the WHITE HOUSEPresident Barack Obama

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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Gaggle by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest -- Los Angeles, CA

Private Residence
Los Angeles, California

9:10 A.M. PST

MR. EARNEST:  Good morning, everybody.  We’ll try and go quickly today.  I do want to do a couple of quick things at the top.  These are both announcements that were made by the administration today, and I wanted to flag them for you.

The first was an announcement from CMS that had some updated numbers about seniors who benefitted from prescription drug assistance in the Affordable Care Act.  According to the latest statistics, 7.3 million seniors have gotten assistance purchasing their prescription drugs through the Affordable Care Act.  That’s a total of $8.9 billion.  And that means the average person who has received assistance in purchasing their prescription drugs has received just over $1,200 in assistance.  So a key benefit of the Affordable Care Act and, again, an example of one of the important things that would be repealed if Republicans in Congress had their way.

The second -- and there will be a conference call on this a little later today on the East Coast, but I wanted to make sure that all of you were aware of it, because logistically it may be difficult for you to participate in the conference call -- we’re going to be talking about food stamps and the Republican proposal to cut food stamps.  If the Republican bill -- if the bill is passed with party-line Republican support in the House -- were to pass, 4 million Americans would lose access to SNAP benefits.

Now, it’s important for people to understand that SNAP benefits primarily benefit children, the elderly and the disabled.  Ninety-one percent of those who receive SNAP benefits have incomes below the poverty line.  In 2012, 5 million people were kept out of poverty because of food stamps, including 2.2 million children.  I’ll also point out that 1 million veterans receive food stamps.

The SNAP program, also known as food stamps, is incredibly efficient.  Ninety-five percent of the money spent on the SNAP program goes directly to assist in the purchase of food stamps for people who quality for the program.  In part because of the efficiency of the program and in part because of the way that the money is used, the CBO has calculated that SNAP benefits are one of the two most cost-effective programs to boost jobs and economic growth -- that for every dollar spent on SNAP benefits, it generates $1.80 in economic activity.

So even if Republicans are not interested in trying to provide assistance to those Americans who so clearly need it, there’s a very good economic rationale for not cutting food stamps.  And as we all get ready for Thanksgiving in the next couple of days and we’re thinking about those Americans who are less fortunate, hopefully Republicans in the House will also think of those Americans and not continue advocating a proposal that would have such a terrible impact on their livelihoods.

So with that, why don’t we do a few questions.

Q    Josh, the Supreme Court today agreed to take up the religious objection provision or question on the Affordable Care Act.  I wonder what the White House reaction is to that.

MR. EARNEST:  I saw that that news was announced right as we were pulling up here.  We are going to have a written statement from the White House on this later today.  So check your inboxes shortly and we’ll have a statement on that.

Q    How confident are you guys that Congress is not going to try for or succeed with additional sanctions on Iran at this kind of crucial time here?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, we’ve been pretty clear about what our view is of this.  Because of the actions that Congress has taken working in concert with this administration, there are -- some of the toughest sanctions in history have been put in place against Iran.  It’s had a terrible impact on their economy.  It’s had a debilitating impact on the value of their currency.  Because of those sanctions and the enforcement of those sanctions, and because of the nearly seamless cooperation with our partners and allies around the globe, the Iranian regime came to the negotiating table.

Many observers of the Iranian regime speculate that President Rouhani’s promises to the strengthen the economy in Iran were critical to his successful election and give him a mandate to work with the international community to peacefully resolve the international community’s differences with Iran as it relates to their nuclear program.

So the use of sanctions in this case has been really important to creating an opportunity for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution of this situation.

It is our view that there are a couple of reasons why it would be unwise for additional sanctions to be put in place.  The first is the success of the sanctions regime that I referred to has relied upon the cooperation of the international community.  And for Congress to add additional sanctions before this diplomatic window can be pursued would undermine our credibility about the goal of these sanctions.

We’re not sanctioning just for the sake of sanctions, and we’re not sanctioning the Iranians specifically to punish them.  We have these sanctions in place to pressure Iran to pursue -- to consider and pursue a diplomatic option.  That diplomatic opportunity has presented itself, and we should pursue it. 

Now, I want to be really clear about one thing, which is if Iran does not pursue or capitalize on this diplomatic opportunity that has arisen, then the administration in working with our allies and partners and working with Congress would be ready to place additional pressure on Iran, possibly in the form of additional even tougher sanctions. 

So what we have suggested is that it is not necessary for Congress to take action on additional sanctions now, but that Congress should do what they have done up to this point, which is to act strategically and keep additional sanctions as a live option, but not as -- but not move forward with it at this point.

Q    Charles Schumer has really been taking the lead among Democrats in pushing for new sanctions, and he’s normally an ally of the President.  Has the President reached out directly to Senator Schumer on Iran?

MR. EARNEST:  I don't have any specific calls to read out.  But the President has been -- over the weekend, on Saturday, the President was in touch with congressional leaders to keep them updated on the negotiations that were ongoing in Geneva.  There have been -- while we have been traveling over the course of Sunday, Monday, now Tuesday, senior members of the President’s national security team at the White House have been in touch with many members of Congress to describe to them our position as it relates to these talks and how we see -- and what we see as the best path for moving forward. 

As I mentioned when it comes to sanctions, Congress has been a very important partner in all of this.  And so we’ll continue to consult closely with them as we move forward.

Q    Josh, would the White House object to conditional -- Congress passing conditional sanctions?  In other words, it would have a trigger after six months if the diplomatic track doesn't work; that those sanctions would kick in, that Congress could act on those quite soon?

MR. EARNEST:  It’s our view that Congress should not pass additional legislation right now as it relates to additional sanctions both because, as I mentioned, it would undermine the cooperation that we have enjoyed with allies and partners all around the globe when it comes to sanctions, but also, Jim, sanctions legislation has already passed the House.  We know, and the Iranians know, frankly, that there is strong support in the Senate for additional sanctions should Iran fail to pursue this diplomatic opportunity.

So there's no reason that additional sanctions legislation needs to be passed now.  What the Senate should do in the view of this administration is, as I mentioned, to keep the sanctions option open, because if Iran does not capitalize on this diplomatic opportunity, the administration would certainly want to work with our allies and partners and with Congress to consider additional measures that would put additional pressure on the Iranian regime and further isolate them from the global  -- from the international community. 

Again, we're not sanctioning just for the sake of sanctions.  We have used -- again, in consultation with -- in cooperation with Congress and in cooperation with the international community, we have used sanctions to pressure the Iranians to come to the negotiating table.  The Iranians are now at the negotiating table.  Because of the phased agreement that we've struck with them, the Iranians will not use additional talks as cover to make progress on their nuclear program. 

So we have before us a really important if not historic opportunity to resolve this situation peacefully.  So we've got a very important six months ahead of us here, and this diplomatic opportunity should not be complicated by additional sanctions legislation at this point.  Though, as I mentioned, if Iran fails to capitalize on this opportunity, the United States and the administration would certainly want to work with Congress and our international partners for additional measures that would further isolate and pressure the Iranian regime.

Q    Just to be clear, in consultation on Saturday with congressional leaders, Schumer talked to the President?  They talked? 

MR. EARNEST:  I'm not in a position to read out specific calls.  But the President himself made a number of calls on Saturday to update senior members of Congress on the talks.  And since then, senior members of the President's national security team, over the course of Sunday and Monday and even today, have been in touch with senior members of the relevant committees on Capitol Hill to brief them on the situation. 

Q    Did the President talk to Harry Reid at all about this?  I think he was in town last night, or yesterday, at the fundraiser.  Did they chat about it?

MR. EARNEST:  I don’t know that the President saw him yesterday.  I don’t think the President saw him yesterday.  But even if he did, I'm not in a position to read out specific conversations that the President's had about this. 

Q    And just generally, I mean, without reading out a conversation, what does he want the Leader to do?  What role should Harry Reid be playing on this?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, the President and Harry -- and Majority Leader Reid have a long history of cooperating pretty effectively on a whole range of very complicated issues, including some of these foreign policy issues.

So the White House will continue to be in touch with Majority Leader Reid's office and continue to advocate for what we think is the best course of action moving forward here; that there is an important role for Congress to play that builds, frankly, on the important role that they've already played here.  But again, it's our view that it's not necessary for Congress -- or in this case, the Senate -- to act on additional sanctions legislation at this point. 

Q    Is he saying -- would he veto if that were to come?  I mean, there's such an appetite on the Hill to do something now, that the six-month trigger might be something that actually passes.  So would the President veto that?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, look, we're in a place right now where our views on this are really clear.  What I'm conveying to you right now in terms of our view on additional sanctions legislation has been conveyed in the context of these private conversations to leaders in Congress.  So there's no doubt about what we view as the proper path forward. 

Fortunately, we have seen some constructive statements from members of Congress about a willingness to work with the administration on this.  Senator Corker, after meeting with the President last week at the White House, acknowledged that coming out of the conversation with the President, that it was his view that the Senate should provide the administration the opportunity and a little space to pursue a diplomatic resolution here.

So this is something that we'll continue to work through with members of Congress.  And there are, as I guess Sarah pointed out, that there are some people who we work very closely with and agree with on just about every issue that there might be some differences of opinion here.  But they are -- those differences are easily reconciled because the goal that everybody has here is the same, which is a diplomatic resolution of the international community's differences with Iran as it relates to their nuclear program that results in an agreement that prevents Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

There may be some minor differences about tactics here, but our ultimate goal here is the same.  And the international community should not mistake some of these differences in tactics for the firm resolve of the bipartisan leadership of this country for resolving this situation diplomatically and in a way that, again, confirms that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.

Q    Josh, in one of the fundraisers yesterday, the President was asked about executive orders as it relates to immigration, and he said that’s not how the system works, we need Congress to act.  Does that mean that the White House would rule out taking executive action on any aspect of the immigration issue?  I mean, are you going to kind of only look for a legislative solution here and not do anything through executive action?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I think the way that this typically comes up is in two ways.  The first is, whether there is an opportunity to use executive action as a substitute for comprehensive immigration reform that’s moving through -- that has passed the Senate and would pass the House if a vote were allowed on it.  But right now, it's stalled in the Senate because there is one faction of the Republican Party in the House that is blocking it. 

The President is often asked whether or not there is an executive action that would substitute for that comprehensive immigration reform legislation -- there is not.  The other way in which the President gets asked about this is whether or not there is an executive action that he could take that would end all deportations.  That is what the young man at the event in San Francisco yesterday seemed to be advocating for.  And as I think the President said rather definitively, there is also not an executive action that would address all of the concerns that that young man had raised.

So when it comes to those two specific questions, we've been pretty definitive about there not being an executive action that would address both of those concerns.

Q    More broadly, are there other executive steps that the White House would consider taking?  Or should we take the President's comments yesterday to mean he's not going to do anything through executive action on immigration at all?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, I wouldn’t -- I don’t want to speculate about what sort of actions the President might or might not take.  But we have been very clear that the problem that the President is trying to solve here is one that can only be solved by Congress, and that that problem is an immigration system that everybody acknowledges is broken. 

And the President's proposals for solving that problem relate to tougher border security; they relate to a reform of the legal immigration system.  They include some changes to the immigration enforcement system that would ensure that all companies are playing on a level playing field, and that companies who do play by the rules are not penalized for doing so.  And finally, that there should be a path to citizenship for those who are already here.  That includes paying a fine, paying back taxes, learning English, going to the back of the line, but nonetheless results in a clear path to citizenship.

Those are four principles that cannot be achieved unilaterally through executive action.  They require congressional action.  And that’s why the President has spent so many years and a lot of time over the last several months publicly advocating for congressional action on this issue.  This is a top priority of the President's. 

There are also -- in addition to sort of all of the moral arguments that are in play here, there's an important economic argument, and the President touched on this a little bit yesterday -- that there is significant growth potential for the economy in the next couple of decades if we pass immigration reform, and it actually would do something to address some of our budget challenges, too, in the form of reducing the deficit.

Q    And one more question about yesterday's event in San Francisco.  He did a fundraiser -- the one that was closed to the press with a lot of tech executives, I believe.  Did he either solicit advice from them on the website?  Or did any of them volunteer advice to the President on how to fix the website, or get different people in there to kind of use their mastery of technology in Silicon Valley to help the website?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, as the President has done in both public settings and private settings, the President has talked about the challenges that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has endured the last several weeks.  But he also talked about the important benefits that are now available to the American public because of the Affordable Care Act. 

So they talked about those issues generally, and that's something that he does at both at the public fundraisers that you guys listened in on yesterday, but also some of the public events.  The President had some comments about health care reform and the experience that many Californians are having at his event in San Francisco yesterday, as well.  But --

Q    I just mean specifically the tactics that --

MR. EARNEST:  Yes, I guess what I’m trying to say is I think that the exchange in conversation that they had about health care in yesterday’s fundraiser is quite similar to the kinds of conversations that he’s been having publicly about this.

Q    Back on Iran -- you guys put out a statement on Levinson this morning.  Is that situation at all playing into the negotiations, and in what context, and how?

MR. EARNEST:  That's a good question.  The negotiations that we’re having through the P5-plus-1 with Iran are related strictly to Iran’s nuclear program and the importance of Iran bringing that nuclear program into compliance with their international obligations.

However, as we mentioned at the time, the President when he telephoned President Rouhani earlier this fall specifically raised the case of Mr. Levinson who was last seen in Iran.  The President asked President Rouhani for his assistance in locating Mr. Levinson and determining his wellbeing.

The President also raised the case of Mr. Abedini and Mr. Hekmati, who are currently detained in Iran.  It’s our view that all of these Americans should have the opportunity to come home.  And as the statement pointed out, the United States government has made a respectful request of the Iranian regime during this holiday season to consider on humanitarian grounds releasing these three Americans -- or at least releasing the two Americans that we know are detained, and locating the whereabouts of the third, Mr. Levinson, who as of this week is one of the longest-held American captives in history.

Q    Is there any progress in locating him that you’re aware of?

MR. EARNEST:  Nothing that I’m able to report at this point.

Q    Josh, we talked a little bit yesterday about the dispute over the islands in the East China Sea.  Since then, two U.S. military craft have flown into that area without informing China, which seems like a very direct way of saying to China, this is not what we want airlines to do, to have to tell you this.  What was the message intended from that?  And what is the current thinking about that dispute?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, Jeff, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense for questions about military flights.

Q    They confirmed --

MR. EARNEST:  Well, if you have specific questions about whether -- about the purpose of their flights or why they had the aircraft in the region, I would refer you to them to talk about that.

But it continues to be our view that the policy announced by the Chinese over the weekend is unnecessarily inflammatory and has a destabilizing impact on the region, when the fact of the matter is these are the kinds of differences that should not be addressed with threats or inflammatory language, but rather can and should be resolved diplomatically.

Q    Is the U.S. possibly increasing that tension by sending aircraft into the disputed area?

MR. EARNEST:  Well, again, if you have questions about the specific purpose of those flights, I would refer you to the Department of Defense.  But suffice it to say that we believe that these are -- that the differences, as it relates to the territorial claims of countries in the region, can be resolved diplomatically.  And if there’s a role for the United States to play in resolving those disputes --

Q    I understand that you have to refer that to the Pentagon.  But this is not just about the planes.  This is about the strategy, and that didn't just come from the Pentagon.

MR. EARNEST:  I understand that.  But in terms of those flights, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense.  In terms of our policy for resolving what are a variety of territorial complaints -- I don't want to keep saying complaints -- territorial claims and disputes, I can tell you what our policy is, which is that we believe that inflammatory rhetoric and inflammatory policy pronouncements like those made by the Chinese over the weekend are counterproductive, and we believe that those differences of opinion can and should be resolved diplomatically.  It’s in the interest of all of the parties in the region to do that.

As it relates to some of these territorial disputes, there are important economic priorities that are involved, that this affects the ability to ship products through international waters.  So there’s a whole host of reasons for all of the countries in the region and the United States for these territorial disputes to be resolved diplomatically.

Anybody else?  Jeff?  (Laughter.)  All right, guys, I’ll let you file.

Q    Thank you.

9:36 A.M. PST