Press Briefing

February 25, 2014 | 58:03 | Public Domain

White House Press Briefings are conducted most weekdays from the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the West Wing.

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Daily Briefing by the Press Secretary, 2/25/14

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:11 P.M. EST

MR. CARNEY:  It’s a good crowd.  I don't know what to make about the weather lately, right?  I swear it was spring two days ago.

Q    We don't control it.

MR. CARNEY:  We do have limited control.  (Laughter.) 

I don't have any specific announcements to make, but I can  -- as you know, the President met with Speaker of the House John Boehner here earlier.  They had a good and constructive meeting of about an hour where they discussed a range of issues. 

You also saw I think a readout of a conversation the President had earlier with President Karzai of Afghanistan, which I don't have a duration on that call, but it was a fairly substantive call, as described in the readout.

Beyond that, I have no other announcements.  So I'll go to Jim Kuhnhenn.

Q    Thanks, Jay.  So I wanted to ask you about those two conversations.  With Karzai, he hasn’t spoken to him since June, I believe.  Should we read some kind of significance to the call coming at this particular time?  And given that the discussion centered a little bit on giving some space for signing of the BSA after the elections, is there a tipping point where it becomes impossible to make any kind of commitment about U.S. troops on the ground?

MR. CARNEY:  On the first part of your question, the answer is yes.  The President called President Karzai today in order to discuss preparations for Afghanistan’s upcoming elections, the Afghan-led peace and reconciliation efforts, and specifically, the bilateral security agreement.  And as you know, we have been calling on the Afghan government to complete that process, to sign that agreement, which was negotiated in good faith, and to do so promptly.

President Obama told President Karzai that because he has demonstrated -- he, being President Karzai -- that it is unlikely that he will sign the BSA, the United States is moving forward with additional contingency planning.  So in terms of the timing of the call, I think you can look at it in that context.

When it comes to the potential for a post-2014 troop presence, two things are happening.  One, as we made clear would be the case, the President has tasked the Pentagon with preparing for the contingency that there will be no troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.  But we are also remaining open to the possibility of a post-2014 troop presence should a bilateral security agreement be signed -- or the bilateral security agreement be signed later in the year. 

But the longer we go without a BSA -- and we've been making this clear -- the more challenging it will be to plan and to execute any U.S. mission.  Furthermore, the longer we go without a signed BSA the more likely it will be that any post-2014 U.S. mission will be smaller in scale and ambition.  So I don’t have a specific point to identify for you, except to say that the further we go without a signed BSA, any contemplative post-2014 mission would be necessarily limited in scale and ambition because of the requirements of planning for that troop presence.

Q    Did the President provide any kind of timeframe to Karzai as to when --

MR. CARNEY:  He provided the timeframe I just read out to you, which is --

Q    Any specific time when by -- need something by the spring, need something by the fall -- and that would result in what difference?

MR. CARNEY:  I think -- or I know that the President was very explicit about what we’ve just read out, which is that the fact that President Karzai has indicated that it is unlikely he will sign the BSA means that if he doesn’t sign it, it is at least possible that a successor Afghan government might sign it, but that pushes us later into the year.  And the longer we go without a signed BSA, by necessity, the more narrow in size and ambition the mission for a post-2014 force would be. 

So this is about essentially planning for a post-2014 mission.  And there are a lot of complexities involved in asking the Defense Department to plan for a zero option -- that is a full withdrawal, in keeping with the President’s promise to end the war in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and he will keep that promise -- and then, also to plan for a contingency of a post-2014 smaller troop presence.  And in the President’s view, it is necessary to plan for that force against the clock here, in the sense that the longer we go without a BSA the smaller in scale and ambition the mission would have to be.

Q    In a conversation with the Speaker, it’s been since December of 2012 that they had a face-to-face alone session.  Why has it taken so long?  I mean, this is the leader of the congressional opposition; he is the President of the United States. 

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I’d say a couple of things, Jim.  The President has conversations with leaders of Congress, not all of which are read out to the press -- one.  Two, today’s meeting was good and constructive.  It covered a range of issues and it was, in the President’s view, a useful conversation.  Three, I think you recall the Speaker of the House as reported having said that he would not ever negotiate with the President of the United States again.

So the point is that the President’s position on these issues and his communication with Congress I think has been robust.  And we’re looking for ways to move an agenda forward that expands opportunity and rewards hard work and responsibility for the American people.  We are looking for a partner in Congress to advance part of that agenda.  But the President won’t stand still just because Congress is standing still, if Congress decides or if Republicans decide not to take action.  So that’s been our explicit approach this year, and that’s the approach the President has been taking thus far and will take for the rest of the year.

Q    Any softening on point three that he won’t negotiate with the President? 

MR. CARNEY:  Again, I think it was a good and constructive meeting.  I’m not going to read out any more detail beyond sort of the general topic areas that included the ACA, Afghanistan, appropriations, manufacturing, trade, the drought in California, wildfire suppression -- which we talked about yesterday -- other issues, infrastructure and highway funding.  But that’s just a partial list.  So I think we’re talking about a range of topics that reflect the things that we in Washington are working on both here at the White House and in the administration, and hopefully and potentially in Congress as well.


Q    Following up on that meeting as well, the Speaker’s office mentioned that trade was one of the issues that they discussed.  Speaker Boehner has said before that it’s up to the President to work on getting his own party behind supporting Trade Promotion Authority.  Did the President make any commitments about that or did they discuss strategy for doing that in their meeting?

MR. CARNEY:  Trade was one of the many topics that were discussed.  I don’t have a further readout on the conversation.  I wouldn’t expect a more detailed readout on the conversation.  The President’s views on why it is good for the American economy and good for American workers to negotiate trade agreements that expand American exports are well known.  And he has expressed them, I have expressed them, others have expressed them, and he has made clear that moving forward on those trade agreements is a priority for him. 

It is also the case that this is an ongoing conversation that we’re having with members of Congress in both parties.  The difference of opinion that exists in both parties on these issues is not something that suddenly sprang up in 2014.  These are issues that have long fostered different views, and that’s something we take into account. 

But we believe very strongly, as the President said just last week in Mexico, that having agreements that expand trade and, in particular, when we are talking about the Pacific region, the fastest-growing emerging economies in the world, opening those markets to American goods is good for the economy, and doing so in a way that protects American workers and protects the environment is good for the United States and the world.  So that’s why we’re continuing to negotiate agreements, and we will work with Congress to try to bring those agreements into effect.

Q    You referenced the Speaker’s comments about not negotiating with the President, but isn’t it also the President’s job to build that relationship and to create meetings like --

MR. CARNEY:  Absolutely, and he has.  Again, you are under  --

Q    But wouldn’t you agree that a year is a long time not to have a one-on-one meeting with the Speaker of the House?

MR. CARNEY:  I would simply say that we do not read out every conversation and meeting that the President has with members of Congress.

Q    Are you implying with that there have been other one-on-ones?

MR. CARNEY:  I would simply say that we do not read out every conversation and meeting that the President, the Vice President, or other senior members of the White House has with Congress.

Q    Let me ask you one other question.  Reuters reported yesterday that Iran signed a deal to sell Iraq arms and ammunition worth $195 million.  Has Iran informed the United States about that?  And does the White House have a problem with that contract?

MR. CARNEY:  We raised our concerns about this matter at the highest levels with the government of Iraq and reiterated that any transfer or sale of arms from Iran is in direct violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions.  The government of Iraq assured us that it would look into the matter.  Today, we have seen the press release issued by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense denying that any contracts for military equipment were signed with Iran.  We will follow up with the government of Iraq on that matter.


Q    Getting back to the President’s meeting with the Speaker, it’s been reported and I think it’s a general feeling here in Washington that the Speaker has been standing up to conservative groups, whether it be on the budget or the debt ceiling.  Did the President thank the Speaker for that when they met for sticking his neck out for him?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t have a more detailed readout for you, Jim.  I can tell you that the President has noted generally, as have I and others, that despite the differences that exist in Washington, we have managed to move forward when it comes to the budget agreement and the regular order established by it, first negotiated by Senator Murray and Chairman Ryan, and then passed, and then followed through on with the funding bill that was passed.  That's a positive development. 

The fact that Republicans decided not to put the full faith and credit of the United States to the test again with the brinksmanship over the necessity of paying the bills that Congress racks up, that was a good thing.  And that's good for the economy.  It’s good for the middle class.  It’s not about winners and losers here in Washington.  It’s simply a fact that when the opposite approach has been taken in the past it’s done harm to the American people, harm to job creation.  So those are positives.  I just don't -- again, I’m not going to get into 20 questions about, was this said, and was that asked.  

Q    You would hope that perhaps a breakthrough has been made in this relationship between the President and the Speaker, and that perhaps more meetings like this might take place that could be made public.

MR. CARNEY:  I think it’s a press misconception that success or failure of legislation in Congress depends on the relationship between a President and a Speaker, or a President and a leader in Congress.  The President’s relationship with the Speaker, as the Speaker has said and the President has said, has always been solid.  And the problem we’ve had in the past here in Washington has been often the dictation that has been provided by a segment of the House Republican Congress over what the House of Representatives would or would not do.  And that hasn’t necessarily been a reflection of what the Speaker would hope for in a perfect world, but what he is able to get his conference to do.

So again -- and I think going back to the broader implication from Jeff’s question and some of the other questions, you saw last year coming out of the 2012 elections, the President and his team very aggressively engage with Congress, including Republicans in Congress, in an effort to try to move forward on some of the issues that have divided Washington, most especially the possibility of a broader budget agreement that would require compromise from both sides but would move the country forward by making necessary investments and reducing the deficit and debt for the medium and long term. 

The President put forward a good-faith offer that everyone on both sides recognized as a compromise, and despite all the meetings and dinners and coffees and engagements, we could not get a similar counteroffer from the Republicans. 

So we’re going to continue to engage with Congress, with Republicans, in an effort to see where we can find common ground to move the ball forward for the American people.  Where Congress refuses to act, the President is going to use every authority available to him to advance an agenda that expands opportunity and rewards hard work.

Q    And I just want to get back to the President’s call to President Karzai.  It is a fact that if this bilateral security agreement is not signed that there will be no troops?

MR. CARNEY:  Yes, correct.

Q    By December 31st, they’ll all be gone?

MR. CARNEY:  Absolutely.

Q    No wavering on that?

MR. CARNEY:  Absent a BSA, there will not be any U.S. troops on the ground beyond the end of the year.

Q    And did the President -- his instructions to the Defense Secretary to initiate contingency planning, that started today?

MR. CARNEY:  No, no, no --

Q    -- or had that already been looked at previously?

MR. CARNEY:  What we had been saying for some time now is that we wanted to see the BSA signed; that it was negotiated in good faith by both sides; it was endorsed by the loya jirga in Afghanistan; the end-of-the-year deadline was one that was agreed to by both sides.  Afghanistan failed to -- the Afghan government failed to meet that deadline.  And we have been pressing in the early part of this year for President Karzai to take action so that that BSA can be completed.  He has indicated that he’s not likely to sign the BSA, and so we have to reevaluate where we are. 

As we've been saying since the beginning of the year, the longer we wait the more likely the possibility is that we end up a zero option with no troops at all beyond 2014 because we cannot and will not have U.S. troops on the ground without a signed BSA.

Q    A former Guantanamo detainee has been arrested in Britain on suspicion of terror offenses in Syria.  When you see these incidences pop up does it give the White House any pause on a policy for closing Guantanamo?

MR. CARNEY:  I haven't seen that specific report.  What I can tell you is that there is a thorough review process on every individual, every detainee who’s being considered for transfer that takes all of these issues into account.


Q    Did the President, in his instructions to the Pentagon, give them a timeline to provide him with a zero option?  I know it’s been under discussion for a while, but now he’s saying, do this; tell me how it would work.  When do you expect to get that from them, even if you don't need to use it until August or September? 

And I also wanted to ask you, when the President and Speaker Boehner spoke about Afghanistan, as the readout reflects, can you give us some kind of a sense about whether Boehner will support Obama on this BSA thing?  It seems to me like you see a lot of calls from Republican leadership or committee leadership, like the President really needs to get onboard and get serious about the BSA.  But it seems like from the White House’s perspective, you guys are saying, look, we're doing this; it’s the Afghan government that's not signing it.  Did the President and the Speaker sort of get square on that, or are you still concerned that you have political undercurrents on the Republican side that are hurting you in your posture on Afghanistan?

MR. CARNEY:  Let me take a crack at the second part there.  It’s inconceivable, I think, to us that leaders in Congress would allow for a U.S. troop presence without a signed bilateral security agreement in Afghanistan.  It is a simple fact that the bilateral security agreement was negotiated over a prolonged period of time in good faith.  The agreement was reached.  It was endorsed by the representatives of the Afghan people.  It is not subject to renegotiation.  I'm not sure I've heard members of Congress suggest that it should be. 

What I think has been amply demonstrated is that we've been pressing very hard for the Karzai government to complete the process by signing the BSA.  Since it is now unlikely, it has been indicated that it is unlikely by President Karzai that he will sign it, the President made clear in his call today that we are preparing for the possibility of no troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of the year, and that any -- we are open to the signing of a bilateral security agreement later in the year, but the longer it takes to get there, by necessity because of the planning, the smaller the mission will be beyond 2014 both in size and ambition. 

And the mission, in any case, as you know -- to clarify since I haven't said it today -- will be focused solely on counterterrorism and the training and support of Afghan security forces.  The war ends this year, at the end of this year, regardless, as the President and NATO decided some time ago.

Q    But did the President ask Speaker Boehner, hey, can you please support me on this BSA stuff rather than have Republican members in your caucus making it sound like I’m not pushing hard enough to get the BSA signed?  Did this come up as a part of their conversations?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t have a more detailed readout to provide to you.  What I can tell you is that that was a subject of -- a conversation that included many subjects and that --

Q    Afghanistan or --

MR. CARNEY:  Afghanistan.  And I think -- the BSA is part of Afghanistan -- that is certainly the focus at this time.

The President had, just prior to meeting with Speaker Boehner, had spoken with President Karzai, so this was certainly a fresh development to discuss with the Speaker.  But I’m not -- maybe I’m missing something.  I’m not aware of to any great degree the critique about pushing for the signing of the BSA because I think we have been quite aggressive in doing that.

Q    And on the question of -- I know you don’t have more to read out than what’s in the readout, but is the Pentagon going to present now the President with a plan that they have not yet presented him with, which is, this is how zero option would work? And when do you expect him to get that plan?

MR. CARNEY:  Look, I think that the answer to that question is I don’t have a specific date for you.  The fact is it has always been envisioned by the U.S. and our NATO allies that we would draw down to zero by the end of this year.  The prospect of a force beyond 2014 has always been a goal, a policy goal dependent upon a BSA being signed. 

And what I think the conversation today and the message conveyed today by the President to President Karzai was about is the acknowledgement that President Karzai, despite our efforts, has indicated he is unlikely to sign the BSA, and the consequences of that in terms of planning going forward on, with each passing day, more realistically, on the prospect of a full withdrawal, and the acknowledgment that we’re making today and the President made to President Karzai that we would be open to the BSA being signed later in the year, but that as time passes, by necessity because of the complexities of planning withdrawal -- and it’s not just troops, we’re talking about equipment and closing of bases -- that the mission beyond 2014 should a BSA be signed would, by necessity, if it happens late in the year, be smaller in scale and ambition. 

Does that make sense?


Q    On the meeting with Speaker Boehner, in the readout that the Speaker’s office provided is a long, long list of topics -- droughts, floods, fires, Afghanistan -- no mention of long-term budget, entitlements, tax reform.  So what I’m wondering, given that and given the fact that the entitlement reforms were taken out of the President’s budget, or are going to be taken out of the President’s budget, could we now put the last nail in the coffin of the idea of a grand bargain?

MR. CARNEY:  I’d say two things.  First of all, the list that I’ve seen from the Speaker’s office and the one that I’ve provided more or less off the cuff just now I don’t think represents a complete --

Q    But they weren’t banging out a grand bargain, is that right?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I don’t think we suggested that they were or that that was even possible in the time that they met.  What remains absolutely the case is that the President is ready and willing to negotiate a balanced deficit reduction deal, long-term deficit reduction deal, if Republicans are willing to meet him halfway and are willing to commit to balance.  That’s what the inclusion of so-called chained CPI in his budget last year was about. 

It was the exception to the rule, when it comes to the presentation by Presidents of their budgets, in that it included not a priority for him, but a priority for Republicans, because that was an effort to make clear in the presentation of his budget that the offer he had made to the Speaker of the House in negotiations at the end of the previous year was still on the table and that it was a good-faith offer, and that he believed, based on those negotiations, there was the possibility that Republicans might be willing to meet him halfway in achieving that grand bargain, if you will, or even a mid-sized bargain that was based on a balanced approach to dealing with our deficit challenge -- an approach that allowed us, because of the balance, to make sure that we weren’t achieving that deficit reduction solely on the backs of the middle class, that we are asking everybody to participate, and that we would be able to make the necessary investments in our economy in innovation and job creation that would secure the foundation for growth in the future.

So that’s a long way of saying the offer, as I said last week, is on the table, but we have not, despite our, I think, persistent efforts last year -- all the meetings and coffees and dinners and the like to try to test the theory that Republicans were willing to have discussions about this -- despite those efforts producing nothing out of the Republicans.

Q    So whoever’s fault it is, has the President come to terms with the likelihood, maybe even certainty, that he will leave office having been unable to achieve an agreement that will even address the long-term challenges facing Social Security and Medicare?  That is just something that he will have left and left the problem for his successors to deal with?

MR. CARNEY:  The President has nearly three years remaining in his term.  And he believes that there’s enormous opportunity for progress in a range of areas with Congress and through the use of his executive authority.  And he would not say that there’s no chance of that effort being rewarded with success, but it requires a willingness by Republicans to compromise, to agree to the basic principle that if we’re going to tackle our longer-term deficit and debt challenges, that we have to do it in a balanced way.

And you’ve seen kind of the schizophrenia among Republicans on this issue where they criticize the President for taking CPI out when they refuse to deal in good faith on a compromise -- a negotiation built around compromise last year when the President explicitly made clear it was on the table and put it in his budget.  You see it where they try to hammer Democrats over savings and entitlements that have been in the Republican budget for three straight years.  I think it doesn’t reflect well on their seriousness when it comes to trying to reach a compromise bipartisan long-term deficit reduction plan.

I would also say that the President remains hopeful that that can be achieved during his time in office.  He will, regardless, based on projections and based on where we are now, have presided over the steepest deficit reduction since World War II.  He will have presided over deficit reduction that brings in the next 10-year window, based on our projections, the deficit-to-GDP below 2 percent, which is significantly lower than the projections under the much celebrated Simpson-Bowles goal.  And he will have done that having inherited the largest deficits in history when he took office in January of 2009.

Q    And then quickly on Afghanistan.  Obviously, this is a big deal -- I mean, the frustration of not being able to get the BSA signed; enormous consequences if the United States has to pull out every last troop at the end of the year.  And yet, the President hasn’t had a conversation with President Karzai since July until today.  I mean, why that level of detachment?  With the stakes so high, why did the President go so long without picking up the phone and talking to Karzai and personally urging him to sign this agreement?

MR. CARNEY:  Jon, I think it’s a preposterous suggestion that when you have prolonged negotiation with the Afghan government that produces the Bilateral Security Agreement, you have the commitment through the loya jirga of the Afghan people to support it, you have a deadline set by both the U.S. and Afghan government that it should be signed by the end of the year, and you have all of the interlocutors that we have on the U.S. side engaging with the Afghan government, including with the President on a regular basis, that the message that it needs to be signed was not abundantly clear to President Karzai.  The decision of President Karzai to indicate that it is unlikely that he’ll sign the BSA that his government negotiated is obviously his decision, but it’s not because we haven’t made clear that it ought to be signed.

Q    I mean, what do you make -- again, you’ve got many -- you’ve got the Secretary of State, you’ve got many people raising this issue.  But this is the President of the United States.  This is a high-stakes situation.  And he decided obviously it was important to make the call today.  I’m just wondering why not as the deadline approached, or as the deadline passed?  I mean, why --

MR. CARNEY:  Jon, I just think that it has been communicated directly and indirectly --

Q    But not by the President himself.  You know how --

MR. CARNEY:  Well, no, the President has stood up and said it publicly many times.  I think it’s sort of a preposterous notion that somehow President Karzai until today didn’t know that it was absolutely our view that he ought to sign the BSA quickly.


Q    Does the White House have any assurances or reason to believe that some or all of the presidential candidates in Afghanistan would sign the BSA if they were elected?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t think we would, given the experience we’ve had, predict with any great certainty what might happen.  I would note that those who cover these issues have reported that candidates have suggested they support it.  But we will obviously wait to see what happens.

And mindful of the fact that the longer we go without a signed BSA the more likely a zero option becomes, and the more -- even if a BSA is signed, the smaller the mission will have to be, by necessity, in scale and ambition.  And by necessity, I mean in the President’s view when it comes to the planning involved and the safety and security of our troops, that we have to have a sort of sliding scale as the year progresses when it comes to what that post-2014 mission would look like in terms of size and ambition.


Q    Jay, if I can, Jan Brewer is expected by the end of this week to weigh in on a controversial measure in her state, SB 1062.  We asked you about this yesterday and you didn't have an official statement then, but this would allow businesses to refuse service to gays and lesbians because of religious beliefs. And we’ve now heard from the NFL, Apple, both senators from that state.  Does the President have any thoughts on this?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, my suggestion yesterday that it sounded like a pretty intolerant proposed law I think reflects our views. As a practice, we don't generally weigh in on every piece of legislation under consideration in the states.  But I think the President’s position on equality for LGBT Americans and opportunity for all is very well known and he believes that all of us, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, should be treated fairly and equally with dignity and respect.  And that view would govern our disposition toward a state law under consideration.

Q    When Jan Brewer was in Washington, the President didn't have any exchange with her on this topic?

MR. CARNEY:  Not that I’m aware of.

Q    President Clinton right now is campaigning in the state of Kentucky for Alison Lumdergan Grimes.  I’m curious if the President has plans or has spoken to her about plans to come out to Kentucky on her behalf as well.

MR. CARNEY:  I don't have any scheduling announcements to make involving the President.

Q    In terms of your schedule, later today the President has two OFA events.  The DNC is the only major political entity that has not outraised its Republican counterparts.  Some Democrats have been critical, complaining that the OFA is diverting funds away from the DNC.  Because you speak on behalf of the President and it’s his schedule, any thoughts on that complaint?

MR. CARNEY:  I think you can expect, as you’ve seen already, the President to be very engaged in an effort to support Democratic candidates in the Democratic Party through the course of this year, and I think that will be seen in the schedule as it is unveiled.

Q    Jay, following on what you told Peter about the Arizona law, you said you don't weigh in on every state law.  Why then is the Attorney General telling state attorneys general today, you do not have to defend laws banning same-sex marriage in individual states.  If those laws are onerous, discriminatory, you don't like them, why don't you work to overturn them?  Why is the Attorney General telling other attorneys general, don't defend the law?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, two things.  The Attorney General was clear that any decision not to defend individual laws must be “exceedingly rare,” in his quotes, and be based on “firm constitutional grounds”. 

As you know -- and I think this goes to the first part of your question -- prior to the Supreme Court on DOMA, the President determined that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional and that his administration would no longer defend equal protection challenges against it in the courts.  So the Attorney General’s views --

Q    So can't individual states decide whether they think it’s constitutional or unconstitutional? 

MR. CARNEY:  I’m not aware that -- while I’m not a lawyer, but I’m not sure that states decide what’s constitutional.

Q    Can I ask you about health care?  Secretary Sebelius was on HuffPost Live today, was asked about the original goal of 7 million new enrollees by the end of March, would you still hit that, and she said, “Certainly hope so.”  So I wonder -- she wouldn’t give a specific number.  But she said I hope we hit that target.  Is 7 million still the goal, or the 5 million, 6 million goal that the Vice President said?

MR. CARNEY:  I’d say a couple of things, Ed.  I think what Secretary Sebelius was reflecting is that we don't have a specific numerical goal in the sense that --

Q    You did months ago.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I’m happy to go through that again, but the --

Q    And you put out a --

MR. CARNEY:   Hold on, hold on, Ed, let me get through my sentence.  That there’s not a specific number that we hit and suddenly it’s a success, and below that by one or five or 20 and it doesn't work.

The important factors here are that there’s a substantial number of people, in the millions, who enroll.  We are very confident we will reach that goal.  Also important is that there’s a good mix demographically who have enrolled, and we believe based on the data we’ve seen thus far, and based on the experience that Massachusetts had, the closest thing to a model and precursor to the Affordable Care Act at a state level, that we will achieve that necessary demographic mix for the exchanges to work effectively.

When it comes to the 7 million target that CBO simply said was what they believed based on their analysis we would reach, and that it’s true other administration officials then said we hoped we would achieve that, I think what the Vice President said reflects our basic view that we’re going to get a lot of folks by the March 31st deadline.

You won’t hear me or the Secretary or anybody else say it’s going to be this number or over that number.  We’re confident that the website has been working effectively for the vast majority of the American people who want to avail themselves of it in order to purchase insurance, and that the numbers that we’ve seen put us on track, as long as we do our jobs well, to achieve the goal of a substantial number in the millions of Americans.

Q    Last one:  CMS had a report from the administration in the last few days about the impact on small businesses of the health care law, and they pointed out that the impact on large companies will be negligible, there will not be a huge impact.  But on small businesses, they said nearly two-thirds of them will pay more for coverage.  Since this is the administration saying this, is that not concerning?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, of course, the truth about what the CMS evaluated was one provision or one of three -- they looked at three provisions within the law, just three, not the rest.  And only one of them has a measurable impact on premiums.  So they didn't look at the whole impact of the law and on the one provision, they showed the result that you just mentioned.  But this is another Republicans cherry-picking data to tell half the story about the Affordable Care Act.

Q    But it’s an administration report.  Why wouldn’t they look at the whole law?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think it was an administration report requested and now highlighted by Republicans, again narrowly looking at one provision, which was the requirement that insurance companies no longer, in terms of setting their premiums, advantage seniors over young people and the like.  So the fact is the net impact, we believe, will be positive.  And the report itself clearly states several times that its results are incomplete and overstated, only looks at the impact of certain parts of the law, not the law as a whole.

Other studies that did look at the impact of the law as a whole found that the impact on premiums would be minimal and the benefits to employers and to workers would be significant -- here are some examples of provisions in the ACA that help to lower costs.  In other words, I mean, the point is they looked at one thing that in isolation would have the effect of raising premiums for some individuals without looking at all the other aspects of the law that would actually produce a downward effect on premiums -- tax credits for small businesses, the medical loss ratio, rate review, more purchasing power, more competition between insurers -- all of those elements of the law have the opposite effect. 

So again, when looked at in whole, which is how we tend to do it, as opposed to those who want to repeal the law or sabotage it or undermine it -- looked at a whole, we believe the impact on premiums would be minimal and the benefits to employers would be and will be significant.

Q    You just told Ed that the ACA was achieving a good demographic mix, which runs counter to everything we’ve heard -- skewing older, we understand.  And you’ve got people out there pushing very hard to get younger people in is because they’re underrepresented. 

MR. CARNEY:  Well, actually that’s a misrepresentation of the facts so far.  Where we are in terms of -- based on the data that’s come out in terms of young Americans, young people signing up for ACA, is consistent with where Massachusetts was, A.  B, consistent with where Massachusetts was, young people tend to be late signers-up, they tend to come at this very late.  And hence, as we telegraphed way in advance, there is an enormous effort aimed at reaching young people to make sure they are aware of all the options available to them, make sure they are aware of the wisdom of having health insurance and aware of the fact that they’re not invincible just because they sometimes feel like they are because they’re young and they don’t have the aches and pains that you and I have some days.  They’re going to need health insurance and some of them will need it right away.  So that campaign is underway. 

But we feel, based on the data that we’ve seen and has been released, that we are on track to have the demographic mix that we need.

Q    That means you don’t have it yet.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, no.  It’s February and the deadline is March 31st. 

Q    Young people are all going to sign up later?

MR. CARNEY:  I think that it is -- I can say with great confidence, based on an enormous body of evidence when it comes to deadlines of this nature and open enrollment periods for a general population, that people tend to sign up in surges towards the end of open enrollment periods.  That’s just a fact.  We saw that at the end of December.  And young people in particular are more prone to wait until the last minute.  I think you don’t have to be a sociologist to know that.  You just have to be a parent.

Q    Chairman Camp either has or is about to release his tax program, which, as we’ve heard, two brackets, 10 and 25 percent, with a 10 percent surtax on large earners.  Is this something that the White House has seen, is interested in, could get behind?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, we haven’t seen the proposal.  We’ve certainly seen a couple of news articles about it or reports about it.  So I don’t have a comment on something we haven’t seen.  But what I can say is that the President has been clear about his principles.  He fought to keep taxes low for 98 percent of Americans.  He fought and succeeded in making permanent a tax cut for middle-class Americans.  He fought and succeeded to return marginal rates for millionaires and billionaires back to what they were under President Clinton, and he succeeded in doing that.  He laid out a corporate tax reform plan that would close loopholes to make our businesses more competitive and use savings through the process of closing loopholes to modernize our infrastructure and invest in what we need to grow.  He will continue to take steps to promote economic security for the middle class and opportunity for all. 

That’s the President’s approach.  I don’t have a response to a tax proposal that we haven’t seen.


Q    Jay, last year the President was sensitive publicly to Speaker Boehner’s -- I guess, the pressure on him if the two of them met publicly or were seen publicly.  The President actually even joked about it and he wanted to give the Speaker some running room especially on immigration reform.  The fact that the two of them met today, does it signal that the President believes the Speaker is in a stronger place to work together on legislation, or that immigration reform is going to have to wait for a new Congress?

MR. CARNEY:  I would say, Alexis, that the President asked for the meeting with the Speaker and was glad to have the meeting with the Speaker.  It was a good and constructive meeting in which they discussed a range of topics, focused on those areas where here in Washington we either need to take action or where we should take action in order to expand opportunity and reward hard work for middle-class Americans.  I don’t think the more nuanced analysis of that played into the meeting.  It was just a meeting. 

And I think there is -- going to my response to a question earlier, whether it’s the Speaker or another Republican leader, there has not been a lack of conversations and meetings between the President and Republican leaders, or senior members of the President’s team and Republican leaders that is the cause for our failure to achieve everything we need to achieve here in Washington.  I think as many of you in this room have amply documented in your reporting, there has been enormous resistance to compromise, largely driven by one faction of one House -- of one party in one House of Congress. 

But even when it comes to the so-called grand bargain that Jon was asking about earlier, the President -- we spend a lot of time meeting with Republican senators -- so not even in the House, but Republican senators -- that we and you had hoped would be open to taking a compromise approach, and all those efforts resulted in not a single proposal from Republicans. 

So the President’s good-faith proposal remains on the table on that broader issue.  And meanwhile, we’re just going to continue to work with Congress to get the things done that we can get done.  And when Congress won’t, or where the President has unique powers or authority to advance an agenda using his pen or his phone, he’s going to do that.

Q    Can I just follow up and ask you, in all seriousness, when you say it was just a meeting but you also say it was a very useful conversation, what was particularly useful about the two of them meeting face to face?

MR. CARNEY:  Alexis, I would simply say two things.  As I noted earlier, we don’t read out every meeting and conversation that the President has.  And two, this particular meeting was good and constructive and it, as I think both sides have said, covered a range of topics.

Q    Were there other people in the meeting?  Who else was in the meeting?  Where did they get together?

MR. CARNEY:  I believe Katie Beirne Fallon, our Legislative Affairs Director, was in the meeting.  I’m not sure if anybody else was.  But we’ll get that for you.

Q    In the Oval?

MR. CARNEY:  In the Oval, yes.

Q    Jay, a couple questions.  On demographics for young people, I just wanted to get a sense.  So right now, according to the most recent stats, I think we stand around 27 percent of the enrollees.  General experts have talked about needing 40 percent of enrollees to be young people.  Could you just define success?

MR. CARNEY:  No, I think that the general experts have said that 40 percent of people who are uninsured are young people.  That’s a little different from what you would need for the exchanges to have the demographic mix that’s necessary for them to function effectively.

So if you look at the Massachusetts experience, the fact that 27 percent, as you identify, is roughly where we are now, that is entirely consistent with where Massachusetts was.  And we remain --

Q    At the end of the process or at this point in the process?

MR. CARNEY:  At this point in the process.  And we remain hopeful and optimistic that, not least because of the efforts that are being undertaken to reach out to folks around the country, that come March 31st, we will have a demographic mix that will meet the criteria necessary to have effective exchanges.

Q    And then on wildfires, I was just wondering, given that you have a new budgetary proposal and that came up at the meeting with the Speaker, can you describe to what extent he seemed open to that proposal, which obviously would require action by Congress?

MR. CARNEY:  I wouldn’t characterize on behalf of the Speaker his views.  I would simply concur that it came up in the meeting.  I laid out in some detail yesterday in the briefing what the President’s approach is, essentially acknowledging that these severe wildfires create extraordinary emergencies and that we have been in funding suppression efforts -- basically stealing from one fund in order to deal with suppression -- and therefore leaving us short in a fund that is meant to provide mitigation efforts.  So because of that, the President is taking the approach that he is taking.

Yes, Peter.

Q    Back on Afghanistan and the call today.  To what extent was it timed to allow Defense Secretary Hagel to put the zero option more fully on the table when he meets with his fellow NATO colleagues in Brussels?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think part of that sentence reflects the timing.  One of the reasons for the call earlier this week is because Secretary Hagel will be participating in the NATO Defense Ministerial later this week, and obviously planning for a potential post-2014 force is something that will be on the agenda at that NATO Defense Ministerial.  So that relates to the timing.

Again, the prospect of no troops beyond the end of this year has been on the table in the sense that for these past weeks President Karzai has been indicating that he’s unlikely to sign the BSA, and absent a signed BSA, we cannot and will not have U.S. or NATO troops in Afghanistan and the longer we go without the BSA being signed the more real that prospect becomes.  The planning for that contingency is underway, and I think that was one of the messages the President sought to convey today to President Karzai.

Q    Did he also send him a message about U.S. aid, the future of U.S. aid being contingent on signing a BSA, as some in Congress have demanded?

MR. CARNEY:  We gave a fairly strong readout and full readout of the call.  I think that we have made clear that our commitment to Afghanistan separate from a potential troop presence beyond 2014 is in our national security interests and continues.  So I don’t have anything further as it relates to non-military aid or funding that isn’t related to a military presence. 


Q    Jay, what is the White House anxiety level when it comes to the next move that President Putin may take regarding Ukraine?

MR. CARNEY:  Jon-Christopher, our views on this remain what they have been, which is that we strongly believe that it is in both Russia’s and Europe’s interest that there be a de-escalation of violence in Ukraine; that there be stability restored in Ukraine; that there be steps taken to establish a unity government, a multiparty government, a technocratic government that reflects all sectors of Ukrainian society; and that there be early elections, which would allow the country to have a government that broadly reflects the will of the Ukrainian people. 

In the meantime, obviously, decisions need to be made to ensure that the economic piece of that stability is achieved.  And we are, as I said yesterday, working with our partners and allies to look at ways that we could complement a potential IMF effort along those lines. 

When it comes to Russia, as I said, we don’t view this as a binary proposition.  The fact is Ukrainians have expressed very clearly over the past weeks and months that they desire greater integration with Europe.  And if that is what they desire, no other entity should deny them that opportunity -- no state or other entity should deny them that opportunity.  But it is not a contradiction to say that Ukraine can achieve that further integration with Europe that the Ukrainian people desire while still maintaining close, historic and cultural and economic ties to Russia.  We believe both are possible and both reflect Ukraine’s history and the desires today of Ukraine’s people.

Q    Jay, as you know -- you’ve spent a lot of time in this region -- the Ukrainian people are not solidified on exactly which way they want to go.  So where does the White House --

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I’m not sure --

Q    There’s the East and there’s the West concept.

MR. CARNEY:  Sure.  I would say a couple of things.  One, we strongly believe, and believe that Europe and Ukraine and Russia do or ought to share the view that Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity and unity needs to be preserved.  I would note that in the actions taken by parliament in the last several days, the substantial majorities have included votes from parliamentarians of President Yanukovych’s party.  And that’s not an insignificant development. 

So what is important going forward is that Ukraine take steps both in the establishment of a technocratic unity government and then through the process of free and fair elections that ensure that the government of Ukraine in the future reflects the will of all the Ukrainian people and allows for the voices of all the people of Ukraine to be heard.


Q    The State Department has confirmed that the United States has expelled three Venezuelan diplomats to the embassy here.  President Maduro says he plans to nominate a new ambassador to Washington and improve the American perception of him.  Does the White House welcome that, especially given the enormous oil trade relationship?  And of course, with all the protests there, does the U.S. want the relationship diplomatically?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I appreciate the question.  I’d say a couple of things.  One, the United States did declare three Venezuelan diplomats PNG yesterday evening.  That was a reciprocal move.  This action was taken, as I said, based on reciprocity for the February 17 expulsion of three U.S. consular officials from Venezuela.

On the broader matter, I would simply say that President Maduro needs to focus on addressing the legitimate grievances of the Venezuelan people through meaningful dialogue with them, not through dialogue with the United States.  Despite what the Venezuelan government would like to lead people to believe, this is not a U.S.-Venezuela issue.  It is an issue between Venezuela and its people.  We’ve been clear all along that the future of Venezuela is for the Venezuelan people to decide.  And we have indicated our readiness to develop a more constructive relationship with Venezuela.  As we said many months ago, that could include an exchange of ambassadors.  Venezuela, however, needs to show seriousness for us to be able to move forward.  Recent actions, including expelling three of our diplomats, continue to make that difficult.

So I think the issues right now for the Venezuelan government have to do with establishing a dialogue with the Venezuelan people.  This is not a U.S.-Venezuelan issue.

I’ll do that last one.  Dan, did you have any?

Q    Yes, on Iran.  I just wanted to ask you about a couple statements by Netanyahu before the Merkel visit and during the Merkel visit.  Before it, he said -- again, he said this before that he believes Iran has set out to become a threshold power with continuing enrichment capabilities.  And today I believe he said that he’s spoken to -- all Middle East leaders he’s spoken to agree that it was a mistake to go on the course that the P5-plus-1 have gone on.  Does the U.S. disagree with that, that Middle East leaders think it was a mistake?  Has there been any headway in some of the concerns that the Gulf and Saudis have, with the Saudi Arabia trip coming up?

MR. CARNEY:  I hadn’t taken a survey of Middle East opinion or the opinion of all Middle Eastern leaders.  I would say that, first, the Joint Plan of Action is an interim agreement reached by the P5-plus-1 that commits Iran to freeze or roll back aspects of its program that allows over a six-month period for the negotiations towards a comprehensive solution to take place. Getting that comprehensive solution will surely be difficult and it is far from a guarantee, but is absolutely the right thing to do, especially given the commitments Iran had to make as part of the Joint Plan of Action to test whether or not Iran is now ready to get right with the international community, comply with the United Nations Security Council resolutions, and take steps to, in a transparent and verifiable way, make clear to the world that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapon.

Our bottom-line proposal, our position is that Iran cannot have -- cannot acquire a nuclear weapon.  So the best way to achieve that for the long term is for Iran itself to give up the effort.  But the President takes no options off the table.  He simply believes that given the commitments that Iran has made and the enforcement mechanisms and verification mechanisms in place that we need to test whether or not a comprehensive solution is possible.  Because obviously achieving a nuclear-weapon-free Iran through diplomatic agreement that is verifiable and transparent is a far better outcome than alternatives.

Thanks, all

2:09 P.M. EST

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