Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–January 8, 2013 – 12:56 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for being here. Before I start, it is amazing, in today’s era of lightning communications, how this already seems to be a moment that’s passing, but it is worth pausing to remember, perhaps in my mind, the greatest political journalist ever, and that’s Richard Ben Cramer.
When I got to Washington in 1993, in the spring of that year, from Moscow, a colleague of mine handed me that book — it has come out the year before — as I began to cover politics, and it was the best read imaginable. And if there’s anyone in this room who has not read “What It Takes,” you should run out and buy it now. Do a favor to his wife and daughter and actually buy it, don’t borrow it, because it is a remarkable book.
And what’s remarkable about it — it’s funny because when I got the job to work with the Vice President, I reread the chapters on Senator Biden from his campaign in 1988, and it is a series of portraits of men, in this case, running for the highest office in the land, and they are all affectionate portraits. They are appreciative of each individual — their qualities and their failings — but everything is done with great affection for the process and the individuals. It’s a joy to read, so if you haven’t already, go get it.
With that, I’ll take your questions.
Q Thanks, Jay, and thanks for the appreciation for one of our brethren.
Two questions. Regarding yesterday’s nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director, Senator Lindsey Graham today issued a statement saying, “I do not believe we should confirm anyone as director of the CIA until our questions are answered, like who changed Ambassador Susan Rice’s talking points and deleted a reference to al Qaeda.” I think Major took a stab at that question back in November, and I wondered if we could revisit it. One, does that stand in the way of Brennan’s confirmation? Two, can you answer the question that Graham has raised?
MR. CARNEY: I’ll start with number two first. This question was answered, I believe, in briefings on the Hill. Secondly, because the process was one of declassifying classified information and in that process the talking points that were provided to Ambassador Rice, to members of Congress, and to others including myself in the executive branch, were written in the way that was presented by Ambassador Rice.
On the first point, it would be unfortunate I think if in pursuit of this issue, which was highly politicized, the Senate would hold up the nomination of John Brennan to be Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. As the President said yesterday, that post as well as the positions of Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, these are essential positions that need to be filled if possible without delay. And that is why he called on the Senate to act promptly to hold the necessary confirmation hearings and to give each nominee a fair hearing and then a vote. We certainly hope that that happens.
I think while it’s not worth going into in great detail, we certainly discussed a lot last year, late in the year, the essential irrelevance of the issue of what was said on a series of Sunday shows to what actually happened in Benghazi. And this President is committed to ensuring that those who were responsible for the deaths of four Americans in Libya be brought to justice. There is an FBI-led investigation with that as its goal.
And there has been a process ordered by the President, overseen by the Secretary of State, an independent Accountability Review Board, led by Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen, that produced an unsparing assessment of diplomatic security both in Benghazi and broadly, and that included a series of recommendations which the Secretary of State and the President of the United States accepted entirely and which are already being implemented. And the President is focused on those issues, not what seems to be the continued political fascination with appearances on Sunday shows.
Q Second point, I wanted to pick up where you left off yesterday on fiscal issues. I wonder what lessons did the President take away from his discussions in December? When does he expect to reengage with Congress to if not deal with the debt ceiling, at least negotiate over the sequester? And do you guys expect Senator McConnell rather than Boehner — Speaker Boehner to be your dance partner in coming negotiations?
MR. CARNEY: The President said not too many days ago, when the agreement on the fiscal cliff was passed by both houses of Congress overwhelmingly, that he would continue to seek to compromise with Congress when it came to achieving a balanced approach for continued deficit reduction. And he will do that.
Congress is not here, as you know, but he looks forward to working with Congress in good faith to continue the work that’s already begun, and that began with the Budget Control Act and the $1.1 trillion in spending cuts signed into law by this President; that continued with the agreement on the so-called fiscal cliff just last week that achieved significant deficit reduction through revenues, and enshrines into law the principle that we need to move forward in a balanced way as we seek further deficit reduction.
As I said yesterday, the President has said and others have said he will not negotiate with Congress when it comes to the essential responsibility of Congress to pay the bills that Congress has incurred. It would be irresponsible to flirt with default. We saw what happened in the summer of 2011 when Congress did flirt with default, when House Republicans in particular used that as an issue to try to achieve some political objectives and just the mere flirtation with default caused severe economic harm, which I spelled out yesterday.
Q What’s the window — the timing window that the President sees? I mean, the fiscal cliff deal bought you two months for the sequester; speculation that the debt ceiling could be hit by February 15th and March 1st. So when does the President want to start those talks and when does he think they need to be completed and in place?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, I would separate the debt ceiling from negotiations over eliminating the sequester. The fact is we have two months because of the fiscal cliff agreement, and that is not a great deal of time, and the President will, and the White House will, engage with Congress on those matters in I think the relatively near term.
But when it comes to the debt ceiling, as I said yesterday, we expect Congress to do its job. The President expects that Congress will fulfill its essential responsibility to pay the bills that Congress has incurred. And remember, this is a responsibility that Congress assigned to itself in order to try to get Congress to spend less and be more focused on deficit reduction. So this is — Congress has the power that it assigned itself to raise the debt ceiling, and it should do so, because the alternative is obviously unacceptable.
And that’s something I think you remember from the period in 2011. Both Senator McConnell and Speaker Boehner at the time said they would not let the United States default, with all the consequences that would ensue, and we hope that Congress wouldn’t let that happen again.
Q Thanks, Jay. Just a couple questions. First one is, given the fiscal hurdles that are still looming, has the President asked or is he considering asking Treasury Secretary Geithner to stay on beyond January? And if not, when can we expect the nomination of a successor?
MR. CARNEY: I think Secretary Geithner has expressed his timetable for departing after his service as Treasury Secretary, which has been much appreciated by the President. His record, I think four years on now, reflects some very gutsy decisions that were made by the President on the advice of the Secretary of the Treasury that helped prevent a far worse economic crisis than we endured. I think if you look at the state of the American economy, the fact is while we are not growing as much as we want, we are not creating jobs as fast as we would like, we are doing far better than a number of other countries that endured the fiscal crisis and economic crisis of 2008, 2007, 2009. And that is in part because of some of the very tough calls made by this President and this Treasury Secretary.
I don’t have a timetable for any other personnel announcements, but I have no new information or any change in information on Secretary Geithner’s departure.
Q Okay. Another subject — AIG says its board will meet tomorrow to discuss whether to join a lawsuit filed against the government alleging that the massive bailout of the company was unfair. It’s been compared to a patient suing their doctor for saving their life. What’s the administration’s response to this?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I won’t comment on a lawsuit that’s pending. I would refer you to the Department of Justice. But I will step back, and this, I think, contextually fits into my answer about Secretary Geithner’s time as Treasury Secretary, and that is to note that the U.S. government acted in a bipartisan fashion to prevent the disorderly failure of AIG after concluding that such a failure would have caused catastrophic damage to the economy and financial system. Again, the action was taken because the failure would have done such great harm to the American economy, to the American financial system, and to the American people.
Because of the successful management of taxpayer dollars by the government and the company’s restructuring efforts, the company recently fully repaid taxpayers with a profit. The overall positive return on the Federal Reserve and Treasury’s combined $182 billion commitment to stabilize AIG during the financial crisis is now $22.7 billion. Again, that’s $22.7 billion in profit.
It is also worth remembering, in response to a question like this, that thanks to the action of the President, thanks to the action of the administration and Congress, an action like the kind that was taken to deal with AIG’s potential disorderly failure, however necessary during the financial crisis, should not happen again, and that’s why this President pursued Wall Street reform. And that’s why it is essential to continue to move forward with the implementation of that reform.
Q So would you urge AIG’s board to just drop the —
MR. CARNEY: Again, I will not comment on a pending lawsuit.
Q Is the President aware of the suit?
MR. CARNEY: I haven’t discussed it with him, but I will not comment on a pending lawsuit.
Q Thanks. Can you tell us what kind of progress the Biden gun group, if you will, is making? Do they give the President frequent updates? And also, is the NRA part of this process?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me say a few things about that. The Vice President, at the President’s request, is overseeing a process that is engaging a variety of stakeholders — organizations and individuals — to look broadly at the problem of gun violence in America and to consider actions that could be taken at both the legislative level and elsewhere. As I think has been reported, the process is ongoing. The Vice President’s effort — the Vice President has had several meetings and conversations so far, and he will have many more before presenting his recommendations to the President.
As for the President’s involvement, the President assigned the Vice President to this task, asked him to do it. And as you know and saw just at the end of last month, the President and the Vice President spent a lot of time together and they will continue to spend a lot of time together, and I am sure, as they do that, that this topic will come up and the Vice President will have the opportunity to informally brief the President on the progress of this effort. And then, when the Vice President is ready to present a series of recommendations to the President, the President will consider them and then make decisions about how to proceed.
Q And is the NRA part of these discussions?
MR. CARNEY: We have invited — the Vice President’s group has invited a number of organizations and individuals to participate in meetings. They include gun owners and — groups that represent gun owners, groups that represent sportsmen and sportswomen. The NRA has certainly been one of the groups — one of the many groups invited. I would leave it to those groups themselves to decide whether to say — to make any comment on their attendance in those meetings.
Q The NRA says they will be here on Thursday in that meeting. So what is the message that Vice President Biden or this administration will say to the NRA in their first face-to-face conversation, given the only conversations the NRA has had with the public has been a public statement and then “Meet the Press”?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think as the President said, he doesn’t want to prejudge any recommendations that any stakeholder might present. He did in his “Meet the Press” interview respond to a question about the specific recommendation that the NRA had made by saying that he was skeptical that putting more guns in schools would solve this problem. But again, we look forward to hearing from a variety of organizations and civic groups and others who have insights into this problem.
Q The NRA says it’s here to hear what the White House has to say. So if you guys are here to listen to them, and they’re here to listen to you, and you guys are —
MR. CARNEY: Well, the process is designed to get input. And the Vice President’s group will assess different actions, make recommendations, and the President will decide what he would like to pursue, what he believes is the right course of action, in addition to what he has already called on Congress to do, which is pass the assault weapons ban, pass legislation that would ban high-capacity magazines, pass a bill that would close loopholes in our background check system. Those are things that Congress could move on very quickly, and the President urges them to do so.
Q On the nomination process, I know you didn’t want to spell out anything about who would take over Treasury, but has the President settled on who he wants to fill not only Treasury but also Commerce, EPA, these high-profile roles? Has he settled on these names, or is he still sifting through some top choices?
MR. CARNEY: Well, Dan, as you know, I refrain from commenting on the process of the selection of nominees and don’t give updates on the status of the search or short lists, long lists, speculation about individual nominees. I would simply say that the President is obviously engaged in a process that will lead to decisions on who should fill posts that are vacant, and as was the case this week with the Defense Department and the CIA, and prior to that, the State Department, he will make announcements when he’s made a decision.
Q I know you touched on this a little bit yesterday, but is diversity a consideration as the President goes through this process?
Q Check your binder for that. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: I can say that, as I did yesterday, that the President values diversity, believes it’s important because it enhances the quality of the pool of potential nominees for positions across the administration. He believes that by looking broadly for candidates for offices that he ups the chances that he’ll find the very best person for the job. And I think that the diversity of his administration both at the Cabinet level and here at the White House and elsewhere reflects a process that was designed to allow him to find the very best candidates. And he thinks that diversity enhances the process itself, the policy process, because it sort of increases the likelihood of a broader discussion potentially.
But the goal in the end is to find the very best individuals for these specific positions. And he feels he has done that with Secretary Hagel, with John Brennan, with Senator Kerry — I think I said “Secretary Hagel” — getting ahead of myself — Senator Hagel. And that will be what guides him as he makes further decisions.
Q Here’s one more on guns.
MR. CARNEY: Sure.
Q The President has talked about this with some urgency in the past, saying he’s not going to wait around. Is this something — the longer you get away from a tragedy, the less interest there is in gun control efforts that’s happened in the past? Is this something that the President is going to push very hard right out of the ¬–
MR. CARNEY: I think you heard the President say that he expected and had asked the Vice President to report back to him this month. I think that demonstrates the speed with which the President hopes to act.
Now, even prior to the action under the work of the Vice President’s group, the President has already called on Congress and will continue to call on Congress to take action on specific pieces of legislation that either already exists or could easily come together, and which some members of Congress have expressed an interest in pursuing.
So he is mindful of the need to act. He is also mindful of the need to have a process in place, led by the Vice President, that allows for consideration of a variety of ideas, because he’s made the point that this is not a problem that can be solved by gun legislation alone. It is not a problem that can be solved by any specific action or single action that the government might take. It’s a problem that encompasses issues of mental health, of education, as well as access to guns. And that’s why he’s asked the Vice President to undertake the effort that he’s undertaking.
Q Thank you, Jay. On the inauguration, presumably the President has begun work on an inaugural address. Will he also this year give a State of the Union address? How would the two differ? Can you bring us up to speed on what he’s doing on the inaugural?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President, as you know, looks forward — or as you would expect, looks forward to the privilege of delivering his second inaugural address. I have no content to preview for you. I would expect —
Q Has he started —
MR. CARNEY: Yes, he certainly has. And I would expect that — or you should expect that he will also deliver a State of the Union address.
Q But how would they differ? Both of them looking forward? And would any of the gun violence legislation or initiatives be ready in time to be included in either one?
MR. CARNEY: I would rather not preview either of these speeches. I’ll leave it to the President to do that when he delivers them. I think that these are different occasions that have historically sort of demanded different types of addresses. But as you know, the President takes the writing of these speeches quite seriously, and I would not preview or prejudge the outcome of that process.
Q At his first inaugural, the President signed several executive orders within, what, an hour or so of taking the oath of office. This time there’s no need to do that since he can do it any time. But does he plan anything of substance in addition to the inaugural address, any action that he would likely be taking on?
MR. CARNEY: On his first day in office? Again, I would ask you — or ask for your patience to wait for any announcements that we might have along those lines. I’m not suggesting that there might be because you rightly note that he’s already President, but I’m not going to preview anything that far in advance.
Q Lately when you’ve been listing the various elements of dealing with gun violence, you have not mentioned either cultural issues or violent video games and movies. The President did the very first time. You did for a while. But that sort of dropped off the radar screen. I wonder if that’s reflective of internal conversations with the Vice President, you no longer — the President no longer thinks that’s a part of the equation any longer and is not looking for initiatives or ideas to deal with that.
MR. CARNEY: No, if that has been conveyed, it should not have been. In fact, I should note that I can tell you that this week the Vice President will be meeting on Wednesday with victims groups as well as gun safety organizations; on Thursday with advocates for sportsmen and women, and then separately with gun ownership groups. This is the meeting that we discussed. This week he will also meet — his group will also meet with representatives of the entertainment and video game industries.
Also, Secretary Duncan will meet with representatives from parent, teacher, and education groups. Secretary Sebelius will meet with mental health and disability advocates. And senior White House staff have also held and will continue to hold meetings with a variety of stakeholders, including medical groups, community organizations, child and family advocates, business owners, faith leaders, and others.
So to your question, one of the meetings this week will be with representatives of the entertainment and video game industries.
Q In the “Meet the Press” interview, the President said something to the effect of the American people are going to have to make this happen, on the question specifically of gun control. And in the minds of those who are pressing the legislation, that made them feel a little bit nervous that the President was sort of handing over at least part of the responsibility for this, maybe drawing back a little bit for his personal advocacy. Obviously, the things you’ve laid out today suggest otherwise. I want to know if you wanted to refer back —
MR. CARNEY: I would simply say that the President is noting a reality that I think applies not just to issues of gun control legislation, but economic or budget legislation. It is very important for the public to be engaged in these issues, and for the public’s voice to be heard in Washington. And public opinion can help propel issues forward and compel Congress to act when it comes to legislative matters.
There is also an element here that I think transcends or is separate from legislative action that also involves raising public awareness and raising the voices of the American people who want to see change — change that would help reduce gun violence in America, change that would help prevent the kinds of horrendous acts of violence that we saw last year in Connecticut and Colorado and elsewhere.
So I think it’s just a recognition of the role that the public plays in all of these major issues. It is not — a participatory democracy is not — the participation is not just limited to the vote you cast on an Election Day, but is, or can be, or should be year round. And the President has I think demonstrated his belief that that is an effective way to get things done, and this is another case where he believes that’s the right way to go.
Q On the sequester, during the negotiations the administration pushed for a year delay of the limitation of the sequester. You obviously got two months. Republicans report that that was a much higher priority for the administration to avoid it than it was for them. First of all, do you accept that premise that the administration was much more nervous about delaying the implementation of the sequester than Republicans, where they were more comfortable with it, generally, than the administration is?
Secondarily, if the administration is so nervous about the implementation of discretionary cuts, why not be more forceful and more descriptive and more specific about entitlements that would stave that off?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me address the first assertion, which I think, as the assertion we heard yesterday about a purported disinterest by Republicans in tax incentives for business, I think the idea that Republicans weren’t interested in dealing with the sequester conflicts with recent history.
Last year, the Speaker of the House said, “I think the sequester will hurt our Department of Defense, will hurt our ability to do what Americans believe is our most basic responsibility, and that is to provide security for the American people. I believe that Secretary Panetta believes the same thing.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, later in the year: “I and others, including Senator Kelly Ayotte from New Hampshire, have been begging the President to sit down with us to avoid what his own Secretary of Defense said would be devastating to national security.” And Senator McCain and others repeatedly, as your colleagues reported on last year, talked about their high concern about the impact of implementation of the sequester, specifically on our defense budget. But as you know, the across-the-board cuts are equally divided between non-defense and defense spending and would be onerous on both sides of that coin.
So if anything, late last year I think you heard more vocal concern about the sequester from Republicans than Democrats — not that Democrats were less concerned about it but the volume was loudest I think on the Republican side. So it doesn’t stand to reason that they suddenly are not interested in dealing with it.
Q And on the entitlement side?
MR. CARNEY: Repeat your question.
Q Well, if you want to delay it, one of the ways to work around it would be to offer up or negotiate a more comprehensive, long-running restructuring of entitlement programs. Republicans have put that on the table — and that would take off some of the pressure on the discretionary side. Simpson-Bowles, many others looking on the outside say the discretionary side has been squeezed for many years. It was in the BCA. It was before that. Yet entitlements tend not to be. Why not move more of the entitlements up and take some of the pressure off the discretionary side?
MR. CARNEY: What the President said last week and what he said repeatedly before that, and what holds true today, is that he is committed to further deficit reduction in a balanced way. What he will not accept is deficit reduction that is borne solely by — the burden which is borne solely by seniors, solely by families with disabled children, solely by families trying to send their kids to college or other vulnerable groups.
One of the things that we learned through this process, through the negotiating process and the sort of concurrent communications efforts was that, in fact, specificity when it came to spending cuts could be found more on our side than on theirs. And if the Republicans are suggesting that the answer to the sequester, to the debt ceiling, or any other thing, are simply to slash benefits for seniors, they ought to say so and they ought to provide a specified plan. They know that the President won’t accept that.
We have to have balance. And balance means spending cuts; it means entitlement reform and it means tax reform. Tax reform is something that Republicans and Democrats have both expressed keen interest in achieving. Tax reform is something that, according to the Speaker of the House, could produce significant revenue. When coupled with additional spending cuts, that revenue and that savings could further reduce our deficit significantly. And that’s certainly what the President hopes to achieve.
Mr. Emanuel, welcome back.
Q Thank you, Jay. The top Senate Republican on the Budget Committee says as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling the Senate should be forced to pass a budget. Do you have a thought on that?
MR. CARNEY: Again, Congress — the Senate, the House — should act to raise the debt ceiling. This is not a deal that the White House — a negotiation the White House is going to have. It is Congress’s responsibility to ensure that the bills Congress racked up are paid.
It’s sometimes a useful exercise to look back when you hear the protests and the complaints about deficits and spending from Republicans, especially in the House but also in the Senate, to remember that many of these legislators were in office when the deficits exploded under the previous administration. It’s often fun to look at a charge of the deficit, the federal deficit over the years and note that it went down consistently under Democratic President Bill Clinton. It went up again, turning surpluses into deficits, under George W. Bush. And from a high point, because of the economic crisis, it has gone down again under President Obama. That’s a trend line.
And the point is that Republicans certainly do not have a corner on the market when it comes to interest in reducing the deficit. The President believes it is necessary to reduce our deficits, to get our fiscal house in order. But he insists that we do it in a fair and balanced way. That’s the principle that he took into negotiations over the debt ceiling, his presentation to the super committee. It is the principle that informs his budget proposals. It is the principle that informed the proposals he put forward in his good-faith negotiations with Speaker Boehner in December. And it’s the principle he’ll carry forth as we continue to deal with our challenges.
Q With $16 trillion and counting, the election is over, some could argue a budget right now is probably more critical than ever — no?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, you can address — those are questions for the Senate. When it comes to — the presentation of the question was, we will only raise the debt ceiling if this and that happens. Let’s just remember what danger awaits the pursuit of that path, the harm that was brought to this economy simply by the flirtation with default in the summer of 2011.
We should and — we can and should negotiate over how we continue to reduce our deficits in a responsible and balanced way, but we should not play chicken with the full faith and credit of the United States.
Q One other topic, real fast — reported drone strike today along the AFPAC border region. As you know, Afghan and Pakistani officials have been vocal about their concerns about them possibly killing civilians as opposed to terrorists. What can you say to address their concerns? And can you talk a little bit about the President’s thinking when it comes to drone strikes?
MR. CARNEY: I won’t talk about anything specific like that. I can tell you that, as John Brennan and others and the President have said, in the effort to battle al Qaeda and other extremist groups, we endeavor to reduce civilian casualties as much as possible. And I think that the broader record here of success in taking the fight to al Qaeda and eliminating al Qaeda leadership and leadership of al Qaeda-affiliated organizations is one that has made the United States safer.
Q If John Brennan is confirmed as CIA director, is it safe to assume the drone program will continue and —
MR. CARNEY: Again, I’m just not going to — I think that there has been some discussion of the drone program as it relates to the Department of Defense, but I’m not going to get into any further discussion of it from here.
Q There are several looming battles for this White House that will be coming up over the course of the next several months — the debt ceiling; we have gun control, as we’ve already addressed here; and now with the nomination of Senator Hagel, there’s the likelihood of a contentious battle, as we heard from members of the Senate, frankly, on both sides. Does this White House have any concern that this fight right now will complicate the ability to —
MR. CARNEY: Which fight? You listed a bunch.
Q I’m saying that the fight over Senator Hagel right now will complicate that for gun control and debt ceiling and other ones where you’re going to need bipartisan support?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we fully expect that — after the fair hearing that Senator McConnell said he hoped Senator Hagel would receive — that he will be confirmed as the next Secretary of Defense. And we certainly hope and expect that he will be supported by Democrats and Republicans, and that he will then have the opportunity to serve as the first Vietnam veteran and first enlisted serviceman to lead that department.
Look, we have a lot of work to do. And we have disagreements on some fundamental issues with members of Congress. But it is incumbent upon all of us to press forward and confront those challenges and get the work done. That applies to the economy and budget matters, to fiscal matters. It applies to immigration reform, to actions we can take to reduce gun violence, to matters of energy and climate change. These are all things that need to be addressed. And we can’t, either here or in Congress, simply say there is too much to be done so we’re not going to press forward. We have to press forward with all of it.
Q We heard within the last year that the President says he supports gay marriage. He said at that time that that issue would be worked at the local level. But given the fact that the Supreme Court has now said that it will hear arguments just two months from now, in March, should we expect the President will publicly advocate against Proposition 8, and would he also advocate for same-sex couples to have the right to federal benefits?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let’s be clear about a couple of things. For comment on specific Supreme Court cases, I would point you to the Department of Justice. On the issue of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, the administration’s position on this is well known and has been, and that’s that the President has determined that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional, and that his administration will no longer defend equal protection challenges against it in the courts. The DOJ has participated in the DOMA cases consistent with that position, and asked the Supreme Court to resolve the questions. So that is the DOMA issue.
On Prop 8, the administrative is not a party to that case, and I have nothing for you on that.
Q Whether he would speak out at —
MR. CARNEY: I have nothing further on that.
Q And then to conclude, Hillary Clinton arrived at the White House a short time ago. This will be the first opportunity for the President to see the Secretary — outgoing — soon-to-be-outgoing Secretary of State since her accident. Did they have a chance to speak yet? And how did that conversation go?
MR. CARNEY: Well, they have spoken —
Q Face to face, this will be the first time.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not sure, but you should know that he spoke with her not too many days ago, as well as after her accident, and was keeping tabs on her condition throughout. So this would not be — when they see each other today, it would not as if they hadn’t been —
Q There was no exchange of helmets or something? (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Again, I wasn’t there.
Q Back to Afghanistan. On the troop levels, reports say the White House is considering keeping between 3,000 and 9,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014. Are those numbers accurate?
MR. CARNEY: I have no announcements to make about the pace of the drawdown that will continue, that continues as we speak, after the initial withdrawal of the surge forces, nor do I have any decisions by the President to make regarding post-2014 security arrangements. We’ve talked about the possibility of assisting — a counterterrorism effort and assisting in the training of — for the training of Afghan forces. But beyond that, I have no new numbers to report to you. As we’ve said in the past, the President is in the process of reviewing proposals, and when he is ready to announce a decision, he’ll do that.
Q And is the administrative encouraged by the reports that there’s been some progress in the talks involving the Karzai government and the Taliban?
MR. CARNEY: We support, as you know, reconciliation led by the Afghan government with the Taliban, and our position on that hasn’t changed. I don’t have an assessment to give to you from here of progress being made. I think the Afghan government is a good place to look for that. But we do support it. We believe ultimately that is an essential part of a process that would lead to a more peaceful and stable Afghanistan.
Q On Palestine, does the President have a position on the new Palestinian state that Abbas has proclaimed?
MR. CARNEY: Well, we’ve expressed it many times, the fact that we oppose unilateral actions. We oppose the unilateral action taken by the Palestinians at the United Nations. We believe that when it comes to Middle East peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, it is essential for direct face-to-fact negotiations to resume, and it is essential for each side to refrain from taking unilateral actions that make it more difficult to engage in face-to-face negotiations, and to allow that process to proceed to a point where a sustainable peace is possible. So our position was frequently stated when this was an issue at the United Nations General Assembly and prior to that last year.
Q — talks with Abbas about this?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I haven’t personally, no. But obviously we as an administration have conversations and made our views on this directly known to Palestinian leaders.
Q A quick one on Egypt and Pakistan. Does the U.S. still plan to give billions of dollars of aid to each country?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t have a breakdown specifically on aid status for either country, but we believe that it is important to continue to support progress in Egypt, and we work with the Egyptian government to ensure that progress is made. And that would be true with Pakistan. We’ve talked a lot in this room about the complicated relationship with Pakistan, but it is one that is in the interests of U.S. national security to pursue, and we continue to do that with Pakistan.
Q There’s a developing story in France involving taxes on the wealthy, with Gerard Depardieu who is leaving France because he wants to avoid to pay higher taxes. He has been granted by Vladimir Putin the Russian nationality, and now he is going to be appointed Minister of Culture of Russia. (Laughter.) Is there any comment from the White House?
MR. CARNEY: Is Andrei here? (Laughter.) I want my friend Andrei’s opinion about that. I have no White House comment on that startling development. (Laughter.)
Q Thanks. On the fiscal cliff, moving into the — to talk about the debt ceiling, it seems that the concern is not getting pushed up against that deadline in March or whenever it’s going to be, that probably the best thing to do would be to get into those issues now and see if you can’t come to some sort of accommodation between the two sides before that even becomes an issue. Is that something that the President is looking at doing, to get those talks started as soon as possible? Or how is the White House viewing that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me be clear. We will not negotiate with Congress over the fulfillment of Congress’s responsibility to raise the debt ceiling. The President has been very clear about that. I have, and others have. If Congress is concerned, as it should be, about not showing any indication of allowing a default, then it would be best to act without drama or delay when Congress returns to raise the debt ceiling. We would hope that Congress would do that.
But we won’t negotiate over it. We won’t ask — the choice that would be presented in such a negotiation presumably would be to ask Americans to either — it’s basically to pay Congress through voucherization of Medicare or slashed benefits in Social Security or other types of reductions in exchange for Congress doing its job, and that is paying the bills that it’s already incurred. And that’s not an equation the President supports.
There is absolutely room for negotiation and discussion about how we continue to reduce our deficit in a responsible and balanced way. The President has demonstrated, through his proposal to the super committee, through his budget proposals, through his negotiating proposals with Secretary — I mean Speaker Boehner, that he is willing to compromise; that he has been willing, consistently, to meet Republicans at least halfway when it comes to taking action to responsibly reduce our deficit and get our fiscal house in order. And he is absolutely willing to continue to do that when we talk about turning off the sequester, or just simply dealing with our long-term fiscal challenges.
But he does not in any way accept the premise that he should negotiate with Congress over Congress’s fundamental responsibility to pay the bills that it’s already incurred. We are the greatest nation on Earth. We are the wealthiest nation on Earth and the largest economy. And one of the reasons why we are what we are is because investors around the world, people around the world understand that we pay our bills. And we should never cast doubt on that prospect.
Q So just to clarify, are you saying you won’t enter negotiations with them unless they verbally or in writing or somehow say that they haven’t linked the two issues? I mean, what exactly does that mean — that the President won’t talk to them unless they delink them or —
MR. CARNEY: I think that — it’s hard to be more clear: We won’t negotiate over raising the debt ceiling.
Q But would you be willing to start talking to them now?
MR. CARNEY: The President has been willing, and I think demonstrated through his negotiations with the Speaker and through the process that followed, to engage with Congress on matters of deficit reduction and necessary measures to help our economy grow and create jobs at any time. His principles remained throughout that process, which is fundamentally that we have to do it in a responsible way and a balanced way.
But again, he won’t have that negotiation over the debt ceiling because Congress has to simply pay these bills that they’ve incurred.
Again, I could read through it but I’ll spare you — what happened last time. And throughout this recovery, the weakest month of job creation was in August of 2011. And the primary reason for that was because of the insistence by House Republicans in July and June, the insistence by them to flirt with the prospect of default. And consumer confidence plummeted, the DOW plummeted, investment dried up, and the American people paid the price. And they were not happy by having to pay that price, justifiably.
Q Jay, can you clarify? It sounds like you’re sequencing that Congress has to handle the debt ceiling first before the President will discuss sequestration, or —
MR. CARNEY: I’m separating. I’m separating. Congress — we called on Congress to act without drama or delay throughout the end of the year last year. We continue to call on them to act without drama or delay to deal with the debt ceiling, to deal with its responsibility.
But again we are separating — again, the process that you’re envisioning doesn’t — well, this is the question I answered 45 minutes ago. Congress isn’t here. When Congress returns, I imagine that we will engage in conversations about the sequester and other economic issues. But we will not negotiate over the basic responsibility of Congress to do its job, which is to pay the bills incurred by the United States.
All the way in the back, yes.
Q A follow-up on Hagel with a specific regard to his experience in China — in the ‘80s as a businessman. Can you talk about whether his experience in China was a factor in his nomination, given the fact that the Asia pivot is a big part of his responsibility at the Pentagon?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t know specifically whether that experience — how much that experience played into the President’s decision. It is certainly a fact that Senator Hagel has a varied and broad resume that includes his experience as a businessman. But I think you heard the President cite his service in Vietnam and his service in the Senate, his service on the Intelligence Advisory Board as well as his time as a CEO as part of a broad package of experiences that make him the right choice to be the next Secretary of Defense.
Thank you all.
1:46 P.M. EST