Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, 2/27/2013
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
11:15 A.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen -- good morning still. Thank you for being here. As you can see, we have with us today the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. You saw him probably over the weekend where he discussed the impacts of sequestration, if that takes place, on areas he oversees in education. So I brought him here today -- we’ve asked him here today to elaborate on that, take your questions on that.
As we have in the past, with Secretaries LaHood and Napolitano, I’d ask that you direct your question towards him at the top. Then, when we’re done with that portion of the briefing, we can allow the Secretary to leave and I’ll remain to take your questions on other issues.
We do have a fairly hard stop here, because the President will be speaking on Capitol Hill around 11:50 a.m., I think -- 11:45, 11:50. So we’ll try to move through this expeditiously.
With that, I give you Secretary Duncan.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Thank you. I’ll just say a couple things and I’m happy to take any questions you might have. I wanted to just start by sort of saying how I spent most of the past couple days.
On Thursday -- last Thursday, the Vice President and I traveled to Connecticut to talk about the issue of gun violence, to meet with many of the families from the Sandy Hook massacre, to meet with other family members who have lost their loved ones. And a really moving, gut-wrenching, emotional day, with just extraordinary families.
On Friday, I traveled to New York City and went to an amazing high school -- you have to take a ferry to get there -- the Harbor School. And it’s just a unique curriculum in which young people -- this idea of college and careers, rather than one versus the other. Marine biology, restoration -- just amazing work that they’re doing. And I think the kind of school we’d like to see be a model for the country.
And then, on Monday, I was with Alma Powell and America’s Promise, talking about the increase in high school graduation rates. And clearly, we have a long, long way to go. It’s still not high enough. But to see the high school graduation rate going up, to see dropout rates going down -- a lot less children going to dropout factories. What’s driving the increase in graduation rates is increases amongst the Hispanic and the African American population. Really encouraging trends. A long way to go. Not declaring success.
But that’s the kind of work I like to be talking to you guys about. Those are the kinds of meaty, real substantive issues that I think we as a nation should be focused on. But obviously that’s not why I’m here today. I’m here to talk about sequester. And what I will try and do is sort of walk quickly through the impact on our cradle-to-career agenda of sequester, and then open it up for any questions.
First, on the early childhood side -- and, as you know, we want to invest a lot more there, and we keep saying that’s the best investment we can make as a country if we’re serious about closing the opportunity gap -- getting our babies ready to enter kindergarten, to be successful. On the early childhood side, a cut of about $400 million. What that means concretely is as many as 70,000 children would lose access to Head Start slots this fall, and as many as 14,000 teachers who teach those children would lose those jobs. And that money does not come from our department, it obviously comes from HHS. But this is just trying to talk about what impacts kids.
On the K-12 side, as you guys know, the vast majority of our funding goes to two different situations. And we always are funding at the federal level. We’re the minority investor. We’re usually 8 to 10 percent of school districts’ budgets; 80 to 90 percent is local. But what we do is we help support the nation’s most vulnerable children. So the two biggest pots there are Title I money, which is money for poor children -- children who live below the poverty line. That total pot is $14.5 billion. And then money for students with special needs -- special education -- and that total pot is about $12 billion.
What these cuts would mean on Title I is $725 million would be cut, and as many as 10,000 teachers could lose their jobs -- teachers and teachers’ aides. And on the special ed side, that’s $600 million, and about 7,200 teachers would lose their jobs. And I’m happy to get into this in Q&A. People say, what if you had more discretion? What if you had more choice? Those two pots together -- about $25 billion -- they dwarf anything else we do. So the only choice I could make would be to hurt fewer poor children and help more special needs kids, or do the opposite. There’s a no-win proposition there. There’s no good answer. There’s nothing I could do to come up with a smarter way to do this. You’re hurting poor kids or hurting kids with special needs one way -- either way you go.
On the higher education side -- a cut of about $86 million. And, again, the President has challenged us to try and lead the world in college graduation rates. That cut would mean for the fall as many as 70,000 students would lose access to grants and to work-study opportunities. And we know -- and I’m sure many of you are paying tuition -- college is very expensive today. It’s something else we’re working on. And if young people lose access to grants and lose access to work-study, my fear -- I don’t know any numbers yet -- but my fear is many of them would not be able to enroll in college, would not be able to go back. And, again, do we want a less-educated workforce? Do we want fewer people going to college in this country, or do we want more? So real clear choices there.
All of those cuts I walked through -- the early childhood piece, the K-12 piece, the higher ed piece -- those are all cuts that would be hitting in the fall. So there’s lots of churn now, lots of -- over the next month or two you’ll see lots of pink slips go out. That starting is still really early on. It’s usually March and April where that happens, but these are all things that would happen for the fall.
The one set of cuts that I think is very important that you understand that hits now, that hits March 1st, are those -- it’s what called for us “impact aid.” And this is a special funding that we do for school districts that don’t have a large property tax base. Again, most funding in this nation comes because of those local property tax payers. There are two populations that don’t have a large property tax base. One are around military bases, obviously. And the other is on Native American reservations. And so, again, these are clearly both children of military families, children from the Native American community who we need to be doing more for and not less. And the cuts to those schools in those districts come to about $60 million; and those are cuts, to be very clear, that those districts have to make now before the end of the school year. And obviously, I was a superintendent for seven and a half years -- all of this is really difficult. I’ll get into that later.
But if I was a superintendent in one of those school districts and had to make these cuts right now before the end of the school year -- what choice, what options, what good chances are we giving them? I don’t know what they’d do. I think the only thing they can probably do is to cut days out of the school year. And I’m going to do a call with these superintendents tomorrow to try and get a sense for how they handle it. But there’s no other way to reduce your costs over the next two to three months that I’m aware of.
Just to give you a couple of concrete examples: Killeen in Texas -- Killeen Independent School District, home of Fort Hood -- 2,300 federally connected children; 18,000 military dependents -- they will lose about $2.6 million in impact aid funds. Two more quick examples: Gallup-McKinley County Public Schools in New Mexico -- 7,500 federally connected children, including 6,700 who live on Indian lands -- they will lose nearly $2 million in impact aid. And the impact aid for them makes up 35 percent of the district’s total budget. Again, normally, we’re the minority investor -- 8 to 10 percent. In this district, we’re 35 percent. So it’s not just the dollar amount; the percent of that cut is huge.
The final one I’ll give you -- and we can give you lots of information if you want -- the Chinle Unified School District in Arizona, the cut would be about $1.2 million. Impact aid funds make up about 61 percent of that district’s total current expenditures.
So while we're having this conversation about fewer teachers, fewer school days, less opportunities to go to Head Start, less ability to pay for college -- other nations, this is not how they’re looking to improve their education system. This is not the conversation that's happening with our competitors in Singapore, in South Korea, in China, in India.
As the President talked about in the State of the Union, we actually want to invest much more in education. We want a lot more children having a chance to have a high quality early childhood experience. We want to make sure that we continue to drive up graduation rates, and make sure high school is relevant, and drive down dropout rates, and make sure all our young people are college and career ready.
Our “North Star” is the President’s 2020 goal to lead the world in college graduation rates. And to do that, we need to make sure folks have access and that college is affordable. So for us to be thinking about taking steps backwards in all of these areas because folks in Washington can't get their act together, and a level of dysfunction in Congress that it’s just like unimaginable to me, I can't tell you how troubling that is to me and, frankly, how angry it makes me feel.
As a nation, we're starting -- the economy is coming back a little bit. In my world, graduation rates are up a little bit. But again, we're nowhere near where we need to be. We need to be building upon that momentum, not taking a step backwards.
And to do something that would have such an impact for children, for families, for schools, for communities, and ultimately for the economy, just makes no sense whatsoever. And I just think the American people deserve something better. Our nation’s children, students, deserve something better. And I just desperately hope Congress can find a way to find some common ground to compromise.
I don't think people ever came to Washington with the idea of inflicting harm on their constituents, but that's exactly what might happen here. And I just hope -- I know we're running out of time. I'm always an optimist. I just hope they can come together and figure out a way to do the right thing, and do it with a sense of urgency.
I'll stop there and take any questions you might have.
Q Thank you. Secretary Duncan, the impact aid cuts that you talked about, are those cuts that can be reversed if the sequester is resolved maybe not by Friday but at a later date?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I think we would be able to restore that money. I should confirm that for you -- yes. But again, they have to start making those cuts. They don't have months to -- like these other -- the other cuts we're talking about are for the fall, so folks can think these are cuts -- this money has to come out of their budget over the next -- in the next three months. So I think they will start making those cuts. In fact, I know they’re going to start making those cuts as of next week.
MR. CARNEY: Major.
Q Did the school districts suffering the impact aid -- loss of aid -- convey to you that the only real option they have is to eliminate school days? Have you had conversations with them specifically about that?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I have not. I'm actually doing a conference call with all of them tomorrow, so I can come back with further information on that. I'm just putting on my superintendent’s hat, and with whatever -- three months left in the school year and you have to take out a big part of your budget, most school districts, 80 percent of their budget is people. And again, as you guys all know this, it’s not like we're coming at the sequester coming from flush times. School districts have been hit really, really hard these past couple of years.
We saved about 300,000 jobs through the Recovery Act, which we were very, very proud to do, obviously with the President’s leadership and Congress’s support. But as a nation, we'd lost about 300,000 teacher jobs. That's what we netted out.
So with a couple months to go, all you can do is, I think, cut salaries and cut days out. Maybe there are more -- maybe there’s a more creative idea. I’ll have a much better sense tomorrow. But I can’t envision how you take out that percentage of your budget right now.
Q So your sense is that this is one of the cuts that could be noticed almost immediately.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: It will be noticed immediately. The others are more for the fall. This one is going to play out over the next two to three months. And let me be clear -- the other cuts impact children and impact schools for the fall, but again, every school district, every superintendent worth their salt, every school board, they’re making their budgets now in the spring for the fall. So the layoff notices are beginning to roll, but there will be a lot more of that in March and April. Class sizes, afterschool programs, the amount of instability that this is being injected to already a very, very difficult job. And the one thing I always wanted as a superintendent, I just wanted to have predictability. I just wanted to know what my assets were and let me figure out how to do that.
But we’re going to force these leaders -- they have no choice but to start cutting people, cutting afterschool programs, cutting days out of the school year. They have to start to put all those plans into effect now. They’re planning for the fall. It’s not like they can wait until August 31st to plan for the opening of school. That’s not how the world works.
And so it’s important for you guys to understand the magnitude of the uncertainty that Congress has now put upon educational leaders at every level -- early childhood, K-12, higher ed -- around the country.
MR. CARNEY: Ed.
Q Sir, can you just talk about -- I get the big picture. You’re saying the magnitude of it, it’s a series of bad choices. But the Republicans continue to claim on the Hill that -- you’ve heard this -- that you have legal flexibility, individual Secretaries, different accounts -- PPAs or broader budget accounts, that you could move money around. Have you consulted with your lawyers at the Education Department? Can you flatly say that’s not true?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, first of all, it’s not true. Second of all, again, I’m trying to be very clear: If I had that flexibility -- you guys help me, I’m not the smartest guy in the room -- but $25 billion, the huge share of our money are to two funding sources -- children who live below the poverty line and children who have special needs. And, obviously -- so if you want me to shift, I can shift one way -- if I had the flexibility, I could shift one way or the other. There’s no win there. There’s no upside there. There’s nowhere to go.
And, obviously, these kids aren’t -- the money may go away, all these kids are coming back to school this fall. These kids aren’t going -- we’re not going to have less children in poverty. We’re not going to have less children with special needs. And so to act like there’s some magical thing that I could do or a superintendent or a principal could do. Kids are going to get hurt. Kids are going to get hurt. That’s just the reality.
MR. CARNEY: Peter.
Q Secretary Duncan, if you can help explain -- for years in Chicago and now here in Washington D.C. of overseeing the education systems, you know how to communicate to young people. There are a lot of young people and their families around this country that are confused by the fact that the President as well as the congressional leaders are not going to meet for the first time on the issue of sequester until Friday, after it’s already gone into effect. In your classrooms around the country, if there’s a fight between sides, they meet in the middle of the classroom and they come to some resolution on this. How do you explain to them the fact there is no conversation taking place face to face between these two sides until after the cuts that damage them so badly take effect?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Well, my sense is actually there’s been lots of conversations back and forth -- principals, staff -- for a long time. I think the President has laid out a plan. And, as you guys, again, know better than I, that plan takes on some of his own interests in a pretty significant way. And Congress I think is like parents -- you have to compromise. You have to find common ground. And if folks just refuse to, by definition -- any compromise, no one is going to be perfectly happy. I negotiated union contracts -- there’s no perfect contract. No one is ever entirely happy, but you have to come to the middle.
And my sense, my strong sense is there’s been numerous, numerous ongoing conversations at multiple levels, but at the end of the day, if there’s this one way to do it and there’s not a sense that everybody has got to take on their own base a little bit to find a common ground and make some tough choices, I don’t see how this gets done.
Again, what’s so infuriating to me is this is not rocket science. We should be spending our time and energy thinking about how we reduce gun violence. We’re losing a lot of children -- a lot of children back home in Chicago due to gun violence. I want Congress thinking about those issues. I want them thinking about how we increase graduation rates. They could get this done in the next hour. They could have gotten in done three months ago. Intellectually, this is not hard. It’s just finding the courage. It takes a little courage to go to the middle, to compromise, and to have both sides take on some of their base, which I think is the only way you move this forward.
Q Because there’s only so much political capital that any member of any administration has right now, do you believe that the sequester -- and if this does go through and the capital being spent to help find resolution for that -- is having a detrimental effect on your ability to find resolutions in terms of gun control and other issues that affect kids in your districts?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: I think there are so many bigger -- take on reducing gun violence; take on making sure our 3- and 4-year-olds are entering kindergarten ready to be successful; take on a dropout rate that is going down but is still wildly too high; take on that we used to lead the world in college graduation rates and today we’re like 11th, and then we wonder why jobs are going to other places. All of these are hard, meaty, complex, substantive issues. That’s where I’d like our collective brainpower, political will -- that’s where I’d like all of us thinking about all of these pieces.
And, again, for me it’s not just about education -- we’re fighting for our country here. We have to educate our way to a better economy. That’s the only way we’re going to go there. And so the fact that we are not spending time on those issues, the fact that I’m here talking to you about this silly stuff, and the fact that we may actually take a step backwards educationally at every level -- early childhood, K-12, higher ed -- is mindboggling to me. I mean, it’s inconceivable to me that this might actually happen.
MR. CARNEY: Zach.
Q Secretary Duncan, you mentioned that school districts are already issuing pink slips to teachers. Can you tell us where that’s happening?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: It’s still early. As most haven’t happened yet, it really has to do with union notification, so most of that stuff will start to happen over the course of March and April. There are a couple districts -- one I know of in West Virginia that has actually already issued notices, but it’s just because they have an earlier notification date. And to be clear, the vast majority of this is going to happen April, May, -- sorry, March and April, some into May. And it just sort of has to do with each local district, what their notification system is.
But the numbers -- we think the aggregate number of potential layoffs is as many -- again, this is early childhood and K-12 -- we think it’s as many as 40,000 people will lose jobs. And, again, the only other way you don’t do that, again, I think is you would reduce school days. You could go to three-day weeks or four. Again, you have people and time -- those are your only variable factors, and unfortunately, everything else is gone. So, still early, but you’ll see, unfortunately, across the country a steady drumbeat of these notifications going out, which folks have a legal obligation to do. And the exception to that, again, would be these impact aid districts where they’re going to start to do something next week.
Q But you’re confident that teachers are already getting pink slips, as you said?
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Yes. I mean, I know of -- yes, there’s a district where it’s happened. But again, it’s just because they have an earlier union notification than most -- so Kanawha County in West Virginia. But the vast majority of them will be rolling out over the next two months.
MR. CARNEY: Chris, and we’ll let the Secretary go.
Q Mr. Secretary --
SECRETARY DUNCAN: And then, sorry, quickly -- in that district, to be clear, it’s Title I teachers and Head Start teachers. So it’s these funding sources that are going to get cut. Whether it’s all sequester related, I don’t know. But these are teachers who are getting pink slips now.
Q Mr. Secretary, the issue of bullying has gotten attention of the administration in the past few years. I’m just wondering if you could talk about how the sequester would impact those efforts.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: So, again, as a broader -- I just think we need a lot more time, we need more afterschool programs, we need more extracurriculars, we need more resources. I mean, it’s so ironic -- we’re not even having that conversation today, it’s all about going in the opposite direction. So creating safe communities, creating climates in which children live free of fear, thinking about what we’re doing in the curriculum, afterschool clubs -- all the things we should be doing whether it’s around reducing bullying, or whether it’s around the arts or robotics, or whatever it might be, we’re not even having that conversation, which is, again, crazy to me. But that’s not the world that most of these folks are living in right now. So there’s no upside. There’s no upside.
MR. CARNEY: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. I appreciate it.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Thank you.
MR. CARNEY: We’ve got to get these guys out to hear the President speak.
SECRETARY DUNCAN: Thanks, guys.
MR. CARNEY: With that, we’ve got a little time for some more questions. I’ll go back to the AP -- Julie.
Q Thank you. Is the fact that this meeting with lawmakers and the President -- the fact that it’s happening on Friday basically a concession that the sequester is going to take effect?
MR. CARNEY: I think you are aware that the President spoke with leaders last week. I think he may have had a conversation with them up on the Hill earlier -- just a little while ago, prior to the President’s remarks at the Rose Parks statue dedication -- a brief one.
Q But the same ones that he’s talking to on Friday?
MR. CARNEY: I believe that’s true. This is not a meeting, but he is obviously up there with those leaders and it’s my understanding he had a brief conversation with them in anticipation of the meeting Friday. The President did invite the four leaders to the White House for Friday, where he hopes that they will have a constructive discussion about doing something to prevent sequestration from causing the kinds of impacts that Secretary Duncan just described to you.
The fact of the matter is, as I think Secretary Duncan said, and I and others have said, compromise here in Washington can usually be measured by a willingness of one leader to put forward proposals that demonstrate tough choices by his side, or her side.
What we have not seen from the Republicans is anything like the willingness to compromise inherent in the proposals that the President has put forward. We’ve talked at length about the President’s offer to Speaker Boehner and how it includes not just additional revenues through tax reform -- revenues that are achieved in the same way Speaker Boehner said he would achieve them -- but spending cuts through entitlement reform, including the so-called superlative CPI and other measures. That demonstrates tough choices. It demonstrates a willingness to compromise.
What we haven’t seen, when we hear Republican leaders adamantly refuse to consider revenue as part of deficit reduction, is anything like that same spirit of compromise or seriousness of purpose that I think you’ve seen demonstrated by the President and Democratic leaders.
Q But I just want to be clear, we’re now talking about ways to prevent the sequester from having sort of the broad effects that we’re talking about through Secretary Duncan and others, not talking about --
MR. CARNEY: We’re talking about how we buy down the --
Q -- ways to prevent it from going into effect at all, though?
MR. CARNEY: Well, obviously, the Senate will vote on proposals, or at least one proposal, that would eliminate -- or rather postpone the deadline for the sequester -- a balanced proposal that the President supports; a balanced proposal that a majority of the Senate will support. Unfortunately, a proposal that, while earning a majority vote, is likely to be blocked by Republican leaders, who will thereby be making the choice that we should let the sequester go into effect rather than ask that some special interest tax breaks be eliminated; that we should have these kids who are affected by the program Secretary Duncan discussed, the ones that -- military family kids and children on Native American reservations -- that they will be suffering because of this decision that Republicans will make, a minority in the Senate -- a decision they will make to block a majority-supported resolution that would avert the sequester in a balanced way. Hopefully, that won’t come to pass, but certainly based on what we’ve seen from Republican leaders thus far, that is a more likely outcome.
But as I said yesterday, we remain hopeful that at some point, hopefully soon, that Republicans will understand the need to compromise here, and that compromise has balance at its essence. That’s what the American people want. That’s what Republicans -- a majority of Republicans in the country say they want. So the President looks forward to a conversation, when he has this meeting, that is constructive and that includes suggestions by leaders about how we can move forward towards the kind of balanced deficit reduction that this is all about.
When the sequester was passed into law with overwhelming votes by Republicans, back in the summer of 2011, the idea was that it would never become policy because Congress would be forced and compelled to compromise, to come up with $1.2 trillion in additional deficit reduction -- not spending cuts alone -- in additional deficit reduction. And from the day that passed, the President has been talking about the need for balance in our deficit reduction. That has been his approach all along. It has been an approach that he discussed about in the campaign. It is an approach that the American people support. And it’s the best economic approach for all the reasons that I think you heard Secretary Duncan speak about.
Q I was curious, earlier this week, in advance of these cuts, ICE announced that it released a number of detainees across the country to get ready for sequestration. Was the White House aware of this release? And are you confident that not one of these detainees is a threat to his or her community?
MR. CARNEY: This was a decision made by career officials at ICE, without any input from the White House, as a result of fiscal uncertainty over the continuing resolution, as well as possible sequester. As ICE made clear yesterday, the agency released these low-risk, non-criminal detainees under a less expensive form of monitoring to ensure detention levels stayed within ICE’s overall budget. All of these individuals remain in removal proceedings. Priority for detention remains on serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety. This step affected a few hundred detainees, as you know, out of the over 30,000 currently in ICE detention.
I think it’s worth noting what Secretary Napolitano said the other day, which is that we have made enormous progress in securing our border. We have doubled the presence of border security agents along the Southwest border since 2004, and many, including Republicans in Congress, have noted the progress that has been made.
Much as Secretary Duncan discussed here, instead of talking about taking a step backward in our efforts to improve education in America -- since we have made progress in those efforts -- we should be talking about moving forward. And when it comes to border security, I think Secretary Napolitano made clear that we should be building on the progress we've made, but unfortunately, we're talking about sequestration and --
Q But she didn’t mention that this might be necessary as part of sequestration.
MR. CARNEY: I think she talked very explicitly about the direct --
Q About releasing detainees?
MR. CARNEY: Well, about the direct impact that the budget conflicts that we have here with Congress and sequestration, as well as the upcoming continuing resolution expiration, that they have on her budget and other budgets, and the decisions that have to be made because of that. But I would refer you for details on these specific decisions to ICE, because this was a decision made by career officials at ICE.
Q Right, and you said without --
MR. CARNEY: Without any input from the White House.
Q From the White House.
MR. CARNEY: That's correct.
Q But let me just ask you -- as you mentioned and ICE mentioned, it says in their statement that many of these detainees are in the process of removal proceedings. How are you supposed to bring them back in if they’ve been released?
MR. CARNEY: Well, no, I think you're misunderstanding what ICE has said. They continue in the program under a less expensive form of monitoring to ensure that detention levels, actual detentions, stay within ICE’s overall budget. But they remain in the process for deportation.
Q But it’s possible that some of them might not be brought back in?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, I would refer you to ICE. I don't think this is a conversation that I can help you with in the specifics.
I think I said Steve next.
Q Jay, are you expecting any movement at this Friday meeting?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we hope that Republican leaders will begin to respond to the will of the American people, that they will begin to respond to some of the concerns expressed by some members of Congress in the Republican Party about the folly that allowing sequestration go into effect would represent.
Whether it’s in Norfolk, Virginia, or Newport News, Virginia, or in some of the districts that Secretary Duncan discussed, or on the Southwest border, the impacts of sequester will be onerous and severe. That was, after all, the purpose of designing this piece of legislation, because the sheer nature of sequester, the fact that it was so onerous, or supposed to be, for both sides was supposed to compel Congress to come together and compromise.
Q But you're not sensing any movement?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that we remain hopeful that congressional leaders, Republicans will understand the need to come together and support balance. Again, the choice that Republicans would be making if they don't agree to that is a choice between up to 750,000 people losing their jobs, on the one hand, and asking that some special interest tax loopholes be closed on the other. I don't think that's a choice that seems like a hard one to most Americans. Unfortunately, it seems like a difficult one for Republicans.
Q And Jay, secondly, is the United States preparing to offer direct military assistance to the Syrian rebels, or any sort of assistance at all, as Secretary Kerry prepares to meet with the Syrian opposition?
MR. CARNEY: I can tell you that we are constantly reviewing the nature of the assistance we provide to both the Syrian people in the form of humanitarian assistance and to the Syrian opposition in the form of non-lethal assistance, which, as you know, we have provided. President Obama is committed to helping accelerate a political transition in Syria to a democratic and inclusive post-Assad government that protects the rights of all its citizens.
We are focusing our efforts on helping the opposition become stronger, more cohesive, and more organized. As part of this effort, we will continue to analyze every feasible option that would accelerate a political transition to a post-Assad Syria.
Secretary Kerry, as you know, will be participating in a Friends of the Syrian People ministerial meeting in Rome tomorrow, and he will discuss with the Syrian Opposition Coalition leaders how the United States and our international partners can do more to help the Syrian people achieve this transition. Vice President Biden conveyed this to Coalition President al-Khatib when they spoke earlier this week.
We will continue to provide assistance to the Syrian people, to the Syrian opposition. We will continue to increase our assistance in the effort to bring about a post-Assad Syria and a better path forward for the Syrian people.
Q Jay, when did the President reach out to the congressional leaders to request this meeting?
MR. CARNEY: I believe yesterday or the day before. I'm not sure. Probably yesterday.
Q And given that McConnell today has put out a statement looking forward to the meeting, saying that the one thing Americans simply will not accept is another tax increase to replace spending reductions we already agreed to, just let me ask you: Is there any chance of an agreement with the Republicans if they stick to this insistence of absolutely no tax increases? Is there any chance of an agreement on those terms?
MR. CARNEY: There is no alternative in the President's mind to balance, because what you are asking and what Senator McConnell is saying is that senior citizens, middle-class Americans, parents trying to send their kids to college, parents trying to care for disabled children should bear all the burden of continued deficit reduction while the wealthiest individuals and large corporations who enjoy tax breaks that nobody else gets are held harmless. That is an unacceptable choice.
And where Senator McConnell I think has it wrong is his analysis of what the American people want -- because poll after poll after poll make clear that a vast majority of the American people believe that we need to go about this in a balanced way; that everybody ought to pay their fair share, everybody ought to carry a portion of the burden so that no sector of society is unduly burdened by the effort, which should be an effort that we engage in together to reduce our deficit in a responsible way that allows the economy to grow and create jobs. I think the data on this is overwhelming, so perhaps Senator McConnell might want to check it out.
Q So just to be perfectly clear, unless the Republicans compromise on taxes, there is no undoing these cuts?
MR. CARNEY: You're right that it is absolutely clear that we cannot compromise with Republicans if Republicans refuse to compromise. There is no question. We remain hopeful, however, that not because the President says it should be this way or that Democratic leaders say it should be this way, but because the American people are insisting that it be this way -- the Republicans come around to the notion that further deficit reduction can and must be achieved in a balanced way. We've done that thus far. It hasn't been pretty. It's often been harrowing, unnecessarily so, through a series of manufactured crises.
But the fact of the matter is the President has signed into law $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction. More than two-thirds of that has come in spending cuts. We have now the lowest level of discretionary spending, nondefense discretionary spending, in our budget as we've seen since Dwight Eisenhower was President.
The President has put forward -- President Obama has put forward in an offer to Speaker Boehner additional deficit reduction that would bring us beyond the goal of $4 trillion that includes further balance, but also has that balance tilted significantly in favor of spending cuts. His proposal also includes tough choices for Democrats on the issue of entitlement savings.
That's the kind of compromise the American people expect their leaders to embrace -- not the “my way or the highway,” “no way am I changing my position even though the American people are widely against it.” That’s on the approach that we think people expect.
Last question -- Major.
Q Can you just explain to the American public what might seem to them a bizarre scheduling sequence here? That the meeting occurs after the sequester begins. It’s not before.
MR. CARNEY: The sequester begins I believe midnight on the 1st of March. So --
Q Right, but it happens after.
MR. CARNEY: Well, actually it happens before, because it happens midnight --
Q But the meeting happens after these things begin.
MR. CARNEY: No. It begins midnight, March 1st -- so the meeting happens before.
Q It doesn't -- you’re talking about 11:59 p.m. Friday night?
Q The Hill says it happens at 12:01 --
Q Thursday going into Friday.
MR. CARNEY: My understanding is it happens at midnight on Friday, 11:59 p.m.
Q Okay, it's very close, if it's not before.
MR. CARNEY: The President spoke with leaders last week. And there have been discussions with --
Q And it sounds like this is not a negotiation. You're asking Republicans to come here to surrender.
MR. CARNEY: No. We're asking Republicans to compromise in the same way that the President has compromised, Major. As I just said, what represents compromise by Democrats? A willingness to go along with spending cuts that they don't necessarily want to see, a willingness to go along with entitlement reforms that they don't necessarily prefer? I think the answer you would have to that is yes. I think that's the answer that we all recognize here is a reality in Washington. That's what the President has put forward. He has put forward budget deficit reduction proposals that represent significantly greater deficit reduction through spending cuts and entitlement savings than through revenues. But he insists on balance.
Q Why not today instead of Friday?
MR. CARNEY: First of all, the President will be meeting with them Friday. He spoke with them last week. He spoke with them today on Capitol Hill. The Senate has still yet to vote -- hopefully, will vote tomorrow on a proposal that achieves the kind of postponement of the sequester deadline that would allow Congress to move forward on balanced deficit reduction in a sensible, no drama fashion that would avoid these unnecessary impacts across the economy and the country. And hopefully, Republicans will change their minds about filibustering that, they will allow a majority of the Senate to pass a bill that would achieve that delay in a balanced way, move it to the House and perhaps -- again, hope springs eternal -- the Speaker of the House would allow that to come to a vote.
Because I think there's a very good chance that there's a majority in the House of Representatives that would support a simple proposition, which is that we can postpone the deadline for the sequester in a balanced way just as Congress did in bipartisan fashion just two months ago. Why not do that, and then let Congress go about the business of working on further deficit reduction? We certainly hope they do.
Q Just to be clear, how long was the meeting today?
MR. CARNEY: It was a very brief meeting. They just talked behind -- before the event.
Q It was only seven minutes from when he got there to --
MR. CARNEY: Again, it was a very -- a short meeting. They were all together and, as you would expect, they had a short discussion.
Q Will the administration reach something on the Prop 8 case?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have anything for you on that.
11:53 A.M. EST
March 21, 2016
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