Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–December 3, 2014 – 1:25 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST:It’s nice to see you all.I hope you all had the — took advantage of the opportunity to watch the President speak to business executives at the Business Roundtable and spend an hour or so taking their questions.So I found it to be relatively entertaining; I hope you did as well.It certainly was pretty insightful and gave you a good sense of how the President is considering the wide range of challenges that’s facing our country on the economic front, but also the opportunities that exist as well.So I shared the President’s optimism this morning, and hopefully we’ll continue it on this afternoon.
So, Julie, do you want to get us started with the question and answers?
Q Thanks, Josh.And actually, on that topic, just on behalf of my colleagues, I want to thank you for opening up the Q&A to reporters, and I hope that we can make that sort of standard protocol any time the President is taking questions.Typically, as you know, reporters are ushered out of the room, but I think that it was mutually beneficial, so I hope you can make that standard protocol going forward.
MR. EARNEST:I don’t think we can do it on every occasion, but we certainly will look for opportunities to do that.And I share your view that there’s a lot of valuable insight that’s gleaned from ground rules like that.
Q With donors, in particular — campaign donors.
MR. EARNEST:Yes, right.(Laughter.)
Q I wanted to ask about the meeting with Mitch McConnell today.We heard the President kind of lay out what his priorities are pretty specifically.Is the meeting with McConnell today about the 2015 agenda, or is it more about what needs to be wrapped up before the end of the year?
MR. EARNEST:I think, speaking generally, it’s both; that there are opportunities for us to find common ground and move the country forward both in the short term and over the longer term as well.And I think those kinds of legislative priorities will be on the agenda.There obviously are some critical things related to the budget.We obviously need to see some budget legislation passed through both houses of Congress before — over the course of the next week or so.
I know that Leader McConnell shares the President’s priority in advancing budget legislation that will avoid a government shutdown.I took note of the fact that in some sort of public setting, that Senator McConnell yesterday said that, “We need to quit rattling the economy with things that are perceived by voters as disturbing.”Certainly a government shutdown would fall in that category.
So there is strong bipartisan support for making sure that legislation is passed without drama and delay that would prevent a government shutdown.I’m sure that’s going to come up in their conversations, but I also wouldn’t rule out that there may be an opportunity to talk about some longer-term things that Democrats and Republicans could work on together next year, again, that reflect shared priorities and reflect clear opportunities to move the country forward.
Q Has the President given any thought to just how his relationship with McConnell will be structured next year?These are two men that haven’t really spent a lot of time together one on one over the past six years.Is there talk about weekly phone conversations or monthly in-person meetings?Is this the start of something that we’re going to see on a more regular basis?
MR. EARNEST:I don’t think that there’s any specific regimented schedule of meetings that is planned for the next year, but I think the President takes seriously the responsibility that he has to work with the man who is the incoming Republican leader in the Senate.
And Senator McConnell himself has been pretty candid about opportunities that he sees to work with Democrats in Congress and with the administration to make progress.Again, in areas where there’s common ground, there is an opportunity for compromise; there also is an opportunity to just cooperate.There are areas where we just agree.
And for a lot of the last — the last four years have been characterized by Republicans who say, because we disagree on one thing, we’re not going to cooperate with you on anything.And that certainly is not a strategy that has been strongly endorsed by the American public; the President certainly doesn’t think it’s a good way to run the country.
So we’re pleased that people like Leader McConnell have indicated that we’re going to have our disagreements on some things, but we shouldn’t allow that to interfere with our ability to try to find common ground on some other things.The President talked about a couple of those things today — whether it’s opening up overseas markets to American goods and services, or investing in our infrastructure, or forming the tax code in a way that lowers tax rates while closing loopholes.There are a lot of things out there.
And again, at least on those things, not a lot of compromise is going to be required.We’re just going to need some cooperation and coordination.
Q I wanted to switch to another topic.The Pentagon has said that Iran has launched airstrikes against Islamic State militants.It looks to be the first time they have launched manned airstrikes from their territory.I understand that the official position of the administration is that the U.S. is not going to coordinate with Iran on the Islamic State campaign, but isn’t there some incentive in doing so on some level if you’re going to have both manned American planes and manned Iranian planes flying essentially over the same airspace?
MR. EARNEST:I’m not in a position to confirm the military actions that are taken by another country.So in terms of what the Iranian air force may or may not have done I would refer you to that government, who could confirm that.
Q I mean, you must have the area under surveillance.
MR. EARNEST:Well, again, Mike, of course we have the area under surveillance.There obviously are significant military assets that are in that region of the world.
Q I’m not looking for it to be confirmed, because the Pentagon has said that they have no reason to believe that those reports are not credible.
MR. EARNEST:Okay, neither do I.
Q But if you do have Iranian planes and American planes flying over the same area, isn’t it in your interest to have some level of coordination with the Iranians if, for no other reason, than safety of American pilots?
MR. EARNEST:Well, we certainly do care deeply about the safety of American pilots and American service military personnel that are operating in this region of the world.At the same time, there are also reasons to believe that directly coordinating militarily with a country like Iran, a country that actively supports terrorist organizations, that it’s not necessarily in the best interest of our military personnel to be sharing significant intelligence information or to be directly coordinating with them militarily.So that’s something that I’m confident will be evaluated on an ongoing basis with this priority in mind, which is the safety of our men and women who are operating in the area.But at this point, our calculation about the wisdom of cooperating militarily with the Iranians has not changed.We’re not going to do it.
Q Josh, back on the topic of Mitch McConnell and the President’s relationship.Is there any sort of clearing of the air that needs to be done before they can work well together?One of the things that McConnell said in the first term that got a lot of attention was that his main goal was to make the President a one-term President.Obviously there are probably negative comments from both men about each other on both sides, but is there any sort of process of cleansing that needs to happen before they can work well together?
MR. EARNEST:Well, obviously the results of the 2012 election spoke more clearly to the failure of that goal than anything that I or the President could say.I think that we are ready to move on from that; I assume that Senator McConnell is as well.And I think both — Senator McConnell has been in Washington longer than President Obama, but both of them are I think pretty keenly aware that it’s important to not sort of allow that kind of rhetoric to interfere with our ability to try to find common ground.I think that is a spirit that, despite what’s been said by both sides in the past, that that’s the spirit that will prevail — or at least we’re optimistic that it will prevail in terms of the ongoing relationship between these two people who are going to have a lot to say about our ability to pass legislation that will be good for the American public.
Q Can you be any more specific about what’s on their agenda this afternoon?
MR. EARNEST:I can’t.This is an opportunity for the President and the Republican Leader to have what is a private conversation about their priorities moving forward.So I don’t anticipate either now or even after the meeting that we’ll have a whole lot more to say about their conversation.
Q And then one follow-up on the President’s remarks at the Business Roundtable.He was pretty pessimistic or critical about some of the economic policies and conditions in Europe and in Japan.Can you talk a little bit more about how big of a concern that is for this White House, and what more is being done behind the scenes in sort of both of those regions?
MR. EARNEST:Well, the President I think — I’ll say a couple things about that.We have been talking for some time now about how the resilience of the American economy has been on display for quite some time.That is a testament to the grit and determination of American workers and American entrepreneurs.But it’s been in pretty stark relief when compared to the economic circumstances in other countries and other regions of the world, that when you compare the U.S. economy alongside Europe and some parts of Asia, that our record of economic growth and job creation is much stronger than theirs.
Some of that is a result of the United States, under President Obama’s leadership, pursuing a different strategy for recovering from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression; that many economies opted toward a strategy that was focused on austerity.The President tried to focus our nation’s priorities on growth, and I think the President demonstrated — or at least the economic results indicate pretty clearly that it is possible to be focused on growth and do it in a fiscally responsible way because we’ve also made tremendous progress in reducing our deficit.
So for those reasons, the President continues to be very optimistic about the future of the American economy.One concern that he has in the increasingly interconnected world in which we’re operating is that the weakness in some of these other markets around the globe could have an impact on our growth prospects moving forward.
And that is why — certainly in the context of the G20 meeting in Australia last month — the President had the opportunity to visit with some other world leaders and encourage them to pursue the kinds of reforms and strategies that have worked so well for our country; that if we see other countries making those kinds of investments and pursuing those kinds of strategies, it would be good for the economy in those countries.There would also be an attendant benefit for the American economy because, again, many U.S. businesses do a lot of business in those regions of the world.And making sure that those markets are healthy and strong and growing only creates more opportunity and more opportunity for growth for American businesses here at home.
Q When was the last time the President sat down with Mitch McConnell in this way?When was their last meeting?
MR. EARNEST:Well, the President convened a meeting with Democrats and Republicans just a couple of days after the election.
Q But a one-on-one.When was the last time they had a long sit-down, one-on-one conversation like this?
MR. EARNEST:Well, prior to that meeting, the President did have the opportunity to visit in a one-on-one setting with Leader McConnell.You’ll recall that there is a White House photo of their walk at the conclusion of that meeting to the lunch.So there have been other occasions prior to the election where the President did visit privately with Senator McConnell.This is not the first time that the two of them have met one on one.It may have been the first time that we put a one-on-one meeting between the two of them on the guidance the night before.
Q Okay, and that’s why I’m asking.
MR. EARNEST:Second time?(Laughter.)Good.Look how transparent we are.Twice as transparent as previously thought.
Q I didn’t say that.(Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST:I did, though.I’m sorry, Michelle, go ahead.
Q Do you remember how long it was prior to the midterm election that they —
MR. EARNEST:I don’t have in front of me the schedule of their previous meetings, but it’s not unprecedented.
Q Okay.And you’ve said a couple of times now that you have confidence in McConnell’s words about avoiding a shutdown and why — but how much confidence does the White House have in the fact that there won’t be a shutdown?I mean, you point to McConnell’s words, but the fact that his influence will extend to everyone — what’s your take on that?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I’m confident that there are a large number of Democrats who share the President’s view that a shutdown would be bad for the economy.So I think that we will see a lot of Democratic votes to keep the government up and running.I think there are a lot of Republicans who share that sentiment, too.We’ll have to see if the votes are there on the Republican side as well.
Look, there’s nobody who contests the fact that shutting down the government would be bad for the economy, particularly in the holiday season.So there are — so we’re certainly pleased that many members of the Republican leadership in both the House and the Senate have indicated that this kind of brinksmanship is and should be a thing of the past.
But, again, we’re eight days away, so we’ll see.It’s going to require particularly those Republicans in the House to step up and do their job.As I’ve mentioned on a couple of occasions now, the American people and this administration are certainly not asking Republican leaders to do anything heroic; we’re asking them merely to do their jobs.And it is the responsibility of the United States Congress to pass budgets that fund the government.If that’s not a responsibility that they want to fulfill, they shouldn’t have run for Congress in the first place.
So the American people are counting on their elected officials to fulfill their responsibilities.And based on the kinds of comments that we’re seeing from members of the Republican Leadership, we’re optimistic that they’ll actually follow through and get that done, but we’ll have to see.
Q Okay.And do you have anything to say about Takata not recalling its airbags in cars?
MR. EARNEST:I don’t have a lot to say to that.I know that this is something that NHTSA — the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration — has commented on.We obviously believe strongly in the role that the Department of Transportation and NHTSA in particular has to protect the American traveling public.This includes a variety of things, including oversight over motor vehicles and ensuring that the proper safety precautions are in place to protect the American traveling public.And we certainly hope that industry would work, as they have in the past, closely with the administration to ensure that the American people are safe.
Q Thank you, Josh.A couple of questions on Cuba if I might.
Q Today the administration noted the six-year anniversary of Alan Gross’s imprisonment in Cuba with a statement that said his release would quote “remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the U.S. and Cuba”.Given President Obama’s previous statements on the embargo, what is on the table if Alan Gross is released soon?Would the U.S. consider removing Cuba from the terrorist list, increase trade, fully lift the embargo?Please help us parse what this important sentence means.
MR. EARNEST:Well, Jim, I don’t think I can get into as much detail as you may like me to, because there are — the President has been clear about his interest in strengthening the relationship between the United States and Cuba.It’s very difficult for us to do that, though, when you have remove the impediment to more constructive relations between the U.S. and Cuba.It’s very difficult for us to do that, though, when you have the Cuban government holding this individual.We believe that Mr. Gross should be released on humanitarian grounds and that the case for that is clear.And we continue to be concerned about his health and his safety.And you’ve seen statements from Mr. Gross’s wife to this effect as well.
But we’re going to continue to work with the Cuban government.But the fact is, Jim, it’s going to be very difficult for us to make progress in that relationship as long as the Cuban government doesn’t take the kinds of steps that we believe are necessary to secure Mr. Gross’s humanitarian release.
Q But is his captivity, or imprisonment now, is that the only thing the administration or the primary thing the administration sees as the impediment to a better relationship with Cuba, a more normalization?
MR. EARNEST:Well, there are a range of concerns that we have with the Cuban government’s refusal to respect some basic human rights.There is a pretty long track record of the Castro regime trampling on the basic human and political rights of people who live in that country.That’s been the source of significant concern in this country for quite some time.But there is a desire to try to strengthen the relationship that exists between the United States and Cuba, but we need to address — I guess more directly, the Castro regime needs to address some of the humanitarian concerns that we’ve raised.
But were not going to be able to make much progress as long as Mr. Gross remains in captivity.He is someone who is an international development worker, and that’s why he was in Cuba; he was trying to open up Internet access for more people in Cuba.And we believe that his release is necessary on humanitarian grounds.
Q And one final specific question on — is the President — is the United States preparing to accept an invitation to the Summit of Americas in Panama?As you know, Cuba has been invited and Latin American leaders have pressured the United States to resolve their issues with Cuba, including some pretty important allies — Brazil, Chile, Mexico.Am I to understand that directly those leaders have talked to President Obama about repairing the relationship?How much of an impediment to our relations with the rest of the world is the embargo?And would the President try to fix that by going to Panama?
MR. EARNEST:Well, the President does have strong relationships with the leaders of Latin American countries.The President has participated in the Summit of the Americas on two different occasions, I believe now.The subject of the United States relationship with Cuba is something that often comes up in the context of those meetings.
I can tell you that also in the context of those conversations, we’ve been encouraging the leaders of other countries to press the Cuban government for the humanitarian release of Mr. Gross.So this is something that goes both ways.
We also here in the United States strongly value the kind of constructive relationship that we have with countries throughout Latin America.And that has served to be a — those strong relationships have served to benefit countries on both sides of those relationships, in pretty direct economic terms.
Q But in this particular case, Cuba has been invited; in the past they have not, and so the President has attended.Now that Cuba has been invited, is that going to change things for the President this time?
MR. EARNEST:Well, the President has participated in the Summit of the Americas in the past.I’m not prepared to announce that he’s going there at this point.I do know that this is something that’s planned for next year in Panama, but I don’t have an announcement yet about whether or not the President will attend.But he’s attended the two previous times that the Summit of the Americas has been held, so I’m confident that it will get a close look here.
Alright, let’s move around.Fred.
Q Thanks.I just wanted to get the White House comment on — the national debt went up to $18 trillion as of yesterday, and you mentioned that there has been deficit reduction.But as far as a national debt goes, what does the White House have to say about that?There are critics that have pointed out about $7 trillion of that has happened during this administration.
MR. EARNEST:Well, Fred, I’ll say a couple of things about that.I mean, the thing that has attracted so much attention from both critics of the administration and some deficit hawks in the last couple of years was the concern that was shared by Democrats and Republicans about the growth in the short-term deficit.
The fact is we’ve made substantial, even historic progress in lowering that short-term deficit.Since the President took office, we’ve cut the deficit by two-thirds.Previously in talking about this, I believe with Steve Dennis, who I don’t see today from Roll Call, I talked about the fact how we cut the deficit by more than half.The fact is we’ve now cut the deficit by more than two-thirds — or by two-thirds since the President took office.That’s the fastest sustained rate of deficit reduction since the end of World War II.So we’ve made tremendous progress on this.
In the context of these debates, many advocates were talking about the need to lower our deficit to below 3 percent of GDP.Well, I can tell you that last year the deficit was 2.8 percent of GDP.So that very ambitious goal that many deficit hawks did not believe could be achieved has been attained in a much quicker time period than was previously believed possible.And that is a testament to some of the President’s efforts to advocate for a range of things, including protecting tax rates for middle-class families while asking those at the top of the income scale to a pay a little bit more.
The President has been and continues to be mindful of the longer-term challenges that remain when it comes to our deficit and debt.And in the context of the President’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget, there is a roadmap for making important investments to accelerate economic growth, expand economic opportunity for middle-class families, to strengthen our national security, all while improving our nation’s fiscal outlook.So this is something that the President is going to continue to be focused on, but we should be very mindful of the significant even historic progress that’s been made so far.
Q The President seemed to be gearing up a little bit for battle — certainly a conversation with Democrats, environmentalists and labor over TPP in his comments at the Business Roundtable.Two questions.Does that suggest that a deal is near and there will have to be a much more concerted effort here at the White House to persuade those skeptical members of the Democratic coalition on TPP, and the President will, in fact, lead that effort himself?
MR. EARNEST:I’ll say a couple of things about that.The first is that it’s my understanding that there continue to be some pretty significant gaps that remain between the United States and other members of the TPP coalition; that there are still some important work that needs to be done to secure that agreement.
I think — my understanding is that substantial progress has been made toward that agreement.But what often happens in the context of these negotiations is that the more difficult issues get kicked to the end.So while the number of issues has been reduced, some of the more significant sticking points remain.For a more detailed assessment about where things stand, I’d encourage you to check with Ambassador Froman’s office.He obviously is somebody who is leading this effort and deserves a lot of credit for the painstaking work that’s involved in negotiating these kinds of agreements.
That said, I do think that you can anticipate that the President will spend some time talking about why he believes agreements like this are clearly in the best interest of the broader American economy but also American workers and American businesses.The only kind of an agreement that Ambassador Froman would reach and that the President would agree to is the kind of an agreement that we can be confident would be clearly in the best interest of American workers, American entrepreneurs and American farmers.
We’re not interested in an agreement that puts America at a disadvantage.We’re looking for the kind of an agreement that’s going to open up overseas markets for American goods and services.That’s going to expand economic growth here.It’s going to create jobs here.It’s going to expand economic opportunity for American businesses and for middle-class families.And that is the criteria by which we’ll evaluate these kinds of agreements.That, of course, means these kinds of agreements also include raising labor standards and ensuring that there are fair environmental regulations in place that reflect the priority to look out for our climate and to make sure that everybody is living up those standards.
So as we make progress on a deal like that, it becomes a much easier case for the President to make.Knowing what kind of criteria that the President has laid out in his own mind for an agreement like this means that he’s looking out for exactly the same kinds of priorities that Democrats in particular say they believe in.
So, yes, I do anticipate that you will find the President, as we make progress on this agreement, continue to make the case to Democrats but also to Republicans about why this is clearly in the best interest of the American economy, Americans businesses and American workers.
Q Will the President take to Mitch McConnell appeals for Ebola funding and movement on nominations?As you are probably aware, Ted Cruz today said all nominations not related to national security should be blocked.Would those two issues be a part specifically of the President’s conversations with Leader McConnell?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I don’t want to get into a detailed readout of what they’re going to say.But I will just say as —
Q How about just those two?
MR. EARNEST:As a general matter, let me say that we’ve been pretty clear — and the President was yesterday in his public comments at NIH — about why Ebola funding needs to be a priority both in terms of ensuring that the United States is at a heightened state of readiness here domestically but also that we’re doing everything we need to do in West Africa to stop this outbreak in its tracks.I’m confident that —
Q But he would not leave it out of a conversation with a Republican Leader.
MR. EARNEST:I guess you could say that.I think the — my understanding is that Leader McConnell has also had some positive things to say about why those kinds of investments are important.
So clearly there are a lot of details that have to get worked out there, so I don’t want to gloss over them.But I think, as a general matter, this might be another area where common ground can be seized.
As it relates to nominees, our position on this hasn’t changed.We believe that the President, as the President of the United States, should be allowed to nominate the people that he thinks are deserving of serving in his administration to be quickly vetted and confirmed in bipartisan fashion by the United States Senate.We continue to hold that view.And again, this is sort of part and parcel with our philosophy that we’re not going to paper over our differences with Republicans on a wide range of issues, but we can’t allow a disagreement over a single issue to become a deal breaker over all the others, including what would otherwise be fairly routine nominations and confirmations by the United States Senate.
Q Speaking of not papering over differences, there’s a meeting here at the Situation Room today reportedly with top Democrats on foreign policy, national security about Iran and other national security issues.The Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee currently is not invited.That is viewed as a snub because Mr. Menendez has yet again suggested he would like a vote on tougher sanctions in the context of an Iran nuclear deal.What can you tell us, A, about the meeting here, what’s its purpose?And are you specifically keeping the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee out because of a disagreement over Iran policy?
MR. EARNEST:Well, to answer your second question first is — the answer to that is, no.This is a difficult thing to quantify, but I’m just going to hazard a guess that there is no single member of Congress who has had more conversations with senior administration officials about our strategy as it relates to Iran’s nuclear program than Chairman Menendez.
Q They’re not be as productive as you’d hope, but they’re —
MR. EARNEST:Well, I think that reflects sort of our commitment to a sustained conversation with members of Congress as we try to resolve our own concerns and the international community’s concerns with Iran’s nuclear program.
As we’ve said many times, we wouldn’t have been able to make the substantial progress that we’ve made so far if Congress hadn’t been over the last couple of years a very reliable partner in this effort.Congress on a number of occasions has passed legislation imposing very tough sanctions against Iran.Senator Menendez is somebody who played a leading role in those previous efforts, and we would anticipate that he is going to continue to play an important role as we move forward here.
And I think the fact that we’re having additional meetings here at the White House with other members of Congress is an indication of our commitment to making sure that we’re keeping members of Congress in the loop as we pursue these negotiations. And, again, that means that we’re willing to have conversations not just with the chairmen of the relevant committees but also the rank-and-file members who have an interest in this issue as well.
So, Wendell, before you ask your question, I understand that today is a bit of a historic day.
Q I don’t know how historic it is.
MR. EARNEST:Well, after 28 years of service, I understand that this is your last day here at the White House.So your 28 years here has been characterized by a lot of professionalism and dedication to your field.And that’s something that we both appreciate and will miss after your departure.
Q Thank you very much.(Applause.)Back to our jobs.(Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST:Let’s get back to business, sir.
Q The President was not asked today at the Business Roundtable about the EEOC’s challenge to the wellness provision of the Affordable Care Act, which the Roundtable strongly supports, allowing companies to offer discounts to workers that get involved in smoking cessation programs and control hypertension.How is it that the administration is challenging this provision of the Affordable Care Act that business likes so much?
MR. EARNEST:Wendell, I appreciate the question, it’s a good one.As you know, the EEOC is an independent agency, so it’s not an agency over which we exercise much, if any, control.And I don’t want to be in a position of commenting on pending litigation.But I can say, as a general matter, that the administration, and particularly the White House, is concerned that this is — or this at least could be inconsistent with what we know about wellness programs and the fact that we know that wellness programs are good for both employers and employees.
After all, this is one area of many where the White House and the administration worked closely with the business community to incorporate policies in the Affordable Care Act.Again, that would lower costs for businesses and lower health care costs overall — not just for the government and the system but also for employees.
So these kinds of wellness programs demonstrate that throughout the formation of the — or the writing of the Affordable Care Act, that we were responsive to concerns from the business community and, in fact, put into the Affordable Care Act some of the priorities that the business community had articulated about ways to successfully reduce their costs.So this is a strategy that has been successful in the past.And, again, as a general matter, we’re strongly supportive of those businesses that are moving forward with wellness programs that are proven to reduce costs for businesses and employees alike.
Q Can you do anything about the EEOC’s challenge?
MR. EARNEST:Well, again, I can’t comment on a specific piece of pending litigation, and the EEOC is an independent agency.But our views on the value of these kinds of wellness programs is well known and has been articulated on many occasions.
Q This is the second or third time in recent days or a week or so that the Affordable Care Act has come under criticism from supporters.You’ve had Senator Schumer saying you should have focused on the economy.Criticism from Senator Harkin.Are you worried about this Act suffering the death of a thousand cuts, the weakening of people who initially supported it?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I think that Senator Schumer and Senator Harkin and many members of the Business Roundtable would say that they continue to support this legislation.And the reason that they do that is because that there are now 9.1 million individuals who have enrolled in Medicaid or CHIP since the beginning of the open enrollment period; that there are 10.3 million uninsured adults who have gotten coverage since the start of the open enrollment period last year.In just the last year, we’ve actually reduced the number of uninsured individuals in this country by 26 percent.And as the President mentioned earlier today, we’ve actually made historic progress in slowing the growth of the health care cost curve; that health care costs are growing more slowly than they ever have in recorded history.
Q They may support those statistics, but Senator Schumer made clear that he felt you should have been more focused on the economy; that Obamacare didn’t help enough people.
MR. EARNEST:Well, again, I think the statistics speak for themselves about what a significant success the Affordable Care Act has been, certainly for the millions of people in this country who were previously uninsured; certainly for those individuals who were being forced to try to purchase insurance on the individual market, paying exorbitant costs for health insurance plans that did very little to protect them in the event of an illness.And there are also a lot of provisions in this law — including the provision that an individual can’t be discriminated against just because they have a preexisting condition — that benefit everybody and have succeeded in slowing the growth of health care costs.
The President talked also today during his conversation at the Business Roundtable about the significant impact that cost-containment measures, including some that were put in place by the Affordable Care Act, have had in reducing our deficit and in lowering deficit projections over the course of the next 10 years by almost $200 billion.So there are any number of reasons, whether you look at just the raw finances of this or the direct human impact of the Affordable Care Act, for people to not just be pleased with the way that it has been implemented but to be proud of the fact that they supported it from the very beginning.
Q Was it worth the cost politically?
MR. EARNEST:Without a doubt.
Let’s move around.Justin.
Q I wanted to circle back on the so-called cromnibus that is kind of emerging now.
MR. EARNEST:You won’t hear me use that word.(Laughter.)
Q But both Harry Reid and Steny Hoyer in the last 24 hours have expressed an openness to Speaker Boehner’s plan, which would fund most of the government with the exception of DHS throughout the rest of the year.So I’m wondering, now that you guys have seen those signals from Hill Democrats and had some more time to evaluate it, whether it’s something that you guys are open to at this point.
MR. EARNEST:Well, Justin, as I mentioned yesterday, and I guess as I mentioned in response to Michelle’s question as well, the United States Congress is given by the — or was given by our Founding Fathers, and as codified in the United States Constitution, the responsibility for passing budgets to fund the federal government.We believe that based on — the administration believes that based on the system we have in place, that Congress should fulfill their responsibility and pass a full-year budget for the full federal government.That’s common sense.
Sometimes that means making difficult decisions and doing difficult work to look at these details, but it’s their responsibility and it’s something we believe that they should do.It’s been noted by some — I believe even some people who write for your publication — that the passage of a budget is likely going to require the support of at least some Democrats in the House of Representatives.I certainly don’t speak for House Democrats, but I have seen that many of them share our view that any sort of piece of legislation that moves should be legislation that fully funds the full federal government for the full year and that they should do that without unnecessary ideological riders.There will be ample opportunity for Republicans next year when they have control of both the House and the Senate to pursue any number of ideological ideas that they may want to try to codify into legislation.There’s no reason they should attach them to a budget proposal.
So we continue to believe that Congress should fulfill their basic responsibility and pass a full-year budget for the full federal government on time without drama and delay and without doing what Leader McConnell described as rattling the economy with things that are perceived by the voters as disturbing.
Q Sure.I mean, I guess the President also has a constitutional ability to veto legislation that he is upset with. And so the question is, is if they give us a bill that funds the government fully until March and the rest of the government, with the exception of DHS, after that, if this is something the President would veto.Or is your omission of saying that essentially passive acknowledgement that you guys would sign that kind of legislation?
MR. EARNEST:I wouldn’t take it that way simply because we haven’t actually seen the proposal.There are a number of proposals that are floating around.
Q All right, but there’s one that’s pretty obviously emerging at this point.
MR. EARNEST:Yes, but it’s one that I’m confident will also eventually be a large number of pages in length.I’m not in a position — I didn’t walk out here again with a veto threat, but we’ve been pretty clear about what we think Congress should do.
House Democrats, at least according to the Democratic Leader of the House, have been pretty clear what we think that Congress should do, and that is to pass a full-year budget for the full federal government.And considering that House Democrats are going to likely going to be required to ensure the passage of that legislation through the House of Representatives, they’re going to have some say over what this package looks like.
So I’m not going to get ahead of the details other than to say that our position on this is pretty clear:A full-year funding proposal for the full federal government is what Congress is responsible for doing and it’s what we believe they should do.
Q All right, I want to take another crack at tax extenders.The President today, while he was speaking at the Business Roundtable, said that as a general rule you guys are open to short-term extensions — basically the package that’s on the table.Or I guess what my question is, is whether that includes the package that’s on the table right now from Congress.
MR. EARNEST:That’s a tricky one for similar reasons, which is that the devil in these things — in a lot of these things is in the details.So that’s why the President was speaking as a general matter in front of the Business Roundtable today.So I would repeat what he said, which is that as a general matter we’re open to considering these shorter-term extensions.And I believe Major and I have talked about this a couple times over the last couple of days — there is a big difference, I know it may not seem like it, but there is a big difference between a one or even two-year extension and putting in place these tax breaks for the foreseeable future.
And that is why you saw such a strong reaction from this administration, because what had previously been discussed as recently as last week was a proposal to extend permanently tax breaks for well-connected corporations without making sure that we’re looking out for working people.And that is a provision — that goes to the heart of the President’s core economic policymaking priority, which is making sure that we’re looking out for working people in Washington D.C.
There are plenty of people — or plenty of corporations that can hire fancy lobbyists with big expense accounts and decades-long relationships with influential people on Capitol Hill.What the American people want is they want somebody that’s looking out for working people in Washington D.C.Fortunately, they have the most — not just the most powerful lobbyists in town, they’ve actually has got the most powerful person in town looking out for their interests.That’s the President of the United States.That’s why we weighed in so heavily on the original tax extenders proposal, and it’s the criteria that we’ll use to evaluate both the budget but also future tax proposals that may be coming from Congress.
Q And then maybe a lay-up — is bourbon on the menu for Mitch McConnell today?(Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST:It’s an afternoon meeting.So —
Q Its five o’clock somewhere, right?
MR. EARNEST:Maybe so.(Laughter.)
Q Is that yes or a no?
MR. EARNEST:That may be Jimmy Buffett’s philosophy, but Jimmy Buffett is not the President of the United States.We can all have hope, though.
Q Josh, I know aside from the Bourbon you’re not looking to put out any details of the meeting.You’ve said, though, many times that it’s not going to be — one more lunch, one more dinner is not going to change the game.So when we’re talking about this meeting, can you point to any successes in the past that have come out of the President’s relationship with Senator McConnell?Any one-on-one meetings or any other legislative movement that’s come out of their direct relationship?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I guess the first thing that comes to mind is I know that Senator McConnell was integral to structuring the fiscal cliff deal that was struck between Democrats and Republicans at the end of 2012.This was an agreement that averted a fiscal cliff, a significant increase in taxes for all Americans.
And what it did was it actually protected tax cuts for middle-class families and those who are trying to get in the middle class, but it did actually ask those at the top of the income scale to pay a little bit more.This is something that Republicans in Congress have been resistant to for two decades.The President viewed it as a pretty common-sense policy, but it’s something that this administration was able to achieve by working closely with Senator McConnell.
Again, it reflected a compromise.I don’t want to leave with the impression that this is something that ultimately Senator McConnell was happy about, although he can speak for himself on this matter, of course.But it does reflect at least one instance where the administration and the Vice President and the President himself had had a successful conversation with Senator McConnell to put in place and pass legislation that was good for the American people and good for the American economy.
Q When the President was doing the Business Roundtable today, he said that Republicans are right on about 25 percent of regulation.I know Senator McConnell specifically in the re-election — in his re-election was talking about how that’s stifling jobs in Kentucky.Do you think that regulation is going to come up in the conversation?I know you’re probably going to say you can’t tell me.But then can you also talk about what did the President mean when he said that Republicans are right on about 25 percent of some of these regulations?Could you elaborate further?
MR. EARNEST:I could try.I don’t know if Senator McConnell intends to bring this up with the President in the context of this meeting.I wouldn’t be surprised if he did, but I don’t know if that’s on his agenda for today.
There are a couple of important facts; the President alluded to them when answering this question.He noted that the number of long-term and active roles on this fall’s agenda is at the lowest point since the beginning of the administration, and there are some who have suggested that after the election the President trotted out a large number of rules and regulations.That’s not true.
And the other relevant point here is that the number of final rules that are reviewed by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, OIRA, which is like the worst name in federal bureaucracy —
Q — the cromnibus one.
MR. EARNEST:You’re right.OIRA is second to cromnibus.But the number of rules that they have considered under the Obama administration is actually than the lower the number of rules that were considered under the Bush administration — somebody who’s widely viewed as a friend of the business community.So I think those numbers are an important part of this, of evaluating this claim that’s made by some.
What the President was referring to when he talked about the 25 percent thing is that the President — recognizing that there are some regulations that are on the books that are outdated, that are outmoded, that don’t serve the original purpose that may have been intended to when they were put in place — has directed his team to go back and look at these outmoded regulations and look for opportunities to cut red tape and actually take regulations off the books.That’s been a successful effort that the — that this effort that the President ordered a couple of years ago is actually on track to yield nearly $20 billion in lower regulatory costs.So the President is certainly open to hearing concerns that are raised by the business community when it comes to some of these outdated regulations.
The last thing I’ll say about this is the President thinks it’s also important that we not overlook that some of the regulations we’re talking about, while they may have some impact on industry, have a tremendously positive impact on the rest of the country and, in some cases, even the rest of the world.So, for example, we know that there are some who complain pretty bitterly about some of the climate regulations that had been put in place.But some of the —
Q — today?
MR. EARNEST:Maybe.But some of these rules are rules that actually contribute significantly to public health, are going to lower asthma rates not just in this country but in countries around the world.So there’s a significant public benefit associated with some of these rules and regulations that industry may complain about.
Q One last one, Josh.With Eric’s note to you a moment ago, confirmation of the administration’s intent to nominate Ash Carter to the Department of Defense — was that what that was?
MR. EARNEST:It was not.
Q Because other people are doing it.I didn’t know if the White House was ready to push that out.
MR. EARNEST:I don’t have any personnel announcements to make at this time, but thank you for asking.
Q Senator Rand Paul has introduced a declaration of war resolution against ISIS.Does this administration have any immediate reaction?
MR. EARNEST:I saw the news reports that he had introduced that legislation.I have not seen the details of it, so I can’t comment on it at this point.But I would note that the President, after the election, made clear that he’s interested in having a conversation with Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill about refining the existing authorization to use military force so that it can be right-sized and modernized to focus on the threats that we face right now.
Q Where are we in that process?What’s the timeline?You’ve been talking about these conversations are going to happen for quite some time.When will they happen?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I know that there have already been some conversations about this.There are some members of Congress that have some strong feelings about it, as you’d expect; this is a serious issue.But ultimately, the pace of this legislative process will be determined by members of Congress.But those conversations between members of Congress and high ranking administration officials have already taken place, and I anticipate they will continue into next year.
Q Is the President involved in any of those at this point?
MR. EARNEST:I don’t think the President has had any of those conversations directly himself, but he certainly is aware of the conversations that have taken place and has weighed in on the content as it relates to the views that are being communicated by senior administration officials to members of Congress.
Q Thanks, Josh.Well, understanding you have not read the resolution, here’s what Senator Paul said:“I believe the President must come to Congress to begin a war and that Congress has a duty to act.Right now this war is illegal until Congress acts pursuant to the Constitution and authorizes it.”
MR. EARNEST:Yes, that’s not correct.We have been very clear that the President has all of the authority that he needs because it’s already been given to him by Congress.
Back in 2001, Congress did pass an authorization to use military force that did authorize the administration — any administration — to pursue al Qaeda and others who were responsible for attacking the United States on September 11th, 2001.And we’ve talked pretty extensively about the historical connection that ISIL has to the remnants of al Qaeda, and in some cases even an ongoing connection.
We’ve also talked about the fact that ISIL shares the same goals that were frequently articulated by al Qaeda.So there is clear legal authority for the President to take the actions that he’s already taken.What he has sought from Congress is an authorization to use military force that could be modernized and right-sized to reflect the current threat that we face from ISIL.
We’ve talked also a number of times in this briefing about how the threat from ISIL, while not unrelated to al Qaeda core, as that threat existed back in 2001, that it is different.And that’s the reason that we believe it would be appropriate for a new AUMF to be passed by the United States Congress.
I’ll just also say as a legal matter, because my lawyers would want me to, to note that there are some who believe that the 2002 authorization to use military force also provides relevant legal authority to the President of the United States to carry out these actions.But what most administration lawyers have focused on is the authorization that’s been provided by Congress in 2001 to the President to carry out these actions.
Q Senator Menendez says the White House has not been cooperating on AUMF.And as you know, he said they asked to send a witness; the witness couldn’t be provided until next week.And he’s concerned that with everything else that’s going on — NDAA and omnibus — how you get all that done.What do you say to Senator Menendez when he says the White House has not been cooperating?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I can tell you that there are a number of conversations that have taken place between Senator Menendez, members of his staff and members of the administration.And it’s my understanding that the witness that he’s interested in is Secretary Kerry.I can tell you that today in Brussels, 60 coalition partners met at the invitation of the United States for substantive deliberations at the First Ministerial Level Plenary Session for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.
The United States delegation was led by, you guessed it, Secretary Kerry, who spoke to the assembled coalition members.Prime Minister Abadi from Iraq; John Allen, the President’s Special Envoy to the Coalition, also spoke.The goal of the meeting was to convene coalition partners at the foreign minister level and establish political consensus and a regular mechanism for our efforts moving forward.
I just raise that to illustrate that Secretary Kerry, who certainly is somebody who would be involved in any conversations with Congress about a new authorization to use military force, is focused on another very important matter at this time as well.
Q So you disagree with the characterization that you’ve been uncooperative?
Q And let me just ask you about one more senatorial thing — that’s Kristen Gillibrand, who obviously has a very strong interest in seeing the sexual assault bill happen.And she says she asked the President to consider taking executive action on that issue.Is that on the table?
MR. EARNEST:Well, let me just start by saying that the President believes that even one instance of sexual assault in our military is one too many.He’s been clear about the fact that a crime like this has no place in the greatest military on Earth.And he has spoken very forcefully in the past about how the Commander-in-Chief has the back of those in our military that have been the — that are survivors of this terrible crime.
Just yesterday, the Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, did present to the President the report that the President had directed the Department of Defense to compile as it relates to sexual assault in the military.This is a very lengthy report that is currently under review by the administration and by the White House.So I don’t have any next steps to announce.But I can tell you that this continues to be a priority of the President’s, and not just because of the human and moral elements that are involved, but the President also believes that the proper response to this situation, the proper policy will make our military stronger and more effective.
The strength of our military at its core is rooted in the men and women from the United States who choose to serve in our military.And making sure that we are protecting them and standing up for them and equipping them to do their jobs as safely as possible is of paramount concern to the Commander-in-Chief, at least to this Commander-in-Chief.
Q So if it’s of paramount concern, if it’s not possible for the sexual assault bill to come up or to pass, is it something that he would consider taking executive action on?
MR. EARNEST:Well, I don’t want to prejudge sort of the outcome of the review of this report that’s been put forward by the Department of Defense.We’ll have more on this in the days ahead.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST:Dave, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Thanks, Josh.There’s new language in the NDAA that would make the victims of the Fort Hood shooting and other incidents like that eligible for the Purple Heart as victims of international terrorism.Does the White House have a reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST:Dave, I have — there are a lot of measures that are included in the NDAA.I haven’t heard about that particular provision, but I can get back to you and let you know if we have a position on it.
MR. EARNEST:Thanks, everybody.Have a good afternoon.And congratulations again, Wendell.We’re going to miss you.
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