the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

Search form

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 12/19/2011

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

2:50 P.M. EST

MR. CARNEY:  Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.  Thank you for your patience.  Thanks for being here for your daily briefing.  I don't have any announcements, so let's go straight to questions.

Mr. Feller.

Q    Thanks, Jay.  I wanted to ask you about North Korea and then move to the payroll tax.  Is the President concerned at all about the security of the nuclear arsenal in North Korea?  And more broadly, does he see this as a time of optimism or a time of concern?

MR. CARNEY:  Ben, the United States is closely monitoring events in the aftermath of Kim Jong-il's death.  Our focus is on coordinating closely with our allies and partners.  We have reaffirmed our unwavering commitment to the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the security of our allies, South Korea and Japan. 

The President, as you know, has had a very close working relationship with President Lee and spoke to him late last night. In addition to that communication, Secretary Clinton, Secretary Panetta, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, they have all spoken to their counterparts in the Korean government, as have our team on the ground, including our ambassador and the head of U.S. Forces Korea.

Secretary Clinton is meeting today with the Japanese foreign minister, and we have also consulted closely with a wide range of our Japanese colleagues.  In addition, we are in touch with Russia and China, the two other members of the six-party talks beyond North Korea.  And President Obama has been regularly briefed on the situation.

As for the situation, we're monitoring it.  The succession that is in place has been in place for a considerable period of time now, and we're just closely monitoring the situation.

Q    So as to concerns about their nuclear stability right now?

MR. CARNEY:  I don't think we have any additional concerns beyond the ones that we have long had with North Korea's approach to nuclear issues.  And we will continue to press them to meet their international obligations.  But I -- we have no new concerns as a result of this event.

Q    And based on what you're hearing so far, I mean, clearly there is a transition now -- is this a time -- is this an opening from the White House perspective for better days?

MR. CARNEY:  I think it's much too early to make any kind of judgment like that.  This is a period where North Korea is in a period of national mourning.  And we hope that the new North Korean leadership will take the steps necessary to support peace, prosperity and a better future for the North Korean people, including, as I say, acting on its commitment to denuclearization.

Q    Okay, thank you.  On the payroll tax, was the White House ever given any assurance from the House that this is something that it would support?  When the President came out and spoke on Saturday, did he think this was, in essence, a done deal?

MR. CARNEY:  As you know, Ben, the President worked closely with Senate leadership as it negotiated -- Senate Democratic leadership, with Senator Reid and others -- negotiated with Republican leadership on a compromise that won an overwhelming bipartisan support -- won overwhelming bipartisan support in the Senate -- 89 to 10, 90 percent.  More than 80 percent of Senate Republicans voted for it.

I do this sometimes, but I've been here long enough to say that it has never been the case that the Senate votes at 90 percent, with overwhelming majorities from both parties, without communication with their counterparts in the House.  And it is certainly not for the President to be the intermediary between Republican leaders in the House and the Senate. 

It was certainly our expectation, and we certainly had reason to believe that there was support in the House for a measure that would ensure that Americans didn't have their taxes go up in 12 days.  Not only did we have reason to believe that because of the nature of the negotiations that were taking place on Capitol Hill, but, as many of you have reported, the Speaker of the House, in his conference call with House Republicans, urged them to support this measure, said it was a victory and the right thing to do.  So he was for it before he was against it.

Q    Well, he disputes that.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, again, I would cite the numerous reports from your colleagues, citing Republicans who were on the call making the opposite point.  And again, I think the broader issue here is, the President from the beginning has been for a full-year payroll tax cut extension and expansion.  It was in the American Jobs Act, and that was put on the table back in September.  So this is not -- here we are, the very end of December, facing the possibility that 160 million Americans will have their taxes go up on January 1st, and the House refusing to pass a measure that has overwhelming bipartisan support from Republicans as well as Democrats.

The President was for the -- very supportive of the measure -- of the approach that was taken in the Senate that also would have extended the payroll tax cut for a year.  He continues to support a full extension, as he made clear on Saturday, of the payroll tax cut.

But Congress needs to act, the House needs to act -- or else, Americans are going to have their taxes go up.  And it is very hard to understand why a measure passed the Senate with nearly 90 percent support -- all it would take in the House, if all Democrats or virtually all Democrats vote for it, is about 25 or 30 Republicans -- 12 percent of Republican support in the House for this thing to become law -- for the House to ensure that Americans don't have their taxes go up.

So we call on Republicans to do that.

Q    Last one on this.  You say it's time for Congress to act.  Speaker Boehner says that's not going to happen, the House vote is going to go down.  Senator Reid says he’s not bringing the Senate back to renegotiate.  So is this it?  Is this the vote tonight?  Or is there any path to get this done should this vote go down tonight?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I don’t want to speculate about what happens after this because, again, I don’t think this is too much of a long shot to say that 25 Republicans in the House might break ranks and say, you know what, I don’t want to go home and explain to my constituents why I voted to raise taxes on them, on middle-class, working Americans.

So I think that we remain hopeful that the House will act, that House Republicans will do the right thing, and support a proposal to extend this payroll tax cut for two months and allowing the time necessary to negotiate a full-year extension.

Everyone says now that they’re for it, a full-year extension -- this is Republicans having traveled some distance from opposing it to now being for it.  So hopefully the House will do the right thing and pass this bill.

Q    Jay, on North Korea, I know you said it’s early days and you’re formulating an assessment, but people who follow this closely say that it’s one of two things -- that either this development will lead to greater instability or perhaps it’s an opening.  Does the administration lean toward one view or another at this stage?

MR. CARNEY:  I just think it’s much too early to make that judgment.  North Korea is in a period of national mourning; this transition is just now beginning to take place.  The issue here isn’t about personalities; it’s about the actions of the government.  And we will monitor the situation closely.  But I think it would be premature to make assessments about what this development would mean in terms of its effect on six-party talks or anything else.

Q    On another subject, Reuters has an exclusive out that was put on the wire last night, detailing 10 months of talks between the United States and the Taliban.  And I was wondering if you could bring us up to speed on those talks -- what is the aim of them, what do you expect out of them.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I’d say a couple of things.  One, we would leave it up to the Afghan government to characterize the state of the talks that they are leading.  As you know, our policy has been for a long time now and it remains the case that we support reconciliation, Afghan-led reconciliation process, that would bring Afghans together and allow insurgents to come off the battlefield.

We and the Afghan government have been clear about the conditions that would need to be met:  Insurgents would need to break from al Qaeda, abandon violence, and abide by the Afghan constitution, including its provisions on the respect for the rights of all Afghans, and that includes obviously women and ethnic minorities.

So we will continue to support these Afghan-led efforts.  But I would refer you to the Afghan government about specifics about expectations, if that was the nature of your question.

Let’s see -- Victoria.

Q    Why did you come out today with the executive order on the initiative on women and girls and conflict resolution?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I would refer you to the State Department.  I mean, they’re having -- the Secretary of State is I think speaking about this issue today.  This has been -- these kinds of things have a fairly long planning time.  So I’m not sure I get the nature of your question.  Why not today, I suppose.

Q    Could you talk a little bit more about why it’s so important to the administration?

MR. CARNEY:  I can tell you that -- let me see what I have here.  The documents that are part of the executive order released today for the first-ever National Action on Women, Peace, and Security lay out the concrete steps the administration will take to increase our commitment to support women as critical participants in preventing and resolving conflict.  The documents released today represent a change in how the United States will approach its diplomatic, military and development-based support to women in areas of conflict by ensuring that women’s perspectives and considerations of gender are woven into the DNA of how the United States approaches peace processes, conflict prevention, and the protection of civilians, as well as humanitarian assistance.

But I think you’ll hear more, if you haven’t already, from the Secretary of State on this.


Q    Vice President Biden gave an interview in which he said the Taliban, per se, is not our enemy.  We are fighting the Taliban right now, as I know I don’t need to tell you.  Can you explain a little bit more?

MR. CARNEY:  Sure.

Q    Does he regret using that language?

MR. CARNEY:  Not at all.  I think it’s important -- I know you’ve written about this -- to understand what most Americans I think know, which is that we didn't invade Afghanistan, we did not send U.S. military personnel into Afghanistan because the Taliban were in power.  They had been in power.  We went into Afghanistan because al Qaeda had launched an attack against the United States from Afghanistan. 

And what the Vice President was reflecting is that -- and this is related to the reconciliation process that I was just discussing -- is that the Taliban, per se -- while we are fighting them, it is not the elimination -- the elimination of the Taliban is not the issue here.  The objective that the President laid out when he laid out his Afghanistan strategy made clear that the number-one principle here is to defeat, dismantle -- or disrupt, dismantle and ultimately defeat al Qaeda, as well as help stabilize Afghanistan.  And that’s what we’re doing.

Part of that process is our support for the Afghan-led reconciliation talks.  The conditions for reconciliation for the Taliban are very clear.  But reconciliation has to be a part of the long-term process in Afghanistan if Afghanistan is going to evolve into a peaceful country.

Q    I understand that.  I just -- obviously there isn't much of an al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan.  Leon Panetta, when he was CIA director, told me a year or two ago that there were less -- fewer than 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan.  We’ve been devoting a great deal of blood and treasure, focused almost entirely on defeating Taliban insurgents, Taliban fighters.  And I understand that ultimately there’s going to have to be some sort of reconciliation.  I just wonder if the language was regrettable at all. 

MR. CARNEY:  Well, it’s only regrettable when taken out of context that I just explained -- that it’s regrettable to present it out of context, because it is a simple fact that we went into Afghanistan because of the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001.  We are there now to ultimately defeat al Qaeda, to stabilize Afghanistan -- and stabilize it in part so that al Qaeda or other terrorists who have as their aim attacks on the United States cannot establish a foothold in that country.

So what is also completely clear is that Afghanistan's future has to include within it reconciliation.  And that's why we support the Afghan government-led effort there.

Q    To follow up on North Korea, if you could.  President Lee has experienced some criticism in his country for what is perceived to be a belligerent attitude towards North Korea, which some say has exacerbated tensions.  I'm wondering if you're -- if the White House has a take on that.  And also, there are intelligence analysts within the administration who speculate that one of the reasons for all those attacks -- the torpedo on the South Korean naval vessel and the shelling of the island -- are because of the new president of South -- of North Korea, rather, joining the military and trying to earn his stripes.  Is that proven?  Do we have intelligence about that?  Or is that just speculation?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, as you can expect, I'm not going to discuss intelligence from here.  And then I would add to that that it really is premature to make assessments of the new leader, or at least the one who's been designated by a succession that was already in the works.  And we will judge North Korea -- the North Korean government as we always have:  by its actions, and by its actions with regard, in particular, to upholding its commitments regarding denuclearization.  So we'll continue to do that. 

I think, stepping back, it does make sense to give this process a little bit of time before we make judgments about the new leadership or the disposition of North Korea going forward.

Q    What about President Lee?  Do you think that --

MR. CARNEY:  Well, President Lee is a very close ally -- South Korea is a very close ally, and this President works very closely with them; the rest of the government does.

Q    Is there a take that maybe his attitude, the way he's treated North Korea has exacerbated tensions at all?

MR. CARNEY:  Not that I've heard here.


Q    To try a little bit on Ben's question -- because House Republicans have been able to show some persistent unity on some of these issues this year, and they've maintained that they simply will not pass the Senate version of this bill.  Last week the President said Congress should not and cannot go on vacation before they have made sure that working families are not seeing their taxes go up by $1,000.  So will he urge the Senate to come back and get this over the finish line before year's end?

MR. CARNEY:  We are urging the House to follow the Senate's lead and pass a bill, or an amendment to a bill, that has received overwhelming bipartisan support on this issue, that will make sure that Americans' taxes don't go up in 12 days, 8 hours. 
It is time for us to step back and look at what has transpired here.  We have been in this situation where the public is, where the vast majority of folks in Washington are, is at variance with a slim subsection of one party in one House.  And I think it's pretty clear, again, based on the reporting that you and your colleagues have done, what transpired here.  And this is, in one way, a very unique situation compared to what we've seen transpire this whole year because the Senate did pass -- did do what in the past the House leadership has asked it to do, which is pass a bill out with broad bipartisan support, including broad Republican support.  Well it is there.  It is ready to be voted on and passed by the House of Representatives. 

And it is simply perplexing, I think for all of us, and I think for a lot of you, to understand why House Republicans would not support a measure that garnered -- I did the calculations on my iPhone -- 83 percent Republican support in the Senate.  We have some Senate Republicans now coming out today saying, please -- to their colleagues -- please -- to the House Republicans -- pass this.  This is crazy not to do this.  It is the obvious thing to do so that we ensure that Americans don't have their taxes go up and we give ourselves the time, give negotiators the time to work on a full-year extension, which is, as the President said here from this podium on Saturday, should not cause a great deal of drama in January or February when they work it out.

Q    So if a bill to extend the payroll tax, either temporary or for a year, is not passed, will the President skip his vacation and stay in town?

MR. CARNEY:  The President has made clear that he wants Congress to get this done, that he is here now and will be here as Congress tries to sort this out, because it’s essential to him; it is his number-one priority right now that Americans don’t have -- middle-class Americans don’t have their taxes go up on January 1st.

We remain hopeful that tonight enough House Republicans will not vote in lockstep for a position that is supported by almost no one out there, and will instead pass a payroll tax cut extension, make clear that they are committed, as we are, to a full-year tax cut for the American people -- a position, which, by the way, this President has had consistently, but which Republicans who are now saying, oh, we can’t possibly kick the can down the road, they didn’t even support a full-year extension until a few weeks ago. 

We had numerous senior Republicans on the Hill who were dismissing the economic value of the payroll tax cut, dismissing the need to do it at all and making clear that their support was tepid at best.  So now, fortunately, we’ve seen some movement in that direction.  There is support for it.  We expect the Congress to pass it, the House to pass it. 

The alternative is Americans waking on the 1st of January and trying to figure out, okay, how am I going to budget -- how am I going to make ends meet with $1,000 less this year, because the House Republicans refused to vote for something that 83 percent of Senate Republicans supported.  Hope it doesn’t come to pass.


Q    On North Korea, how confident are you that the transition of power will go smoothly?

MR. CARNEY:  We see no indication that the succession as -- prior to this event -- the succession that had been contemplated, won’t take place.  We expect that it will.  We see no indication that it won’t.  But beyond that I don’t really have a comment.

Q    Kim Jong-un is 27 years old.  He’s been described as untested, inexperienced, and with a volatile personality -- someone who has recently encouraged the attacks against the South.  Is that someone that the U.S. thinks is someone that they feel confident should be leading North Korea?  Any concerns?

MR. CARNEY:  I appreciate the question, Norah.  I think that we will make judgments on the new leadership’s disposition, if you will, based on how he and the government handles itself going forward.  We have consistently demonstrated that we are open to engagement with North Korea, but we’ve also made clear that the North Koreans need to take steps towards denuclearization that would demonstrate seriousness of purpose and a willingness to negotiate.  And that was our position last week and it remains our position this week and going forward.  Demonstrating that willingness would then open the door to renewed six-party talks, and to improved relations with the United States and with North Korea’s neighbors. 

So nothing has changed in our position.  And we will judge, obviously, North Korea and its government based on how they engage on this issue going forward.

Q    Can I just clarify -- "nothing has changed" -- does that mean the U.S. will go forward with an announcement about food aid to North Korea?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, we have longstanding concerns about the at-risk population in North Korea, and have repeatedly discussed with the North Koreans the terms for potential humanitarian assistance.  As the State Department has repeatedly made clear, we require adequate monitoring provisions to ensure that assistance that might be provided is not diverted from those in genuine need.  No decision will be taken by the U.S. government with respect to assistance without such arrangements.  And again, that was true last week and it’s true going forward.

So there’s no decisions at this point to provide food aid.  This is about the precursor to that, which would be making sure that such arrangements are in place that would allow for adequate monitoring.

Q    So it’s fair to say that such a decision might be delayed with Kim Jong-il’s death?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, I don't think that this -- as with all the questions that I’ve gotten, we will act -- we will monitor the situation, we will evaluate behavior and act accordingly.  But that was always the case.  It’s too soon to know what the next period will look like, as they are now in a period of national mourning and transition.  And we’ll just have to see.

Q    I just have one more final question.  Can you confirm that the United States was on the cusp of a deal where they would announce --

MR. CARNEY:  No.  No, not on the cusp of a deal.  I think that we were having these discussions, as we’ve had in the past, and there was not an imminent deal to be announced.

Q    There were reports that there was an imminent deal within days, to be followed by an announcement from Pyongyang.

MR. CARNEY:  I don't have anything to announce on that.  I mean, again, this is -- a decision like that was not going to be taken and will not be taken by the United States government with respect to that kind of assistance without the arrangements that I mentioned being in place.

Q    Has our North Korea -- State Department's North Korea specialists had any contact with Pyongyang since the death of Kim Jong-il was announced?

MR. CARNEY:  I don't have any information with regard to that.  You might check with the State Department.

Q    What do we know about Kim Jong-un?

MR. CARNEY:  I'm not going to get into assessments right now.  We're focused on actions, and we are -- certainly appreciate the fact that they're in a period of national mourning.

Q    You talked about a time period -- waiting for a time period.  When Kim Il-sung died, it was several years before Kim Jong-il really made his presence felt on the international stage. Is that the time period you're talking about for Kim Jong-un?

MR. CARNEY:  I don't think we're in a position to publicly assess that right now.  I think we just have to see.


Q    Thanks, Jay.  Can you at least explain why it's so imprudent for the administration to take a position on whether the death of Kim Jong-il could lead to more nuclear proliferation out of North Korea, or less?  I mean, why -- what's the risk?  Are you afraid of escalation?

MR. CARNEY:  What's the risk of pure speculation?

Q    I mean, you have an opinion.  Why not share it at all?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, there are opinions we might have that we don't necessarily share on matters of national security or foreign governments.  I think what I'm trying to make clear here is that this is a period of transition, a period of national mourning, and our position is as it has always been, which is that we will judge governments -- and this government is the same -- by their actions going forward.

Q    The South Koreans have increased their level of alert and readiness.  Is the U.S. looking to do that with any of their military bases?  Or is there any chance that this would have an effect on the Futenma --

MR. CARNEY:  As I understand it, no.  Obviously you can ask for more detailed information from the Defense Department.  But I understand that that is not the case for us.


Q    Thanks.  You keep saying that you're hopeful that enough House Republicans will support the Senate measure.  What are you basing that hope on?  (Laughter.)

MR. CARNEY:  A month ago, Julianna, there was ample evidence, publicly stated by Republican leaders, that they were totally opposed to -- or a number of them, influential ones were opposed to a payroll tax cut extension.  We are now in a place where they're so committed to it that, despite the substantial efforts to get a one-year deal, they are saying now that they can't possibly accept a bipartisan compromise to extend it for two months to allow time for more negotiations for a full-year extension. 

I mean, there's a little bit of kabuki theater going on here.  We all know how unusual this situation is that transpired this weekend.  It is not common practice, I would say, for a bill of substance that doesn't have to do with naming a post office or commemorative coins to pass with 90 percent support and overwhelming support from both parties without the wheels being greased, if you will, in the other House by the leaders.

And it makes getting things done on behalf of the American people pretty difficult when you have that kind of volatility, and have that situation where the things that have broad bipartisan support, have broad, broad American public support, cannot get done because a sub-faction of one party in one house basically dictating the direction of the majority in that house. It makes it very difficult.

But we remain hopeful, again, because they do not represent even a majority of the Republican Party.  And so we're talking here, I think, 25, 30 members of the House is 12 or 15 percent of the House Republican caucus.  That’s all we need.  Not the 82 percent we got in the Senate, but 12 or 15 percent of House Republicans can vote yes and ensure that Americans don't have their taxes go up on January 1. 

Q    Has the President had any calls with leadership?

MR. CARNEY:  I don't have any calls to read out at this time. 

Kristen, did you have anything?

Q    Yes.  Thanks, Jay.  When was the last time the President did speak with Speaker Boehner?

MR. CARNEY:  I don't have any calls or conversations to read out to you at this time.

Q    Given that we only have 12 days left and this is sort of crunch time, what can we expect to see from the President later today and in the coming days?

MR. CARNEY:  The President is actively engaged on this issue.  Again, he has -- you saw him here on Saturday.  And he worked closely with Senator Reid and Senate Democratic leadership on the efforts to get a one-year deal, and when that was not achievable in the timeframe that was before us, Senators Reid and McConnell worked out a two-month extension that won the support of 89 United States senators out of 99 who cast votes.  And the President was very much involved in that process.

That measure now awaits consideration by the House of Representatives.  Tonight, apparently, there will be a vote.  And it should be passed.  It has overwhelming support.  And it will ensure that Americans -- working, middle-class Americans -- do not have their taxes go up on January 1st.  And it will give negotiators further time to ensure that we then extend it for the full calendar year of 2012 -- the payroll tax cut extension, as well as the extension of unemployment insurance, which has, as every outside economist will tell you, a very positive impact on the economy.

Because let’s not forget here what the substantive consequence of a failure to act would mean:  not just $1,000 tax hike for the average American family, but a negative impact on the economy.  There are economists out there who say that if we do not extend the payroll tax cut, if we do not extend unemployment insurance, it increases the possibility of a recession, or increases the possibility of very slow economic growth.  The converse of that is passing this tax cut, passing the extension of unemployment insurance, will have a positive impact on economic growth. 

And there are Republicans out there -- and not surprisingly, they’re the ones who have been opposed or tepid in their support for this -- who claim, based on no valid or credible economic evidence, that these things have had positive effects on the economy this year.  There is no credible economist -- unaffiliated, nonpartisan economist -- who would argue to you that payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance have not had a positive impact on growth and a positive impact on job creation.
And that’s why we have to have them for next year. 

Q    And, Jay, if you don't want to read out meetings with the President, can you say if any of his top advisors, Pete Rouse, have been in contact with leadership on the Hill?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I won’t -- setting aside the individuals, certainly we are in contact with Capitol Hill on this matter, and have been all weekend and today, and will continue to be.  We will hope, as I said, that Republicans figure out the right thing to do here, support their colleagues in the Senate, support what the American people want done, and make sure that their taxes don't go up on January 1.  It’s pretty simple.

Q    And when you say you’ve had contact, that includes Republicans?  Because some officials in Speaker Boehner’s office said they’ve heard radio silence.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, let me just say, I think the President himself told you on Saturday that he had spoken with Senator McConnell, thanked him for his efforts at achieving this bipartisan compromise on Saturday.  With regard to the Speaker of the House, it is not our job to negotiate between him and Senate Republicans. 

Again, the Senate passed, with something like 82 percent Senate Republican approval -- 39 Senate Republicans -- a provision to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance, as well a deal with some other important issues, for two months.  The House should follow suit.


Q    Thank you, Jay.

MR. CARNEY:  Oh, I’m sorry, then Laura.  Toshi then Laura.

Q    I have two questions on North Korea.  So far has the administration noticed any unusual movement by North Korean military?  Can you give us an assessment on that?  Because it’s a grave concern in the region.  And secondly, does the President have any plan to speak with Japanese Prime Minister Noda as he did with Korean President Lee?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t have any announcements to make about upcoming conversations the President may or may not have. 

And with regard to your first question, my understanding prior to coming out here is that we did not see any evidence of that.  I would refer you to the Defense Department for more detailed analysis of that, but my understanding is the answer is no.

Laura, then Jackie, then Mark.

Q    Thanks.  On the payroll tax cut, Senate Democrats have indicated that the House has the bill before it; but they can pass it or they can be responsible for a tax increase, and they’re not interested in renegotiating this.  Is that the White House view as well, that basically they should take it or own it, and that’s the end?  Or if they reject it, will it be time for more negotiations?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, if they reject it is immediately speculating about the outcome.  I understand that some statements have been made that suggest that that is what will happen, and that’s unfortunate.  But I don’t want to get ahead of that process because we really do believe -- and we’ve just heard in the last few hours some Senate Republicans reinforce this point  -- that it is the right thing to do to vote "yes” tonight, following the overwhelmingly bipartisan support that this measure received in the Senate, to ensure that Americans don’t have their taxes go up.  So I don’t want to get ahead of that process.

It is certainly the case that Senator Reid worked very closely with Senate McConnell to work out this compromise.  And before they put forward the two-month measure, they worked hard on trying to get a year tax cut extension, payroll tax cut extension, unemployment insurance extension.  They were not able to accomplish that at this time, and felt it was of the utmost importance that at the very least we make sure taxes don’t go up on January 1st, which is the President’s absolute priority.  So they negotiated this two-month compromise.  It received 89 out of 99 Senate votes, Senate ayes, and it moved on to the House. 

I think it is not too much to ask, on behalf of the American people, that the House follow suit -- vote as the Senate did, in a bipartisan fashion, to ensure Americans' taxes don't go up on January 1st.  So I'm not -- again, I'm not going to get into what happens if the vote goes down or --

Q    Right.  I'm just -- the reason I'm asking that is because by doing -- by saying what the Senate Democrats are saying obviously puts a certain degree of pressure on the House, and if you were to say the same, that would add to that pressure on the House that they better vote for this or they're going to see taxes go up.  And you're declining to do that, so --

MR. CARNEY:  Well, let's be clear, I'm doing everything I can to make clear our view -- that the American people overwhelmingly support this; the Senate overwhelmingly supported it; it is overwhelmingly the right thing to do; and that the American people would be justifiably angry if Congress does not  -- and in this case, the House does not -- vote to extend this tax cut.  Because people are going to wake up and -- will spend the holiday season trying to figure out how they will manage their budgets with $1,000 less in their paychecks next year, because of this kind of nonsensical behavior, where -- it takes compromise to get things done here.  We are a two-party system in a divided government.  And something happened on Saturday in the Senate that has not happened often in this year:  89 senators voted for something that was not a post office or a commemorative coin, 39 of them Republicans.  I think Americans who are paying attention to this must be pulling their hair out when they look at the House now refusing to do what the Senate did.

Q    On a -- perhaps it seems like a outdated question, all the way back to Saturday -- on the issue of the Keystone provision that's in the Senate bill and the bill in front of the House, why did the administration accept that language given that just a few days earlier, in the SAP on the House bill, the administration indicated that it would not -- that it was opposed?

MR. CARNEY:  The administration indicated in its SAP that it would -- the President would veto a specific bill.  The President spoke in general about an effort to mandate a decision -- a "yes" decision as being something he would reject.  This provision does not mandate that outcome, which does not say that it's -- does not mean it's not extraneous, that it's not wholly irrelevant or unrelated to a payroll tax cut extension or an unemployment extension or the SGR doc fix or any of that.  It's a purely political thing that was inserted by Republicans into the payroll tax cut extension.

We accepted it, Senate Democrats accepted it, because that is part of what compromise means.  Sometimes you have to take things that you don't want.  But let's be clear about what that provision, if the House does take the appropriate action tonight and it becomes law, what that would mean and what it would not mean. 

Q    But that provision that is in the final Senate bill is the same provision that was in the House bill that the statement of administration policy suggested --

MR. CARNEY:  Right, but the SAP -- the statement of administration policy said the President would veto a bill which had many components to it; this was one. 

Q    I understand.  I'm not saying it was a veto --

MR. CARNEY:  So there are other things that could end up in a hypothetical resolution to this and that would have -- I mean, going back to that period of time, which, as you say, seems like a long time ago -- it wasn't that any single element that appeared in another bill would make that bill veto-worthy.  It was that that bill would result, if it landed on the President's desk, in a veto.  Well, that bill now is dead and will not land on the President's desk.

Q    And the last question is, do you believe that this will lead to a rejection of the Keystone project?

MR. CARNEY:  I would only point you to the statement made by the State Department about what a 60-day review would mean.  The whole reason, as I understand it, that more time was needed is because to properly do the sort of assessments that need to be done when you're evaluating these alternate routes for a pipeline, it requires more time than 60 days.  So it would be very difficult, as I understand it, for the State Department to say that that review had been responsibly achieved in 60 days.  But I would refer you to that statement.


Q    Yes, Jay, does the White House have any response to reports out of Baghdad that just a day after the last U.S. combat troops rolled out, the Shiite-dominated government has issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi for having personal death squads that had targeted opponents, and thus sparked fears of political and sectarian fighting there?

MR. CARNEY:  I did have something on that.  Hold on one second.  Do you have it?  Sorry -- thanks.  Yes, this did just, as you know, break -- this just in.  Yes, well, what I can say is we are monitoring this, monitoring the reports that an arrest warrant has been issued for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi in Iraq.  We are talking to all of the parties and expressed -- have expressed our concern regarding these developments.  We are urging all sides to work to resolve differences peacefully and through dialogue, in a manner consistent with the rule of law and the democratic political process.


Q    Jay, are you saying that if the House votes tonight the way we're told it will, that the White House is going to give up? I mean, that's the end of it -- you're going to say, all right, everybody go home?

MR. CARNEY:  I'm not accepting that outcome --

Q    You're going to keep trying, right?

MR. CARNEY:  -- I'm not expecting that outcome. 

Q    Yes, but you really need to, right? 

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I was told that it was impossible for the Kansas City Chiefs to beat the Green Bay Packers, and look what happened. 

Q    I think this is more --

MR. CARNEY:  You think it’s even more unlikely?

Q    I mean, you’re saying that if the House votes tonight that Americans are going to wake up angry, tearing their hair out on January 1st.  So it sounds like you’re saying, well, we give up.

MR. CARNEY:  No, I’m not saying that.  What I am saying is that all it would take is for 25 or 30 Republicans to do what their constituents overwhelmingly want them to do, which is grant this extension of a payroll tax cut, to follow the overwhelming bipartisan majority that was established in the Senate in support of this measure, and allow this bill to reach the President’s desk and to have him sign it into law. 

I do not think that it is an impossibility that that will happen.  It may not.  And if it doesn’t we will then address the situation after that.  But the fact of the matter is --

Q    Twelve hours --

MR. CARNEY:  -- 12 days, 8 hours --

Q    -- 12 days, 8 hours --

MR. CARNEY:  -- until taxes go up.

Q    It’s less than before.  (Laughter.) 

MR. CARNEY:  It is less than before.  (Laughter.)  The march of time.

I mean, Americans expect Washington to work, and they expect when political opponents, Democrats and Republicans to come together and work out a compromise on a substantive issue, a meaningful issue, like a payroll tax cut and extension of unemployment insurance -- paid for in both cases -- as well as the other measures -- provisions of that measure -- that when they work it out -- Senator McConnell and Senator Reid and 89 senators vote with them and support that measure -- that most Americans would probably expect the House to follow suit; would probably expect at least 12 or 13 percent of House Republicans to follow the 82 percent of Senate Republicans in support of this.

They would expect that for all the reasons that I’ve spelled out, including the established precedent in the way Washington works, that it is clear that there was an expectation on the Hill that there would be support for this in the House.  It is unlikely I think, based on your understanding of the Congress and how it works, and everybody else here, that that measure would have sailed over with huge bipartisan support in the House [sic] if there hadn’t been an expectation that it would also garner support in the House.  And then we have the comments made by the Speaker of the House and his call with his conference members. 

So hopefully they’ll -- reason will prevail and the vote will go accordingly.

Q    What is it you think Speaker Boehner is up to?  You’ve got a two-month extension.  He wants to give you a year extension, and you say, oh, no.

MR. CARNEY:  No, no, no, Mark.  No, no, no, no, no.  (Laughter.)

Q    That’s wrong?

MR. CARNEY:  We want a one-year extension.  The President has made clear.  We’re only having this debate -- the only reason why Americans might not have their taxes go up on January 1st is because the President has been pushing this since September, against, as you’ve all seen, Republican resistance, and then tepid support, and then less tepid support --

Q    They seem pretty strong about it today.

MR. CARNEY:  Yes, well, it is remarkable how things change.
But the fact is, this President -- it was a key element of the American Jobs Act for a reason, because every element of that jobs act, as I’ve said many times, was inserted into it because it would have positive impact on growth in the economy and growth in job creation, and because they were the kinds of measures that had traditionally earned bipartisan support.

I mean, I’ve got in my book here the number -- statement after statement after statement by Republicans back in 2009 that their answer to what the economy needed, their answer to what we needed to grow the economy in that very difficult economic situation was a payroll tax cut.  Well, let’s do it.  Let’s do it.  The President supports it.  The President wants a year deal. He pushed the year deal.  When that was not achievable in the timeframe we had, a bipartisan compromise was reached; 89 senators voted for it.  We should do that so Americans don’t have their taxes go up.

Q    So what is it you think Speaker Boehner is up to?

MR. CARNEY:  I would not -- again, I think I’ve made clear that there is an issue here about what one subsection of the party is dictating.  And you’ve seen from some of the reporting and statements about, "don’t want to give President Obama a victory," "we don’t want to" -- I mean, it’s like they’re for tax cuts unless Obama is for them.  I mean, it’s the kind of stuff that Americans just get very rightfully angry about.  We should just do this because it’s the right thing to do.


Q    Does the White House support Harry Reid’s position that he will not reopen negotiations?

MR. CARNEY:  Look, Harry Reid is justifiably, I think, perplexed and frustrated by the events of the weekend.  He had worked very closely with Senator McConnell to achieve the bipartisan compromise that was reached and voted on on Saturday. And his position that the House ought to pass this is our position.

Q    But does the White House support that position that this is it?

MR. CARNEY:  Look, as I’ve been saying, I am not going to predict what happens if Republicans vote to raise taxes tonight on the American people, because I don’t think, in the end -- or I would remain hopeful that they will not.  So --

Q    Is the White House committed to making sure that this is resolved?  There is clearly a standoff --

MR. CARNEY:  I think the President’s commitment to ensure that Americans don’t have their taxes go up on January 1st has been amply demonstrated.

Q    So he will do what he has to do to make sure --

MR. CARNEY:  He has done quite a bit to make sure that Americans don't have their taxes go up, and he will continue to do that.  We need a partner in this.  We had a partner in this, demonstrated by the overwhelming bipartisan support for the two-month extension, which, again, as the President said on Saturday, that’s not a huge victory, but it was the right thing to do to ensure that we then got to a place where the full extension could be passed.  Blowing up the process now is playing politics with the paychecks of 160 million Americans.

Jake, and then -- yes.

Q    Just in terms of those paychecks, there is a logistical question going on here.  I got a letter -- I forwarded it to you before this briefing so that you would be prepared to answer the question -- the National Payroll Reporting Consortium has expressed.  It wrote a letter to members of Congress, Democrats, Republicans -- this is a nonpartisan group that does not advocate one way or the other -- about the legislation.  And they feel that this cannot be implemented properly.  They said that it would be fair to -- they told -- the president told them it would be fair to characterize this letter saying the two-month payroll tax holiday cannot be implemented properly.  He said, “the concern is that it could create substantial problems, confusion in costs, affecting a significant percentage of U.S. employers and employees.”

It’s tactical.  But the point is, they just don't think there’s enough lead time to do this, and because it’s only two months and not a year, that makes it a lot more difficult.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I appreciate that and thank you for sending it to me ahead of time. 

Two points.  One, again, because Congress was so slow to get its work done last year, this was an issue when the payroll tax cut was extended that it was so late in the year that it had -- it created complications, A, but those were worked out.  B, this President is committed to make sure that his administration -- the Treasury Department, his administration -- works with American businesses to ensure that this tax cut is extended for American taxpayers, wage-earners, people who get a paycheck, 160 million.

He would far rather ask this administration to work overtime during the holidays to make that happen than ask Americans to spend the holidays worrying how are they going to make ends meet with $1,000 less in their pockets. 

Thanks, everybody.

Q    Jay, you have a question.

MR. CARNEY:  Oh, I’m sorry, I did, you’re right.  I apologize.  I was so eager to go.  I wasn’t, really.  Yes, sir.

Q    Thank you.  Two questions.  (Laughter.)

MR. CARNEY:  Wise guy.

Q    On North Korea -- last night the statement that you put out was a little vague about -- obviously things have cleared up since then, but can you describe how the President learned about the death of Kim Jong-il?

MR. CARNEY:  The Chief of Staff notified him at about 10:30 p.m.

Q    And was that based on reports -- news reports from South Korean news, or where was that --

MR. CARNEY:  I believe it was established in news reports that the North Koreans had made that announcement.

Q    And then you’ve described a lot about why the President -- how this is a priority, the payroll tax cut is a priority.  Aside from the optics of not leaving for vacation, what is the President doing here that he can’t do in Hawaii?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, it’s a fair point that as we’ve made clear on other occasions, the presidency travels with the President.  But he’s been in meetings all day long -- I’ve been in some of them -- and he will continue to work here and do -- as well as on other areas unrelated to this, fulfill his duties from here in the White House, and will continue to do that because he believes this is absolutely the number-one priority, that Congress needs to take action, the House needs to vote accordingly to make sure that Americans don't have their taxes go up.  And he’s working toward that end and will continue to do so.

Q    And on the meetings, you said at the beginning when answering Ben’s question, you said that he’s having conversations with Senate Democrat leaders, who were having conversations with Senate Republican leaders, and it’s not the White House’s job to be an intermediary between that group and the House Republicans. Is the White House engaged with any group beyond the -- is there direct contact beyond the Senate Democrats?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, I think the President told you that he spoke with Senator McConnell on Saturday.  My broader point was, in that process that led to the vote on Saturday in the Senate, the President was engaged with Senate Democratic leadership in their efforts to work with Senator McConnell and Senate Republicans to find a bipartisan compromise and solution.  His goal remains a full one-year extension.  His highest priority is that Americans don't see their taxes go up on January 1st.  And as he made clear on Saturday, what the overwhelming vote in the Senate, bipartisan vote in the Senate, on that bill made sure would not happen is that Americans would not have their taxes go up if the House followed suit. 

And going back to the point about communicating between Republicans, it was certainly not our expectation that the Senate Republicans would have moved so overwhelmingly in favor of a piece of legislation if they didn't have some reason to believe that the House would follow suit.

Q    But that wasn't independently verified?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, we have conversations at multiple levels with folks on the Hill, but I’m not going to get into detailed readouts. 

Thank you.

3:47 P.M. EST