Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 2/9/10
2:04 P.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: Well, I can’t imagine there’s a lot left to say so I’ll do a few of these and we’ll get going.
Q Robert, let me follow up on that issue of bipartisanship. The President said more than once that it can’t just be Democrats abandoning their ideas and accepting Republican ones; it’s got to be give and take. What about the give that the White House offers, can you offer any specific ideas or places where the White House is willing to give ground on health care?
MR. GIBBS: Well, understand, you've heard the President discuss in the interviews that he’s done the notion of talking more fully about medical malpractice, something that you could put on the table and that we could discuss. Understand this, Republican ideas that are already in the legislation that the Senate considered -- high-risk pools for uninsured with preexisting conditions; interstate compacts to allow coverage to be sold across state lines; low-cost catastrophic plans for the young; dependent coverage to age 26; grants for prevention and wellness programs with incentive for participation in employer wellness programs; and the SHOP Act, small business insurance pools that offer affordable coverage choices.
So there are Republican ideas -- I think the latest figure I have from Nancy-Ann were 160 amendments that were offered in the committee process by Republicans that have been put into this bill. But, Ben, that's the point of this -- as you saw the President discuss in Baltimore -- that we should listen to these ideas and we should have that discussion.
Q That sounds like you could be taking the position of we, the White House, has listened and now it’s time for Republicans to give ground.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I didn't say that. The notion that Republican ideas aren't contained in the bill is just -- I think you know that's just simply not true. If you think about the number of meetings that Senator Baucus had with Senator Grassley and Senator Enzi, the number of times that they spoke with the President on this issue; the notion that the President hasn't talked to Republicans is nothing more than a Republican -- a GOP party talking point.
The point of this, Ben, is let’s have a reasonable discussion. Let’s sit down and discuss these issues in a bipartisan way. Let’s do this in a way where we can have this discussion. We can have this discussion in front of the American people and we can decide what ideas we can all agree on.
Understand this, Ben, I think what the President -- the last example the President was using, which was bipartisanship isn't going to be a hundred percent of your ideas or a hundred percent of my ideas, right? That's not bipartisanship. But there has to be give and take in that process and we have to understand that you may not get everything you want, but you may get some of what you want; and the other side may get some of that as well. When Senator McConnell and Congressman Boehner both said today, as you heard the President discuss, that the status quo -- what we have currently is unacceptable, that we have to work together now to figure out that certainty and provide it to the American people to improve the system.
Q My point there is, is it the White House’s stand that it is still willing to give in that give-and-take?
MR. GIBBS: Absolutely. We have been willing to give in that give-and-take this entire time, Ben.
Q And one last point on this -- sort of the underlying issue of bipartisanship here. Does the President genuinely think that the Republican Leaders in the House and Senate want to work with him on jobs and on health care? Is that his take? He’s got to have a sense of it by now.
MR. GIBBS: We take them at their word. We take them at their word that they do, indeed, want to have -- they want to play a constructive role and they want to work with Democrats on making this happen. Senator Hatch and Senator Schumer are working on the jobs tax credit on a bipartisan basis that could come up this week for a vote in the Senate.
The President discussed -- there was a pretty lengthy discussion on ensuring credit to small businesses as something that both the White House and members of Congress in both parties believed was important for small business. There was a discussion on the deficit and on ensuring that the fiscal commission be an outlet for that, understanding that Congressman Boehner and Senator McConnell both spoke in support of their respective -- the House and the Senate, their respective piece of legislation on that.
So I think there is -- if we will understand what the President says in agreeing that we can have this give-and-take, I do think we can make progress.
Q A quick follow up, Robert. President Obama is saying no, though, to Boehner and McConnell calls for him to scrap the House and Senate health care bills and start from scratch.
MR. GIBBS: Right. Yes.
Q That's a non-starter?
MR. GIBBS: Just like I don’t think they’re going to -- they’re going to bring their ideas to the table, right? They’re going to bring the ideas that -- and there are some in their party that want to do away with, as you saw during the presidential campaign, the entire -- I wrote a few things down -- (laughter) -- I wrote, “eggs, milk, bread.” (Laughter.) I crossed out “bread,” just so I could make pancakes for Ethan if it snows. Then I wrote down “hope” and “change” just in case I forgot them.
Q Came in handy. (Laughter.)
Q How do you sit with him all day? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: But, no, look, again, there are different ways of tax treatment for the Republicans. Again, like I say, there are some that want to do away with the tax deferral on health insurance provided it. Obviously there’s some that don’t. There are those that want to -- that believe that there should be a broader restructuring of the Medicare Advantage Program that provides incentives for insurers to run a program that's already being run. And obviously there’s a disagreement on that. We don’t expect that the Republicans are not going to bring the ideas that they had last week to the table; and the President isn't going to scrap what has been a year-long process to get us to this point.
Q Missile defense. Despite the President having scaled back and revised the Bush administration’s missile defense strategy --
MR. GIBBS: Well, your characterization of “scaled back” and “revised” --
Q Changed, let’s just go changed.
MR. GIBBS: -- provided broader protection for Europe and the homeland to do it in a way that it is not just simply more cost effective but actually will have a better result in the event that --
Q I don’t want to argue with the semantics of it, but he’s changed the plan. Despite that, Russia’s top general said today that the Russians still view the system as being directed against them and they’re saying that this is what’s holding up an agreement on a new START treaty. Now, how is the administration going to overcome that obstacle and convince the Russians of the U.S. intentions?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I will say this, when President Obama talked to President Medvedev a couple of weeks ago, President Medvedev didn't bring this up as an obstacle. Our change in architecture for a missile plan that protected Europe and protected this homeland in a better way was announced last September, yet we have had substantive negotiations going on for many months. I think the notion that somehow this is in any way an impediment to what’s going on with START is simply not true. It certainly wasn’t what President Medvedev told President Obama.
Q Well, okay, Russian Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Nikolai Makarov, said, “despite the declaration of those statesmen who say that on the contrary it provides for our security, that's far from the case.”
MR. GIBBS: I would -- again, I hate to contradict the President of Russia in speaking to the President of the United States about getting a START deal done and not mentioning -- not mentioning in a phone call that's happening in the Oval Office something like this, because it’s just not the case. It’s not what’s holding up these negotiations. These negotiations are ongoing.
Q So what’s holding up the negotiations?
MR. GIBBS: There’s a series of things that -- look, whenever you get down to this point in the treaty you're taking conceptual agreements and putting them into words, and there are going to be some fights over different words and that's what they’re working through. But I can assure you it’s not our different approach to missiles.
Q Some Republicans on the Hill have been critical of this administration for not getting them involved in the debate -- whether it be health care, reform or other issues as well. The White House has now invited them to the White House today --
MR. GIBBS: What other issues?
Q Well, financial reforms, you know, stimulus -- but they weren’t --
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, Senator Dodd and Senator Shelby up until Friday were working together on a bipartisan package for financial reform --
Q But, I mean, critical, but they haven’t been brought in through the process. And now they’re bring brought in now, they’re going to be brought in on the 25th again. Is this something that the White House in hindsight is saying, we should have involved Republicans all of last year; we should have done this long before now?
MR. GIBBS: We’re paving the road again to bipartisanship. But, Dan, you've got to --
Q This seems to be a more aggressive effort now to involved Republicans, certainly in health care reform --
MR. GIBBS: No, I don’t think that's true. Again, I will go back and try to figure out the number of times that the President talked to Republican senators in trying to get the finance committee to come to an agreement. It was many, many times. We hosted meetings down here.
The notion -- it’s quite revisionist to think that somehow -- remember in the summer there were all these questions about, “When are you just going to get through this whole finance committee thing and get to the floor”? Well, we spent hours and hours and hours, many conversations trying to bring Republicans and the finance committee along. Senator Snowe did join in that finance committee vote and she did work constructively. And we worked constructively with her. So --
Q But I'm not just talking about that, but also health care reform as well. They feel --
MR. GIBBS: Well, that is --
Q No, what I’m saying is the entire reforms that have been going on -- whether it’s financial reform -- they feel that the Republicans have not been brought into this process early enough; the White House seems to be more aggressive in doing that now.
MR. GIBBS: We have a fundamental disagreement about the premise of your question.
Q Following up on that, just curious if you hadn't spent all that time talking to Republicans you might have passed health care reform before Christmas. Big mistake?
MR. GIBBS: I thought about a Lottery ticket yesterday -- maybe I would have won the Lottery.
Q No, but, seriously. I mean, if --
MR. GIBBS: No, I don’t think it was a mistake at all. If we thought it was a mistake we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. Again, remember this, the President -- remember the President went to Capitol Hill to talk to House Republicans about supporting the recovery plan, right? Before we could load the pool up and get in the motorcade, they put out a statement opposing the recovery plan.
Look, you can’t -- this is exactly what the President said, Chip. If bipartisanship means I'm going to give up everything I believe and adopt everything that you believe, that's not bipartisanship, it’s never been bipartisanship in this town. If bipartisanship means we’re going to take into account some of your ideas, you’re going to take into account some of our ideas, nobody is likely to get a hundred percent of what they want, but we’re going to meet somewhere in the middle to make progress on an issue for the American people. That's what the definition of bipartisanship has been for several hundred years and that's what we hope each party is interested in doing now.
Q The President gave the impression that there was -- when he was -- on the deficit, that there was a tone of bipartisanship in the room, and he was talking about pushing aside the idea of a bipartisan commission. But immediately afterward both Boehner and McConnell came out and, Boehner in particular, said that the Democrats and the President have been on a spending binge. I mean, they immediately went into full partisan mode and said the President doesn’t need a bipartisan commission, all he needs is to make the tough decisions himself.
MR. GIBBS: I hope you’ll get your congressional reporter to ask why, after a bipartisan meeting in discussing solutions -- Chip, nobody in their right mind could blame everything that's happened on one party in spending. Right? Nobody could.
So whether they want to come out of the White House and a bipartisan meeting and somehow decide that history is far different than the way any normal human being would read it, that's up for them to defend.
Q But the point is --
MR. GIBBS: Hold on. The point is this -- the point is this, that Leader Boehner cosponsored a bill by Frank Wolf and Jim Cooper to set up a commission that didn't even have -- did not have an equal number of House Democrats and Republicans on the commission. Senator McConnell, in a number of different venues, including in November on CNN, spoke quite passionately for the Conrad-Gregg Commission.
The President weighed in and supported the Conrad-Gregg Commission, right? Which is set up very similarly to the Wolf-Cooper proposal that Leader Boehner supported in the House. We put that up for a vote.
Now, if each party is serious in dealing with the deficit we wouldn’t normally think that you'd need 60 votes in the Senate -- where you can pass something based on a majority -- you wouldn’t think you'd need 60 votes if each was serious about working on the deficit. But, alas, that's what was asked for, 60 votes. Right?
So let’s rewind and talk about what happened in that vote. They got 53 votes -- not all Republicans supported it, not all Democrats supported it. That's fine. But we got 53 votes, seven short of the necessary 60. Those seven votes could have been gotten by the six co-sponsors of that bill in December that decided not to vote for it, and a seventh -- an active co-sponsor that also decided not to vote for it. There are the seven votes.
But, look, Chip, the President has laid out -- laid out last year $17 billion worth of spending cuts and we got 60 percent of those. The President has laid out $20 billion in spending cuts this year; we hope to get those. If Congress wants to do better than that, the President is happy to look at it.
Q But the point is --
MR. GIBBS: The President talked about, with Paul Ryan, a line-item veto. They talked about recisions in there and the President will certainly look at those.
Q But the point is, hasn't it been made very clear to the President from the Republican Leaders that there is no compromise on both the bipartisan commission and health care reform, they want him to scrap the bill. So for the President to keep pushing these things, isn't he engaging in this political theater by saying, come to table and talk to us --
MR. GIBBS: No, not at all.
Q -- they’ve made clear they're not going to.
MR. GIBBS: Fifty-three senators supported a debt commission. The senator who was at the meeting representing the Senate Republicans just two months ago said he supported it. The Leader of the House Republicans --
Q But now they’re not. So isn't it just political theater to keep harping on it?
MR. GIBBS: No, it’s political theater to, when something comes to a vote -- and the President is very clear about this, he said to both John and Mitch, he said, guys, it doesn’t really work in this town if I say, yes, I'm for that, and then you decide that you had been for that and now you're not.
Now, I don’t know what the definition of that is, Chip, and I presume you'll have a congressional correspondent ask Mitch McConnell and John Boehner why on earth each would support something and then when it came to a vote they would not support it. The President -- look, they have concerns about -- what would be on the table. Well, here’s a good idea: There’s a budget process that will go on on Capitol Hill. If you have an idea about how to structure a budget, we’ve got no problem voting on that. I have no doubt that if the House Republicans or the Senate Republicans want to put forward a budget, that should be voted on, absolutely. I can’t imagine anybody would stand in the way of having that budget voted on.
Q Two questions. One is, the President just mentioned his proposal to make TARP funds available for small banks to make small business lending. How important is it that that be part of the package the Senate considers immediately?
MR. GIBBS: I need to talk with legislative affairs and see where that is in the process of what’s being considered by the Senate. But understand that to a person in this meeting everyone mentioned, prior to the discussion on how it would be structured, to a person every one of the Leaders, including the President, mentioned that getting capital to small businesses, allowing them to borrow money to meet payrolls or expand is one of the most important things that we can do. Some other differences were discussed in terms of how that is structured --
Q Whether you can --
MR. GIBBS: -- but each of the -- the Leaders talked about how are you going to pay for this. We have authority to use money to help banks get the capital they need to lend. So this is, as both the Treasury Secretary, Dr. Summers, and Dr. Romer, all three of them said unless we do something like this, lending is going to contract. We have this authority and that authority is -- the permissible authority under TARP is to get our financial system going through lending, that this was an easy, commonsense way to get that done.
Q And the President highlighted, as did Senator McConnell out at the stakeout, the fact that the Republicans like some of his energy ideas -- clean coal, nuclear power. Was there any discussion in the meeting of moving forward with a comprehensive energy bill that would include those elements as well as some of the Democratic proposals?
MR. GIBBS: Senator McConnell brought up some ideas that the President had proposed in the State of the Union that he thought many Republicans would support. He mentioned, as you mentioned, clean coal technology, which the President has supported since running for office in Illinois in 2003 and 2004; mentioned increasing nuclear loans, which is in our budget; and talked about offshore oil drilling, something that the President supported at the end of the last campaign.
I think, as you heard the President say, he certainly prepared to walk away from some in his party that think we can't do those things. Now, in order to get some of this done, we need that give and take with the Republicans.
Q But did you have any of that? Was there any serious --
MR. GIBBS: That wasn't part of the -- that wasn't a long topic that was discussed. I think the President said to Senator McConnell that if that's what he supports then he'll be pleasantly surprised at what the administration supports.
Q In the State of the Union, the President made a mention of the three trade deals, but he didn't say they should be ratified, and there's been a lot of speculation on that. Does he want them ratified this year, and if so is there political damage there because it's 2010 and labor certainly would not be happy with that?
MR. GIBBS: George, again, this is a good example of what has to be give and take. Look, the President mentioned those three. We didn't lay out a specific deadline, but the President believes that in order to create jobs here we have to increase the amount of exports that are leaving this country. He has a very robust agenda on exports and they include those free trade agreements.
Q But can you -- should they be ratified this year?
MR. GIBBS: Again, the President didn't lay out timelines in the State of the Union and didn't do so in this meeting.
Q The President just said that the American public has soured on the process in response to health care reform. Can you explain how a health care summit two weeks from now will change that? I mean, what are you hoping to get in terms of conveying to the public something else is going on now?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think that the President hopes an offshoot of this meeting with Democrats and Republicans is to take everybody at their word, including Senators McConnell and Leader Boehner today, that the status quo is unacceptable. You heard the President outline what's happening in California with the individual insurance market. We understand that what we're doing now isn't sustainable. It isn't sustainable when we deal with our deficit. It isn't sustainable in what we do with our small businesses.
Having this discussion, having everyone be able to see this discussion and being able to discuss openly the ideas that each party wants to bring to the table, the President believes can help move this process forward. It started in what the President did in Baltimore and the President hopes it will continue on February 25th at the White House.
Q But Representative Cantor is already saying it's a dog and pony show and we have no interest in discussing the failed bills of the Democrats that have already been rejected by the American people. He said that this morning.
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I can't imagine --
Q So where’s the avenue for discussion then?
MR. GIBBS: I can't imagine that a group that wanted to sit down and talk in a bipartisan way with the President about health care would now walk away from the process of sitting down in a bipartisan way and talking to the President on health care.
I mean, David, that -- I mean, I hear crazy stuff in this town all the time, but to literally move one day from your talking points of "we need a transparent process where the President sits down and looks at and takes seriously our ideas on health care", and then the next day says, "my gosh, what you want us to do is in a transparent way sit down and talk about our ideas on health care? Well, we can't possibly do that."
So, look, Representative Cantor can decide whether he agrees with himself in yesterday's letter or whether he agrees with himself just a few weeks ago when he was making these arguments.
Q One of the conditions that Republican leadership was asking for prior to the meeting is that reconciliation be taken off the table. Is the White House willing to go there?
MR. GIBBS: Sam, I think that Republicans should come to the White House to discuss their ideas without any preconditions.
Q That's not an answer really. Sorry, go ahead.
MR. GIBBS: I said there won't be any -- the President is not going to eliminate anything based on preconditions. If that's one of their preconditions, the President doesn't agree to limiting the way we're going to discuss this.
Q Robert, based on some of the reaching out that you just discussed with Chip on health care with the Republicans, does the President see this February 25th summit then as kind of a last chance for the Republicans to come to the table and agree on something or else he's just going to do it with Democratic votes?
MR. GIBBS: No, I don't -- I think the President believes this is the next best chance to do it and the President is going to take Republicans seriously that they want to come discuss these issues. You're laughing and I haven't even finished my answer. (Laughter.)
Q All I want to know is how many more chances is he going to extend before he just says, they're not going to play so we're just going to go with Democratic votes?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Bill -- well, I think if there was a way to have solved this prior to today, we wouldn't be -- (laughter.)
Q I appreciate your notes-on-the-hand gag. (Laughter.) Does the White House -- how closely did the White House monitor the tea party convention this weekend? Do you have any reaction to what was said there --
Q Careful. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I didn't watch it. I didn't watch it at all.
Q Well, do you see the tea party movement as a real political force this year?
MR. GIBBS: Look, it seems to be a very successful private enterprise.
Q Ohhh! ((Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I would say that there appear to be fewer speechmakers that are unemployed in this economy than what might have been previously reported.
Look, I think whether you're part of an organized party, whether you're part of a movement that has a convention, I think what we saw in 2008, what we saw in Massachusetts, what we see across the country is a great deal of anxiety about what we've been through.
We discussed this a little on Friday when we talked about the jobs report. The reformulation of how many jobs have been lost in this recession -- 8.4 million -- exceeds what had been lost in the recession of 1981, the recession of 1991, and the recession of 2001 combined.
So for a long period of time this anxiety has built. Whether you're, again, a Democrat or a Republican, an independent, a member of the tea party movement, you want to see this town be able to sit down and talk about their differences, but also not just focus on their differences. I notice that a lot of questions in here focus on what we disagree on, not what we agree on.
I think the President wants to sit down, whether it's in a bipartisan meeting to talk about the economy and jobs, whether it's in a bipartisan meeting to talk about health care, to find some agreement on what we're for. There are plenty of outlets for people to discuss what they're against.
What the American people want us to do is come together and make some progress and move forward in what we agree on to help their lives, to help them pay for a college education, to help get this economy get restarted again, to help them get the credit they need to start or expand a small business. That's what the American people want to see this town work on, and I think that's what the President wants to work on, too.
Q Thank you.
2:29 P.M. EST