shouldn’t do that. We should instead address this issue in a responsible, sober way that ensures we move forward with deficit reduction; that we do it in a way that allows the economy to continue to grow; that doesn’t involve political brinksmanship or trump cards or things out of your back pocket, or shutting down the government because it's useful politically. We should go about the business of helping the American economy, and through that, helping the American people.
Q Does the White House feel it has the capacity to manage the cuts so that there is more time to come to an agreement?
MR. CARNEY: I think that, again, looking for exit ramps here for all of these problems is a diversion from the real issue, which is the need to address our fiscal challenges in a way that is balanced and responsible.
Q On immigration quickly -- sorry. The President said yesterday he would drop a bill -- drop legislation you all had been working if Congress can't get its act together in the coming weeks. Can you give a little bit more specificity about what it means, what you’re waiting to see before the President decides whether to do that or not?
MR. CARNEY: I thought you were going to say, can you give a date certain, and I was going to say I’m not going to provide a timetable. The President is encouraged by the progress that we’ve seen in Congress. You heard him make that point yesterday. It reflects the fact that we have a growing consensus in this country behind support for comprehensive immigration reform. And he will -- we will monitor the progress in Congress.
If their efforts to produce legislation bog down, we are prepared -- having done a lot of work on this issue -- to submit a bill on the President’s behalf that would be the President’s bill and we would ask the Senate to vote on it.
We hope that the positive steps we’ve seen taken thus far, especially in the Senate, are just the beginning of a process that will end in legislation that has bipartisan support, that meets the tests and the principles that the President has put forward in his blueprints, that can then clear the Senate and the House and the President can sign. That would certainly be the best outcome in the President’s view.
Q Jay, could you give us the tick-tock on how the President was informed about William “Mo” Cowan, the person who’s now appointed as a replacement for Senator Kerry?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any tick-tock on that. I mean, he may have found out the way the rest of us did when we saw it announced, but it’s the Governor of Massachusett’s prerogative based on Massachusett’s law to appoint an interim senator, as I understand it. So, as you know, Senator Kerry yesterday notified the Vice President, Governor, and Senate leadership of his resignation, which becomes effective Friday at 4 p.m. And Governor Patrick has appointed a successor -- a temporary successor until there’s an election. But I don’t have a tick-tock beyond the fact that it was announced today.
Q He made it clear that it was really more so a diversity pick, picking an African American to fill this post. Any thoughts about that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think the President is encouraged that we have a record number of women and now African Americans serving in the U.S. Senate, and hopes there will be more diversity to come, because he believes that diversity adds to the quality of debate and reflects the richness of this nation. But that would be just a broad reaction.
Q And another question on another subject, back on guns. Former Baltimore City mayor, Kurt Schmoke, is questioning the viability of the ATF when it relates to issues of stemming the flow of illegal guns and controlling guns. What say you with the ATF as it’s been in existence for 75 years, billion-dollar budget, 5,000 employees -- does it need to be revamped? Does it need to be abolished? What?
MR. CARNEY: Well, one thing it needs is a confirmed director, which it has lacked in the six years since that position was made a confirmable post. So the Congress has -- I mean, the President has called on Congress to act swiftly on his nominee. That would certainly be an important step towards ensuring that the ATF does the work that it’s supposed to do and does it well.
Q But this goes beyond that six years?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have an assessment to make of that. I would point you to relevant agencies, including the Department of Justice. But one step that we need to take right away that seems fairly simple is for the Senate to confirm the head of the ATF.
Q Thanks. Back to the GDP for a moment. The economy coming to a standstill in the fourth quarter, is the magnitude enough to cause the administration to lower its economic growth forecast going forward, or is it not enough?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don't make those forecasts, and I would point you to forecasts of independent and outside economists about the potential, anyway, the expectation, anyway, that this year we’ll see continued economic growth and job creation.
The one caveat in our view is that we believe that will happen as long as Washington -- and in this case, Congress and in particular Republicans in Congress -- don't inflict wounds on the economy unnecessarily. Most, I think, Americans believe that at the very least, Washington when it comes to the economy should do no harm, but they actually expect more. They expect us to enact policies that are sensible, that help the economy grow, that reduce the deficit in a responsible and balanced way. And that's the approach the President has always taken.
In terms of forecasts, I’ll leave it to the professionals.
Q Obviously, a lot of heightened concern in Israel about chemical weapons and the status of chem-bio weapons in Syria. One defense official -- you may not have seen this -- said government-controlled -- Syrian government-control of weapons and of poison gas could change at any time. Have we had a continuous confidence-building eyes on the status of --
MR. CARNEY: We are constantly monitoring Syria’s proliferation-sensitive materials. That includes, obviously, chemical weapons and facilities. And we believe that Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile remains under Syrian government control. This goes not to contemporary reports, but reports in the past. I can say that we have seen no information to confirm reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, but we are constantly monitoring that. The President has made clear what his red lines are with regards to the use of or proliferation of chemical weapons.
So, again, we monitor it regularly.
Q Just a quick follow on the gun -- there have been 72,000 cases where -- in 2010, just a single year -- 72,000 people were denied gun purchases based on background checks. So in other words, 72,000 people illegally tried to buy a gun in 2010, but only 62 of those cases were referred for prosecution. Why are so few of the current gun laws being prosecuted?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think part of the overall approach here needs to be enforcement of the laws that we have, and that includes making a background check system that is not complete, that has enormous loopholes like the capacity for somebody not to submit to a background check if they go to a gun show or buy from a private seller. So identifying a problem does not refute that there are other problems.
Q But this is 72,000 people who tried to buy a gun illegally -- 72,000 -- and only 62 were prosecuted.
MR. CARNEY: And I think that’s part of an issue that needs to be addressed. But the citing of that statistic is designed to divert attention from another issue that is part of this, which is the need for broader and universal background checks, a position that --
Q But is that a problem?
MR. CARNEY: Sure, we need to enforce the law. But I’m not going to get into discretion in enforcement. That’s something I would direct to the Department of Justice.
But as we heard earlier, this is being pushed as a reason not to do something that the overwhelming majority of the American people support. And those kind of tactics I don’t think are the right ones when the goal here should be working together to address the problem of gun violence.
Q Thanks, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Donovan, last one.
Q Jay, just to follow up on that -- actually, these statistics are being cited by Mayor Bloomberg in New York as part of the problem.
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t understand the point. The fact that there are other -- there are a variety of things we need to do doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do -- at least when it was first raised with me -- that we shouldn’t do background checks because there needs to be more prosecutions of those who violate background check laws. I don’t think -- this is not an either/or in our view. We need to do a host of things that address this problem.
Q So you’re -- the administration is committed to increasing the number of --
MR. CARNEY: Again, I would refer you to -- I don’t want to make declarations about law enforcement from here. I would refer you to the Justice Department. But the issue here is that we need to address all of these problems, and that includes through legislation that would universalize background checks, make the system -- rid it of the kinds of loopholes that allow people to
-- why somebody who is a gun shop owner who participates in the system and goes through it does that and then those who do it privately in their homes or at gun shows don’t doesn’t make any sense and it definitely undermines the desired effect of the system.
So, again, we have -- the whole point of the President’s approach, the broad approach to this was to acknowledge that there are a host of problems that we need to address and he’s committed, as you’ve seen him say, to addressing it in a broad way.
Q Would you acknowledge people could be skeptical about a new law when the current ones aren’t being enforced?
MR. CARNEY: Look, I think that making our background checks universal, making sure that everybody plays by the same rules is something that is broadly supported around the country. That fact does not mean that we shouldn’t do other things to address this problem. And I think that the skepticism you’re hearing are from quarters who don’t want to do anything on this issue, because this particular --
Q Not Mayor Bloomberg.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I agree, but this -- but I think Mayor Bloomberg would say that we need universal background checks.
Q But also enforce existing law.
MR. CARNEY: And I’m not arguing with that. I think the point is that we need to do a lot of things, and one thing we shouldn’t do is say because we have other problems we shouldn’t address the universal background check system, which is a clear way to improve the system and which is broadly supported by the American people.
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