Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/21/13
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
2:10 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you for being here today. I do have a couple of announcements that I want to do at the top in addition to what the President has already talked about today, and then after all of that, if you still have questions, I’m happy to stick around and answer them.
The first thing that I want to point out to you is to remind you that last week, the President, from this podium, made an announcement about an administrative fix to a problem that had cropped up with the Affordable Care Act, and that was a problem to address the challenges faced by individuals across the country who had received cancellation letters from their insurance company. The President, as you’ll recall, last week discussed an administrative fix that would allow those -- that would allow insurance commissioners in individual states and insurance companies to make the decision to renew those cancelled policies if they would like.
Now, part of that fix included a requirement that the insurance companies send to those policyholders who are being offered a renewal a letter. And I actually have a copy of that letter with me here today. This letter lays out a couple -- actually three specific things that are important for consumers to understand. The first is, this will -- this letter will include information about how individuals can go onto the marketplace and shop for insurance; that there are -- it educates them about the fact that insurance companies right now are out there competing for their business and are trying to offer quality plans at a lower cost than their competitor. And so this reminds individuals that they may be able to benefit from that competition.
Second, it educates individuals about tax credits that may be available to them to help them afford their health insurance. And three, this letter will specify what are the protections that are not included in the policy proposal that they are -- that they’ve been offered to renew, but are included in the policies that are available in the marketplace.
So the consumer protections are an important part of the Affordable Care Act, and those consumer protections that are available in the marketplace but not available in the policies that they’re considering renewing are laid out here.
The last thing I want to point out about this letter is this letter includes very important information for individual consumers. And the administrative fix that the President announced requires insurance companies to send this letter to those who are being offered the chance to renew their policy. The administration believes that this kind of education is actually really important, and so we’re actually calling on insurance commissioners and insurance companies all across the country who have cancelled policies to send this letter to their customers whether or not they’re being offered a renewal.
So each of you should have in your hand a copy of this letter that was sent to insurance companies and insurance commissioners today, and should be landing in mail boxes hopefully soon.
Two other things that I want to point out that will be shorter, and then we’ll get on to your questions.
The first is here in a few minutes -- we’re a little delayed today, obviously -- but here in a few minutes the President will meet with educators who are taking creative approaches in using technology to enhance learning for students. The educators are being recognized here at the White House as part of our Champions of Change program, which regularly highlights the extraordinary work that individuals, businesses and organizations are doing in their local communities. The 10 men and women who are invited here today come from all across the country and work in a range of education fields, but they share one thing in common, which is the innovative and creative use of technology to help students learn.
For example, the President will be introduced today by Misa Gonzales, a freshman English teacher at Desert View High School in Tucson, Arizona. Ms. Gonzales focuses on teaching reading and writing through advanced technology in a real-world application where students can be innovative and take initiative in their learning. Most of these outstanding educators were brought to the White House’s attention through a public nomination process by members of their community who have seen their extraordinary work firsthand.
In his remarks to the group, the President will discuss his ConnectEd initiative. This is something that the President talked about at a North Carolina high school this summer. Back in June, the President unveiled this ConnectEd initiative, which would, within the next five years, connect 99 percent of America’s students to the digital age by ensuring that they have access to next-generation broadband. And the pool will be covering that probably while this briefing is still going on.
The last thing I want to point out is that on Tuesday November 26th, the President will visit DreamWorks Animation facility in Glendale, California to deliver remarks on the economy. The American motion picture and television industry is a growing industry and continues to create thousands of jobs all across the country. Further details regarding the President’s remarks at that event will be available early next week.
So, with all of that, Darlene, would you like to get us started today on the question-and-answer portion of our program?
Q Sure, thanks. I wanted to ask about Afghanistan. Is there a White House response to President Karzai saying that he doesn’t trust the U.S. and that he doesn’t want to have the bilateral agreement signed until there’s a successor next year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Darlene, I can tell you that that the United States is pleased that we have reached an agreement about the text of that bilateral security agreement. It’s my understanding that that bilateral security agreement is being presented to the loya jirga today, or was earlier today. And the next step in this agreement -- the next step in this process is for the loya jirga to confirm or to approve that agreement.
Now, the text of that agreement respects the security and sovereignty of both the Afghan people, but it’s also in the best national security interests of the United States of America. So that text is the product of a lot of hard work. You’ll recall that when President Karzai was here at the White House at the beginning of this year, there was a lot of discussion about the feasibility of a bilateral security agreement, and whether or not that was something that could be agreed to between the two parties.
So that’s why we’re pleased to see that an agreement was reached on the text. What’s important now is for that agreement to be approved and signed by the Afghans as soon as possible. We’re bumping up against a deadline here that has been at the forefront of the policymaking apparatus here at the White House, particularly when it comes to our foreign policy, and that is specifically the end of the war in Afghanistan in 2014.
So it is important for this security agreement to be signed -- approved and signed by the end of this year so that preparations can start being made to plan for the post-2014 presence that the United States may have in Afghanistan.
Q So does that mean that the U.S. -- that you wouldn’t want to wait until next year to sign it? You want it done by the end of this year?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I pointed out, Darlene, it is important for the Afghan government to get this agreement approved and signed by the end of the year. And that’s for a very practical reason, which is the presence that’s in Afghanistan right now is a NATO presence. So the United States needs to conduct some planning, both internally but also with our allies, to coordinate what our post-2014 presence would look like.
Now, I know many of you have asked about what the quantity of American servicemen and women in Afghanistan would be; what would be the number of troops who would be on the ground in Afghanistan. That’s a decision that the President has not yet made. We’ve not yet determined whether or not a troop presence will continue in Afghanistan. If a troop presence were to continue in Afghanistan, when that decision is made, if it were to continue in Afghanistan, there are a couple of key things that are important for you to understand about that.
The first is, just to put that into context, at the height of the Afghan war a couple of years ago, there were 100,000 U.S. servicemen and women in Afghanistan. As of February, there will be about 34,000. So what we’re talking about post -- and that drawdown will continue beyond 34,000. So what we’re talking about post-2014 is on the order of a few thousand troops.
The other thing that's important for you to understand about that is that they will have a very specific mission. Because the war will have ended, there will not be a -- we will not be in a situation in which servicemen and women are patrolling villages in Afghanistan. They’ll not be in a position of patrolling mountain ranges. Rather, there will be a very specifically described mission. That mission will be focused on counterterrorism, fighting the remnants of al Qaeda that does persist in Afghanistan that continues to pose a threat to the United States and our allies.
The second aspect of that mission will be training the Afghan National Security Forces, ensuring they have the professionalism and skills that are necessary to carry that fight and to protect their country, and to ensure the security of their country.
But what’s important for you to -- the last thing that's important for you to understand is that narrowly defined mission that involves counterterrorism and training is something that we anticipate would not require a 10-year presence of troops. It wouldn’t take that long.
But as you point out, there are still some steps that need to be decided here, which is we need the Afghans to approve and sign this agreement, and -- at which time the President can engage in consultations with his national security team and with our allies about what the enduring American presence would look like in Afghanistan.
Q On another topic, the bill signings the President is doing that were just added to his schedule, were those added because of a letter that was delivered to the White House today from the White House Correspondents Association protesting limits on access to the President by photojournalists?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen the letter. The bill signing is something that we -- bill signings are something that we periodically will add to the President’s schedule -- I guess I should say it this way: Press access to bill signings is something that we periodically add to the President’s schedule. That's something that we did just last week, and I think is indicative of the efforts that we make here at the White House to give you and your colleagues access to the President as he conducts his official responsibilities as the President of the United States.
Q Josh, thank you. I just wanted to go back to an aspect of Darlene’s question. Karzai said apparently, “My trust with America is not good. I don't trust them, and they don't trust me.” I wanted to ask you to comment on that and what that says about the confidence that the United States can have in any agreement with him for security going forward.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mark, the agreement that we’re talking about was the product of a lot of work between senior members of the President’s national security team, our diplomats over in Afghanistan and senior officials in Afghanistan. I would remind you that there was a lot of skepticism, healthy skepticism, by observers of this process, including observers in this room, about whether or not it was actually feasible for the United States and Afghanistan to reach an agreement along these lines.
You'll recall that at the end of the war in Iraq, there was a protracted discussion with the government of Iraq about an enduring U.S. military presence there. An agreement was not reached along those lines. But what we see -- what we have before us today is an agreement, is the text of an agreement that reflects the desire of the Afghan people to -- for their sovereignty. It also reflects the core national security interests of the United States. That's how the President makes decisions about our policy in Afghanistan, and it's the only way in which an agreement like this could be reached, which is to say it must be in line with our core national security interests.
And what we would like to see at this point now is prompt action taken by the Afghans that -- there is a loya jirga that's meeting right now. We hope that they will act quickly to approve the text of that agreement and that that agreement will be signed, and the United States can set about the important work of planning what our post-2014 presence will look like there.
Q Going back to the other topic, the so-called nuclear option. Is there any downside to going ahead with this? Senator McCain said that this puts a chill on anything that requires bipartisanship. How can the President hope to accomplish his agenda if he has alienated Republicans with this vote?
MR. EARNEST: Well, first of all, I think the President actually took pains to point out that there have been areas of bipartisan agreement on a range of issues in the United States Senate. The best example of that is the immigration reform proposal that passed through the Senate earlier this year. The President certainly seeks to work in bipartisan fashion to make progress on some of the priorities that he has laid out because he understands that many of those priorities are actually shared by Republicans. So there should be an opportunity for us to find common ground with Republicans in advancing priorities of the country.
But I think what's really important for your viewers to understand is that in a lot of situations, the obstruction we have seen in the Senate has actually obstructed bipartisan progress. For example, there is bipartisan support for closing the gun show loophole, but we saw that the filibuster stood in the way of that. There has been bipartisan support for a lot of the judges that the President has nominated to very important positions, and we find that they get gummed up in the process with obstacles thrown in their way by Republicans, but when these judges finally get an up or down vote, they sail through with strong bipartisan support.
So that's what we're trying to achieve here, is to cut through the red tape, cut through the bureaucracy, and try to find a way to make Congress function more efficiently so that they can actually make progress on the priorities that the vast majority of the American public agrees are important and where there should be ample opportunity for bipartisan agreement. That’s the ultimate goal.
But, again, I keep saying "we" because this is a priority that the White House feels strongly about. But this is ultimately a decision that was made by Senator Reid, and he deserves credit for taking this decisive action to try to improve the efficiency of the United States Senate.
So let's move around just a little bit. Is there anybody in the back that has a question? Let's see, Dan.
Q I wanted to ask you about the comments by Ayatollah Khamenei, which had an official -- U.S. official comment on these. You talked about the issue of trust between Iran and the United States, and the history around that. But in this speech that he made, he talked about -- said, "The Israeli regime is doomed to failure and annihilation," and described Israel as a "Zionist regime;" as a "rabid dog of the region." Is there any reaction that the White House has to that kind of statement amid this delicate point in the negotiations? I mean, it must be damaging to --
MR. EARNEST: Right. Dan, I haven't seen those comments directly. I've seen some of the news reports about them, so it's difficult for me to comment on them based only on my secondhand knowledge of them.
But suffice it to say that the United States is serious about trying to pursue a diplomatic opportunity in consultation with the P5-plus-1, in consultation with our -- some of our strongest allies around the world to try to reach a diplomatic agreement that would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
There is a history of inflammatory rhetoric from the Iranian regime that we've seen, and that certainly contributes to our desire to ensure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon. But I'd also point out that we have an important security agreement with Israel. The United States remains steadfast in our commitment to Israel's security. And having a nation that regularly deploys fiery rhetoric like that wielding a nuclear weapon would not just pose a threat to one of our strongest allies, but it also would destabilize the entire Middle East; that there are other countries in the region that would be forced to consider their own nuclear ambitions if Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon. And that’s why the President has been so determined to try to pursue a diplomatic opportunity for doing that.
Now, the pursuit of that diplomatic opportunity has been made possible because this President has worked in -- closely with our allies and brought them together to put in place a sanctions regime that has crippled the Iranian economy, that has decimated the Iran -- the value of Iranian currency. And that has brought the Iranians to the table.
So the President is eager to see this through. There are diplomats in Geneva who are talking about these issues right now, and we will be watching the developments of those talks closely.
Q I just had a quick follow up to Susan Rice's remarks yesterday on North Korea. Is there a real hope that progress with Iran, this first-phase agreement, can actually get the North Koreans, Pyongyang, to the point of moving forward back -- the six-party process?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that remains to be -- I think that’s an open question. I think that’s -- right now, what we're focused on in the course of these talks is that there is a significant benefit if we can reach this agreement with Iran; that the phased approach that we're taking would essentially stop the clock in terms of the progress that Iran is making toward developing a nuclear weapon. And by stopping the clock and then conducting some negotiations for a longer-term or an end-state solution -- or an end-state agreement along these lines is the correct approach. If that were to have a positive impact on the talks with North Korea, or if that would influence in any way the North Korean regime's thinking about these issues, that certainly would be a positive development.
But what we're focused on right now is the opportunity that exists for a diplomatic solution to what has been a dispute between Iran and the rest of the world that has been lingering for too long, and has had bad consequences for global peace and stability. And that’s why we're optimistic about this opportunity, but we need fully consider whether that opportunity actually exists.
Q Following up on Iran -- you have the Supreme Leader using such inflammatory language, calling America's closest ally in the region the "rabid dog of the region." A little surprised to see the kind of muted response from the administration. Is the White House concerned that coming out and condemning those comments would disrupt these -- the emerging deal in Geneva? Are you soft-pedaling, in other words, so that --
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely not. I think that our position in terms of our support for Israel's security is clear. I think the President has a very strong record of that. And in fact, that is something that the Iranian regime I think has complained about in the past. So there is no doubting the strength of our support for the nation of Israel and for our commitment to the nation of Israel’s security.
Q So why not come out and --
MR. EARNEST: There should be no mistaking that. In fact, it is our view that pursuing this diplomatic opportunity would have significant benefits for Israel’s security. So that is something -- that is a view that's shared by our allies who are engaged in these talks, and that's why we’re pursuing them.
Q Why not just come out and condemn -- this is pretty outrageous comments, aren’t they?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I pointed out, I think our position on this is crystal clear. And I don't think there’s anybody that has any doubt about that.
Q Okay, and then just a quick follow-up on the nuclear option. Both you and the President mentioned gun control legislation among the list of things that had majority support but couldn’t pass because they were being blocked in the Senate. Is it the President’s view that this so-called nuclear option of doing away with the filibuster should also apply to legislation as well as to nominees?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that's certainly a decision that -- these kinds of procedural questions should be directed to Leader Reid.
I think the President’s frustration at the increasingly frequent, if not constant use of the filibuster is something that we’re very frustrated by. It has stymied progress on a whole range of priorities. But for tactical -- for questions about tactics or procedure in the Senate, I’d refer you to Majority Leader Reid’s office.
The decision that he made today in terms of Senate procedure and freeing up a yes or no vote on these specific judges to the DC Circuit is something that we strongly support.
Q And Cabinet nominees? For instance, if there were to be a change at someplace say, like, I don't know, HHS, would you expect that to be something that could go on an up or down vote, a new nominee?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not an expert on Senate procedure, but there is an HHS Secretary who is serving right now and is working very hard and has the full confidence of the President of the United States.
Q Thanks, Josh. In 2005, President Obama opposed the so-called nuclear option in favor of free and democratic debate. Some people look at his change and say that it’s hypocritical. How is it not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’d say a couple of things about that. The first thing that I think that I would say is: “I think the President is entitled to an up-or-down vote that is a simple majority vote on nominations, both to his Cabinet and to the executive branch and also to the judiciary.”
That is a pretty cogent statement of the White House’s views on this topic. That also is a word-for-word statement of Senator McConnell’s views in the spring of 2005. So I do think that this is an area where there is some bipartisan agreement.
Q Just not at the same time? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: The other thing that I would point out is that the circumstances have unfortunately changed for the worse since 2005. Judicial vacancies is the best example of this I think -- or at least the most illustrative and, based on today’s actions, maybe the most appropriate example.
When the President took office, there were 93 judicial vacancies -- actually let me take that back. When he took office, there were 59 judicial vacancies. There are now 93 of them. Over that same period of time, the judicial nominees under President Bush -- or the judicial vacancies under President Bush went from 84 to 49. So the trend has started moving in the opposite direction that -- President Bush had some success in confirming his nominees, judicial nominees to the bench. Under President Obama, the obstruction has actually ramped up the number of vacancies that we have in the judiciary right now.
And it’s important that people understand that this is not because Republicans have a material objection to the President’s nominees. Many of the President’s nominees have been blocked repeatedly only to get -- only to be confirmed with strong bipartisan support.
So for example, let’s talk about Patricia Millett, the woman that -- the President’s judicial nominee who was voted on today by the Senate. This is a woman who is supported by Ken Starr, Ted Olson, Paul Clement, Mike Mukasey. These are leaders of the Republican legal establishment. They strongly support her nominee -- or her nomination to the DC Circuit.
Judge Robert Wilkins, who is another one of the judges who in recent days has been filibustered -- less than three years ago, he was confirmed to the DC District Court without any opposition. Nobody objected to his nomination three years ago, but now all of a sudden, he can't get through the Senate because a handful of Republicans are filibustering his nomination. That is an indication of how this filibuster situation has gotten out of control, and it’s why the President is pleased that Senator Reid has taken the steps that he’s taken today to make this process more efficient.
Q Does he see it as a permanent or a temporary fix?
MR. EARNEST: Well, when it comes to these procedural questions, I’d refer you to Senator Reid’s office. He’s the one who will be handling the floor procedure, and rightfully so. He’s the Senate Majority Leader.
Q But what would the President -- would the President like to see this as permanent or temporary?
MR. EARNEST: What the President would like to see is an end to a circumstance where the filibuster is the go-to move in the Republican playbook; that rather than careful consideration of the nominees, the Republicans are just gumming up the works. The fact of the matter is -- this is the irony about what you're asking -- I'm not sitting up here asking Republicans to do what they did three years ago and vote for Robert Wilkins. I'm just suggesting, and what the President is suggesting and what Majority Leader Reid is suggesting, is just that Judge Wilkins deserves a vote. The reason Republicans are gumming up the works is that if he gets that vote, Judge Wilkins is going to get confirmed.
So that is the kind of obstruction that is not what the Founders -- our Founding Fathers intended. And it certainly is not contributed to an error of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. It has not contributed to any sort of efficiency when it comes to pursuing important priorities of the American people. And that's why the action that Senator Reid took today was so important.
Q And finally, if I may, just on healthcare.gov -- 10 days out now -- is the President still confident that it will be operational to a very high degree for 80 percent of its users?
MR. EARNEST: I think the language that we have used to describe the circumstance that we're expecting is that the website will be functioning smoothly for the vast majority of users. Obviously, that is an important priority and something that -- HHS has done daily calls to update you on our progress. And that is something that we're expecting to occur by the end of November.
Q Josh, we now at CBS have six states that have said they're not going to comply with the President's suggested fix on the individual market. We've also contacted other state commissioners who are still awaiting what they've requested from the administration, which is specific guidance on exactly what is permissible and what the administration is asserting they have the option to do and guidelines to do it. So I'd like your comment on where do you think all this is? Was it simply a rhetorical fix that needed a lot more administrative fine-tuning that has to date occurred? And what do you say about the six states who have taken a look at it and said, even when we get that guidance, we're not going to do it anyway?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is something that is up to individual states to decide. And there are a number of states, more than six, that have said that they are going to move forward with this approval -- Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. So some of these are red states, some of these are blue states, but they're all states that have chosen to take the President up on his offer to try to address this problem that's plaguing a lot of -- that's plaguing people who received cancellation letters.
There's one other important fact that did come out today. And I would refer you to a study that was conducted by Families USA. And what this organization found was that individuals on the -- that of the individuals on the insurance market, nearly three-quarters of them could get assistance through the Affordable Care Act in paying for their health care, whether that's through tax credits they qualify for or for Medicaid.
So there are some -- there are a lot of options that are available to people. And that's the reason for the letter that many people will receive in coming days; that it's important that people understand the options that are available to them. And that's also why -- as Brianna alluded to -- it's so important that we get this website fixed. That's the best way for people to understand what their options are, and that's why we have folks who are working around the clock to get it fixed.
Q But you would acknowledge that this is, at this stage, at best a patchwork fix and not -- not only not a complete fix, but not even a virtually near-complete fix?
MR. EARNEST: You’re talking about the -- in terms of the cancellation letters?
Q What the President announced last week, yes.
MR. EARNEST: Right, right. What we’re saying about this is that there is an option for people all -- for insurance commissioners and insurance companies to make a decision to renew the policies that have been cancelled. And that is as much as we can do, because that actually would replace the obstacle that was put there by the Affordable Care Act.
So the question now is, what do we do to try to address the needs of those people? And fortunately, because of the Affordable Care Act, those individuals now have an alternative for the first time. It certainly was not uncommon, prior to the Affordable Care Act, for individuals who are on the individual market to see policy cancellations. People know what a health insurance cancellation letter is because that is something that people all across the country received with too much frequency.
The benefit now is that they have somewhere to turn. They have a marketplace where they can turn where insurance companies are competing for their business. They can get tax credits to help them afford their health insurance. So there are opportunities that are available to them because of the Affordable Care Act, and what we’re focused on right now is trying to educate people about those options.
Q Understood. On Afghanistan, I understand that you’re pleased that the BSA has been negotiated. Does the position taken by Hamid Karzai jeopardize that BSA by saying he will not sign it until after elections in April of next year? Does that statement itself jeopardize the status of the bilateral security agreement?
MR. EARNEST: The statement does not. Failure to get this approved and signed by the end of the year --
MR. EARNEST: -- would prevent the United States and our allies from being able to plan for a post-2014 presence. So I’m not here to announce any decisions --
Q And then the BSA would disappear.
MR. EARNEST: Let me finish about this because this is important. I’m not here to announce any decisions about what that 2014 presence -- post-2014 presence looks like because the President hasn’t decided. But we will -- that’s not the kind of thing that you can decide in December of 2014. This is something where we’re going to need to coordinate with our allies and we’re going to need to do a lot of internal planning here to design that post-2014 presence to meet this very different mission than the one that’s currently being performed by our servicemen and women who are there.
So what we’re focused on right now is getting this agreement approved and signed before the end of the year.
Q So even if it’s approved, if it’s not signed by the end of the year it dissolves, it disappears? All this hard work, all this strenuous effort to negotiate this up and down the chain of command, here and there, disappears?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what we have right now is a text that we’ve all agreed upon. And what’s important is for the loya jirga to approve that agreement and for that agreement to be signed before the end of the year. And that is what will allow us to move forward in terms of planning our longer-term relationship.
Q Iran’s deputy foreign minister said today that in the first phase, if there is one, of an agreed-upon P5-plus-1 approach to capping Iran’s progress in developing a nuclear weapons program, that the deal must allow and agree that enrichment is a right for the Iranians, and that the United States and the P5-plus-1 must immediately ease at least some oil and banking sanctions. Can you state unequivocally from this podium that neither of those will be acceptable to the United States in the first phase?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not in a position to get into the granular details of what that agreement is going to look like because --
Q That’s not a granular detail based on what Jay has told us before.
MR. EARNEST: Well, but you’re asking about a very specific, granular detail. But let me try to address your question, because I think I can -- without getting into granular detail, I do think I can address your question substantively.
The first part of it that I want to address is when it comes to sanctions, what we’re talking about is we’re talking about sanctions relief that would be provided to the Iranians. And there have been some estimates about the quantity of that sanctions relief that have been wildly off the mark, wildly inflated, in fact. What we’re looking at are targeted, easily reversible sanctions relief, and a change to the sanctions orientation that does not undermine the architecture of the sanctions. When it comes to --
Q Jay has told us before they would not take apart or compromise the core architecture of the sanctions, which is language he’s used many times before --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that’s right. And I think that’s what I said right there at the end.
Q Right. No, I heard you.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q Many have interpreted that as to meaning not significantly alter banking, financial, and oil sanctions because they have always been part of the core architecture. It sounds like the Iranians are asking for precisely that.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not going to get into the granular details of those conversations because they’re talking about it right now. But I think that my declaration and the declaration that’s been repeated by the Secretary of State and Mr. Carney on previous occasions is that what we’re looking at is a very limited, targeted, reversible manner in providing relief to the Iranian regime in exchange for some very specific things -- halting and rolling back the Iranian nuclear program as it relates specifically to their stockpile, but also halting their program as it relates to the installation of advanced centrifuges and also as it relates to the plutonium track in the context of the heavy-water plant in Arak.
So we’ve been -- without getting into a whole lot of granular detail that’s currently being discussed in Geneva, I think we’ve been pretty specific about what would be acceptable here and what would not be. And why this is important is this would be an opportunity for us to actually halt progress on the Iranian nuclear program for the first time in a decade.
So while this is just the first phase of what we hope is a broader agreement, there’s a lot that we’d accomplish in that first phase. We’d essentially be stopping the clock on the Iranian development of their nuclear program. And what we would be putting in place are intrusive sanctions that would allow not just the United States but for the global community to verify that what Iran is doing is pursuing a nuclear program for solely peaceful means. And that’s ultimately what we’re trying to get an agreement around -- an agreement around Iran not trying to build a nuclear weapon, but respecting their ability to have access to a nuclear program that is demonstrably for exclusively peaceful means.
Q Last question. I’m on the White House Correspondents Association Board and it’s mine and many other news organizations that presented to you and the White House a letter today about this issue of access -- photographic access, but it’s a broader question -- and the White House insistence of excluding independent photojournalists from events that historically have been available to those journalists for the public consumption. I’d like to give you a chance to respond to this letter and the combined assessment of many journalism organizations for the White House to reassess the policy as it’s currently executed.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, on the campaign trail in 2008, the President talked a lot about his commitment to transparency, and that is something that the President in office has worked very hard to live up to. There are a variety of ways in which he has done that. But one way in which he and we have done that on his behalf is that literally every single day -- every single day -- at the end of our day, we take a look at the President’s schedule, consider the things that are on there, and look for ways that we can give journalists who cover the White House access to the President; that we can give you and your colleagues a better understanding of what the President is doing, why he is pursuing the priorities that he has identified, and how we hope to make progress on those priorities. That is a basic function of the presidency, is laying out that agenda and communicating with the American public about what it is and why it is a priority.
So this is something that we tackle every single day. But it is the responsibility of those of you who are sitting in those seats to push for more. You’re supposed to be agitating for more access. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be doing your job. So the fact that there is a little bit of a disagreement between the press corps and the White House Press Office about how much access the press corps should have to the President is built into the system. Like I said, if that tension didn’t exist, then either you or we are not doing our job.
So suffice it to say that we remain fully committed to trying to give you and the American public access to the President and as much insight as possible into how the President is spending his day, to what priorities the President has identified, and what he’s actually doing to make progress on those priorities.
Q That tension has long existed, you’re absolutely right. I know it. I’ve experienced it under different administrations. What is different and what this letter goes to is events that we used to have access to before that we’re denied, and then the White House produces its own photography of that event in a way that seems completely designed to exclude independent eyeballs and only have the taxpayer-funded eyeballs of the person who works for the President of the United States.
MR. EARNEST: Sure. And I understand why, from your perspective, why it might seem that way. But what we have actually done is used a range of new technology to provide people greater access to the President; that there are certain circumstances where it is simply not feasible to have independent journalists in the room when the President is making decisions. So rather than close that off to the American public, what we’ve done is we’ve taken advantage of new technology to give the American public even greater access to behind-the-scenes footage or photographs of the President doing his job.
So I understand why that is the source of some consternation to people in this room, but to the American public that’s a clear win. That is people having access because of new technology to things that they’ve never seen before. And so that’s something that we have remained committed to and that’s something that we’ll continue to do. But that has never been viewed internally here at the White House as a substitute for the important work that’s done by free and independent journalists.
MR. EARNEST: Ed.
Q In keeping with that commitment, can you --
MR. EARNEST: Yes, as a former president.
Q As a former president, I support Major’s questions and I think they are important questions.
MR. EARNEST: They are.
Q Because when you say that you’re providing more access to the American people -- you’re shutting off independent journalists who want to cover those events and you’re having people who work for the President actually cover the events. How is that independent? How is that more access for the American people?
MR. EARNEST: I think what I described, Ed, is that there are certain circumstances where it’s not feasible for independent journalists to be covering the President. I think the best example of this would be in the Situation Room of the White House where, when the President is talking about classified issues, it’s just not feasible for us to have those discussions at --
Q That’s an outlier, Josh --
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s just not feasible for us to have independent journalists in the room.
Q What about meeting with faith leaders? How is that disruptive to bring in --
MR. EARNEST: Let me finish my answer --
MR. EARNEST: -- which is, where it’s just not feasible in those circumstances. So we have done -- what we’ve done is we’ve capitalized on new technology that exists -- Flickr, Instagram, digital photos that can be easily emailed -- to give people pictures of what’s happening in those circumstances.
That is not a replacement for independent journalism. That is not a replacement or a substitute for giving independent journalists access to the President and the job that he’s doing. We remain very committed to making sure that independent journalists are documenting what the President is doing. We want the American people to have a very clear view of the President’s priorities. We want people to understand how hard the President is working to pursue the priorities that he’s laid out that a majority of the American public supports.
So it’s in our interest to work closely with you to give you access so that the American public clearly understands what it is the President is doing. I understand that you guys aren’t going to agree with every single decision that we make along these lines, but I think what we do agree on is that the principle of unfettered access to the President of the United States on a regular basis by independent, professional journalists is an important priority and a hallmark of our democracy. That is a -- that is something that we agree on and that is -- that will be a principle guiding the way that we make these decisions moving forward, as it has been in the past.
Q In keeping with that transparency to give the American people an idea of how the decision-making is going, would you consider turning over some of the emails between White House officials in the days leading up to healthcare.gov instead of the drip-drip from Republican Darrel Issa? Give the American people an insight into what the President and his top aides knew in the final week leading up to October 1st -- would you consider that?
MR. EARNEST: It’s apparent that Mr. Issa has taken that task upon himself and has worked --
Q Well, how about you give us the full context, give us the full picture?
MR. EARNEST: -- and has worked very carefully with journalists to ensure that Americans have access to those documents. Sometimes he’s done that in a way that has left people with a pretty misleading impression about what’s happening here. That’s unfortunate. But, look, Ed, what that’s indicative of is it’s indicative of our willingness to cooperate with legitimate oversight of this administration, and that’s something that we’ll do moving forward.
Q A couple of quick questions then, beyond that. On health care, the week started with the President doing this conference call with OFA, his outside political organization. Today you had in some liberal pundits to talk to the President, appears on an off-the-record basis. Do you have a problem with your base? Is he having a problem as we look at these polls where his numbers have been sinking, where he’s got to keep his base onboard right now?
MR. EARNEST: Ed, what I'll tell you is that the President is not focused on politics right now. What the President is focused on is implementing the Affordable Care Act in a way that maximizes the benefits of the law for millions of people all across the country. That means providing access to health care coverage to millions of people that didn’t previously have it. And it means reducing costs, certainly for the government, but also for businesses and for families all across the country. That’s what we're focused on right now.
It's the view of the President and the senior folks in this administration who are working so hard to get this right that if we can get this policy right, that if we can smooth this implementation process and make this transition work for people, that the politics are going to take care of themselves.
Q A quick question on the filibuster. The President framed it as the Republicans are blocking some of his nominees because they don’t like the results of the last election and they're trying to refight that battle. Associated Press had a story November 5th, 2005, "Senator Barack Obama said Friday he will block all of President Bush's nominees to keep positions in the EPA until it issues long-overdue regulations limiting people's exposure to lead paint." An important issue for him, he wanted to help people who were exposed to lead paint. But wasn't that obstruction? Wasn't that battling President Bush's policies? The President -- then-senator Obama would argue that it was a substantive position, but he was obstructing nominees. What's different now?
MR. EARNEST: I think what's different is -- I didn’t work for Senator Obama at the time, and I'm not familiar with the specific instance that you've cited. I do think the President was pretty forthcoming about the fact that this is a problem that has existed for a while, and neither side is blameless. But what is also just as clear is we have seen a significant escalation executed by Republicans in the Senate who have repeatedly blocked policy proposals that had the strong support of members of both parties, and, more importantly, the American public.
That’s what the President's concerned about. And that’s why we're pleased that Senator Reid has taken action to improve the efficiency and the inner-workings of the United States Senate so that we can see more progress on some of these priorities.
Q But you've noted before that Republican Mitch McConnell, back in 2005, was considering doing this nuclear option as well, and then-Senator Obama said it was a really bad idea that would increase gridlock, increase bad feelings, and he said, "The Founders designed this system, as frustrating as it is, to make sure that there's a broad consensus" -- that 60 votes. So what happened to him wanting to keep that kind of tone? He's flipping that around now.
MR. EARNEST: What happened, Ed, is that we've seen Republicans engage in using filibuster as a tactic day after day after day.
Q He did, too -- he did on the EPA nomination.
MR. EARNEST: You've cited one example of the President using filibuster.
Q But he did it --
MR. EARNEST: Right, you've cited one example. And what we've seen from Republicans is repeatedly using the filibuster to block nominations of individuals that have strong support. I just cited the example of Judge Wilkins. Three years ago he was confirmed without any opposition, and now all of a sudden three years later, he's being appointed -- or being nominated to a more senior job in the judiciary, to the highest -- essentially the highest-ranking appellate court in the country. This is an important job. But the fact that he got confirmed just three years ago is an indication that he's got strong bipartisan support in the Senate.
I'm not suggesting that every Republican senator should -- has to abandon any objection they might have to Judge Wilkins. A, I'm suggesting that if they have an objection to Judge Wilkins himself, they should articulate it, because they haven't so far; all they've done is complained about the process. Second of all, even if they don’t -- even if there is somebody who's decided that they do not believe -- that Judge Wilkins has done something in the last three years that means he should not be appointed to the federal judiciary, then they can vote no. All I'm suggesting is that Republicans should allow that vote to occur. Right now, they're not.
Q Going back to Afghanistan -- you guys are taking issue with this idea of all the reports and all of the -- what Karzai has said, and it's clear there's going to be U.S. troops in harm's way in Afghanistan after 2014. That seems to be -- or the Afghan government, Karzai government wouldn’t have agreed to this, that they -- and the United States government wouldn’t have been looking for all sorts of legal protections if this wasn't going to be the case. So is it the fact that you just are taking issue that there's going to be thousands of troops there for 10 years? It's a couple of years? What can you say -- is a zero option, is no troops after 2014 really an option?
MR. EARNEST: What I can tell you is that no decision has been made about what our troop presence will look like in 2014.
Q But there's going to be some -- there's going to be troops in Afghanistan in 2015?
MR. EARNEST: There's not been a decision that’s been made along those lines. What I can tell you is that if you -- if there are troops in Afghanistan after 2014, it's important to understand the context in which they'll be there. They will be there with the very specific mission that’s different than the one they have now. They'll no longer be patrolling villages and cities in Afghanistan. They'll actually just be engaged in fighting the remnants of al Qaeda that are still in Afghanistan, and they'll be engaged in training the Afghan National Security Forces. So they'll have a very specific, distinct mission.
Secondly, at the height of the war in Afghanistan there were 100,000 American troops, servicemen and women in Afghanistan. By February, there will be 34,000, because the President has been engaged in a drawdown since the peak. And that drawdown will continue through next year.
If there are troops in Afghanistan after January 1st, 2015, what we're talking about is a number of troops on the order of a few thousand. So nothing like the scale of a military buildup that we've seen in earlier years. And we would anticipate that it would not require 10 years to complete that mission. We believe that we can --
Q So why ask for the 2024 part in the agreement if you think it could take 10 years?
MR. EARNEST: Well, because we have traditionally signed agreements with the Afghans in terms of describing our relationship with them in 10-year chunks, that there's basically a 10-year planning window in which we engage in planning and describing our relationship with them. But that is not -- that does not have any bearing on the President's separate decision about what our military footprint would look like there.
Q Right, but he is only making this decision for his two years in office. Another President -- this is going to be on the plate. He is going to be leaving troops likely, an agreement potentially to continue troops there for another --
MR. EARNEST: There are a lot of hypotheticals laying out there. I'm trying to be as clear as I can about this. We have often characterized or described or codified our relationship with Afghanistan in 10-year chunks, and that's what we're doing here. But that does not necessarily dictate an outcome when it comes to a decision about our troop levels.
Q There is a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, six of them, to be exact about it, that want the opportunity to vote on this agreement before the President signs on it. And granted, Congress has a way of having say in these things via funding mechanisms. But what do you say -- in the release was Senators Merkley and Wyden; it's Paul and Lee on the Republican side -- Begich is another one. What do you say to those senators who would like to cast a vote about this decision of having troops in harm's way?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think that's something that's being contemplated right now. As you point out, there is a way for the legislature to have some input on the policymaking process, in terms of appropriations and things.
Throughout this process, senior members of this administration have been consulting closely with the relevant committees on Capitol Hill as we've been making progress toward this agreement. So this is something that, if you will, the Congress has been in the loop on as we've been negotiating and working with the Afghans to try to reach this agreement.
Q So for now you feel like you don't need to give them --
MR. EARNEST: That's not something that I'm aware that's currently being contemplated. But if I'm wrong about that, then we'll get back to you.
Q I've got two questions all with the same thing, with this slippery slope. Are you concerned about a slippery slope -- so the nuclear option happened now on this; basically Republicans are saying okay and, guess what, in two years there could be a Republican Senate, a Republican President, and this time they may roll it back where they're not filibustering -- they may not allow a filibuster on things like drilling in Alaska, in ANWR. That this is just in the same way we saw bipartisan escalation from before, with Senator Obama on one side and now he is on the other, does the President fear that there is going to be this escalation now where there is no filibusters on legislation?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what the President is most concerned about right now is that there is a minority in the Senate that all too often has been using procedural maneuvers to gum up progress in the Senate that has strong bipartisan support. That's the problem that Senator Reid, because of his proposal, has addressed today. And that is an important problem for us to solve. So that is one piece of bureaucracy that we can cut through. But this does raise questions down the line about what Senate procedure is going to look like. And future Senate --
Q Do you acknowledge it could be retaliatory, partisan ways?
MR. EARNEST: Well, yes, but I would also acknowledge that we might see a scenario in which we see a more congenial, bipartisan Senate; that if there are people who are actually focused on getting important things done, where not everybody gets 100 percent of what they want but is willing to work in bipartisan fashion to advance the interests of the United States of America, that's something that we could do without a filibuster. But that's something that we could do in bipartisan fashion.
Q Now, when it comes to press access and the denial of White House -- of press photographers in some places that the White House photographer gets to be, you’re setting precedent for future -- each presidential team that has come in here has basically used -- for some denial of access has used the previous President as an -- presidential team as an excuse for why they’ve denied that access. So you guys are setting precedent here that the next President is going to use, and are you aware of that? And maybe roll back access even further?
MR. EARNEST: No, I’m not. I don't agree -- I don't agree with that. Because I can't think of -- the only precedent that I can think of in terms of the previous administration is where we’ve taken steps to try to be more transparent. And that's with this issue of fundraisers that are in private homes. It’s my understanding that the previous --
Q -- the President, you guys don't ever take any shouted questions?
MR. EARNEST: That's not true. He does that all the time.
Q All the time?
MR. EARNEST: He does it frequently.
Q Really? (Laughter.) Let’s define --
MR. EARNEST: That's the third slippery slope question.
Q The vast majority of time? (Laughter.) Not a majority. Let’s --
MR. EARNEST: Look, the President does occasionally take shouted questions.
Q Occasionally. That's a fair term. But that is something that has been less and less.
MR. EARNEST: That's not based --
Q Press conferences are less and less.
MR. EARNEST: That's not based on any precedent. I’m not sure the press conference thing holds up. We can talk to my friend Mark back here who keeps a close tally of this.
But, look, here’s the thing. Each of these -- each President and his staff will have to make their own decisions about how committed they are to transparency, and how committed they are to a free, independent, and professional set of journalists who take their job very seriously.
We are very committed to that principle, about the important work that you and your colleagues do around here, because it’s good for our democracy. You’ve heard the President speak about this more eloquently than I can from here.
Q I understand that. But when you guys put out photos that are Pete Souza-only photos -- and this is not personal to Pete Souza --
MR. EARNEST: Sure.
Q -- but when it’s White House-release photos, and you say that that's somehow being more transparent because you’re releasing something that we in the press corps didn't have access to -- if Vladimir Putin were doing something like that, you guys would mock it and say, well, there was no free press and the ability to -- so it was -- if he were releasing photos that were just done by his office to various things. And I know that's an extreme way of looking at it, but at this podium people have been critical of other countries and how they handle press freedom. And by this White House doing it by releasing their own version of things without a press filter, doesn't that call into question about some basic democratic values?
MR. EARNEST: It doesn't. I think what it does is -- here’s what we would take a dim view toward -- if there were another country who were using a government employee as a substitute for an independent, professional journalist. And that's just not something that we -- that is the clear difference.
Q That has happened a few --
MR. EARNEST: That has not. What we have done --
Q That has happened. That has happened when he took the second oath.
MR. EARNEST: What we have done is we have tried to provide -- use new technology and the President’s personal photographer as a way to provide additional insight into what’s happening at the White House. Right? That is why on your television network, NBC will often ask us if we have a photo that we can release from somewhere, right? That is because we want to provide additional access --
Q NBC sometimes does that --
MR. EARNEST: That is not a substitute for putting an NBC camera in the room or an AP photographer in the room. That is merely additive, right? That is a way that we can complement what you are given access to so that you and your viewers have a better sense about what’s happening at the White House. But that is never -- there is never a circumstance where that is a replacement for a free and independent journalist.
Q For instance, you put out a photo of the President having lunch with Hillary Clinton, who we know is -- obviously something that a lot of people had interest in. You chose to say, well, no, that is a substitute for somebody from the press being --
MR. EARNEST: It was a private lunch that the President was having with his former Secretary of State.
Q But you guys decided to release the photo through --
MR. EARNEST: In the spirit of transparency to give you and your viewers a sense of what’s happening in that lunch, we released a photo from it.
Q But you made sure that it’s a photograph that has them smiling --
MR. EARNEST: I think we’ve -- Jared.
Q Yes, I have two questions for you.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q But I think it’s important that the White House Correspondents Association president get a chance to ask a follow-up on that.
MR. EARNEST: Steve Thomma just showed up. You go ahead. (Laughter.)
Q Okay, well, I’ll take it. But the other day, earlier in the week, the President met with a bipartisan group of senators on Iran. Last night he met with a group of Democratic senators on Iran. Earlier Jay said that he was asking for a pause from the bipartisan group of Senate leaders. What was he asking for last night at his meeting?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding -- I haven’t gotten the detailed readout of the Vice President’s meeting with Democratic senators, but my understanding is that the goal of that conversation was to make sure the Democratic senators understood where we stand right now with the ongoing conversations with the Iranian regime, to help them understand what it is we are seeking in this phased agreement from the Iranians, what exactly we’re proposing to offer in return, which is some limited, reversible sanctions relief.
I can tell you that the President also had a conversation yesterday with the Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, Tim Johnson, where they had a similar conversation that was focused primarily on the ongoing negotiations with the Iranian regime. And the President and the Vice President made a case that's now familiar to you, which is that there is an opportunity for us to pursue a diplomatic solution to this problem and that diplomatic solution is preferable to the alternative.
Q It looks like Senator Gillibrand’s NDAA amendment is going to have a little bit of difficulty, barring any future rules changes in the Senate, of course. Does the President, in principle, support taking sexual violence out of the chain of military command?
MR. EARNEST: I know that there are a number of proposals that are currently being circulated on Capitol Hill, and I know that Senator Gillibrand and other senators who have played an important leading role in trying to address this serious public policy problem, have met with White House officials to talk about possible solutions.
We have not weighed in with an endorsement of one approach or another. But the President -- I think in previous settings, you've heard him speak not just eloquently, but powerfully, about ensuring that every member of the United States military who’s been subjected to a crime like this has the strong and unwavering support of their Commander-in-Chief. And that is -- the strength of the President's commitment to that is indicative of his desire to work with members of Congress to try to find a solution that would address what seems to be a pretty pressing public policy problem.
Q Josh, with this rules change in the Senate, is the President going to move more quickly now to fill those 93 vacancies on the bench? And is he going to have an easier time finding nominees if they’re not going to have to face a very lengthy confirmation process?
MR. EARNEST: I will tell you that these vacancies are a source of some concern to the President. I know that there are a number of outside organizations that would characterize these as judicial emergencies, that these vacancies are causing cases to pile up, for a backlog to pile up, and that the need for more qualified judges at the bench doing the important work of the American justice system is a top priority. So the President certainly feels that sense of urgency. And I think you can anticipate that the President will continue to nominate qualified individuals to these jobs.
I don't know what kind of bearing it will have on the pace of nominations. But I do think you touch on an important point, that there have been qualified individuals who have withdrawn from the process because of the obstruction that they face in the Senate. And, again, all too often that obstruction was aimed more at opposing the President and his policies than it was the specific credentials and experience and skills of the individual who was nominated.
Q Josh, can you tell us if Senator Reid sought a green light from President Obama before going ahead with today's rule change?
MR. EARNEST: As you know, Mark, Senator Reid and President Obama, and their staffs, are in touch on a regular basis on a wide range of things. This is something that the President -- the repeated efforts by Republicans to filibuster qualified nominees without a legitimate reason is something that has been of great concern to the President. So it's something that he has discussed with Senator Reid before. But when it comes to elements of Senate procedure, these are decisions that the Senate majority makes, and the President has full confidence in Senator Reid's ability to make those decisions.
Q But was it known to Senator Reid that President Obama supported that rule change?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it was known to you that the President was very concerned about the treatment of his nominees by Senate Republicans, and that all too often we saw a minority in the United States Senate block the majority will of the United States Senate. And that had consequences for people, for qualified individuals that the President had nominated. So that was a source of concern to the President. But, ultimately, it's up to Senator Reid to make sure that the Senate is functioning. And we're pleased to see that he is taking a step that will make it function better.
Q And on health care, what did President Obama mean the other day when he spoke about re-branding the Affordable Care Act? Have we heard the last of him using the phrase "Obamacare" to describe the health care law?
MR. EARNEST: No, I think the President has taken on -- that was a label that was applied by our opponents and welcomed --
Q Which he embraced.
MR. EARNEST: -- with open arms by this President and our allies. But, no, I wouldn't anticipate that that's the last time that you hear about it. You've heard the President joke that maybe the last time that you'll hear our opponents talk about it is once it starts working as well as we would like it to.
Q Then what did he mean by "re-branding?"
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the point that the President was trying to make is that people have, understandably -- many people have, understandably, been frustrated with the flawed rollout of the website and it would be a shame if that experience soured them on the broader law.
The fact of the matter is there are options available to people that they didn’t previously have before -- that people can get tax credits to make their health insurance more affordable; that some people who don’t yet know it could qualify for Medicaid so that they could provide for themselves and their families when it comes to health care. So there are a range of options that are available on that website, and we don’t want people's initial negative experience with the website to dissuade them from continuing to pursue options that are available there.
Q Is there a team in the building trying to think up a new name for the health care law? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Not that I know of.
Q Or a new sales pitch?
MR. EARNEST: There's not. As I think I told somebody earlier, there's no 21st century Don Draper that’s dropped by the Oval Office with suggestions.
Mike, I saw you had your hand up.
Q Yes. Immediately, on the decision today, what's your view on the impact that the President's support for the nuclear option will have on budget talks, tax reform, other immediate domestic issues?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there is -- the President is hopeful that there will be some bipartisan ground that can be seized when it comes to these other priorities. He actually referenced the farm bill that passed with bipartisan support in the Senate. That is one of the priorities that the President has laid out in terms of the impact that that would have on the economy.
So the President is hopeful that bipartisan ground can be found around the farm bill. That would be the kind of thing that, hopefully, wouldn’t interfere -- or wouldn’t have any bearing on the filibuster one way or the other, that there should be an opportunity for us to find a lot of common ground that a lot of people can be supportive of.
I think the same is true when it comes to immigration reform -- that, again, there is broad, bipartisan support for that. And it would be a shame if a minor procedural dispute affected the ability of the Senate and the Congress overall to make progress on what would be an historic achievement, one that has been pursued by Presidents and Congresses for at least a generation. We're on the cusp of making important progress on that, the kind of progress that would have significant consequences for our economy in terms of adding more than a trillion dollars to economic growth and reducing the deficit by $850 billion.
So there are a whole host of good reasons for us to do immigration reform, and it would be a shame if a procedural matter got in the way of that.
Q Thanks, Josh. Would you have something for us beyond the guidance on the topics that the President wanted to talk about with the King of Morocco tomorrow, especially the Western Sahara and human rights?
MR. EARNEST: Tangi, I don’t know if we'll have additional guidance about those conversations. As is typical, I do anticipate that we'll have a readout for you of that meeting. So why don’t we see -- let's let that meeting take place. We can take a look at the readout, and then if -- after that readout has been issued, if there's additional questions that you have we'll see if we can answer them.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: Alexis, and then Steve, and we'll call it a day.
Q Real quick, I wanted to follow up on what Scott was asking you. Can you expand, with the filibuster change, what the President anticipates will be the impact on the hold, the system of Senate holds? And was your answer to Scott suggesting that the President's universe of qualified candidates going forward for executive or judicial positions would expand, in his view?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I didn’t want to -- I want to be careful about not predicting what that process would look like in the future. But the point that I made to Scott that I think is relevant to your question is simply that there are a number of people who have declined to participate in that process because of their frustration or the danger of being caught up in the procedural fights in the Senate, and that there are a lot of qualified nominees who chose to take a pass on presidential appointments because of how politicized that process has become.
So does that mean in the future that there are other people who might have previously declined to be a part of that process who are more open to it now? I would allow that that's a possible outcome. But I don't want to predict about -- I don't want to make any firm predictions about decisions that other people will make along those lines.
Steve, I'll give you the last one, Mr. President.
Q Thanks, Josh. I just want to follow on Chuck, Ed, Major, et al, and everyone who has asked really good questions about this issue of access by photojournalists. You've made the point repeatedly in response to many of them that this President has expanded access and transparency by the use of social media. And I just want to ask you, you do see the difference between the fact that there's a camera in the room and who controls the camera? The fact that there's a government-held camera is not giving what we consider or I think the Constitution considers the kind of access and scrutiny of the President that we seek; that a camera held by one of the photographers who belong to our press corps is going to turn to different parts of the room, for example, is going to see different things and see it through -- with a different eye. You see the difference, right, of what we're talking about?
MR. EARNEST: Absolutely. And that's the point that I tried to make to those individuals who asked before, that we don't view the government camera, if you will, as a substitute in any way for the lens that's wielded by a professional, independent photojournalist. No question about that.
Q So we can work together to improve and get more of our photographers and photojournalists and their eyes on the President more often?
MR. EARNEST: Sure. As I mentioned earlier, I don't think we're going to ever be in a situation in which we agree a hundred percent of the time about those decisions. But that is -- this is a priority. And this is something, as I mentioned, I think, in answer to Major's question, that we work on every single day; that before I leave this building today, somebody is going to present me with the President's schedule and they're going to say, what can we do to give the White House Press Corps access to the President's activities tomorrow?
Q If you want, I could sit in on it. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: That would be an interesting conversation.
Before I leave, I did want to offer a question to Ben White, who traveled all the way from New York to participate with us today.
Q Thank you, Josh, I appreciate it.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, Ben. It's nice to see you here today. Thank you for coming.
Q Thank you for having me -- and sort of bringing tidings from New York and following on the previous question --
MR. EARNEST: Tell them I said hello.
Q I will. I've already got to know --
Q Give my regards to Broadway. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Mark said it better than I did.
Q I will do that. Wall Street analysts are already saying that this nuclear option makes the likelihood of a shutdown and a debt limit crisis more likely, that it's essentially ratcheting up the partisanship; and that the biggest risk, pretty much the only real existential risk to the economy right now is Washington and partisan gridlock, having nothing to do with judicial nominees, nothing to do with what you’re actually trying to accomplish with this, and not making a value judgment on whether or not it’s a good idea to try to unlock the gridlock on those things, but the end result is going to be more partisanship, is going to be the increased likelihood of a shutdown, debt limit crisis. Did the President take that into consideration? And is it a big risk to the economy to do this right now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s a lot there to deal with. Let me just say two things about it. The first is the President has lamented many times the self-inflicted wounds that some in Congress have inflicted on the American economy; that shutting down the government over Obamacare -- a strategy promoted and carried out by Republicans -- had a bad impact on the economy. There’s no doubt about that -- had a bad impact on job creation, had a bad impact on our deficit. So it would be a shame under any circumstances for Republicans to engage in that strategy again.
That said, the stakes of these kinds of discussions and the possibility of a budget agreement should be a higher priority than litigating a procedural dispute on the floor of the United States Senate; that there is an opportunity for Congress to work in bipartisan fashion with the support of this President to put in place policies that will actually support and advance our recovery and not undermine it, that will make it easier for the private sector to create jobs and export quality American-made goods overseas.
Those are the kinds of policies that we should be focused on. And threatening a shutdown or threatening the full faith and credit of the United States of America under any circumstances is not the best way to run any country, let alone the greatest country on the face of the Earth.
Q Haven’t you sort of stuck your thumb in the eye of Republicans who now would be less likely to make a budget deal with you, and less likely to agree to a debt limit increase without any policy riders attached to it? Why risk that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I do think that Republicans have found that trying to shut down the government or threatening the full faith and credit of the United States of America over Obamacare was something that the American public had very little patience for. I suspect the American public would have even less patience for a shutdown or default strategy that was the result of their own personal pique at a procedural movement.
Okay? Thanks, everybody. Have a good afternoon.
3:22 P.M. EST
February 10, 2016
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