Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 2/23/10
1:40 P.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: Two quick announcements before we take your questions here. The President and First Lady will welcome President Sarkozy of France to the White House on Tuesday, March 30th, for a meeting and a private dinner. France is an invaluable partner and ally of the United States in our shared efforts to promote peace, security and prosperity around the world. And the French and the American people share deep cultural and historic ties.
The President looks forward to consulting with President Sarkozy on a broad range of strategic issues of mutual concern, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, Middle East peace efforts, European security cooperation, and sustaining global economy recovery.
Secondly, today the President announced the administration’s strong support for repealing the antitrust exemption currently enjoyed by health insurers. At its core, health reform is all about ensuring that American families and businesses have more choices, benefit from more competition, and have greater control over their own health care. Repealing this exemption is an important part of that effort.
Today there are no rules outlawing bid rigging, price fixing, and other insurance company practices that will drive up health care costs, and often drive up their own profits as well.
That was transmitted to Congress in a statement of administration policy as the House considers that legislation over the next couple of days.
Q Robert, a lot of members of your own party on the Hill are wondering how aggressive the President is going to get in selling this latest, last-ditch effort at comprehensive reform. So what are his plans? Is he going to talk to the public? Are we going to hear him talking frequently about the need to do this? What’s the sort of rollout campaign for his plan?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I'm not going to get too far ahead of the next thing that's on the calendar, and that's the importance of – important events of Thursday in –-
Q Democrats are saying that this kind of an effort would be just as important as sitting down around the table. You also have to sell it to a public that’s skeptical and to Democrats on the Hill who are skeptical.
MR. GIBBS: Well, but I think before we get there the President has wanted to and will sit down with Democrats and Republicans to discuss their ideas, to go through the plans that had been put forward and to find agreement where that's possible. I think that's the next step, and I don't think the President wants to get too far ahead on that process.
Q But how are they -- I don't see how they have to be separate from one another. Why do you have to separate one out from the other?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not discussing whether or not they're separate. The President is not focused on Friday. The President ultimately is focused on Thursday.
Q But Democrats are saying he needs to be focused on Friday if there's any chance of this thing succeeding.
MR. GIBBS: Well, we have been focused on getting health care reform this far. We're focused on getting it done. And we look forward to what we hope is a robust exchange of ideas on Thursday. The President --
Q I hate to drag this out even further, but it sounds like what you're -- it sounds like you're not willing to say that he's going to make an aggressive sales effort --
MR. GIBBS: You want to take this in a different direction. The President is focused -- the President is focused on Thursday.
Q Shifting gears a little bit, can you talk about where things stand with the Volcker rule? It's being watered down by lawmakers. Treasury put out a statement today talking about wanting limits for banks on proprietary trading. The President's original announcement was an outright ban, and that's what Chairman Volcker supports. Are you softening your position?
MR. GIBBS: Absolutely not. The administration remains as committed today to what was outlined that day with Chairman Volcker and members of the economic team. We're as committed to that now as we were on that day. This was a proposal that was developed by -- at the President's behest with Chairman Volcker, with Secretary Geithner and with Director Summers, and outlined and announced by the President with all three at his side. We have -- we're not walking away from and we're not watering down that proposal one bit.
Q But are you signaling that you'd be willing to accept less than what the President initially --
MR. GIBBS: We're as committed to what the President outlined that day. We're as committed to that now as we were on that day. We're not walking away from what the President outlined on the Volcker rule.
Q You've taken a pretty strong stand on the consumer agency. Do you feel as strongly about the Volcker rule as that?
MR. GIBBS: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Q Just one other question. Can you talk about tonight's dinner with the business leaders? What does the President want to talk to them about? And what is he going to talk about tomorrow? You mentioned the international tax provisions, but what other topics --
MR. GIBBS: I was asked that yesterday. Look, I think the President will outline a vision for a more competitive America. The President looks forward to sitting down with executive community members from the Business Roundtable this evening and having a free-flowing conversation about their ideas -- we'll have -- I think we've put out some of those names, we'll put out the remainder of those names at the beginning of the dinner -- to discuss where the interests of workers, business and government intersect in creating a new foundation for ensuring incentives for continued hiring; to talk about the need to export more of our goods overseas and open up markets; to discuss the steps that we've taken to stabilize the economy and the financial system; and discuss what his vision is moving forward. So I think that will all be what he outlines tomorrow at the speech.
Q Can you tell us a little bit more about this statement of administration policy regarding the antitrust exemption? Why specifically now? How long has the President been planning on coming out in favor of this? He's been hinting about it for quite some time.
MR. GIBBS: Well, the House is considering in their legislative vehicle -- this legislation goes to the Rules Committee today; as my understanding, goes to the floor either tomorrow or the day after that. We typically weigh in at this part -- point in the process with a statement of administration policy. It's been evaluated by a number of departments throughout government, and believe that this -- removing this exemption will allow appropriate enforcement and examination of potential policies that might prove uncompetitive, might stifle competition, and we think this better promotes affordability and innovation through greater choice and less market concentration.
Q I think it was either a few weeks ago or a few months ago the President said, I think in one of the weekly addresses, that it was time for Congress to consider repealing the antitrust exemption. Do you have evidence that there is any, as you put it, bid rigging or price fixing? Is that why he came out more solidly in favor of this?
MR. GIBBS: We do know this, Jake, that the AMA studied the market concentration of health insurers and found that 94 percent of the U.S. health insurance markets were highly concentrated, meaning one or only a few health insurers offering policies in, as I said, almost all the markets in the country. This allows DOJ and FTC the ability to look into, in complement with state insurance regulations, to ensure competitiveness.
Q Okay. And about Thursday's summit, it doesn't really seem like it's shaping up right now to seem all that bipartisan on Thursday. You have Republicans saying it's going to be a Democratic infomercial. The fact that the President posted his plan on whitehouse.gov is indicative of a lack of sincerity on his part, they say, because he's -- and then, for your guy's part, the bill that you've posted is not just a bill the President supports; it's also a vehicle to get this through Congress without any Republican support.
MR. GIBBS: Again, Jake, the bill is a starting point for what Congress had spent many months considering. What we get out of Thursday will be, as I said yesterday, based on the willingness of those participating to come in with an open mind and discuss the ideas and the plans that they have.
Was it disappointing that Senate Republicans appear to have decided not to post their plan on the Internet for discussion, or for Republicans to come with a more consensus plan? Sure, that's disappointing. I hope that doesn't wipe away their willingness to actively discuss the ideas that they have to cut costs for those that are drowning -- small businesses and families -- government budgets, and those that are being discriminated against by the practices of insurance companies.
Q But doesn’t the fact that you’ve posted it in the form that you’ve posted it, which is not just a list of principles or a statement of legislation –
MR. GIBBS: Well --
Q -- but, I mean, look, we all know that --
MR. GIBBS: No, no. In fairness --
Q -- for reconciliation if it comes to that.
MR. GIBBS: Jake, in fairness, I can assume if we would have simply posted principles they would have said, why isn't there more information?
Look, semantics aside, the President looks forward to discussing actively for several hours with members of his administration, Democrats and Republicans, their ideas for health care reform. I think -- again, I can't stress enough, I think the product, the output of six hours of discussion will be based on every participant's willingness to come and have an honest and frank discussion.
I don't think it does any good if somebody says, we're not going there to offer our ideas, we're just going there to help people understand how bad the other guys' ideas are. That's not what the American people are looking for. They're looking for Democrats and Republicans who are willing to sit around a table and work together to provide solutions to problems like health care, the rising cost of health care. That's what the President sees as his hope for what happens on Thursday.
Q One last thing, I'm sorry. Congressman Jeff Sestak last week said that the White House offered him a high ranking job in the administration to not run against Arlen Specter. Do you guys have any comment on that?
MR. GIBBS: I was traveling for a couple of days, as you know. I have seen some stuff that he said, but I have not looked into this.
Q Just to follow on Jake's question, is the White House optimistic that on Friday health care will be in a different place than it is right now, that something will actually --
MR. GIBBS: Hopefully Thursday afternoon. Again, I think the President wants to sit down and discuss ways to move forward, ideas of common interest.
Q -- from Republicans are you confident, are you optimistic that this --
MR. GIBBS: I am, because, look, I think this is -- you always have a little bit of pre-game chatter. I think the -- again, the willingness of individuals and groups to discuss these ideas I think will change when the -- I think the American people want to see that two parties can sit around a table and coherently discuss solutions to the problems that the American people face. I think that's what the American people want to see as well.
Q One other question. Yesterday after the jobs bill, the Republicans supporting the jobs bill, did the President directly reach out to them, thank them for --
MR. GIBBS: I don't know that the President made any calls. Obviously you saw our statement. Look, I think this is a good example and a good lead-in to Thursday, and that is there's a willingness for members to put aside partisan games and to move ahead with what we know is important for the American people and for the growth and the stabilization of our economy.
My sense is that this will pass fairly overwhelmingly either later today or tomorrow. And I think that's an important step on the road to each party working together on solutions for the American people.
Q On the health care, supporters of the public option are making another push in preparation for Thursday's meeting to try to get it back on the agenda. By not including it in the President's proposal, is the President saying as far as he's concerned it's dead?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think that we have seen obviously -- and I talked about this some yesterday -- that there are some that are supportive of this. There isn't enough political support in a majority to get this through. The President wanted to find -- took the Senate bill as a base, and looks forward to discussing consensus ideas on Thursday.
Q A question that I -- on Wall Street bonuses. The New York State Comptroller just released its report for 2009. It says pay was up 17 percent over 2008. The average taxable bonus on Wall Street rose to $123,850, and pay was probably even higher than that because it didn't include deferred compensation or stock options. First of all, any comment from the administration that has at least talked a lot and done some hard work to try to get these bonuses to go down instead of up? And secondly, is the White House satisfied with regulators in Congress and what they're doing to curb these bonuses?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Chip, obviously you've heard the President on a number of occasions voice his frustration and outright shock at the pay practices of Wall Street at a time in which the American people were rushing directly to their financial aid to prevent a further collapse of the economy.
The President in the Recovery Act appointed Ken Feinberg to review the bonus and compensation structure of firms that had received extraordinary governmental assistance, and he's pleased with the efforts that Ken has made thus far. We pushed for in the House a provision providing shareholders with a say on executive pay that did pass the House and is certainly pending in the Senate. And the President has long advocated that in lieu of cash, any bonus that is given ought to be given in long-term stock that does not, again, reward short-term risk taking, but rewards long-term success. We've seen some progress on that front. But, Chip, I think it's safe to say that the President remains frustrated and believes that the compensation practices of Wall Street have a long way to go.
Q And despite all his efforts it seems that they just kind of shrug off the criticism. I mean, isn't there something beyond frustration? Isn't there more he can do here?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, look, we have instituted important rules for the firms that directly received extraordinary assistance to keep them afloat. I think the American people are equally outraged and shocked by what appears to be a carelessness about the way the people of this country -- a carelessness about the way the people of this country loaned Wall Street money to ensure it didn't collapse, all while Wall Street appears not to hear the outrage and the frustration each day on the pay practices that we've seen thus far.
Q Robert, the CBO says it doesn’t have enough information on this new health care plan to score it. Are you going to provide that info so it's scored before tomorrow?
MR. GIBBS: The plan wasn’t put up in order to score it before tomorrow, no.
Q I thought you guys wanted the -- what is going on? Yesterday --
MR. GIBBS: Well, we --
Q -- do you still want to have the CBO there?
MR. GIBBS: There were folks that mentioned that might be uncomfortable for –- congressional leaders that mentioned that might be uncomfortable for CBO based on executive and congressional -- I think we'll have access to OMB. Suffice to say we have a rough sense of --
Q -- said don't bring the CBO?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get into that. The proposal that the President put online, again, is a starting point. This wasn’t something that we ever believed would be a proposal that would be fully scored. Our hope is that we can add some ideas for a broader-consensus legislation that could go to CBO.
Q Do you plan on getting it fully scored? Do you guys plan on asking the Congressional Budget Office to do that?
MR. GIBBS: Not before Thursday.
Q No, but after Thursday, what you come up with -- because it's never going to be a full bill, I understand that, because you still have the Senate bill on one hand and the fixes on the other hand.
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to get past where we're going on Thursday.
Q Yesterday on the job's bill, you guys had endorsed one bill, then it got yanked and Reid put out this very -- this smaller $15 billion bill. Do you expect to see the Senate do a series of these now?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we said that then. We said that -- I mean, for instance, we've --
Q What do you guys want to see the Senate tackle next?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think what you'll see -- what I know has to happen by the end of the month, obviously, is an extension of long-term unemployment benefits and an extension of health care and COBRA benefits that many would see expire at the end of the month. Obviously, there are additional tax ideas, and the President outlined a series of small business ideas that he hopes that the Senate will take up.
Q There’s one in this --
MR. GIBBS: Look, we said then and it's certainly true now that legislation making its way through the Senate will -- this legislation that they're now considering will not be the first -- oh, I'm sorry, is the first but won't be the last proposal that the Senate will likely take up.
Q Do you think this is turning out to be a better way to get through -- things through the Senate, these small chunks? Or just --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it is encouraging that you had bipartisan support yesterday for moving these ideas forward for debate. My prediction is that you will have -- this is something that despite the threat of -- the threat of filibuster and the need to end that threat, my guess is you'll have pretty broad bipartisan support. What that means is -- again, I think there's -- I think the American people want to see us end the game play. I'll let each individual member decide how they want to respond to a constituent who says, why did you oppose moving forward with it on Monday and support it on Wednesday or Thursday?
Look, again, I think there are -- many of these -- there will be several avenues which to take up ideas in the Senate. I think it's important that we get them done quickly.
Q Very quick clarification on the Republican health care. Do you guys not -- the House Republicans yesterday responded to your comment saying that they didn't have a health care plan saying, hey, no, we have a health care plan.
MR. GIBBS: What I was talking about was a consensus -- were consensus ideas -- was a consensus set of --
Q So you don't believe the House Republican plan is the consensus Republican plan?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't know if -- I will assume, in lieu of Mitch McConnell posting a plan, that Mitch McConnell is quite pleased with Congressman Boehner's plan. I think we'll assume that the plan that the House Republicans have speaks for the Senate Republicans in lieu of the Senate Republicans themselves posting their ideas.
Q What do you make of the characterizations of Thursday as "last best hope," "last ditch" on health care reform?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think it is -- I think this is an important avenue for each party to get together and seek consensus. I think it's easier to fire away at each other when you're not in the same room and you're not having to sit down and talk to each other. So I think this provides an important avenue for us, for members of Congress, and, quite frankly, for the American people to see us work together, and I think that's what the President hopes to see on Thursday.
Q Is it the last avenue?
MR. GIBBS: I hope not.
Q And what can you tell us about the negotiations -- or are there negotiations -- on format, on table size, on cameras? Who's making the calls on this? It almost sounds like a G8 summit negotiation with sherpas or something.
MR. GIBBS: No, I have -- you know, I can't imagine that we couldn't find a few tables to put together and somebody can write out some rudimentary name cards and we can all find places to sit. Look, I mean, I -- you know --
Q That's not the House being --
MR. GIBBS: Is it being characterized as something far more complex than that?
Q Oh, yes.
Q Seems like it.
MR. GIBBS: How so?
Q Well, the shape of the table has changed --
MR. GIBBS: Let me tell you, if the biggest thing that we debate on Thursday is the shape of the table, then I could understand the utter disgust and contempt that the American people might have.
Q Chalkboard or PowerPoint?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think that the American people will see that we can get past discussing -- I don't know who's discussing the size and the shape of the table. I think that is somewhat immaterial to the solutions that will be discussed. The President is not -- the President is interested in having a balanced conversation and hearing from Republicans and Democrats. I don't know what the shape of the table was in Baltimore. That seemed to be a process that worked quite well for --
Q I don’t think there was a table.
MR. GIBBS: There wasn't a table. Maybe we'll just -- you know, maybe those little desks they give you in like elementary school that would otherwise be uncomfortable and hard to fit into might be the best way forward.
Q Is there going to be a lunch break? (Laughter.)
Q Maybe no desks, no chairs?
MR. GIBBS: You know, just sitting on the floor and figuring it all out.
Q Crisscross, apple sauce?
Q Robert, can the White House point to any evidence for its optimism that this ball -- health care ball is going to get moved by the end of Thursday? And what would that be?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I can't prejudge what happens on Thursday. I take any member that wants to come and have an honest discussion -- you take them at their word that that's what they want to do. We'll get a chance to see the motivations behind any participation on Thursday.
I sent this out Thursday. I think many of you all saw that the Republican ideas that are included in the President's proposal -- the President is open to discussion on issues relating to cost and insurance reforms to how we save money for the federal government as it relates to our deficit, and to improving -- to coverage. So those are roughly -- to get back to some of the formatting questions, there will be discussions on each of the four of those things as the President -- or as the administration outlined in their letter to Congress that I think we'll spend a good amount of time discussing. And, again, the President is looking forward to hearing from members and having an honest discussion.
Q Does the President buy into the conventional wisdom that with each passing day, as the midterm elections come around, doing some heavy lifting like this health care legislation becomes harder?
MR. GIBBS: Look, obviously I think when we get later into the summer that's probably likely the case. But I think we understand that there's a number of things that we have on our plate that are going to have to get done before -- and what the President wants to see get done before those elections in November, including not just health care but continued effort on jobs and employment, financial reform, and other important things that have to get done between now and November.
Q So no deadline for congressional -- and on the antitrust exemption, does the President think that that can be a stand-alone action that takes care of some of the health insurance problems, or does it have to be a part of the larger package?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think this certainly complements what -- this will ultimately complement health care reform in ensuring the changes that you make in the market -- that the ability to look into potential anti-competitive practices, that that's not, quite frankly, illegal to do. This is not in lieu of something to make broader changes in the insurance market. This is a complementary step along the way.
Q Finally, as I understand it, the participants are going to have lunch on site on Thursday. Does the President --
MR. GIBBS: I have no idea what they're going to eat. (Laughter.)
Q -- planning to join them?
Q Something healthy. A box lunch? Is it going to be in a bag?
MR. GIBBS: I think there was some discussion of a box lunch.
Q Will the President participate?
MR. GIBBS: I will check on that.
Q Yes, is he staying the whole time or is he dipping in and dipping out?
MR. GIBBS: He'll be there.
Q The whole time?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q Robert, I'd like to give you a chance to respond to a couple things that House Republicans said today. First, Eric Cantor, quoting him directly, "They say the definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expect a different result. And the President clearly seems to be trying to prove that that is true." That's Eric Cantor. John Boehner, regarding the President: "He has basically crippled the summit that's expected on Thursday by coming in with a rerun of the same failed bill that couldn't pass the House or the Senate." Could you respond to those two --
MR. GIBBS: Well, the bill passed -- one bill actually did pass the House and one bill actually did pass the Senate. This is a -- in many ways a consensus plan around those ideas. Look, again, as I likened a minute ago, you can put your -- tape your quotes up on the locker room wall and put on your --
Q It’s locker room material?
MR. GIBBS: I think it is. I think it's -- you hit my shoulder pads, I'll hit yours, and we'll go running off through the tunnel.
Q But that's on the same team, though, Robert.
MR. GIBBS: I know. They're all going to --
Q Among themselves?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, that's the --
Q Oh, I see.
MR. GIBBS: I lost you on the football analogy, didn't I? (Laughter.) It was very clear up here, Major, it just apparently didn't get --
Q He’s mourning LT. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: So I read. But, again, look, we can play games about the President's proposal --
Q So they're just trying to hype themselves up in anticipation?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think -- if the President hadn't put anything on there, wouldn't you guess, Major, that we would hear, well, is the President not bringing any ideas to the summit? I mean, are we not going to -- do we not have a document with which we're working on to start this proposal? Of course you would have.
Q Are you saying that no matter what you did, Republicans will criticize?
MR. GIBBS: I mean, it is hard to say -- I will say this, it is hard to take into -- it is hard to listen to, on one hand, “I can't believe they're prejudging the outcome of this by laying out a plan,” and then in the next breath saying, “the plan doesn't have enough detail to be scored by the CBO.” How do you rationalize -- I don't know how they rationalize it. It's probably taped up somewhere in the locker room.
Q It’s irrational.
MR. GIBBS: It appears to be.
Q When the President came here about a week and a half ago, he said that what shouldn't happen is this shouldn’t all go back to the congressional committees for rewrites, the health care legislation. So what I'm curious about is, let's just say for the sake of argument something miraculous happens Thursday and you get something that's akin to a deal. Who writes it? I mean, does it go back to committee? Do you go straight to the House floor, the Senate floor? I mean, these kinds of things are not insignificant to achieving a health care result.
MR. GIBBS: No, they're not insignificant, but I'll be honest with you, Major, leaving the table and the lunch structure aside, I think if we come out of there with an agreement on some ideas --
Q Which you would probably concede would be near miraculous.
MR. GIBBS: Not necessarily. Again, I don't want to prejudge the outcome based on people's willingness to come in there with an open mind. But I don't think the largest impediment to getting something done is, is does the Legislative Counsel for the Ways and Means Committee write down our final ideas or do we send it to larger -- I think those are -- well, again, once we get past the size of the table, I think we can come to -- I think we can come to an agreement and an understanding of that. I think what we lack right now appears to be, based on some of the quotes that you just read me, is a willingness to come and discuss these issues.
Q Let me give you a chance to answer a question on the minds of some progressives. If you are open to the idea of reconciliation, why not put public option in it and go all the way?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, the President simply believes that we ought to have an up or down vote on health care. Again, I'm not going to get into the structure of how things would look. The President is focused on what he hopes will be a productive conversation on Thursday.
Q I want to follow up on Jake's question, because on Friday, unnamed officials of this building did vociferously deny Representative Sestak's assessment that he had been offered a job. And I just want to say, when you said, “I haven't looked at this,” I want to make sure you're not contradicting that denial.
MR. GIBBS: I just -- because I was on the road and dealing with different things on the road, I've not had a chance to delve into this.
Q Would there be anything inappropriate about a discussion like that?
MR. GIBBS: Let me have somebody look into -- like I said, I was on the road and I don't really have a whole lot of knowledge on this.
Q Can I ask on the -- not to prolong the table/boxed lunch questions, but the President will be out on national television for hours and hours and hours. Usually, when a President goes out that long, there is some sort of preparation for that. Is there any kind of rehearsal or discussion or briefing or any kind of practice?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, he and Nancy-Ann have gone through ideas and proposals. He's gotten a longer memo on what ideas are out there and -- in hopes of, again, finding some common agreement on this.
Q But would you do any kind of mock session in which somebody would say, "Sir, somebody might ask you -- what would you respond?”
MR. GIBBS: I'm not going to say that. (Laughter.) I don't know of any structure like that.
Q Whatever it was, please say it.
MR. GIBBS: Yes. (Laughter.)
Q I have a question just to --
Q Wait, I'm sorry, I'm sorry --
Q Oh, sorry, go ahead.
Q One last one, sorry. On the President's exemption part, a lot of Democrats would like that to be in the bill you posted yesterday, and yet it's not. Why support it separately and not as part of it?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, this was going through a House process. We had certainly known for I don't know how long, but we've known that this was going to Rules Committee today. Typically the administration weighs in with a statement on administration policy at this point.
Q -- propose it yesterday?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I mean, I think it's -- I think there's a belief that we can get a bipartisan majority that can support ensuring that type of competition without putting it into legislation.
Q Robert, just to follow up on Jennifer's question, when you first got your plan the leadership in Congress was fairly non-committal. They said they wanted to take a look at it and discuss it with their members. Now it's been more than 48 hours. What in the --
MR. GIBBS: Well, not 48.
Q I'm sorry, 24.
MR. GIBBS: Right.
Q What indication do you have that at least in the House of Representatives there is support for -- majority support for this?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I don't want to get ahead of announcing for them where all of their members are. I know they're -- as I understand it, they're going to have a caucus today to discuss some of these ideas, and they also met last night, and --
Q You haven't gotten any feedback in the --
MR. GIBBS: Look, I got to tell you, I thought the statements yesterday by a number of members were indeed quite positive.
Q Do you think this could pass the House of Representatives?
MR. GIBBS: I'm not a vote counter on Capitol Hill, but I do believe that this represents among Democratic ideas a good starting point based on where the Senate was, with some tweaks in that legislation. Again, this is a starting point for our discussions on Thursday that we hope will be fruitful.
Q But doesn’t it go to Congress after that? I mean, don't you want them to do something with it, even if there's not some kind of bipartisan miracle? I mean, you're --
MR. GIBBS: Again, I know it's only Tuesday and I'm focused on Thursday and we want to look beyond Thursday. I'm focused on Thursday; I know that's where the President is focused on. Our intention is to have an honest discussion and hopefully find continued support for ideas on both sides of the aisle.
Q I’m just talking about your side of the aisle.
MR. GIBBS: I understand. I know there's -- again, there's a willingness to want to get well ahead of the process. The President is focused on Thursday. As I said earlier, the bill wasn’t sent to CBO to get scored because our hope is that we're going to add ideas from both sides of the aisle that have common support. I think there are overlaps if people come with a willingness to make progress on an issue.
Q Let me try another way. (Laughter.) Have you had conversations with Democrats since you put this thing online?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, we've briefed Congress.
Q What's been the response?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I don't -- Mara, you guys are normally quite good at getting quotes from them. I've seen many positive quotes on this. Again, our focus is not on what happens Friday, next week, two weeks from now or what have you. Our focus is on a starting point --
Q It has to be, Robert --
MR. GIBBS: But it's not.
Q The White House does not sit still and wait for Friday to come before --
MR. GIBBS: We're focused on Thursday. We're focused on --
Q But that doesn’t make any sense. Don't you want to pass a bill?
MR. GIBBS: And that's why we're doing this on Thursday.
Q I mean, if this is an urgent need for the American public to address all sorts of things -- economic, regulatory and everything else, all the things you have said a hundred times if not more from this podium -- how could you not be thinking past Thursday?
MR. GIBBS: Major, I'm not going to prejudge the outcome of Thursday by telling you what's going to happen Friday based on an outcome of Thursday that I don't know about, based on the fact that I think the willingness -- or the product that ultimately comes out of 4:00 o’clock on Thursday will be based on people's willingness to come with an open mindset. That's what the President --
Q -- not to say you don't have contingency plans?
MR. GIBBS: I'm focused on Thursday; the White House is focused on Thursday; the President is focused on Thursday. As luck would have it, you all probably have a chance to ask me questions on Friday, and we can get to Friday.
Q But Leg Affairs might be focused on a different day.
Q Is there a plan A, plan B, plan C, possibly?
MR. GIBBS: We're focused on Thursday.
Q Is there a plan A, plan B, plan C, possibly?
Q What if nothing comes out of Thursday that --
MR. GIBBS: Then you could ask me that on Friday.
Q All evidence out there points to them showing up and not wanting to make this deal. But is it not naïve to think that -- if your overall goal --
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q -- but it just seems naïve to think --
MR. GIBBS: Can I just say this? I don't know -- I get one question that says, I can't believe by putting out a plan you've completely prejudged and corrupted and polluted the process of what's going to happen on Thursday. So if I then start describing what's going to happen on Friday, based on what may happen on Thursday, aren't you going to certainly -- aren't certainly people going to come back and say you've already prejudged the outcome of Thursday by discussing what's going to happen on Friday?
Q Robert, we're not asking you about Friday. We're asking you if you feel confident that you will have Democratic support for this plan today or tomorrow?
MR. GIBBS: We have discussed this plan with Democrats. I know that they're evaluating parts of the legislation.
Q But you said -- there was a bill that passed the House and a bill that passed the Senate, but if I understood your answer to Mara correctly --
MR. GIBBS: No, I said that -- apparently I said that to Congressman Boehner, who didn't think that happened.
Q But if I understand your answer to Mara, you can't say now if this proposal of the President could even pass the House, which is the first step to getting a bill --
MR. GIBBS: No, I said I wasn't a vote counter and I don't have --
Q Do you have some confidence it could pass the House?
MR. GIBBS: I have confidence that, based on the quotes that I've seen, this has been received warmly by Democrats on Capitol Hill.
Q -- 39 Democrats who voted no for the House health care bill back in November indicated that they'd vote yes the next go-round?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know the answer to that question. One of you ask a question.
Q Okay. I'll go first. This is health care-related, but going back to August, just clarifying some Sunday talk show chatter --
MR. GIBBS: I guess -- yes. I don't know what the resistance is to talking about now. (Laughter.)
Q You said that the -- "the President's clear commitment is not to raise taxes on those making less than $250,000 a year.” The President's proposal out yesterday actually would raise the Medicare payroll or hospital insurance tax on households making less than $250,000. Wouldn't that --
MR. GIBBS: I'd have to look through the proposal. I'm not sure that's correct.
Q Thank you, Robert. Excuse me. This morning Governor Daniels of Indiana was asked about reconciliation which comes up with regulatory here, and he said that when the tax cuts were passed in the previous administration, where he served as OMB director, it was meant to be applied only to taxes and budget matters, but never to matters such as revolutionary changes in policy that would affect 16 percent of the government -- or 16 percent of the economy.
MR. GIBBS: How much does -- $1.35 trillion worth of tax cuts in 2001, $350 billion in tax cuts in 2003 -- for $1.65 trillion in tax cuts over two votes, is what measure of -- that's a price tag that exceeds what the President is talking about. And differently than that, the proposal that the President has is indeed paid for.
Q But --
MR. GIBBS: I knew there was a "but" in there. I just had to get my broader --
Q Right. It did deal with tax and budget matters, which under --
MR. GIBBS: Again, there --
Q -- which was with reconciliation --
MR. GIBBS: Welfare was another example of something that had passed based on reconciliation. I can certainly get a list of, I think many of you can get a list of, ideas that have gone through the process of that that up until recently didn't seem to be abnormal.
Q After you gave 13 questions to one reporter, I just have --
MR. GIBBS: Who asked 13 questions?
Q -- one two-parter.
MR. GIBBS: One two-parter. (Laughter.) I like your new packaging, Lester. Who asked 13 questions, though?
Q FOX. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: Wow, that's awkward, isn't it?
Q -- even ask your question. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: All right, all right, easy. This locker room talk is getting a little out of hand, isn't it?
Q You started it.
MR. GIBBS: I know, I did. I'll come over there, Connie.
Q The nonpartisan, nonprofit Judicial Watch has named Nevada's Republican Senator John Ensign as one of Washington's 10 most corrupt politicians for 2009. Does the White House agree with that?
MR. GIBBS: I have not seen Judicial Watch's list.
Q They also named the President as one of these. I presume you don't agree with that.
MR. GIBBS: I have no basis for which they would come up with something like that. I have not seen their 2009 report.
April, and then Connie.
Q Robert, one on the public option. You say that it's not in this, but are there any components of the public option that will be taken and transplanted into this proposal that the President has for Thursday?
MR. GIBBS: Again, this is a debate that was largely ended with the notion that it's not going to make it through the legislative process. The proposal that the President put online was where he believed was a good starting point at the end of the debate that had been had on Capitol Hill. We think that the way exchanges are structured and other components of the legislation will increase the amount of choice and competition that people have in picking health insurance.
Q Also on another question, Democrats concerned about the fact that this administration -- they are just not listening to what constituents have to say, and also amongst ranks. You have people like Ed Rendell, governor of Pennsylvania, you also have Doug Wilder, former governor of Virginia, former mayor of Richmond. What are your thoughts about the issues of listening, about the fact that people are saying, in your own party, that this administration is just not listening?
MR. GIBBS: In what way?
Q On strategic -- on strategic avenues to include how to campaign for the upcoming election, midterms, as well as just the top echelon here, some of the reasons why things -- including Massachusetts -- were lost; this administration is just not listening to people on the ground, to fellow Democrats about what to do next.
MR. GIBBS: Again, I'm sure people's advice on the November elections -- there will certainly be plenty of time to listen to anybody's advice on the November elections, since we're only comfortably in mid-February.
The President's focus isn't on the elections in November; it's on getting this economy started again, on passing comprehensive health care reform, on prosecuting a war in Iraq and a war in Afghanistan.
Q Do you think this administration has a good track record on listening to its own party?
MR. GIBBS: Absolutely. But I also know that the President has a good track record on making decisions that he believes are in the best interest of the country. Again, I think if you look back at some of the decisions that were made in terms of continuing support for helping banks that might collapse, or helping auto companies that were near bankruptcy, I don't imagine that there were majorities of Democrats or Republicans that might have thought that was a good idea or something that they readily supported. But understanding that without taking some extraordinary steps to deal with that, we would have had tens of thousands of more people unemployed in the case of auto companies; we'd have -- we wouldn't have a domestic auto industry except for one company; and it's likely that had we seen additional bank failures, we would have seen what many have called a Great Recession become a Great Depression.
Governing a country isn’t always about making the easiest, most popular decisions. Governor Rendell talked about the selling of the stimulus. The stimulus plan was about ensuring that we got the type of support that the economy needed into the economy as quickly as possible.
I don't have any doubt that the polling on the stimulus might be different if instead of doing it in three weeks and getting the money quickly into the economy so that we could see people put back to work and see economic growth happen faster -- I have no doubt that we could have taken eight months, fueled up Air Force One, flown hither and yon and broken out each component part to where it was 80 percent and ultimately gotten Congress to pass that. The problem with that is I don't think the President believed that when we were losing close to 800,000 jobs in a month, that his biggest job was PR. I think it was getting the economy moving again.
We've seen as a result of that increased economic growth for the first time in a year, and now we've seen it for two consecutive quarters. We can't have job growth before we have economic growth. So we've laid a foundation, particularly in the investments that have been made, for creating the jobs of the future.
Q But PR is part of it, don't you think? Especially serving your own party.
MR. GIBBS: I don't -- trust me, as somebody who's somebody who's somewhat intimately involved in the PR part of the operation, it's not the first and foremost thing that gets this President up in the morning. What gets him up is taking the steps that are necessary to fix this economy.
Obviously explaining to the American people what we're doing is important and I don't want to give that short shrift. But at the same time, if it's explaining to the American people what's -- explaining to them what's going on, as I said, is important, but so, too, in the case of getting this economy stabilized and moving again, it was important to get that done and get that done quickly.
Q On Iran --
MR. GIBBS: Connie. I'll take one more.
Q It's becoming more precarious every day with Iran. Does the United States have a deadline for the sanctions proposed? And would the U.S. impose a unilateral boycott or embargo of Iran?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the Treasury Department outlined additional sanctions on the IRGC a few weeks ago. It is clear that the continuing announcements and pronouncements that are made in Iran demonstrate that they have no interest in building international confidence that their nuclear program is for peaceful means.
Continuing to take those steps and shirk their responsibilities, the President and our allies have said will lead to consequences. That is a process that's ongoing. I think you've seen comments by -- you've certainly seen comments by us, you've seen comments by the Russians and others about the fact that time and patience is running out.
2:30 P.M. EST