Daily Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 4/11/2014
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:35 P.M. EDT
MR. CARNEY: Thanks for being here, everybody. Good afternoon. Welcome to your daily briefing. I don’t have any announcements. You obviously heard the President speak in the Rose Garden earlier this morning. I will have a week ahead at the end of the briefing if you remind me to give it.
With that, I go to the Associated Press.
Q Thanks, Jay. The President’s nominee to run HHS has experience, really, at the top levels in economics and in philanthropy and in government management, but not a lot of experience with health care. Does the President feel that it’s important to have an HHS nominee that has experience in health care?
MR. CARNEY: Yes. And I think that Sylvia Mathews Burwell has, as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, a significant role to play in the health care arena. That office obviously interacts directly with the Department of HHS and others on matters of health care policy and implementation of that policy. She’s also, as the President noted, had experience in health care issues with MetLife and with the Walmart Foundation.
So there’s that. Then there is the importance of having somebody like Sylvia Burwell, with her enormous skill in management, running an agency involved in implementing the Affordable Care Act at this critical time. And I know the President feels that there is no one more qualified than she is at this time to be at the helm of that agency.
Q Republicans in the Senate are already indicating that being confirmed for OMB is a different thing than being confirmed for HHS Secretary, and that while Reid may have wanted to downplay opportunities to have discussions about Obamacare, that this presents a new opportunity. Are you expecting that her confirmation hearing will devolve into a fight about the merits of Obamacare?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I wouldn’t want to predict, but I would point to the fact that roughly a year ago she was confirmed 96-0. I would point to statements by Republican senators and other Republicans just today, praising Sylvia Burwell as OMB Director and as a nominee to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. Those comments, and that praise, is merited because she is an exceptional Director of the Office of Management and Budget.
As the President noted, on her watch, the budget deficit has declined significantly. She was integral to the team that enabled a two-year deal to be met on the budget that for the first time in a long time ensured that we wouldn’t be engaging in this kind of brinksmanship that led to the shutdown of the government, but puts us back in the business of focusing on the economy and job creation in a way that’s not disruptive, but -- or at least less disruptive and more helpful to the American people.
So we obviously defer to the Senate in its important role in confirming nominees. But given that they confirmed her to a Cabinet position a year ago, unanimously, and that in the interim she has performed admirably and ably in that position, and has earned the praise of Democrats and Republicans alike, I think it’s fair to expect that she would be confirmed swiftly.
Q Congress has now passed the Iran envoy bill, and it’s on its way to the President’s desk, if it’s not there already. Will the President sign it?
MR. CARNEY: Let me say a couple of things. We have informed the United Nations and Iran that we will not issue a visa to Mr. Abutalebi. We certainly share the intent of the bill passed by Congress, as we have already told the U.N. and Iran that we will not issue a visa. We’ll review the legislation; we’re doing that now. And we will work to address any issues related to its utility and constitutionality. But we share the intent of the bill. The bill expands upon a 1990 law for which President George H.W. Bush issued a signing statement expressing constitutional concerns. And, obviously, we will be looking at this issue as part of our review. But as to the intent, we share it. And I think we have made clear in previous statements and today in my statement that we won’t be issuing a visa.
Q And just to clarify, in recent days you’ve said that you had told the Iranians that this is not viable. You’re saying now that you’ve told the Iranians that the U.S. won’t issue visas. So is that a follow-up conversation that occurred to let them know that there will not --
MR. CARNEY: Well, we’ve communicated with the Iranians at a number of levels and made clear our position on this. And that includes our position that the selection was not viable and our position that we will not be issuing him a visa.
Q How will not issuing him a visa affect ongoing talks?
MR. CARNEY: We do not expect them to. You mean on the P5-plus-1?
MR. CARNEY: There’s a process in place with our partners
on the P5-plus-1 that is moving forward in a workmanlike manner and that we do not expect to be affected by this decision.
Q This is totally separate?
MR. CARNEY: Correct.
Q Okay. Back to what Josh was asking, I’m wondering if you can say to what extent the nomination of Sylvia Mathews Burwell is kind of like a fresh start for Obamacare. And to what extent do you feel that it’s going to ease complaints and concerns leading up to November elections?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’ll say a couple of things about that. Echoing the President, I would note that Secretary Sebelius oversaw that agency during an historic period through the drafting and passage of the Affordable Care Act and through the multi-year implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Because she was in the lead, she was a vessel for a lot of partisan attack and vitriol, but she kept focused on the job.
And what I think is most notable about this moment is that despite the troubles that we forthrightly acknowledge that the Affordable Care Act got in its rollout of the healthcare.gov website, today we can say that 7.5 million Americans enrolled in the marketplaces. And that’s not counting the 3 million young adults who are on their parents’ policies because of the Affordable Care Act. That’s not counting the millions more who are able to get health care through the expanded Medicaid program in those states where the expansion was accepted.
And Secretary Sebelius deserves credit for all of that through her leadership at HHS. She came to the President in early March confident that March would be a strong month in enrollment and that we would end the open enrollment period in a good place, and said that the end of enrollment was a good time for her to step aside after five years in the Cabinet, five years at the helm of this agency -- a good time for her personally, a good time for the Affordable Care Act. What you will see in the role that future Secretary Burwell plays is effective management of the implementation going forward, as well as of all of the other programs and policies that HHS has responsibility for.
So I think we will not see anyone here contest that we’ve been through a rocky period, especially October and November, when it comes to healthcare.gov. But I will contest the idea that the Affordable Care Act needs a fresh start -- because we saw this fresh start, if you will, in the dramatic improvement of the functionality of the website and in the astounding demand for the product provided through healthcare.gov and provided through the state marketplaces. But we’re about the business of continuing to implement the law. We’re about the business of preparing for the next open enrollment period. And Sylvia Burwell will be an excellent leader of that effort.
Q And so do you think her nomination then will help put that period behind you?
MR. CARNEY: Well, so that’s your second question. I’ve been out of the business of political analysis for a few years. But it astounds me when I see purported professionals --
Q It’s like riding a bike. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: I’ll tell you it’s even easier than that, apparently, because it astounds me when I see supposed professional political analysts suggest that the name of the person at the head of the Department of Health and Human Services -- an agency that most Americans probably don’t even know exist -- will affect how they vote in November.
What will matter, surely, is whether or not they signed up successfully for quality and affordable health insurance. What will matter is whether or not they feel the candidate in their district or state has an agenda that speaks to them, that reflects an effort to reward hard work and responsibility; to expand our opportunity in this country for folks in the middle class and those working to get into the middle class; that protects the rights of women in the workplace; and make sure that families across the country have the capacity to send their children to college.
I think those issues will matter. And when I said that, it was obviously a little hyperbole and little bit of a joke, and not in any way meant to play down the importance of that agency and the work it does, but people don’t spend a lot of time out in the country thinking about who’s heading up departments here. They spend a lot of time wondering whether Washington is working for them. And I think that when it comes to debates about the Affordable Care Act, they’re going to make their assessments based on their personal experience, and they’re going to make their judgments in the fall based on a lot of other issues.
Q Getting back to Secretary Sebelius and when she informed the President that she would like to step down, did the President ask her to reconsider at that point? And did she ever fall out a favor with the President, with people high up in the White House, in terms of her management of the Affordable Care Act and the website?
MR. CARNEY: Secretary Sebelius came to the President in early March, as we’ve discussed, having made up her mind that the end of open enrollment would be the right time for her personally, and for the agency, to step aside. They had a number of discussions about it, and the President accepted her resignation. But I think you heard today in the Rose Garden how the President feels about Kathleen Sebelius and her efforts.
So I don’t think you need me to tell you, because he told you himself.
Q But he didn’t ask her to reconsider?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to get into private conversations between him and any Cabinet Secretary. I think Secretary Sebelius has made clear, and we have echoed her decision, that she felt it was the right time to go. And let’s not forget, that’s after five years in the Cabinet. That’s a pretty long tenure -- and at the head of an agency that has overseen historic change.
So the President greatly appreciates her service and greatly appreciates the fact that when times were tough Secretary Sebelius rolled up her sleeves and focused on fixing the problem. That’s what the President asked of everybody. He stood here and he took responsibility as President, as head of this administration, for the problems with healthcare.gov. And every member of that team took responsibility. But he didn’t look to assign blame or point fingers or scapegoat anyone. He wanted every member of that team who was committed to providing affordable, quality health insurance to the American people to get to work fixing the problems for the American people. That’s what he demanded, and that’s what he got.
Q In that vein, I just want to follow -- because it is sort of a notion in Washington that this President does not like to throw people overboard; that he bristles at calls for Cabinet secretaries to be fired, emanating from up on Capitol Hill. Is any of that true? Is there a part of this President he just sort of says to hell with it -- his critics?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think this President holds people accountable and believes they ought to perform at the highest levels, and that’s what he saw people do when we had the problems that we had last fall with the website. As a general principle, I think President Obama doesn’t subscribe to practices that are theatrical, in personnel or other areas. Because again -- this goes to sort of Roberta’s question -- the issue with healthcare.gov wasn’t who’s to blame; it was can they get it to work. Because it was about a tool that was highly important to making implementation of the Affordable Care Act successful.
So what did the President do? He looked at the troubles and he said, here’s the course we’re going to pursue; we’re going to throw everything in we have at fixing this problem. We’re going to bring in a team of tech experts. We’re going to ask Jeff Zients to come in and oversee that team, under CMS and HHS, and fix the problem. Because what mattered most was fixing it so that folks could enroll, and that’s what they did.
Q And getting back to the Iranians’ pick for ambassador to the U.N. -- I don’t think you said whether or not the President would sign that legislation. Is that not necessary now?
MR. CARNEY: What I said was that we are reviewing the legislation and will work to address any issues related to its utility and its constitutionality. And I pointed you to the precedent here in 1990 under President George H.W. Bush, when he issued a signing statement, when he signed a bill expressing constitutional concerns that he and his administration had at the time. So we’ll look at that precedent as well.
Q As you know, Jay, so many critics of the law still have so many questions about those 7 million Americans who signed up.
MR. CARNEY: 7.5.
Q 7.5. Does the White House believe it’s important to answer some of those questions before these confirmation hearings? Or do you think the confirmation hearings are the appropriate place to have these questions answered?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m sure that the senators will have lots of questions for the President’s nominee, as is appropriate. And I’m not going to rule -- it’s up to them what they want to ask her, and certainly questions about the Affordable Care Act represent fair ground.
But, I mean, if you’re asking me about -- I’m not sure which questions you’re referring to -- demographic breakdowns? When it comes to the --
Q All of the above. Is the White House going to break down that 7.5 million number prior to her confirmation?
MR. CARNEY: We will have data available when the data is reliable enough to provide. What I can say is that every time a bar is set by critics and opponents of the Affordable Care Act that they say represents the threshold for failure and we clear it, they move it to something else. And I would point you to -- when it comes to how many are -- I’ll even anticipate some of these questions -- what’s the percentage of uninsured now in the wake of the Affordable Care Act? Well, we don’t know definitively. But there have been some studies from outside groups that suggest a pretty significant movement in that arena as a result of the Affordable Care Act. And one study didn’t even take into account the surge at the end of March.
The demographic breakdown, we don’t know yet. And when we have the data, when it’s scrubbed, we’ll provide it. But insurers will tell you that they’re comfortable with the demographic breakdown that they’ve been getting, the individual private insurance companies have been getting who have and offer plans throughout these marketplaces. But I’m sure we’ll be answering every question that we get to the best of our ability.
Q The President said that he hopes there’s a swift confirmation. Isn’t that sort of wishful thinking on his part, just given the polarization of the Affordable Care Act still?
MR. CARNEY: Was the Affordable Care Act -- I mean, there’s polarization as a matter of fact and regret, I think for a lot of folks. But that polarization existed when the President had a number of nominees to Cabinet positions confirmed in the last year. I think you’ve seen statements from Republicans today already, supportive of Ms. Burwell and her work as Director of OMB and her nomination as Secretary of HHS. But I’m not going to presuppose the outcome.
What I will note is that the United States Senate confirmed her to a Cabinet position, a very important one, unanimously a year ago. And what has changed in a year in the arena for which she held responsibility is that the deficit has been cut in half at a record pace, or been cut at a record pace. For the first time in many years, a budget agreement has been reached that prevented the kind of brinksmanship that we’ve seen in the past that led in one instance to the shutdown of the government. And you’ve seen overall highly effective management out of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. And I think that’s a record that will assist us in making the case for the President’s nominee.
Q You’re making the case that it’s going to depend entirely on her record when that seems to be the furthest thing from the truth. This is an opportunity to reopen the discussion of ACA on the part of the Republicans.
MR. CARNEY: Bill, I hadn’t noted that it had been closed, first of all. I don’t think -- for better or worse, in terms of their political aims, Republicans have dropped the argument and the case and are suddenly going to take it up again. We hear every day that they want to repeal it, and that they want to tell those 7.5 million people that they’re out of luck and tell the 3 million young adults that they’re out of luck, and tell all those seniors who have gotten prescription drug benefits that they’re out of luck and that it’s time to go back to the status quo ante when insurance companies could decide for you whether or not your condition was covered.
Q But what makes you think that they’ll consider Ms. Burwell’s nomination on her merits alone or even at all?
MR. CARNEY: Because that’s how the process is supposed to work.
Q Supposed to.
MR. CARNEY: We’re optimists. That’s it? Ed.
Q Thanks, Jay. You anticipated all of my questions. I want to first ask about voter ID before health care, because the President gave this big speech at the LBJ Library yesterday. Before he spoke -- I think the day before -- former President Clinton talked about voter ID laws and specifically said that one way to deal with this may be to put a photo on a Social Security card. And there’s still controversy over that -- some support, some oppose. Where’s the President on it?
MR. CARNEY: We haven’t had an opportunity to review all of the implications of that idea that Bill Clinton and others have put forward. But generally speaking on the question of voting rights, President Obama believes we should be making it easier and not harder for every eligible citizen to vote. That’s a position he’s discussed on many occasions. So we haven’t really seen a formal proposal or had a lot of time to review the one that you mentioned. But as a general principle, the President is interested in making it easier for eligible citizens to vote, not harder. Not everyone in public office seems to have the same perspective.
Q On health care, midterm elections -- you said people won’t care about who is sort of running a department, they’ll care about whether they got new insurance coverage or not. You specifically said that’s what will matter. Will it also matter if someone had a plan, the President said you can keep your plan and then they lost their plan?
MR. CARNEY: I think there will be debate in every race about this and many other issues. Again, you might have missed it -- I certainly haven’t seen it on your network -- but that RAND study noted the number of individuals for whom that was the case, at least based on their survey. And --
Q Well, actually, the White House has also taken issue with the RAND study, because there’s parts of it -- and I specifically did not use it in a piece a couple of days ago because I spoke to a White House official who told me that they felt the RAND study left out a lot of important information, so just to be clear.
MR. CARNEY: Well, that may be the case. But in any event, Ed, I have no doubt that all of the issues that surround the Affordable Care Act will be discussed in the months ahead and maybe discussed in individual races. What I know for a fact is that the alternative we’ve seen so far from Republicans is nothing. There is no alternative.
And so, if you’re for repeal, that means that you have to make the argument that it would be better for those 7.5 million not to have been able to enroll and get quality, affordable health insurance; it would be better for the 3 million young adults who are now on their parents’ policies because of the Affordable Care Act not to be able to do that; it would be better for women around the country to be charged double for the same policy that men are charged, because insurance companies could do that and that was allowed prior to the Affordable Care Act; it would be better for insurance companies to refuse to cover specific conditions because they were preexisting, to refuse to give you affordable health insurance because your child has asthma or diabetes. That’s the status quo ante, and that’s the argument I think that we’ll be seeing play out over the next several months.
Q And just to be clear, I wasn’t sure if you were talking about two different RAND studies, But there was a RAND study a few days ago suggesting that a lot of the people who had signed up were not previously uninsured, and there were issues the administration has taken with that one. I’m not sure if you were talking about another one.
MR. CARNEY: I think one RAND study I saw, and also a survey by Gallup, suggested that the number of the -- the uninsurance rate, the rate of uninsured -- including RAND -- has gone down significantly since the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Q A big picture question on health care. The President said, look, there were glitches in the first quarter of the game, basically, but that what matters is the final score. And he mentioned the 7.5 million signups that you’ve mentioned here. Is that the way the President views it, that that is the final score? Or are we still in the second quarter on this? Where are we?
MR. CARNEY: I’ll try to stay in metaphors related to football.
Q No, but that’s the only one he’s cited. Just to be clear, he said signups --
MR. CARNEY: He was citing the first open enrollment period, which came to a conclusion on March 31st at midnight, and by which deadline, including those who have been processed since because they were already in line, at least 7.5 million people were able to enroll -- which I think given where we were in October and November and December and January and February is a pretty impressive achievement. So that’s what he was referring to.
What we also made clear -- and the President did today in the Rose Garden -- is that there is a lot of work to do on implementation of the Affordable Care Act, on preparing for the next period of open enrollment. And that work continues. And that’s work that Sylvia Burwell will be overseeing, we hope, as Secretary of HHS.
Q Can you give us a sense of -- the White House’s sense of urgency about now filling the OMB slot? There is a two-year budget agreement in place, so does that like reduce the imperative to get someone confirmed? Or is it more urgent because there’s a lot of details to work out? Do you have a short list? How soon do you want this done?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any other personnel announcements to make on top of the big ones we made today. We expect a May transition at HHS. And when we have further personnel announcements to make, we’ll make them.
Q Do you have any kind of a short list right now? Are you looking at replacements?
MR. CARNEY: We just don’t comment on those kind of internal deliberations when it comes to filling personnel posts.
Q Are you committed to a formal nomination process where somebody is nominated to be the next Director of OMB?
MR. CARNEY: I’m just not going to get into those kinds of discussions. We’re focused today on the announcement about HHS. And when we have more personnel announcements to make, or a personnel announcement to make in this regard, we’ll make it.
Q Jay, what reason did the U.S. give to the U.N. and Iran for denying the visa to the ambassador?
MR. CARNEY: Mark, we have obviously expressed our views directly to the Iranians, as well as the United Nations. There’s been a fair amount of reporting on this nominee, or this selection, and the concerns expressed in the legislation that we’ve talked about today reflect our concerns about this selection. And for those reasons, we concur with the Congress and share the intent of the bill, and we will not be issuing a visa to the nominee.
Q Do you view the individual’s background as having had a role in the hostage-taking in 1979?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I think it’s fair to say that the discussions around this, the reporting on it, the views expressed in the discussions on Capitol Hill and in the legislation itself reflect our views.
Q Why are you stopping short of saying --
MR. CARNEY: No, I’m agreeing.
Q Oh, okay.
MR. CARNEY: But these are complex issues, and we don’t as a rule get into too much detail about issuing visas and deliberations over visas.
Q As host nation, is the U.S. entitled to withhold a visa from an ambassador?
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you to the United Nations representation -- the U.S. representation at the U.N., as well as the State Department.
Q Okay, and one last question. There’s a large gap in the President’s schedule tonight in New York. What are the President and Mrs. Obama doing in New York tonight?
MR. CARNEY: Well, my colleague, Eric Schultz, will be on the trip and he’ll apprise the pool further on the schedule, but I think it’s fair to say the President and the First Lady will be spending a little time in New York this evening. When we have more details to provide, we’ll provide them.
Q Date night?
MR. CARNEY: Again, when we have more details, we’ll provide them.
Q Jay, can you give us a refresher -- let’s say a weekend update on the latest President’s conversations, thoughts with the leaders of NATO regarding Putin, Ukraine, Crimea, and the Russian troop buildup, et cetera?
MR. CARNEY: Well, as you know, the President spoke with Chancellor Merkel yesterday from Air Force One about the concerning situation in eastern Ukraine. We continue to see there that pro-Russian separatists, apparently with support from Moscow, continue an orchestrated campaign of incitement and sabotage to undermine and destabilize the Ukrainian state. And we remain concerned about increased Russian pressure on Ukraine overall. And we saw similar protest activities in Crimea before the Russian intervention and illegal annexation, so this of course if cause for concern.
The President and the Chancellor talked about the need for Russia to move its troops back from the border region. In Crimea, we also continue to call for Russia to withdraw its forces, which are violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. As we have said, we will hold Russia accountable for its actions in Ukraine, whether overt or covert.
We call on President Putin and his government to cease all efforts to destabilize Ukraine, and we caution against further military intervention. We remain prepared to impose further costs on Russia for its actions or further provocations.
When it comes to NATO and the important work underway to reassure NATO allies, the United States has urgently been stepping up on a bilateral basis to reassure our NATO allies who are most concerned by the Russian intervention in Ukraine and Russia’s buildup of military forces. To date, those efforts have been mostly taken advantage -- have mostly taken advantage of existing missions, such as deploying 12 additional F-16s to our aviation training detachment to Poland, and augmenting our contribution to the NATO-Baltic Air Policing Mission with six additional F-16s.
As you know, while in Europe, the President asked those NATO allies who are capable of making similar contributions to do so as quickly as possible. This was done with a view to moving this discussion more formally into NATO channels by tasking NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, General Breedlove, at the NATO Foreign Ministerial to develop additional measures to enhance our collective defense and ensure a coordinated and continuous additional land, air, and sea presence in the region from now through at least the end of the year. In other words, moving from an ad-hoc “coalition of the ready” approach to a more concerted and strategic look at what NATO can and should do to bolster its Article 5 obligations and assurances.
In other words, we’ve taken a lot of steps to reassure our NATO allies. We have had discussions with, when the President was in Europe and since, our partners on other contributions that our NATO allies can make in the effort to reassure the alliance and those nations that are understandably most concerned by Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Q Is the President prepared to move Sylvia Burwell into HHS in an acting capacity if you guys don’t get the speedy confirmation that you’re hoping for?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to speculate about something like that, because she was confirmed 96-0 to a Cabinet position a year ago and has completed a year of exemplary service in that Cabinet position that has won her plaudits from Democrats and Republicans alike. So we do hope for a swift confirmation, even as we defer to the Senate in the performance of its responsibilities with confirmation. So we expect a May transition.
Q But even a May transition is not a long time for there to be confirmation hearings. If there’s a period without an HHS Secretary, is that --
MR. CARNEY: I’m just not going to speculate about something like that, because we do expect a swift confirmation, or hope for a swift confirmation. Again, she received swift confirmation and unanimous confirmation a year ago to her current position and is an excellent choice, as some Republicans have today said publicly, for this new position.
Q There will be a period where it seems there --
MR. CARNEY: I think I’ve made clear I’m not going to speculate about what might happen if something might; if, could be the case.
Q I have two questions. The Syrian oppositions are reporting that the Syrian government is using poison gas outside of Damascus. Do you have a confirmation of that? And if this is the case, what’s the implication for President Assad?
MR. CARNEY: We are aware of these reports but do not have any information independently to corroborate those claims at this time. We take all reports of alleged chemical weapons use seriously, which is why we are working urgently with the OPCW and U.N. to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. So we’re obviously monitoring that situation and seeking to corroborate the reports.
Q And on the Palestinian issue, the Swiss Foreign Ministry said that the Palestinian Authority is eligible to join the Geneva Convention. What’s wrong of them doing that? I mean, it’s an organization that respects international law and calls for the protection of civilians.
MR. CARNEY: As we’ve said repeatedly, unilateral actions by either the Israelis or the Palestinians that do not contribute to moving the peace process forward but do the opposite are not helpful. And we’ve made clear our view on those actions by the Palestinians and by the Israelis. And that certainly is the case when it comes to ascension to some of these international organizations.
So our views on this and the fact that both parties need to make difficult decisions that only they can make to move the process forward are very well known.
Q But do you see the difference between building settlements, undermining the possibility of a viable Palestinian state, and joining international organizations that basically protects women and children?
MR. CARNEY: Again, Nadia, what we oppose are unilateral actions that make achieving peace harder, and we oppose them whether they are settlement tenders or circulating ascension documents to various international treaties, because they make the peace process more difficult and the prospects of making progress and reaching a peace settlement more remote. And we strongly believe it is in the interest of Israelis and Palestinians to achieve a peace settlement that allows for a sovereign Palestinian state and a secure Jewish, democratic State of Israel.
Kristen, I’m sorry.
Q Thank you. Jay, some members of Congress are indicating that they were caught off guard by the announcement of Secretary Sebelius’s resignation. Did President Obama alert any members of Congress, any congressional leaders?
MR. CARNEY: I think we went through notifications in the manner that we normally do.
MR. CARNEY: I’m sorry, Mark?
Q Nothing I was mumbling. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: You want to join me up here? (Laughter.)
Q That would liven things up. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: It would be pretty awesome, wouldn’t it? One day, if you’re willing.
Again, we went through a normal notification process. These are the kinds of deliberations that the President needs to engage in directly with the Cabinet Secretary and potential nominee, and that was the case. But again, the normal process was followed.
Q And just to be clear, congressional leaders, he alerted -- you alerted congressional leaders?
MR. CARNEY: Through a normal -- the normal process, yes.
Q And I apologize if you’ve gotten this question already. President Obama is going to speak later today at the National Action Network. He’s going to talk about voting rights. Ambassador Andrew Young, some other -- some rights leaders and others are suggesting that President Obama should issue an executive action that would put pictures on Social Security cards.
MR. CARNEY: I did get this question.
Q You did get the question, apologies.
MR. CARNEY: And what I said, Kristen, is that we haven’t had an opportunity to review all the implications of that idea, which I think is the one that former President Clinton also discussed.
But generally speaking on the subject of voting rights, President Obama believes strongly that we should be making it easier -- not harder -- for every eligible citizen to vote. But on this specific proposal, we haven’t had a chance to review it.
Q Is it something the President would rule out?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I’m just not going to characterize the view since we haven’t had a chance to review it.
Q And can you give us any type of preview of today’s speech? Will he be introducing any new ideas as it pertains to voting rights, improving voting rights?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I can tell you the President will make the case that every American should have the chance to know their elections are being administered fairly and efficiently, and that every eligible citizen who wants to vote should have the chance to vote.
He will also reiterate his view that we should be working to make it easier and not harder to vote, and he will address some of the barriers that have recently been erected that make it more difficult for Americans to exercise one of our most fundamental rights as citizens.
I just think it’s fair to say that in a democracy voting is an essential and basic right. And we should be making sure that systems are in place and procedures are in place that make it easier for eligible American citizens to cast their ballot. And efforts that do the opposite would seem to go at the heart of what democratic government is all about -- in a bad way.
Q What barriers to voting do you mean?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President I think will discuss some of those in his remarks.
Q Yes, thank you very much. Did the President not want to meet with some of the other victims of the previous shooting at Fort Hood when he was there? Some had requested and written Denis McDonough. As you know, they consider it an act of terrorism, and the military has not classified it as that. And a couple of those who were grievously wounded had asked to meet with the President. Why didn't he?
MR. CARNEY: I don't have any updates on the President’s schedule. The President obviously went to participate in a memorial ceremony for those who were just killed at Fort Hood.
On the question of terrorism, the Department of Defense has the lead on the investigation with support from the FBI. And the DOD has said, “There is no indication that this incident is related to terrorism, although we are not ruling anything out.” But that investigation continues.
But again, on the schedule beyond that, I don't have anything for you.
Q But for those who were injured in 2009 who have been appealing for some time now for a change, and that, as you know, it’s been so far adjudged to be a workplace shooting.
MR. CARNEY: I just don't have anything new for you on that.
Q And has anybody or will anybody be fired at HHS over the website startup?
MR. CARNEY: Ann, I’m not sure if you were here, but I talked about the fact that the President when we had the malfunction of the healthcare.gov site was focused on making sure that his team was putting everything into fixing the problem, and not scapegoating and not finger-pointing and not blaming. And that's what he got. And that's why we have 7.5 million Americans who were able to enroll successfully through the marketplaces -- both federal and state marketplaces. That's the kind of accountability the President wants, and that's what he got.
And I’m sure, as we were discussing earlier, the debate won’t end with the end of open enrollment, the 7.5 million, with a change of leadership at HHS, the debate will continue, so I’m sure we’ll have time to discuss it. The debate becomes I think a little more complicated for opponents of the Affordable Care Act, for supporters of repeal when they have to argue that the status quo ante for those 7.5 million and for the 3 million young adults and for the millions of seniors and for everyone who is affected by a policy, or was affected by a policy in the past, that discriminated against those with preexisting conditions that that’s better for them.
Q Case closed on the October start?
MR. CARNEY: I don't make personnel speculation here. I think that the point I’m trying to make is that what the President wanted people to focus on at a very difficult time was fixing the problem, not assigning blame for the problem, and that's what he got. And he got that to the benefit of millions of Americans.
Q Thanks, Jay. Jay, I just want to take one more stab at Isaac’s question. Will Secretary Sebelius stay on until a successor is confirmed by the Senate?
MR. CARNEY: We expect a May transition, and we expect the Senate to take up Sylvia’s confirmation and to examine her exceptional credentials, her exemplary service, and to confirm her hopefully unanimously as they did last time.
Q And the President you said knew in early March that this transition would be happening. The President earlier today was effusive in his praise for Secretary Sebelius. But Secretary Sebelius was not at the podium, nor was she mentioned in the remarks on April 1, when the President took what a lot -- I felt like a lot of us described as a victory lap, saying seven-point something million Americans at the time. Was that --
MR. CARNEY: Secretary Sebelius was at the event. The President was there only with the Vice President behind the podium. And I think you heard from the President --
Q He thanked members of Congress who passed --
MR. CARNEY: Jared, honestly, I think you heard from the President of --
Q -- pool’s omission?
MR. CARNEY: Boy, that’s pretty lame. But the President I think gave you plenty of sound today on his feelings about Secretary Sebelius’s service. So you got it from him and you got it pretty clearly.
I’ll take Laura, then Jen.
Q On Guantanamo, the Miami Herald sent a letter of protest to Secretary Hagel about the unprecedented censorship going on for the press in the past three months in Guantanamo. Are you aware of this?
MR. CARNEY: I’ll have to take the question and probably refer you to the Department of Defense.
Q So one question -- can you confirm Angela Merkel is coming to the White House in May to speak with --
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any scheduling announcements on behalf of the Chancellor of Germany.
Q It did mention it I think in the readout, something about the upcoming visit.
MR. CARNEY: Whatever we said in the readout was 100 percent true. (Laughter.) I just don’t have the readout in front of me.
Q Why is the President so reluctant to take executive action on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act?
MR. CARNEY: Jen, the President believes that Congress ought to pass and send to his desk the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. If you’re asking about executive orders, I just don’t have any update for you on that. That’s the answer I’ve given in the past.
We believe that passage of ENDA, as the Senate already has done, is the right thing for the House to do. The folks who oppose it, oppose it for the reasons that civil rights legislation has been opposed in the past. Those reasons were wrong in the past. I think some of the very people who oppose this one would agree that the reasons were wrong in the past with previous civil rights legislation. And I’m pretty confident that 10 years from now or however long from now the folks will look back and acknowledge that they were wrong now. So they ought to just pass it.
And in the meantime, I just don’t have any updates on -- as would be true in all cases, on speculated-about executive orders.
Q I don’t really understand the White House argument on this one, because you say regularly that you prefer that Congress act and pass the law. But the President has been talking up his use of executive action for several months, and he’s taken several executive actions on issues that he’s still pressing Congress to do more broadly. He did it with the minimum wage a couple of months ago, and he’s still pressing Congress on that front. He just did it this week on fair pay and he’s still pressing Congress to do a broader fair pay law. And he did it a couple of years ago with the DREAM Act provisions and --
MR. CARNEY: Here’s what I would say about that. In all of those cases, I don’t think we said that prior to the issue of an executive order that we would never do an executive order. I just don’t speculate about potential executive orders. What we know concretely is that Congress has taken up legislation that this President strongly supports that would ensure the rights of millions and millions of Americans and that is I think clearly the right thing to do. So we urged the House to take action.
Q So is the option on the table to consider executive action? It’s just not consistent with the argument that I’ve heard you make so many times.
MR. CARNEY: I think I just made a great point, which is that in the prior -- (laughter) -- in the examples that you said, it wasn’t like we were talking about what actions we might take in the future. And I’m not trying to suggest anything by that, except to say that there is legislation in Congress that we strongly support and we urge the House to pass. And I just don’t have anything to add to discussions about or speculation about executive orders in this arena or anywhere else.
Q But you’re not ruling it out?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, I just don’t have anything to add. So in the realm of speculation, I don’t make a lot of rules.
Did I promise anybody --
Q Week ahead?
MR. CARNEY: Ah, week ahead. Zeke, I see you back there kind of hidden. So you ask a question while I pull out my --
Q Yes, I was just trying to take a stab at Mark’s question earlier about the U.N.-U.S. treaty over -- the headquarters agreement. Can you explain how this decision can be made while still fitting within that legal agreement that says that the United States shall expeditiously approve these applications for --
MR. CARNEY: Well, we take our host country responsibilities very seriously, Zeke, which is why this is such a rare case. But I’m not a lawyer, so I’d send you to lawyers maybe at the U.N. mission. But I can tell you that we have made it clear and communicated it that we will not issue a visa to Mr. Abutalebi.
Q And State had said previously that there is a loophole here for issues of security, terrorism and foreign policy. Which of those three does this case fall under?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I would refer you to experts on such things -- and I am not that.
Week ahead. On Monday, the President will host an Easter Prayer Breakfast here at the White House.
On Tuesday, the President and the First Lady will mark the beginning of Passover with a Seder at the White House with friends and staff.
On Wednesday, the President and Vice President will travel to Leetsdale, Pennsylvania for an event on the economy. Further details on the President and Vice President’s travel to Pennsylvania will be made available in the coming days.
Q They’re both going together?
MR. CARNEY: They will both travel to Leetsdale, Pennsylvania. More details on that travel will be made available in the coming days.
On Thursday, the President will welcome the Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride to the White House in celebration of the 8th annual soldier ride, a cycling event to help wounded warriors restore their physical and emotional wellbeing. The soldier ride also raises awareness of our nation’s wounded warriors who battle the physical and psychological damages of war.
On Friday, the President will meet with the National Commander and Executive Director of the American Legion. Later, he will welcome the United States Naval Academy football team to the White House to present them with the 2013 Commander-in-Chief’s trophy.
I hope you all have a wonderful weekend and I’ll see you next week.
Q He’ll stay in town for Easter? He’s not traveling?
MR. CARNEY: That’s all the travel I have for you.
1:26 P.M. EDT
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