Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 7, 2013 – 1:00 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Hello, everyone. Sorry that I’m running a little late here. A lot of activity in the White House today. Before I take your questions, I just wanted to note that in an important bipartisan step towards implementing the President’s plan to reduce gun violence in this country, the Senate Judiciary Committee just voted to send to the full Senate legislation to address the very serious problem of gun trafficking.
The administration and the law enforcement community have long identified the need for legislation imposing tough penalties on gun traffickers and straw purchasers who funnel guns to dangerous criminals. And the President is pleased that Congress is taking steps to act. We look forward to continuing to work with Congress on this and on the other important pieces of legislation that are part of the President’s comprehensive plan.
With that, I will take your questions.
Q Thanks, Jay. Can you respond to North Korea’s threat of a nuclear strike on the United States?
MR. CARNEY: First of all, I think it’s important to note, as you probably saw at the United Nations earlier today, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2094 condemning North Korea’s highly provocative February 12 nuclear test, and imposing strong sanctions under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.
The strength, breadth, and severity of these sanctions show that the P5 and the rest of the Security Council take seriously the North Korean threat. North Korea will follow — will now face, rather, new barriers to developing its ban to nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Resolution 2094 increases North Korea’s isolation and demonstrates to North Korea’s leaders the increasing costs they pay for defying the international community. The international community stands united in its commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and in its demand that North Korea comply with its international obligations. The Security Council also committed to take additional measures in the event of another nuclear test or launch.
Now, as I stated earlier this week, DPRK will achieve nothing by threats or provocations, which will only further isolate North Korea and undermine international efforts to ensure peace and stability in Southeast Asia.
Q Does the United States believe that North Korea is capable of carrying out this threat? Officials there are claiming that they now have the missiles on standby that can “leave Washington engulfed in a sea of fire.” What can you tell Americans who might be concerned when they see that about whether they have the capability to carry that out?
MR. CARNEY: I can tell you that the United States is fully capable of defending against any North Korean ballistic missile attack. And our recent success in returning to testing of the upgraded version of the so-called GBI, or the CE2 missile, will keep us on a good trajectory to improve our defense capability against limited ballistic missile threats such as those from North Korea. But let’s be clear, we are fully capable of dealing with that threat.
Q On the dinner last night, it’s getting some positive reviews from the Republicans that were there. But Senator Corker talked about how there was a discussion of whether they could have these frank discussions over dinner and then turn around and have the President attacking them in a partisan manner. And I wonder if the President plans to change his tone at all in his public comments now that he’s initiated this outreach.
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me say a couple of things. First, I spoke with the President about this a little while ago, and he said that he found the dinner very constructive and very pleasant. He said that there seemed to be sincere interest in avoiding constant crisis, sincere interest expressed by the participants in the dinner.
Beyond that, we’re not going to get into details about these conversations, in part because we’re trying to help foster an environment where these conversations are productive, and they help the cause of finding common ground for bipartisan solutions to the challenges we face — whether they’re the challenge of reducing our deficit in a way that allows our economy to grow from the middle out, for the middle class to expand and become more secure, or whether it’s bipartisan efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, or to pass measures like the one that passed out of committee today dealing with the problem of gun violence in America.
So the President, again, was very pleased with the dinner. He thought that it was constructive and pleasant, as I said. As you know, he’s having lunch today with Chairman Paul Ryan and ranking member Chris Van Hollen. They’re having lunch as we speak. And he’s going to continue to speak to lawmakers of both parties about what he said in the inaugural address, which is we don’t have to agree on everything, we don’t have to resolve all of our differences in order to move forward on finding solutions to the challenges that we face, and recognizing that there is a bipartisan consensus in the country on so many of these issues. And there is, in fact, a bipartisan consensus, at least of opinion, even in Washington about how to move forward on many of these issues. And he’s encouraged by some of the progress that we’ve seen — on gun violence, on immigration reform — on Capitol Hill, and he hopes to build on that moving forward.
Q But will we see a change in his tone publicly?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that the President has made clear since the election, since the inaugural, that he’s interested in working cooperatively and together with members of both parties to achieve these goals. I mean, when you — reducing our deficit — and I’ll go back to the State of the Union. The first major section of the State of the Union address was dedicated to deficit reduction. So that’s hardly a partisan — Democratic, partisan issue. He also talked about immigration reform, an issue that has traditionally had bipartisan support, that seems to have again bipartisan support. Measures to reduce gun violence — that’s not a partisan issue at all. The victims of gun violence, especially when we talk about our children, like the children of Newtown, are not Democrats or Republicans. And that’s why we need to take common-sense measures that protect our Second Amendment rights but move forward in the cause of reducing gun violence in America.
So he will continue to engage with Republicans as well as Democrats. He’ll continue to speak clearly about what his priorities are. He will make clear that, for example, we’re disappointed that the choice was made by Republicans to allow the so-called sequester to take effect, with all of the negative consequences that result. But he also believes we can move forward and try to address these other challenges, and that’s part of what’s happening.
Q Jay, Eric Holder said —
MR. CARNEY: I couldn’t tell if you were just — oh, let me say also, I understand we’re running late and I understand that some of you who may be in the pool might have to jump up and load up for the motorcade, and I apologize for that, but feel free to disrupt the briefing. I will not take offense.
Q Thank you. Eric Holder said yesterday that the President would be speaking soon about his policies with regard to drone use in the United States. Can you give us any sense as to when that would be and what sort of action is going on to develop that policy?
MR. CARNEY: The Attorney General, I assume, was referring to what the President has said publicly, which is that he thinks these are important issues. He believes very much in the need to be as transparent as possible on these matters with Congress as well as with the public. He has spoken about it. Senior administration officials have spoken often about it, and he looks forward to addressing those issues as well in the coming months — I think that’s the phrase the President used. I don’t have any timetable to provide to you or an event to announce, but I would just point you to what the President himself has said.
Q And then a follow-up on the dinner from last night. Speaker Boehner said today that the President has done a 180. Is there any retrospective, looking in the White House, that maybe this is something that could have been done earlier? Why now? Why not before?
MR. CARNEY: Look, I think two — I’ll make two points. One — and I’ll try to do this briefly — in the President’s first term, he engaged consistently with Congress, especially in the first two years, and consistently with Congress, including leaders of the Republican Party after the midterm elections through the summer of 2011. I think there is ample data to prove that point. And he did it in numerous ways — in small groups, telephone conversations, meetings in the Oval Office, meetings in the residence. In the calendar year of 2011, especially leading up to and through the fiscal cliff — I mean, rather the debt ceiling negotiations, he spent an enormous amount of time with Republican leaders, face-to-face time, probably more than either of his immediate predecessors did in such a sustained, short period of time.
I mean, it is a fact that after the grand bargain talks ended the way they did, that a different approach was taken. And I think if you look at the recent comments, or recent published comments by Eric Cantor, where he said he talked the Speaker out of the — going along with the grand bargain and convinced him that they should take these issues to the electorate in the 2012 campaign, that explains some of the dynamic that existed after those grand bargain negotiations resulted in — not in a grand bargain, but in the Budget Control Act and the sequester.
The President also acknowledged in the campaign year, last year, that some of these issues that divide us, especially on matters of the budget and fiscal challenges, would continue to be debated during the campaign, and the American people would give their views on that debate in the election, and I think they did. And I think the American people have made it clear both in the election and in the aftermath that they want Washington to pursue common-sense, balanced solutions to these challenges. And that’s certainly the President’s position.
After the election, when we faced anew deadlines regarding our fiscal challenges, the fiscal cliff, what did the President do? He negotiated with and engaged with Republican leaders and he put forward proposals that represented by any measure serious compromise — meeting the Republicans halfway; reducing his target for revenue; putting on the table and leaving on the table proposals for entitlement reforms that are without question difficult choices for Democrats to make. And as I said, he continues to make clear that that proposal remains on the table.
And now we have a period where, because of the choice to let the sequester take effect, we are not now in a countdown clock situation — the cable nets don’t have the clock. And there is an opportunity here to do what some members of Congress and leaders have said they would like to do, and we agree, and that is return to some sense of normalcy here, regular order, engage in a budget process and negotiation and debate that hopefully produces a bipartisan compromise. And that is what informed the President’s interest in having the dinner that he had last night and the conversations they had on those issues. And it more broadly informs the approach he’s taking when he’s speaking with lawmakers of both parties, moving forward on all the issues that are important. Because it’s not just sequester and deficit reduction. It’s the whole panoply of issues that are confronting the country and that the President believes should be priorities.
Q Even if it’s not a 180, Jay, isn’t this strategy of going out for dinner and having the lunches that he’s having now, I mean, doesn’t that reflect at least somewhat of a change in tack?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say that he is certainly engaging with lawmakers, with Republicans, as well as Democrats. And that is —
MR. CARNEY: Differently or more in different manners, in part because of changed circumstances. As I said, if you look at what the cycles we’ve been through of these manufactured crises and these deadlines that have been set arbitrarily, not because of regular order but newly imposed deadlines — fiscal cliffs, debt ceiling drop-dead dates and sequester deadlines — that they have forced a situation that required direct, highly charged negotiations with the leaders to try to reach a resolution before the deadline was hit. And that was true in the fiscal cliff, true in the debt ceiling negotiations in 2011, true in the sequester.
And again, because of the circumstances that exist now where we don’t have to produce a deal by Friday, but we are now engaged in a process that will allow the Congress — both houses — to move forward with budget proposals, the President will submit his budget, that he is trying to have a conversation with lawmakers who have expressed either specific or general interest in compromise, and hope that that results in a positive outcome.
And we’re not naïve about the challenges that we still face; they exist and there are differences. But it is useful to remember that back in December — because the President came very far in his proposal — in his negotiations with the Speaker, there wasn’t that much difference between them until the Speaker walked away and pursued the so-called plan B.
The President made some very serious proposals, and I think, gradually, people are recognizing that and accepting that the President has had a plan and does have a plan. It exists on paper. It exists on the Web. And to state otherwise is simply at odds with reality.
Q I wanted to ask you — Senator Rand Paul said earlier today on CNN that the White House is talking with his office about a way to resolve some of his concerns over use of drones on American soil. Are those conversations taking place? And does the President have an opinion on whether or not he has the constitutional authority to use drones against American citizens on U.S. soil, and under which circumstances?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say that of course, the White House is in touch with Senator Paul’s staff and that’s true what Senator Paul said. But let’s back up a little bit. First of all, this debate has nothing to do with the qualifications of John Brennan. Senator Paul himself said as much yesterday. And as you know, Mr. Brennan was voted out of the Intelligence Committee by a wide, bipartisan margin, and he should be promptly confirmed. The country needs a CIA director and there is wide agreement that John Brennan is eminently qualified to lead the CIA. As I said, he should be confirmed immediately.
Now, Senator Paul has raised questions about the President’s authority to use lethal force within the United States, which John Brennan and the Attorney General have both answered. Today, Senator Paul raised an additional question and the Attorney General has answered it. And to be crystal clear, I want to — to be crystal clear about what Senator Paul is now asking, I’m going to read directly from the Attorney General’s letter today. He has sent a letter responding to this question. It was transmitted to Senator Paul within the last half hour or so.
And this is from the letter: “Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? The answer is no.” The answer to that question is no. And that is a letter that is signed by the Attorney General and was submitted to Senator Paul and his office.
Q As to the circumstances as to when those drones could be used, would that be a 9/11 or Pearl Harbor-style attack that might be —
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s important to step back and say the issue of technology has nothing to do with the legal matters that we’re discussing. The President has not and would not use drone strikes against American citizens on American soil. On the broader question, the legal authorities that exist to use lethal force are bound by and constrained by the law and the Constitution. The issue here isn’t the technology. The method does not change the law. The President swore an oath to uphold the Constitution and he is bound by the law.
Whether the lethal force in question is a drone strike or a gun shot, the law and the Constitution apply in the same way. And, again, that’s why I think there’s been a great deal of confusion about the technology here, when the technology is irrelevant to what the law and the Constitution say. And the President is bound by the Constitution, bound by the laws, and has sworn to uphold them.
Q So when you say he would never, you’re saying that there are no circumstances? Because I thought there were circumstances outlined by the Attorney General when he talked about a 9/11 or a Pearl Harbor-style attack that —
MR. CARNEY: Look, you can make sort of wild hypotheticals, but that doesn’t — they don’t change the law. It is certainly the case that the President, as part of his oath to the Constitution, to uphold the Constitution, is sworn to protect the United States. And in an event like an attack like Pearl Harbor or an attack like 9/11, obviously the President has the constitutional authority to take action to prevent those kinds of attacks. But that has nothing to do with the technology used to prevent those attacks. There is no distinction in the law or the Constitution with regards to — in terms of the authorities invested in the President — or the Congress, for that matter — when it comes to the methods used to enforce the law.
Q Did Holder’s letter contribute to the confusion of this, the original one to Senator Paul?
MR. CARNEY: You would have to ask Senator Paul. I mean, I think that the —
Q But do you think this original language — I suppose this is what Holder said directly — to imagine — “it’s possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance for which it would be necessary and appropriate for the President to authorize the military use of legal force within the territory of the United States” — did that muddy the water? Did that confuse things?
MR. CARNEY: But how is — again, it has nothing to do with the methodology here. If there were — if the United States were under attack or there were imminent threat, all the same laws that applied to the President’s authority apply now, whether it has to do with drones or other modes that you would use to prevent a terrorist attack or an attack like Pearl Harbor, or any other hypothetical that you can imagine. The law is the law, and the Constitution is the Constitution. And I think that’s what the Attorney General was saying.
In response to the question that Senator Paul has asked the Attorney General today, I think the answer I gave you is quite categorical and clear. The question that Senator Paul asked: Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil? The answer to that question is no.
Q Can I ask you about reports, numerous reports this morning that Sulaiman Abu Ghaith has been captured in Jordan? And if you have any information about that?
MR. CARNEY: I’ve seen some media reports, but I don’t have anything on that for you.
Q There’s no confirmation on that?
MR. CARNEY: I have nothing for you on that.
Q Jay, can you come back to the grand bargain and the talks? So you were saying the President did put a plan on the table in December — true. John Boehner walked away — true. But also true is that the President was not having dinner at the Jefferson Hotel with Bob Corker and Lindsey Graham in December —
MR. CARNEY: That you know of.
Q I’m not aware of it. So the question I think is, does he have any regret that the week after the election — two weeks after the election, when he was saying on Election Night, I’m going to have lunch with Mitt Romney and I want to bring people together — he eventually had that lunch with Romney but he was not having dinner with the Lindsey Grahams of the world and reaching out to them. He was just having these one-on-one talks with John Boehner. Is there any regret here that more of this kind of work, back right after the election could have borne more fruit?
MR. CARNEY: Ed, I would simply say that we were facing a deadline that would have, if not dealt with, would have had significantly negative effects on our economy — not just the imposition of the sequester, which would have taken effect on January 1st, if there weren’t a resolution, a temporary resolution, but the automatic raising of taxes — tax rates on every American. Middle-class Americans would have had been dealt a blow through an automatic tax hike.
And in order to avoid that eventuality, in keeping with the stated goals of the Republican leaders as well as the President, the President engaged in negotiations with Republican leaders that ultimately led to the result that we had, which was making the law of the land permanently tax cuts for every American making less than $400,000 and raising that rate for the wealthiest Americans — millionaires and billionaires, and those making over $450,000, families making over $450,000 — back to the levels under the Clinton administration.
So, again, we can —
Q That was an extraordinary last-minute McConnell-Biden deal.
MR. CARNEY: The result was. But the negotiations —
Q At the very end.
MR. CARNEY: But, Ed, but you conceded at the top of your question that we were engaged in negotiations with the leadership that we hoped, and the President sincerely hoped — and backed up his sincere hope with concrete, compromise proposals — would result in a big deal that resolved not just the sequester but met and exceeded the goal of deficit reduction of more than $4 trillion over 10 years.
Again and again, this President has moved towards Republicans in trying to find common grounds in these negotiations. And I think, as you have seen him say and is evidenced by the meetings he’s been having, he remains interested in that. And he believes that when he hears top Republicans say that they’re interested in finding that common ground, that they believe it’s possible to marry entitlement reforms that produce savings with tax reforms that produce savings and achieve that deficit reduction. He wants to have that conversation, and that’s what he’s doing.
Q Last question on Brennan — you dealt with the specific legal question. I guess two parts on Brennan. Is it now the White House’s hope that with the filibuster over, this letter from Holder, that now the Brennan nomination will be voted upon on the Senate floor and will pass? And what do you say to Republicans who have been asking for even more documents — have been saying that they want even more documents about the Osama bin Laden raid, that there were documents at his compound that have not been released? I assume some of those are still classified, perhaps.
MR. CARNEY: Ed, I think that you saw the committee of jurisdiction vote on John Brennan’s nomination in substantial bipartisan fashion. We believe that — we know that John Brennan has a substantial majority of support within the Senate, and we believe that the Senate ought to vote to confirm him, because all of the questions that you raised either go to policy debates or historical debates or political debates. They have nothing to do with the qualifications of the nominee. And we need to separate the nomination process from those debates.
Is John Brennan qualified to be Director of the CIA? Unequivocally, the answer is yes. And that question we believe can and will be answered in the affirmative by the full Senate.
Q Jay, can you set some expectations for us? All these meetings with Republicans. What are the chances of actually coming to a big agreement with the Republicans? Give me some odds.
MR. CARNEY: Well, thank you for the question, because I think it’s important to note, as I tried to earlier, that we are not unrealistic in our expectations. We are not naïve about the fact that there are real disagreements between the two parties on these issues and disagreements that exist even between Democrats and Republicans who might qualify for members in the “caucus of common sense,” if you will. And I think these are real sincere points of debate and discussion and negotiation, and we hope compromise.
But what we do know is that the President has made clear in real terms, with a real offer, that he is prepared to take steps to reform our entitlements in a way that produces savings and reduces the burden that our health care entitlements place on our deficits and debt, coupled with taking steps to reform our tax code that closes — steps that close loopholes and cap deductions, and that by doing so produce proceeds that also cap, coupled with the savings from entitlement reform, can go towards deficit reduction — a very conservative objective.
Again, if the Speaker of the House had — on the tax reform side, the Speaker of the House had a proposition late last year in those negotiations that we were talking about that he could produce a trillion dollars over 10 years in deficit reduction from tax reform, capping deductions and closing loopholes. The President’s proposal to — or offer to the Speaker actually asks for substantially less than that. And it seems to me that if this is the case, that both sides say they want entitlement reform, both sides say they want tax reform, and there is overlap in the substance, that there should be an opportunity to find common ground.
But we are not predicting that. We are simply saying that it is the right thing to do and the American people expect their leaders to do it, to engage and have a conversation about these issues.
Q So you know Paul Ryan’s views well on Medicare and taxes and budgets. I mean, you’ve talked about it from the podium. Is Paul Ryan the kind of person the President thinks he can get a deal with?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I had a nice conversation with Chairman Ryan just before coming out and before he headed into lunch with the President, and as you know, the President believes that Chairman Ryan is a thought leader in the party, the Republican Party, on these matters. He, I know, was looking forward to the lunch that he was going to have with Chairman Ryan and Congressman Van Hollen.
And there’s no question that there are going to be disagreements, that the ideal proposal that Chairman Ryan or others might have about how to move forward is not going to be — is not going to converge with the President’s proposal. But there are also likely to be areas of agreement. And we’ll see where these conversations lead. What the President hopes is that there is a spirit of compromise, that there’s not a proposition at the outset that “we’re not doing this, absolutely no way” –that compromise can’t be, you compromise only with us but the reverse is not true.
And going back to where we’ve been on this issue, the President has compromised on propositions about entitlement reforms. He’s put forward proposals that represent, I think by any measure, tough choices by Democrats, and he has modified his proposals on revenue to try to account for Republican opposition. Again, his proposal for revenue through tax reform is substantially lower than what Speaker Boehner said was possible just in December. So we’re only asking that we have that conversation about the things that we should be able to agree on.
Q But just to be clear on the terms here, because we heard from the Speaker again today — no more taxes. If Republicans stick to the “no more taxes” mantra, is there any deal possible?
MR. CARNEY: Well, if you’re saying if there’s no deal possible — is there no deal possible, I suppose the answer to that could only be no. But the President doesn’t believe that Washington leaders ought to throw up their hands and say, you know what, we give up on this. Because there is — and we have heard and we have seen, and he has had discussions with members who have expressed an opinion that there is possibility for compromise, that there is some convergence of opinion about how to move forward with combined entitlement reform and tax reform in a way that reduces our deficit, that eliminates the sequester, that helps the economy grow.
Economists after economists I think have been noting that the economy is poised right now to do well if — and this is a big caveat — if Washington doesn’t get in the way, and will do even better if Washington makes smart, compromised decisions about how to move forward with deficit reduction — decisions that protect seniors, that don’t ask middle-class Americans to foot the bill all by themselves for continued deficit reduction, but that move the country forward and help the economy grow from the middle out and not just the top down.
Q So the President thinks he can talk Republicans into raising taxes in these dinners?
MR. CARNEY: I think the President has had conversations with and has seen conversations reported with members of the Republican Party who agree with the proposition that we can have balance in deficit reduction, balance that includes revenues as well as entitlement reforms.
Q That’s occurred during these conversations he’s recently had?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m not going to read out conversations specifically, but I would point you to public statements by some members of Congress, Republicans, who have suggested that they are open to that proposition, and open to the general principle that there ought to be room for compromise on these issues.
It is despite all of our differences that we have achieved $2.5 trillion in deficit reduction thus far, four to one in spending cuts to revenues, but still there has been balance. And it is entirely reasonable, given where the President is, given where Republicans either are or have been, that we should be able to come together and find a solution. It’s going to be hard. I do not want to in any way suggest that this is a sure thing. It is far from that. But the President believes it’s important and that the American people expect that he and other leaders in Washington come together and have these discussions.
Q Jay, just a quick question on the White House tours. I wanted to ask you — a group of kids from 6th-graders at the St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Waverly, Iowa — these 6th-graders have put a video message on Facebook urging Washington, “The White House is our house. Please let us visit.” They were supposed to be visiting here next week. What is your answer, or the President’s answer to the 6th-graders at the St. Paul’s Lutheran School?
MR. CARNEY: Well, my answer is that the President and the First Lady have throughout the time that they’ve been here made extraordinary efforts to make this the people’s house, and it is extremely unfortunate that we have a situation like the sequester that compels the kinds of tradeoffs and decisions that this represents.
The fact is the Secret Service, like other agencies of government, is affected by the sequester. And the Secret Service presented options that ranged from canceling tours to potential furloughs and cuts in overtime. And in order to allow the Secret Service to best fulfill its core mission, the White House made the decision that we would, unfortunately, have to temporarily suspend these tours.
I think the point we’ve made broadly about the sequester when there have been questions raised about what kind of flexibility exists is that the tradeoffs here are never good because of the nature of the cuts and the way that the law is written. And whether it’s in the education budget, where if you’re given flexibility, your option is to give less money to disabled kids so you can give more money to poor kids, more support to poor kids — this is a similar kind of tradeoff, and it’s very unfortunate.
And we are obviously disappointed about that kind of decision, but it would have been far better, in our view, if Congress had taken action to delay the sequester in the very same way they took action two months ago — two and a half months ago, to delay the sequester to avoid just this kind of outcome.
Q But absent of that, they shouldn’t count on coming to the White House?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, the suspension is temporary. Hopefully, we can move forward and resolve these issues.
Q Temporary pending a resolution of the sequestration.
MR. CARNEY: Well, exactly.
Q You’re not reevaluating.
MR. CARNEY: No. And I think that, again —
Q Can we move to the back rows?
MR. CARNEY: We’re going to do that.
The issue here is a choice between potential furloughs — and that’s not just an issue that goes to the Secret Service mission, but also the individuals affected. We’re talking about pay cuts and overtime cuts or a choice to suspend tours. And I’m not suggesting it’s a happy choice, but it is one that we had to make.
Q Could you tell us why the President went to the Hotel Jefferson instead of just having them in at the White House? And more broadly, how this engagement came about? Was it planned long before the sequestration actually went through that you would do this?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’ll answer the first part. The President thought that having dinner outside of the White House would be — help create a positive environment, neutral ground, if you will. And I won’t go into details on the second part in terms of how it came about, because I think Senator Graham has spoken publicly about this, and I can confirm that in a conversation he had with Senator Graham, the President suggested that Senator Graham put together a group of his colleagues to have dinner with the President at an outside location and Senator Graham very graciously did that.
So more broadly, in terms of the engagement itself, the engagement did pre-date — and the kind of engagement that we’ve been talking about here — did pre-date the imposition of the sequester. As you know, the President has been reaching out, having phone conversations and other kinds of encounters with lawmakers of both parties. And we don’t read all of them out and we won’t read most of them out, because as the President said to me earlier with regards to the dinner, part of the effort here is to foster an environment where these conversations can be held in a way that allows for a free exchange of ideas. And there was resistance to the temptation in Washington to turn these things into political talking points, but allow them instead to be more organic and focused on the substance — and not just on fiscal issues, as I said, but immigration reform, gun violence, energy independence, education — the whole range of issues that are the President’s priorities and they also happen to be the American people’s priorities.
Q So do you think that — I mean, most of these calls and the plans for the President’s visit to the caucuses next week on Capitol Hill, the dinner, all came about since sequestration took effect. But you’re saying that this was actually underway to an extent we don’t know before sequestration?
MR. CARNEY: I’m saying that the President — I’m not trying to overstate. But I’m saying that the President — I think that it has been noted in part that the President had been having some conversations with some Republican lawmakers prior to sequestration. And that represents — it’s also true that he was having some conversations with some Republican lawmakers last year and the year before. This is a fact that we don’t always read out. And I think it goes to the point that not every example of presidential engagement with Congress fits the mold of the President meeting with the Speaker and the Minority Leader in the Roosevelt Room or the Oval Office.
But I do acknowledge that we — because of changed circumstances with the imposition of the sequester, there is an increased focus on engagement because of the opportunity the circumstances provide. He is trying to make something good out of a bad situation. We don’t have a looming deadline. Republican leaders have made clear they’re not revisiting, at least not anytime soon, the idea of postponing the sequester in a balanced way. So the sequester is here. The budget process, regular order, is moving forward.
And there is an opportunity on that issue to use that process hopefully towards a positive end, as well as have conversations about things that continue to move forward, even as there’s a focus on sequester and budget issues: immigration reform — positive progress, bipartisan progress on immigration reform; measures to reduce gun violence — positive bipartisan progress on those issues and a number of others.
The President today, as you know, is signing, probably momentarily, the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. That’s very important. And it represents positive progress for the country, and we’re going to continue to press on all these fronts to try to move things forward.
Peter, then April.
Q Jay, after having the dinner with an all-Republican guest list last night, why did the President decide to go the bipartisan route with Van Hollen and Ryan and have it here today not on neutral —
MR. CARNEY: Again, there’s not — there are different ways you can have conversations. The President is meeting with and talking with lawmakers from both parties. Given the focus of expertise and responsibility that the committee in question has here, it seemed like a good idea to have both of these members today for lunch. But next week he’s going to go talk to everybody in both the Republican conferences and in the Democratic caucuses.
Q And what will the message be then?
MR. CARNEY: I think the message will be broad. It won’t be focused on fiscal issues. It will also deal with moving forward on immigration reform, moving forward on gun violence, moving forward on increasing our energy independence, and moving forward on investments in education and research and innovation that allow us to be competitive and grow in the 21st century.
Q Following up on Jonathan and Jackie, and a question that Jonathan asked about a week and a half ago, how is the White House —
MR. CARNEY: I can’t remember a week and a half ago.
Q Well, you were supposed to get back to us. (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Okay, what was the question?
Q How is the White House impacted beyond the Secret Service as it relates to sequester? What other offices are impacted? How is staff impacted? Have they been told they will be furloughed? Will they lose pay? Will there be cuts here? What can you tell us?
MR. CARNEY: The answer is that the White House office — the Executive Office of the President and the White House office within that are all affected in similar ways as the rest of the executive branch and the government. And notifications have — there’s various notifications about potential furloughs and the like. I don’t have details for you because — and like with a lot of these agencies, this is a gradual process as notifications are made. But we can get more information for you on that.
I mean, the reason why — if decisions haven’t been made yet or notifications haven’t resulted yet in furloughs, I don’t have — I’m not going to say that this person is going to have to be furloughed today if that hasn’t happened yet, and we don’t know when that will happen specifically.
Q So last night’s meeting at the Jefferson had nothing to do with the fact that staff might have been limited, cut back on?
MR. CARNEY: No, no. The decision to have dinner off-campus, if you will, was made by the President or suggested by the President because he thought it would help foster a positive atmosphere.
Q And the traditional Easter Egg Roll is just a couple of days away — a couple of weeks away; tradition, 135 years. You were talking about Secret Service staffing — that is a major event that the Secret Service has to staff. When will there be a decision made if the Easter Egg Roll will go through? Or is it determined that it will totally go through?
MR. CARNEY: I would refer you both to the East Wing and the Secret Service. But it’s my understanding that as of now, the decision has been made that the Easter Egg Roll will go forward.
Q As of now. So there is a question that it could be —
MR. CARNEY: Again, that is my understanding. But I would refer you to the Service and to the East Wing on whether or not there are possibilities or contingencies. But my understanding is it’s going forward.
Q Why is it going forward when the tours are canceled?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I would — we can take this question. I think there are obviously a lot of people —
Q This is in line with the tours being cut.
MR. CARNEY: But your question is like — there are choices you make all the time. This is about tradeoffs. Because when you have the kind of severe cuts that the sequester represents, you have to reduce your budget accordingly, and then you have to make choices about what you do and what you don’t. And I would refer you to the offices in question.
Q Just to be a little more specific about what you’d like to see, is the President trying to encourage another gang, like a “Gang of Twelve” or whatever, on deficit reduction?
MR. CARNEY: He simply wants to hear from and speak with members of Congress who are open to the idea of compromise on a range of issues, both fiscal and others. What form progress takes will be determined by the members. And this is not limited to rank-and-file members; it includes chairmen and it includes leaders as appropriate and as interest is expressed in moving forward in a spirit of compromise.
So, again, I don’t want to overstate our expectations, but the President feels it’s very important to have these, conversations because he knows that while there are differences that always exist, and they’re sincere, there is a fundamental fact here that the President has put forward a proposal when it comes, again, to our fiscal issues that includes entitlement reforms and tax reforms. Republicans say that top of the list of priorities that they have are entitlement reforms and tax reform. So that seems like a pretty good starting point towards moving towards further deficit reduction in a balanced way.
Q Has the President’s thinking about entitlement reform changed as far as Congressman Ryan’s proposal for Medicare?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t believe we’ve digested or reviewed Chairman Ryan’s new budget proposal, if that’s what you’re talking about. But the President —
Q Well — his old budget proposal that the President campaigned pretty strongly against —
MR. CARNEY: Well, if you’re saying do we support voucherization of Medicare, the answer is no. It’s unfair cost-shifting onto seniors, and it is not good policy as far as — or necessary policy as far as the President is concerned. One of the issues that — points we made in the previous iterations was that one of the reasons why such drastic and dramatic cost-shifting and cuts were imposed upon seniors was in order to funnel money for tax cuts to wealthy Americans, which we thought was not a fair tradeoff.
But again, I’m not trying to prejudge proposals that have either just arrived or will come forward. The President has put forward entitlement reform proposals that represent tough choices for Democrats and that produce real savings in the 10-year window that we’re talking about. And gradually, I think, outside observers as well as some lawmakers on the Republican Party side have acknowledged that those are serious, concrete, and legitimate and cost-saving proposals.
He has also put forward a very reasonable proposal when it comes to tax reform and generating revenues from tax reform by closing loopholes and ending special exceptions and exemptions for the well-off and well-connected that would also contribute to deficit reduction in a balanced approach. And that’s what last night’s conversation was largely about, and it will be part of the conversations that the President has moving forward.
Kristen and then Lisa. Yes.
Q Jay, just to clarify, you talked about the fact that the President is going to discuss immigration, gun control in some of these future meetings. Was that discussed as well during last night’s dinner?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have a readout to give you beyond what I’ve just said from my conversation with the President for the reasons I just said. It is fair to say that the focus of the discussion last night was mostly on fiscal and budgetary issues.
Q But not only?
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, I’m not going to read out specifics and I can’t account for everything that was said. I would just give that broad description.
Q Past discussions with leadership — Minority Leader McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner — haven’t been as successful as all parties would have liked. But doesn’t the President need them ultimately to be brought back into the fold to turn these conversations into actual legislative action? How does he do that, and when does he bring them back into the fold?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think rather than focus on the — it’s kind of a negative approach to what we’re hoping to achieve here, which is to build some positive discussion about areas of common ground. There is no question that we have and will continue to work with the leadership of both parties in both houses to move legislation forward on all of these issues. So those conversations must and will continue.
I think it’s important also to note that part of what the President is doing here reflects the advice of leadership, which is to engage in a process that returns the dynamic in Washington back to something more like normal, back to what’s called often regular order, where these debates and decisions and compromises are made within the context of the budget process, rather than outside the context, through these deadlines that are often manufactured and created and cause a kind of crisis environment. So we’re hoping to take advantage of that and see where this leads.
Again, we’re not trying to set expectations very high here. We’re just saying that this is an important process, there is common ground that we believe can be found, and the President enjoyed his dinner last night and will continue to have these conversations.
Q Jay, can you also comment on the reports that David O’Connor is the President’s top pick to be the Director of the Secret Service?
MR. CARNEY: Kristen, as you know, I just — I don’t comment on speculation about personnel announcements. I prefer to let the President make decisions about personnel and announce them himself.
Q Is an announcement forthcoming?
MR. CARNEY: I have no information to provide on that.
Q There has been a number of positive economic indicators recently: home prices are up, jobless claims are down, the market is at record highs. Does the generally improving economy make it harder to strike a deal by removing some of the urgency?
MR. CARNEY: I would say no. I would say that the data that you referred to I think demonstrates that the economy has a great deal of potential that we believe, as outside economists do, that there is an opportunity here for positive growth and positive job creation, and stepped up growth and stepped up job creation.
The big caveat here is whether or not Washington will continue to engage in a process that unnecessarily inflicts wounds on the economy. And we have to get beyond the dynamic where we’re governing from crisis to crisis, and where these crises are manufactured and highly politicized, and move towards a process where we can come together and focus on the substance of the issues and debates, make rational and reasonable decisions about how to move forward and compromise, and thereby contribute to the positive growth we’re seeing and the positive data that we’re seeing in the economy.
If we do that, the President believes and his economic team believes that the economy will continue to heal and continue to strengthen, and continue to create jobs for middle-class Americans, which is, after all, the objective — the primary objective.
Q Thanks, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Okay. Thank you all very much. I appreciate it.
1:50 P.M. EST