The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 3/24/10
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:40 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. Unusually quiet. One quick announcement before I take your questions. President Obama spoke today by video teleconference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, as part of continued consultations with our European partners. The President and his counterparts discussed the international community’s next steps on Iran, the Middle East peace process, and global economic issues.
The President looks forward to hosting President Sarkozy next week for a bilateral meeting and to continue collaboration with these three close colleagues to advance our shared agenda.
I should also mention they congratulated him on the passage and signing of comprehensive health care reform.
Q All three?
MR. GIBBS: They did, all three.
Q Thank you, sir. Two foreign topics today. On the START treaty, can you just give us a good assessment on where that stands? Is a deal done?
MR. GIBBS: I have said on many occasions that we are making strong progress toward getting an agreement. We are, I think, very close to having an agreement on a START treaty and -- but won't have one until President Obama and his counterpart, Mr. Medvedev, have a chance to speak again.
Q Is that scheduled? What’s the time --
MR. GIBBS: I think they will likely speak in the next few days.
Q Next few days?
Q So we were hearing Friday as a possible -- as the most likely day to pull all this together. How would you assess that?
MR. GIBBS: I would say, again, I would characterize this as having made very strong progress. You know the President spoke personally on March 13th to Mr. Medvedev and I think we're very close to getting an agreement.
Q On Israel, I'd like to ask you briefly about the visit yesterday by Prime Minister Netanyahu. As you know, diplomacy involves not just the substance of the event, but how it’s handled. And in this case, there were really none of the normal trappings of a foreign visit, in terms of press coverage and even a readout. Can you explain a little bit about why the White House decided to handle it that way?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me categorize -- the President and the Prime Minister met, first off, the Oval, and had an honest and straightforward discussion about our relationship, about regional security and about comprehensive peace efforts. The President asked the Prime Minister to take steps to build confidence for proximity talks so that progress can be made towards comprehensive Middle East peace. There are areas of agreement, there are areas of disagreement, and that conversation is ongoing.
The Prime Minister arrived a little after 5:30 p.m. That meeting concluded a little after 7:00 p.m. last evening. The President went back to the residence. Prime Minister Netanyahu remained in the White House and consulted with his staff in the Roosevelt Room and then requested to see the President again, and they returned to the Oval Office at about 8:20 p.m. and met for a little more than half an hour.
Q On the substance, just one second on that -- but back to my original question about the handling of this. Why did the White House decide to handle -- that was so low profile.
MR. GIBBS: Well, we’ve handled different visits in different ways and this is the way we felt most comfortable handling this one.
Q Is there any concern about how it could be perceived -- particularly by Jewish voters or Jewish donors -- that this was a cold-shoulder kind of visit or there was anything less than a full extension?
MR. GIBBS: No, I -- look, they spoke for over two hours last night, face to face, so I think -- we have a strong relationship with a strong ally. There are areas that they discussed last night, some of which they agree and some of which they disagree. And as I’ve said, those talks are ongoing. And -- but the conversation was honest and straightforward.
Q Just one follow on that. Particularly on the issue of settlements, what did the President ask of the Prime Minister, and how do you think that went?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I’m, at this point, not going to get into walking through the substance of what they discussed.
Q On the confidence-building measures, the Prime Minister made clear going into the meeting that he had no intention of backing down on the demand for freezing construction in East Jerusalem. And I’m wondering if there were any goodwill gestures or any concessions made?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’m not going to get into the substance of what they talked about at each of the meetings. Again, we have asked the Prime Minister to take steps to build confidence for proximity talks to be able to make progress.
Q But can you explain why there were two meetings?
MR. GIBBS: Again, there was a meeting -- the original meeting, the President -- at the conclusion of that meeting, Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted not to leave but instead meet with staff -- his staff here, his team here. They did so in the Oval Office [sic]. At some point, I don’t know exact timing, but at some point, they came -- word was sent out of that meeting that the Prime Minister would like to see the President -- requested to see the President again, and the --
Q Were there any presidential aides in the Roosevelt Room at the time?
MR. GIBBS: Not in the Roosevelt Room, no. I believe somebody was sent out to locate us.
Q So the Prime Minister met with the staff in the Roosevelt Room?
MR. GIBBS: With his staff, yes, yes -- in the Roosevelt Room.
Q Does the President expect to see Netanyahu again today or tomorrow maybe?
MR. GIBBS: There’s nothing on the schedule right now, no. I think Prime Minister Netanyahu has some meetings scheduled later on today with administration staff. But there’s nothing on the schedule for --
Q But that’s here or --
Q But does he expect answers from Netanyahu?
MR. GIBBS: Oh, I don’t know if there -- I don’t know exactly where those meetings are.
Q But does he expect answers from Netanyahu before he leaves town tonight or tomorrow?
MR. GIBBS: Again, the conversations that the Prime Minister and the President are having are ongoing.
Q Robert, Israel is confirming further plans to expand housing in East Jerusalem. Do you have any comment on that?
MR. GIBBS: I asked -- specifically asked our team on this. They said they are seeking clarification on that announcement. And I will withhold comment until we have clarification based on some questions they have for the Israelis on that. I would say this: I think our position is fairly well known.
Q On financial regulatory reform, can you talk about the meeting with Dodd and Frank, and what the prospects are for a bipartisan deal? You’re going to need some Republican help in the Senate to get something done on this.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think, quite frankly, I think you’ve seen comments today from Senator Corker saying that he believes there will be Republicans that do support financial reform. I think the President had a good meeting with Chairman Frank and Chairman Dodd, thanked them both for their work in moving this process through. Chairman Dodd has a bill now through the committee process. I think the President expects that we will finish financial reform in the next couple of months, certainly by the time we mark the second anniversary of the financial collapse in the early fall.
Q Do you think the President is going to be taking a hands-on role in trying to get this done as he did with health care in the final weeks? Is he going to meet with Republicans to try to get them on board?
MR. GIBBS: I think the President has been very hands-on regarding financial reform, and I think it is one of the President’s top priorities now, understanding, as I’ve said many times, that we need strong rules going forward to prevent the type of collapse we saw in the fall of 2008.
Q Robert, I just wanted to follow up on the question about Israel and keeping that event closed with the Prime Minister. You also have an event today where you’re signing -- the President is signing an executive order on abortion that is a pretty big national issue. Why would that be closed press, no pictures?
MR. GIBBS: We’ll put out a picture from Pete.
Q But what about a picture from the actual national media, not from --
MR. GIBBS: Oh, the picture from Pete will be for the actual event.
Q Right, but what about allowing us in, for openness and transparency?
MR. GIBBS: We’ll have a nice picture from Pete that will demonstrate that type of transparency.
Q Not the same, Robert. Never has been.
MR. GIBBS: I know you all disagree with that. I think Pete takes wonderful photos.
Q Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, don’t twist this --
Q -- not an attack on Pete.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don’t know why you’d want to attack Pete, Chuck, but I’m going to stand up here and defend Pete’s --
Q It’s not transparent and it’s a vital issue.
MR. GIBBS: And you will have a lovely picture from Pete. Again, I don’t --
Q You really think that’s all it’s worth, is a photograph, on an issue this important?
MR. GIBBS: No, I think you’ll be able to see the President sign the executive order.
Q Not hear anything anybody has to say?
MR. GIBBS: You’ll have a nice picture.
Q Can I ask on another subject? On another subject I wanted to ask about -- the President has been saying the last few days that one of the biggest benefits of the new health care law is that within six months children will no longer have preexisting conditions, and now various health experts are saying, well, when you read it more closely that’s not true. So was the public misled on that?
MR. GIBBS: No, the law is clear, Ed, that insurance companies cannot deny coverage to a child based on a preexisting condition. Under the act, the plan includes -- plans that include coverage for children cannot deny coverage based on a preexisting condition. To ensure that there is no ambiguity on this, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, is preparing to issue regulations next month making sure that the term “preexisting” applies to both a child’s access to a plan and his or her benefits once he or she is in a plan.
Q But if health insurance experts are already saying that they don't believe it’s clear enough, then -- and they might not follow with new regulations --
MR. GIBBS: Our lawyers are clear and the regulations -- we believe the law is clear. The regulations will clear up any ambiguity from those experts.
Q You mentioned that the President asked Netanyahu for confidence-building measures with the Palestinians and you mentioned that they had areas of agreement and disagreement. Can you be any more specific on that?
MR. GIBBS: No, not right now.
Q When you -- when the President holds events and does not allow photographers in it implies that the President is hiding something, is not -- is embarrassed about something, is uncomfortable for photographs of that event to be made public.
MR. GIBBS: I disagree with all three of those characterizations.
Q What’s your response to people who say that the way that the President has welcomed Netanyahu to the White House has been as if he’s embarrassed to be seen with Netanyahu -- with not even allowing one of Souza’s photographs of it.
MR. GIBBS: Again, we were very comfortable with the coverage for last night’s meeting. They had --
Q There was no coverage.
Q No coverage -- there was no coverage.
MR. GIBBS: We were comfortable with that.
Q Are you only pleased when there’s no coverage? Is that what you're --
MR. GIBBS: What?
Q You're pleased when there’s no coverage?
MR. GIBBS: We're pleased that -- we were pleased with the way we set up the coverage for last night. Not every -- I know this comes as a great shock to both you and to me --
Q -- transparent.
MR. GIBBS: I think it comes as a great shock to you and me, but not everything the President does is for the cameras and for the press. It’s something --
Q Not the American people --
Q You don't see any contradiction at all when the Secretary of State goes before AIPAC and says that the U.S. has no stronger, no closer ally than Israel -- and then the President won't even allow a photograph of him and the Israeli Prime Minister --
MR. GIBBS: No, I don't see a contradiction at all.
Q -- as if he’s embarrassed to be seen with him?
MR. GIBBS: That's your characterization, not mine.
Q Is the President concerned about photographs of him and Netanyahu being seen in the world?
MR. GIBBS: No. I forget Mark Knoller’s statistics but --
Q This is the second visit that it hasn’t happened.
MR. GIBBS: -- I think there have been many pictures of and --
Q Never of a one-on-one. Not a single one-on-one.
MR. GIBBS: No, that's not true. There was --
Q There were just the trio pictures.
MR. GIBBS: No, that's not true. There was a spray in the Oval Office with just the two of them.
Q That's right -- talking about Iran.
Q But not the last time. This is two times in a row --
MR. GIBBS: That's true. Right.
Q Can I ask one other question about the executive order the President is signing today? Does the President think that this executive order is necessary? Does he think that there was ambiguity in the law? Or does he think that there wasn’t any ambiguity but this was just done because people like Bart Stupak wanted it done?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I would say the President believed that the law -- the President has always believed that health care reform should be about that, not about other issues. The President did not, in health care reform, believe we did change the status quo and believes that this reiterates that it’s not changed.
Q So he doesn’t think it’s necessary, it’s just reiterating what is already in the law?
MR. GIBBS: I mean, it’s an executive order so this isn't -- I mean, it’s not a frivolous thing, Jake.
Q No, of course not. But does this executive order change anything that the law already didn't do?
MR. GIBBS: It ensures that health care, the law the President signed yesterday, maintains the status quo of the federal law prohibiting the federal use -- the use of federal dollars for abortion.
Q So it is needed, that the law was not clear enough?
MR. GIBBS: The President reiterated that in the executive order.
Q So all he’s doing is repeating what’s in the law?
Q So it’s just -- I mean, you can’t have it both ways. Either the executive order is needed to clarify something that’s not --
MR. GIBBS: No, I -- again, I would refer you to the executive order and the statements that we made about this over the weekend.
Q I read the executive order, and it says that’s a reiteration of what already exists.
MR. GIBBS: Well, there you go.
Q So it’s not necessary?
Q Not legally necessary?
MR. GIBBS: We reiterated --
Q Might have been necessary for other reasons, but it’s not legally necessary.
MR. GIBBS: No, we reiterated the status quo, and we’re comfortable reiterating that status quo.
Q -- comfortable for a legal purpose?
MR. GIBBS: We’re comfortable reiterating that status quo.
Q Doesn’t it diminish the whole purpose of a presidential -- of an executive order if all he’s doing is reiterating what’s already in the law? Why would he do that?
MR. GIBBS: No. No. We don’t see that as diminishing --
Q In Iowa, is -- Iowa is on health care?
MR. GIBBS: Yes.
Q So has he already made the hard pivot to jobs, or are we still waiting for that to happen?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we signed the jobs bill about a week ago, right?
Q Right, but in terms of the President’s time -- signing a bill doesn’t take much time -- but there was always this impression that at some point --
MR. GIBBS: Signing a bill doesn’t take much time, but --
Q Did he spend a lot of time on that?
MR. GIBBS: We talked -- I think we laid out in December a plan for -- one of the things was a tax break for companies that hire the unemployed. We talked in here extensively about the fact that there’s several different things that will go through Congress. The next bill that the House will take up relating to jobs includes the President’s plan for zero capital gains. There are additional plans that we have to increase lending through community banks to small businesses so that they have adequate access to capital and credit to meet payrolls and to expand.
Chip, the President has been working on the economy since day one.
Q So this pivot to jobs has already -- I mean, you talk about this year --
MR. GIBBS: The President has been --
Q -- he was going to make a big pivot to jobs.
MR. GIBBS: And the President has --
Q Has that happened or are we still waiting for it?
MR. GIBBS: No, the President has been focused on jobs. He works on jobs every day.
Q Stupak and company, there have been death threats against some of these, and just some -- some children of these people have been used in advertisements. I mean, it really has been extraordinary, some of the attacks some of these people have been coming under. Does the White House -- is the President aware of that and has he had a response to it?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know the degree to which the President has seen some of that coverage, Chip. But, look, I don’t think the President would need to see the coverage to know that, as he has said countless times, regardless of the passion of your views -- he has very passionate beliefs and views, and believes in a country as big and as free as America that people should have a right to those passionate views. But we ought to be -- we ought to exercise those views not in a way that threatens anybody’s safety or security, not in any way that foments violence. We ought to be able to, in a country as proud and as rich in tradition as the United States of America, to have a debate in a way that is civil and in a way that demonstrates both the passion of our beliefs, but in the values that we hold dearly as a country.
Q Just to finish, does he have any plans for any job events coming up?
MR. GIBBS: He does.
Q Any details?
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q Any of these amendments that Republicans are offering on the Senate floor this week, any of them here that the White House finds that’s a good idea, and you know what, maybe that should be added in?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Chuck, we want the Senate to finish the corrections legislation so that the President can quickly sign it.
Q Sure, but there are a whole bunch of new amendments. Anything strike the President --
MR. GIBBS: I would say this. I think that when you go through the different swing of what these amendments are directed at, I think it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of game-playing going on.
Q So you don’t take these amendments seriously?
MR. GIBBS: I think these are intended to create a political distraction. I don’t think they’re intended, quite frankly, relating to the budget deficit, relating to health care, and I think if people find things that they want to correct in the legislation, ultimately we can do that through the regular legislative process.
Q In Iowa City, does he have any plans to meet with any of the local leaders in Cedar Rapids that are in the middle of this rebuilding effort after the big flood that they --
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of, but I will check on that.
Q And then, finally, on the Israeli meeting, it’s my understanding that the Prime Minister came with sort of a set of proposals for the first meeting. And is it -- did he -- was the whole point of him staying to tweak those --
MR. GIBBS: Chuck, I’m not going to get into --
Q -- and offer a new --
MR. GIBBS: I’m not prepared at this point to read out or give substance for the meeting.
Q Would you characterize it as a negotiation?
MR. GIBBS: An honest and straightforward discussion that continues.
MR. GIBBS: I’m happy with mine, but -- no, I think -- again, I think they had an honest and straightforward discussion about --
Q And the other administration officials, just to clarify, they’re going off campus to meet with the Prime Minister today?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know the answer to that.
Q But it is meetings today?
MR. GIBBS: That’s my sense. I don’t know -- like I said, I don't know whether those meetings are here or elsewhere.
Q Staff to staff, they met all the way to 1:00 a.m. in the morning.
MR. GIBBS: 12:30ish a.m., yes.
Q What was the issue that the Israelis had to have two meetings with the President? And on related -- does the President still believe in bipartisanship after this solid vote against health?
MR. GIBBS: Well, on the meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu, we --
Q I think we ought to know the substance.
MR. GIBBS: And we are -- when we feel comfortable reading those meetings out, we will do so. We --
Q What are you hiding?
MR. GIBBS: We’re not hiding anything. The conversations and the discussions are ongoing. As Chuck mentioned, they continued into very early in the morning. And staff-to-staff, those discussions have not formally continued, but they continue right now. And, again, when we have something that we feel is able to be read out, we will do so.
In terms of bipartisanship, Helen, I would say that -- Caren mentioned this earlier -- there are -- Senator Corker said that he thinks there are Republicans that will support financial reform. I think --
Q McCain said he’s going to oppose everything.
MR. GIBBS: Well, yes, I find it curious that not getting your way on one thing means you’ve decided to take your toys and go home. I don't think -- it doesn’t work well for my six-year-old; I doubt it works well in the United States Senate, because we have issues that are important for his constituents and for all of America.
Look, again, when it comes to financial reform people are going to have an opportunity to weigh in on behalf of the banks or on behalf of consumers. And I'll let their vote on that dictate which side of that ledger they feel most comfortable on.
Q Are you comparing McCain to a six-year-old?
MR. GIBBS: I'm saying that I think the notion that if you don't get what you want you're not going to cooperate on anything else is not a whole lot different than I might hear from a six-year-old.
Q I think the argument is not that -- it’s the reconciliation process that has Republicans upset, Lindsey Graham included as well. They're saying that spoils the bipartisan atmosphere. It’s not not getting what you want.
MR. GIBBS: When reconciliation happened in 2001 with the Bush tax cuts I didn't sense that it spoiled the ability for Congress to continue working together. I don't see why that would happen now, unless people decided that they were going to take their toys and go home.
Q Could you clarify exactly why a regulation is needed for the preexisting condition issue for children?
MR. GIBBS: All I said was that regulations have to happen regarding a lot of aspects of the legislation in order to ensure that any ambiguity -- if there is any ambiguity, that regulations will clearly denote that somebody that offers a plan that covers children cannot deny anybody coverage based on a preexisting condition.
Q Does the White House believe there is ambiguity right now?
MR. GIBBS: No. No. But we will seek to ensure that there -- that nobody feels that there is any ambiguity, based on the regulations that the Secretary of Health and Human Services will put forward.
Q Is this a particular regulation on this one issue, or a regulation on the whole package that --
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think there will be regulations, obviously, surrounding any number of issues in this. This is -- the answer that I gave on that is particular to preexisting conditions for children.
Q In the meantime, before the regulation is issued, is the President going to continue talking about that as an immediate benefit?
MR. GIBBS: Oh, absolutely. It is an immediate benefit.
Q Well, so, to segue from that, Robert, when will this rule kick in for the coverage of --
MR. GIBBS: The rules that -- the immediate benefits that I described a couple of days ago -- and I’ll find the exact number of days; there are differences for different things -- keeping your coverage -- a 26-year-old keeping -- staying on their parents’ plan, a small business having --
Q How about children with preexisting coverage?
MR. GIBBS: Right, well, what I’m saying is, the several immediate benefits that I outlined over the course of the past couple of days phase in at different points in the year 2010.
Q Can an insurance company right now refuse to provide coverage for a child with preexisting condition?
MR. GIBBS: Again, my understanding is that that -- this will phase in over a certain amount of time. When that phases in, they will not be able to.
Q When does that begin?
MR. GIBBS: That’s what I said I would check on.
Q Just wanted to just follow up on one point about this Obama-Netanyahu communication. You said -- first of all, you said there are ongoing conversations, and then later you said there are ongoing conversations between the President and the Prime Minister. So are we to take that --
MR. GIBBS: No, I don’t -- I’m sorry, I don’t think -- I said -- I may have been imprecise. The Prime Minister, I believe, will meet with -- I believe he’s going to meet with Senator Mitchell. There may be other staff as well.
Q In town?
MR. GIBBS: In town.
Q Is that today?
MR. GIBBS: Yes. The President’s staff and the Prime Minister’s staff met until I think around 12:30-ish last night and have continued to be in touch as part of that ongoing discussion today.
Q So you meant his staff -- you made a second reference.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, earlier I said that there’s nothing on the President’s schedule that involves a meeting with the Prime Minister at this point.
Q Would you rule out a phone conversation between -- before the Prime Minister leaves?
MR. GIBBS: I do not know that one has been requested, no.
Q Robert, for Iowa tomorrow, we have the state attorney general challenges, as you mentioned earlier. Is he going to talk about that tomorrow? How will he handle that? In his speech?
MR. GIBBS: I got a draft of the remarks, but I have not had a chance to look at them. I don’t know whether he addresses those in the remarks, Roger, but I’ll say this, that -- I think you saw the statement from the Department of Justice, and you’ve seen lawsuits from several of these attorneys general, that we do not believe will be successful.
Q I assume Justice will be fighting those. I understand some of the appeals were filed yesterday.
MR. GIBBS: I saw many press conferences denoting that.
Q Another question. The cofounder of Google says that he has asked the White House for help in this battle with China. Is the White House offering any kind of help to Google?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t have anything on the co-founder’s request. I will check on that.
Q He says he wants the White House to elevate it, make it a human rights issue.
MR. GIBBS: Well, we have -- if that’s his request, I can tell you the President fulfilled that last November, as the Secretary of State has fulfilled in meetings also with the Chinese, saying that we believe free communication and a free Internet are rights that everyone should enjoy. The President said that quite clearly in Shanghai last year.
Q You don’t know of anything new, though, since then?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know, but I will check with NSC.
Q Was the envoy, Senator Mitchell, involved in the conversations here last night, the ones that went until 12:30 a.m.?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, he was here last night. Yes.
Q So he’s been part of this entire --
MR. GIBBS: Oh, absolutely.
Q Now, you have repeatedly used the word “discussion.” Is there something you’re uncomfortable with in using the word “negotiation”? Because most people would assume that if there is all this conversation, a negotiation might be taking place. But you don’t use that word. So is it fair to assume, therefore, that this is something the administration is asking of the Israelis and until it fulfills there really isn’t a negotiation, because some of the points are non-negotiable?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t have any strong allegiance to different words. I’ll just say, again, Major, that the President has asked the Prime Minister for certain things to build confidence leading up to proximity talks that we think can make progress. These are discussions that are ongoing and, needless to say, we’ve had many of these discussions for many months relating to different issues.
Q From the President’s point of view, are the things requested non-negotiable?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’m not going to get into the substance yet of the meeting.
Q You can’t even answer that, yes or no?
MR. GIBBS: I appreciate you trying to pin me down on me saying I’m not going to discuss the substance by putting me on one side of the ledger or not, but --
Q That’s actually not a substantive question -- it’s about what the President has privately discussed with the Israelis and if they’re non-negotiable from his point of view.
MR. GIBBS: I’m not going to get into the substance. I think I’ve now said that on camera about eight times.
Q There are different variations to --
MR. GIBBS: I appreciate the atmospherics of parsing, but I’m not going to get into it.
Q This is not a topic that’s immune from parsing, as you well know.
MR. GIBBS: I’m learning just in the last, say, 20 seconds.
Q The Czechs have said that there is to be a signing ceremony in Prague on April 8th for the START treaty. Is that premature?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we’ve always discussed internally returning to the city the President outlined a speech in last year envisioning a world without nuclear weapons. We believe that a new START treaty begins to take many important steps between the two greatest holders of those nuclear weapons. So I would anticipate that when we have something to sign, it will be in Prague.
Q Is it premature to place that date for that event?
MR. GIBBS: Again, as I said earlier, the President I think hopes to speak to the Russian leader in the next several days, but there’s still some things that need to be worked out --
Q That would be the final conversation you would envision?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don’t want to get ahead of what the conversation might be.
Q Okay. The Commerce Department reported today housing sales fell 2.2 percent last month, attributed in some large measure to the terrible weather, but also this is the fourth consecutive month that house sales have declined. The homebuyers’ tax credit is going to expire in the very near future. To what degree is there a concern either here or the Commerce Department, the administration broadly, about this sector of the economy? And what other ideas or proposals do you intend to --
MR. GIBBS: Well, let me check on the expiration of the current tax credit. I know that the Vice President did an event earlier in the week demonstrating that tax returns will be bigger this year as a result of many of the tax credits in the Recovery Act as the homeowners’ -- homebuyers’ one being one of the bigger ones.
Look, there’s no doubt that housing and real estate continue to be complicated problems for our economy. And we will continue to -- continue our modification program and to strengthen that program in order to keep as many people as possible in their houses, and to continue to work towards building an economy that has a stable foundation and we can see a turnaround in that.
Q Did Prime Minister Netanyahu’s staff request a different coverage scheme for last night? Did they ask for a picture taken between the Prime Minister and the President?
MR. GIBBS: I honestly don’t know, to be honest with you.
Q What leverage is the United States, is the President bringing to bear on these discussions? When you see, again, new housing in East Jerusalem today announced -- what is the leverage behind these talks?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I would say -- I would categorize the -- we have a strong partnership with a strong ally. We share great concerns about Israel’s security and we -- as I’ve said here for probably the past almost two weeks, there’s an unbreakable bond between the United States and the Israeli people.
Q When they do so many wrong things.
MR. GIBBS: Well, as I’ve also said many times, there are areas in which we have agreements and areas in which we have disagreements. Those were discussed last night between the President and the Prime Minister.
Q Has the question of U.S. aid to Israel been linked to these talks at all?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I know of, no.
Q Two, Robert. Let me return to START real quickly -- Senator Kerry and Lugar meeting this morning -- did the President share language with those two senators? Does he have language on verification and missile defense that he’s convinced the Senate will actually ratify?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Mark, we’re not going to -- I think we understand that ratification is what ultimately has to happen. We’re certainly mindful of that. The President took the opportunity to update the chair and the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee on the status of our negotiations with the Russians on START. Obviously they’ll play a very big role in Senate ratification.
Needless to say, this is -- the President and Senator Lugar have had a relationship on this issue that dates back, in all honesty, to about a week after he was elected to the Senate. They had a phone conversation about the President joining the Foreign Relations Committee. In that phone call the President, in 2004, asked Senator Lugar to be part of a trip to Russia that next year in 2005.
Q On the two issues that I was asking about, though, is there language now that --
MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously we think we’re getting quite close to an agreement, so I would say language and interpretation is certainly part of that ongoing process, yes.
Q All right. Then, briefly, if you will, on Iowa City tomorrow -- if this is such a great deal that the President has been talking about, why does he still need to sell it?
MR. GIBBS: Well, Mark, obviously the law that was signed yesterday will -- as we’ve talked about here, there are some immediate benefits and then there are aspects that, as the President discussed yesterday, will be phased in over the next several years.
I think the President believes it is important to continue to talk about the many aspects of the law that will do precisely what he said they're intended to do: help small businesses that provide health coverage for their employees. I'm sure there will be parents of those that attend the University of Iowa that will have some interest in keeping their children on a health insurance policy through the age of 26. So I think there are many aspects of this that the President will talk about not only tomorrow in Iowa City, but I anticipate will spend some time talking about for, in all honesty, the next several years.
Q Robert, I think you mentioned that the Presidents were expected to talk in the next couple of days, and then you said several days --
MR. GIBBS: No, I think I said the next few days. I think I need like a -- can you guys make a real-time sort of -- I think it’s in the next few days.
Q The next few days.
MR. GIBBS: I don’t have a schedule in front of me that would say which day that is.
Q By Friday?
MR. GIBBS: I’m just not going to say -- I’m going to say the next few days. I don’t -- I won’t guess on which day.
Q Robert, back to START. How would you characterize the Russians in their negotiating style for the past year or so, since this first commenced? Would you characterize it as respectful and honest in candor? And do you also, when this is signed, do you hope to use START as sort of a new sense of symbolism for other aspects of this important relationship?
MR. GIBBS: I think that ever since the two leaders got together in London, I think last March or April, early April -- I forget the exact date -- we have been focused on a new type of dialogue and a partnership where the two countries can address the issues that -- the issues of mutual agreement. We have worked with them on our next steps on Iran. We’ve worked with them in different avenues relating to North Korea.
I’ve said several times that we wanted to get this treaty right. And I’m sure their perspective would be the same. But we wanted to get this treaty right for the United States of America. It’s taken a little extra time for us to get that. But I think the President believes we’re close. And I would say this: The President has been deeply involved personally in moving this process forward and along throughout that process, speaking directly, again, with -- on March 13th, in order to move this process even further along.
Q Following on that, does the President think there’s been a risk having let the treaty lapse at the end of last year? Does he have any guarantees that the Russians haven’t taken advantage of this period of --
MR. GIBBS: Let me get some more detailed guidance from NSC on any type of bridging agreements that have been had. But I think we have -- I think both sides have negotiated in good faith.
Q And does the President think that the -- describe again the endpoint of this new treaty, what the President wants and has held out for in this new version of START.
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I don’t -- because we have not finished negotiations, I would prefer not to read out where we are on some of the individual aspects of this. We’ll have an opportunity, no doubt, to do that in the next several days pending an agreement.
Q But he wants reductions in both sides?
MR. GIBBS: Oh, absolutely -- no, absolutely.
Q Eventually leading to no nuclear weapons in, what, a century or a lifetime?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don’t think he’s -- I don’t -- I think he said in Prague that he may not live to see this day. But former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger are some of the people that the President has spoken fairly regularly to and share the same goal he does of eliminating nuclear weapons from our planet and the risk that -- which will be a great focus of the President’s nuclear security summit in April -- in securing quickly loose nuclear material throughout the world to prevent that material from falling into the hands of terrorists.
Q And how confident are you that the agreement will be signed before the nuclear summit?
MR. GIBBS: I think we’re very close.
Q Thanks, Robert. The deficit savings outlined in the health care bill obviously depend on a series of future actions such as the Cadillac tax going into effect or doctor payments remaining unchanged, for example. And even the CBO has said that Congress rarely follows through on those sorts of fiscal restraint promises. So my question is, does the President plan to veto any bills that would undermine or reduce those cost savings?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I’m trying to -- a broader point, it’s interesting the degree to which people either lean on or lean away from CBO based on whether they believe CBO has proved or not proved their point. Setting that aside, the President is confident in what he signed will come to fruition and that we’ll take actions to ensure that that happens. I think many of the team believe that cost saving that CBO can’t look into will actually exceed what has been outlined, as is often the case with legislation that they look at.
So the President is confident that we will be on a path toward meeting the more than $1 trillion in deficit savings that the Congressional Budget Office says will happen as a result of the President’s signature over the course of the next two decades.
Q So it sounds like he’s ready to stand up for it in case -- you know, if Congress does come to him either now or in the future with a bill that would reduce any of those cost savings, it sounds like he’s prepared to --
MR. GIBBS: Look, the President throughout these negotiations was clear even when others either inside or outside of government did not want to be part of cost reductions as part of health care reform. So the President is very focused on ensuring that what he’s outlined comes to fruition.
Q How many of the Democrats -- of the 219 Democrats who voted for “Obamacare” have invited the President to campaign for them in their districts this fall?
MR. GIBBS: I don't have a political schedule in front of me, Lester.
Q Since not one of the Republicans in the House voted for “Obamacare,” and 32 Democrats voted against --
MR. GIBBS: Do you mean -- I'm sorry, I'm confused. Do you mean by that the law that the President signed yesterday?
Q “Obamacare,” yes.
MR. GIBBS: Okay, I just was -- I didn't know if that was the Internet vernacular or the name of the bill, Lester. I was a little confused.
Q That's all right. Since not one of the Republicans in the House voted for this and 32 Democrats voted against it --
Q -- 34, and it won by only --
MR. GIBBS: Thank you. (Laughter.)
Q -- seven votes, how can you deny that this is a pyrrhic victory?
Q Trick question. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I don't -- I was going to say, Lester, I'm a simple man, but I could not really -- (laughter) --
Q You know what pyrrhic victory is, don't you?
MR. GIBBS: I do. I have -- I'm going to have -- I'm not doing this on purpose -- I'm going to have Pete print me a very nice picture that shows the President’s signature on a law yesterday that will benefit the lives of millions of people in this country for many, many years to come. I will let anybody decide what they’d like to call that victory. The President believes it was a substantial victory for the safety and security of the American people in knowing that their station in life is not now determined by their access to health care.
Q Thank you very much for your answer, Robert. I appreciate that very much.
MR. GIBBS: You’re welcome.
Q Robert, Vice President -- do you know if Vice President Biden is standing by to go up to Capitol Hill in case that --
MR. GIBBS: He is. He is.
Q And do you expect that he might have to go up there?
MR. GIBBS: If needed, he is ready to go.
Q It’s a big deal? (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I am actually enormously shocked that it took us that actual amount of time for -- (laughter) -- I lost the pool, guys. (Laughter.) The money is back on my desk. I knew that -- I know that these guys in the front row had to ask all these -- whoo! -- foreign policy questions and couldn’t -- (laughter) -- but I know that each one of them -- yes, they’re all laughing, I know.
Q Two of them asked 13 questions apiece, 13.
MR. GIBBS: And explicable, Lester, in that 26 we didn’t get one of those jokes. A pyrrhic victory -- right. Go ahead, David, I’m sorry -- or Bill, I’m sorry.
Q Robert, has the President said anything to Biden about that?
MR. GIBBS: Not that I’m aware of.
Q The Republican mantra today is “don’t retreat, repeal” the bill that the President signed yesterday. What is the White House’s response to this “repeal” campaign?
MR. GIBBS: This is -- I think I got a similar question the other day, and I will say the same thing I said. If the message that Republicans want to take into a midterm election or in a presidential campaign in 2012 is “we want to take tax cuts away from small businesses”; that they get help in providing health care to their employees; if they’d like to campaign actively on taking help from seniors that fall into the doughnut hole as part of the prescription drug benefit; and if they’d like to take away the safety and security that that mother feels in knowing that the insurance that she pays premiums to each and every month can’t tell her that her child has a preexisting condition -- if that’s the platform they want to run on, that would -- that sounds like a heck of a good time.
Q Thanks. In 2007, during the campaign, the President said that he does not support the Hyde Amendment and the federal government should not intrude onto a poor woman’s decision whether to carry to term or terminate her pregnancy. So my question today is, as he signs this executive order, which will further enshrine the Hyde Amendment, how does he feel about that?
MR. GIBBS: David, I would have to see what -- I don’t know the comment that you’re referring to.
Q He was opposed to the Hyde Amendment.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I’d have to --
Q It was in a questionnaire, a pro-choice questionnaire.
Q It was in a questionnaire --
MR. GIBBS: And I’ll have somebody -- I haven’t -- you can just assume I haven’t looked at a questionnaire in quite some time.
Q But you stipulate that he opposed the Hyde Amendment, correct?
MR. GIBBS: I would stipulate that the President believes in a woman’s right to choose.
Q Robert, you’ve said with a great deal of confidence that you believe that the health reform act will be able to withstand these legal challenges -- Cuccinelli, et cetera. What is -- specifically, can you sort of give us an idea of what’s the basis of your confidence? Have you gotten anything from Holder or the Counsel’s Office?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think you’ve seen the statement that Justice put out yesterday. Obviously this -- the argument of constitutionality was one that was brought up during the debate, but I think the Counsel’s Office here, the Department of Justice, and, quite frankly, legal experts throughout the country believe that the right -- that the law does not -- the law is not unconstitutional based on what these attorneys general are suing for. The notion that -- we believe the President and the federal government does have the ability through the interstate commerce clause to ensure health care.
I mean, I -- this was an article today quoting a law professor from Stanford. It says: “It would be surprising if the Supreme Court says Congress can’t regulate people who are participating in the $1 trillion health care market,” said David Freeman Engstrom, a Stanford University Law School professor. “The lawsuit probably doesn’t have legs both as a matter of precedent and as a matter of common sense.”
Q Robert, as I’m sure you’re aware, there have been sort of counterarguments and talks about sort of disaggregating various parts, including the individual mandate. Can you provide us, in the interests of transparency, with some of the memos that have been provided to the administration in terms of justifying the legal foundation for your --
MR. GIBBS: I’d have to go back and see whether there’s been anything formal that’s been prepared on that.
Q Can I follow on this, please, for one second?
MR. GIBBS: One more and then I’ll --
Q Governor McDonnell in Virginia is signing legislation today to void -- in a sense void his state from having to participate in the health care reforms, et cetera. In a broader sense, though, this is the first piece of legislation perhaps since the civil rights movement that so many states have lined up against. Is there some way of making an analogy on there?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know which attorneys -- I don’t know which attorneys general in the 1960s were running for higher office, so I don’t know if I could draw the direct analogy that I’d like to draw.
1:32 P.M. EDT