The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Jay Carney en route Colorado Springs, CO, 6/29/12

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Colorado Springs, Colorado

11:38 A.M. EDT

MR. CARNEY:  Good morning -- still morning -- ladies and gentlemen.  Thank you for joining us aboard Air Force One as we make our way to Colorado, where, as you know, the President will be getting briefed by those who are leading the effort in response to the terrible wildfires that have already caused devastating losses in Colorado, including loss of life. 

We’ll be able to apprise you as we’re on the ground about our specific stops and the schedule.  But I don’t have -- I can’t give you too many details about that right now.

Q    Are you able to lay out a rough schedule of what we’ll be seeing?

MR. CARNEY:  No, not at this time, but we’ll get you some more information as we get a little closer to Colorado.  I can say, generally speaking, the President will meet with the leaders of the effort to deal with the fires, respond to the fires.  He’ll have an opportunity, hopefully, to see some of the damage as well as meet with some of those who have been victimized by the fires.  But beyond that I’ll have to -- we’ll have to give you more details later.

Q    What’s the White House assessment of the deal struck by the European leaders?  And does the President think that the short-term solutions that they’ve agreed to will be enough to kind of ease some of the headwinds on the U.S. economy?

MR. CARNEY:  Julie, I appreciate the question.  I can tell you that, as you know, the President has been consulting with his European counterparts quite a bit, including at the G8 and the G20, and by phone, as you know from the readouts that we’ve been giving.  Secretary Geithner as well, Lael Brainard as well from the Treasury Department, have been very, very much engaged in this. 

We welcome the indications that euro-area leaders made progress last night as they grapple with these challenges.  We also, of course, note that these difficulties will not be resolved overnight, and details remain to be worked out.  But it is encouraging that leaders are looking at ways to reduce immediate financial market stresses and to undertake longer-term reform and integration plans to promote growth and responsible fiscal policies.

Part of your question was the recognition that what happens in the eurozone affects the American economy, and it’s in our national interest for Europe to deal with this crisis and take the action necessary to hold the eurozone together and rebuild confidence, stability and growth.  And again, we were encouraged by some of the progress made last night.

Q    Do you think it’s enough, though, Jay?  That’s sort of the crux of the question.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think I made the point that these challenges will not be resolved overnight, and we don’t expect that they have been resolved overnight.  But these were important -- this was -- we certainly are encouraged by the progress that was made, but a lot of details still need to be worked out.  And we will continue to consult with our European counterparts and monitor the progress that they’re making.

Q    The President encouraged them to take stimulus steps, too.  Does this meet that test?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, I’m not going to get into a detailed assessment of the progress that they did make last night.  As I said, the details still need to be worked out.  And this is, as we’ve said all along, an ongoing process of steps that need to be taken.  And prior to last night, the Europeans had taken some significant steps towards dealing with this, and I’m sure there will be more steps taken in the future. 

Coming out of both the G8 and the G20 there was a commitment by eurozone members to focus on the need for growth and job creation as well as fiscal consolidation.  And that is the European commitment, and it certainly is in line with the views of the President about what he believes is the right course to take.

Q    Jay, following the vote yesterday afternoon, did the President call -- make any calls to lawmakers or anybody in particular just to discuss the vote or to --

MR. CARNEY:  The vote?

Q    No, excuse me, not the vote, the -- not the contempt vote, the health care decision?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t have any calls to read out to you beyond the one he made to the Solicitor General, congratulating him.  If I do -- if and when I do, I’ll apprise you of them.

Q    What is the President’s reaction to the fact that the Court upheld the law as a tax, when that was exactly what the President said in various interviews it was not going -- it was not -- the mandate was not a tax?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think you need to read the opinion.  I know it’s long, but the opinion in question here said that the Affordable Care Act was entirely constitutional under Congress’s taxing power.  And what I can tell you is that if Republicans want to talk about taxes, then we’re happy to have that debate, because there is a very clear difference here. 

President Obama has cut taxes by $3,600 for the average middle-class family in this country since he’s been in office.  As you know, Republican budget plans would raise taxes on every middle-class family to give every millionaire and billionaire a $250,000 tax cut.  There is simply no way to achieve the revenue-neutral promise that has been made on that expensive, many-trillion-dollar tax cut unless middle-class Americans get hit hard. 

And the facts are clear with regard to the Affordable Care Act.  The health care law provides a significant tax cut of up to $4,000 for 18 million middle-class individuals and families
-- a tax cut that, by the way, Republicans in Washington continue to vow to repeal, which, if that were to occur, would result in another hit to the middle class. 

With regard to the penalty, as was discussed by Chief Justice Roberts in his opinion, for those who can afford health insurance but choose to remain uninsured, forcing the rest of us to pay for their care, a penalty is administered as part of the Affordable Care Act.  And this is estimated by the CBO to affect 1 percent of the population -- 1 percent.  This is not -- you can call it what you want, but it is affecting 1 percent of the population, because most people either have health insurance or will do the responsible thing, and if they can afford health insurance they will purchase it.  Those who cannot afford it, as you know, will benefit from the generous credits and subsidies that exist in the Affordable Care Act as a part of the expansion of coverage to 30 million Americans. 

I would also note -- it is important to remember this -- that the penalty within the Affordable Care Act that would apply, by CBO estimates, to 1 percent of the population, is modeled exactly on the penalty that exists in the health care reform that was promoted and signed into law by Governor Romney in Massachusetts. 

Q    Jay, so when you talk about the tax cuts in the health care plan, do you mean those credits and subsidies on average?

MR. CARNEY:  On average, $4,000 -- or, rather, sorry -- a tax cut of up to $4,000 for 18 million middle-class individuals and families. 

Q    And so is it your contention -- I did read not all of the opinion, but most of it.  So you guys are still saying it's a penalty, not a tax?

MR. CARNEY:  You can call it what you want.  If you read the opinion, it is not a broad-based tax.  It affects 1 percent, by CBO estimates, of the population.  It is not something that you assess like an income tax. 

Q    But for that 1 percent, is it a tax or a penalty?

MR. CARNEY:  It's a penalty because you have a choice.  You don’t have a choice to pay your taxes, right?  You have a choice to buy -- if you can afford health insurance -- and you can, I assume, Jared.  So if you don't buy it, and you can afford it, it is an irresponsible thing to do to ask the rest of America’s  taxpayers to pay for your care when you go to the emergency room.  So your choice is to purchase health care reform or a penalty will be administered.

And again, that affects, by CBO estimates, 1 percent of the population likely, and it is modeled very closely after the provision in the health care reform law that Governor Romney signed when he was in Massachusetts.

Q    Jay, speaking of taxes, would the President consider, and has anyone from the White House proposed, extending the Bush tax cuts by six months so that negotiations over the fiscal cliff next year or this year can have a little more time?

MR. CARNEY:  Speaking of taxes and middle-class tax cuts, as I said the President has provided a tax cut to -- well, since he’s been in office, he’s cut taxes by $3,600 for the average middle-class family.  He has also signed into law 18 small business tax cuts. 

When it comes to extending the Bush tax cuts, you know what his position is.  If Congress wanted to give middle-class Americans -- not every American -- 98 percent of tax-paying Americans the security of knowing that their taxes will not go up by extending and making permanent those tax cuts for middle-class Americans, he would sign that the minute it hit his desk.  And that remains his position.

It is also his position that we cannot afford to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of American taxpayers.  And I would note that Republican plans and plans of the titular leader of the Republican Party include extending those tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and another $5 trillion in tax cuts that would disproportionately benefit those very -- it basically would benefit people like President Obama and Governor Romney, and I don't know, maybe some of you if you're millionaires or billionaires, but not middle-class Americans. 

And in fact, to pay for that tax cut, if you are promising to make it revenue-neutral, you would have to raise taxes on middle-class Americans by wiping out -- wiping out -- some of the tax credits and deductions that average Americans enjoy for their mortgages or health care, education and the like.

So we are more than happy to debate tax policy and the actions that this President has taken to lower taxes for the middle class and to insist that the wealthiest Americans who have fared much better than middle-class Americans over these past dozen years or so to pay their fair share.

Q    Jay, did he do anything last night to celebrate after the ruling when he got back from Walter Reed?  And could you talk a little bit about his general mood?  I know you’ve released some details about the immediate aftermath, but was he relieved?  Was he -- any other color you can share with us about yesterday?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I can tell you that he believes and we all believe that yesterday was a good day for the American people; a good day for -- sometimes it’s really helpful to step back and look at the real people who are affected by this.  This is a meaningful thing in many, many, many people’s lives.

I was reading this morning, before I got on the helicopter, a blog post by a woman whose daughter, who’s 21 years old and had cancer, and they were terrified that had the Affordable Care Act been overturned that the provision within it that allows young people to stay on their parent’s insurance until they’re 26 would be eliminated; and that she -- this young woman would spend the rest of her life scrambling to get health care coverage.

Some of those stories are one -- one of those stories is one that the President cited when he gave his remarks yesterday.  And he is familiar with many, many, many more.

There was -- we were obviously pleased by the ruling, but we have a lot of work to do.  The President has a lot more work to do.  It was a very measured response to what the President always believed would happen, which is that the Supreme Court would uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. 

So that’s how this works.  A moment like this happens and you take a minute to acknowledge the importance of it, the significance of it, and then you get back to work.  And you get back to work implementing the law.  You get back to work focusing on his number-one priority, which is jobs and the economy.  You get back to work doing what he’s doing today to assess the situation and be briefed on the situation -- these historically terrible wildfires in the West. 

And I think it’s interesting that you mention that coming back from Walter Reed did he celebrate.  I mean, I -- you really have the full spectrum of what it is to be President in a situation -- in a day like yesterday.  As you know, Walter Reed visits are very powerful things.

Q    Back to the question of taxes.  Has anyone from the White House proposed or floated the idea to people on the Hill of extending the Bush tax cuts for a temporary period of time, such as six months, in order to create more space for the negotiations about the fiscal issues?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, our position is that the middle-class tax cuts should be extended and made permanent.  And when I say middle class I mean tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people.  It has been the absolute intransigence of unfortunately some folks on the Hill in insisting that tax cuts be extended to the wealthiest Americans that has prevented that from happening in the past. 

We believe that -- or we hope that Congress will take the right action and make sure that tax cuts for middle-class Americans will not be held hostage to an insistence that millionaires and billionaires get another tax cut.

Q    All right.  But my question is, has the White House proposed it?

MR. CARNEY:  Look, first of all, I would simply say, don’t believe everything you read.  And secondly, I'm not going to get into negotiations about the fiscal cliff and what may or may not transpire come the end of the year. 

The President's position is not just rhetorical, but documented in detail in his budget proposal.  Everyone who has looked at this situation who's looked at it responsibly will tell you that the way to deal with our medium- and long-term fiscal challenges is to have a comprehensive, balanced plan, which is exactly what the President has put forward, modeled after the Simpson-Bowles Commission, modeled after the Domenici-Rivlin Commission.  In fact, different from the Simpson-Bowles Commission only in the fact that it raises fewer revenues and cuts defense less.  So you would think making it more palatable to Republicans. 

Q    Are there negotiations going on, though?  I mean, you just referred to -- 

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t have any updates for you on conversations about budget matters.  Our position is clear.

Q    Jay, on Syria -- there’s this meeting happening in Geneva over the weekend, and Secretary Clinton says that she expects it to be a turning point.  So, I guess, what are the White House expectations for that meeting?  And can this really be a turning point if Russia still isn't fully on board with the U.S. and other international partners?

MR. CARNEY:  I would say that the June 30 meeting that you reference in Geneva could be an opportunity to press forward with Syria's political transition, should all partners work together on this goal in good faith and with the interest of a better future for Syria in mind.  We are working closely with the Syrian opposition to ensure that a transition would guarantee fundamental rights as well as those of minorities.  And this is a critical element of any transition, and is a priority to the United States.

In the meantime, we continue to squeeze the regime financially.  U.S. and international sanctions have had a significant effect on Assad's reserves and are making it difficult for this regime to finance its brutality. 

Going specifically to your question, as Secretary Clinton said, we are hopeful that the Geneva meeting can be a turning point in the Syria crisis.  Mr. Annan has shown solid leadership on this effort, and has developed his own concrete roadmap for political transition.  This meeting and Annan's roadmap provide a very real foundation for effecting transition in Syria.

Q    But can it only be a turning point if you have Russian agreement on a transition plan in Syria?

MR. CARNEY:  I think that the point I made about all partners needing to work together on this goal in good faith and with the interest of a better future for Syria in mind speaks to that.  And we’ve obviously had our differences with Russia on Syria, and we’ve been very clear about them, both with you and with the Russians.  And the nature of the relationship we have with Russia is that we can continue to work together despite our differences on issues of common agreement.

And the fact is the Russians themselves have said that they believe there needs to be a political process in Syria.  We believe that there needs to be a transition that, by definition, cannot include Assad because he has long since given up any credibility he might have with the Syrian people by his decision to murder them and assault them.  But we are continuing to talk with all our partners, including the Russians, in an effort to try to bring about an international consensus that would lead to the kind of transition that the Syrian people desperately desire and deserve.

Q    Jay, you talked about the -- consequences of the Supreme Court.  When people are running from wildfire, looking to the government is kind of an obvious thing to do.  Does the President see a similar role for the government in dealing with something a little more abstract like health care?

MR. CARNEY:  No.  I think the President’s approach on health care reform was modeled after conservative proposals, as you know, that build on, as his does, our private insurance system.  And he believes that that was the right approach to take in an effort to expand coverage to millions of Americans as well as get costs under control, which was the objective of the Affordable Care Act. 

And I know you have this information, so I won’t overburden you with it today, about the many millions of Americans who have benefited already from the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and the millions more who will benefit as more of the law comes online and the exchanges are set up.

But it’s important to remember that this was a reform to our health care system that was modeled after conservative proposals originating in conservative think tanks in the Republican Party, and build on, deliberately, our free market, private insurance system.  And going back to your question, if you have health insurance, you’re not going to pay a tax.  You’re not going to pay a dime under the Affordable Care Act.

Q    But the Republicans are going to say that --

MR. CARNEY:  Well, but they’re not telling the truth.  And all you have to do is look at the law.  All you have to do is look at the opinion that was written.  We’re talking about a penalty that would be paid by someone like Jared -- (laughter) -- if he’s irresponsible and can afford health care insurance, but doesn’t buy it because he wants -- in the past, he would have shifted the cost of his care over to you and me, and every other American who has insurance and is forced to pay higher premiums because of folks who can afford to buy insurance but don’t. 

So again, as the CBO has documented, that would affect approximately 1 percent of the population.  And that’s a fact.

Q    What’s next for Eric Holder?

MR. CARNEY:  He’s going to continue his excellent work as Attorney General of the United States.

Q    Can you rule out prosecution?

MR. CARNEY:  It is an established principle, dating back to the administration of President Ronald Reagan, that the Justice Department does not pursue prosecution in a contempt case when the President has asserted executive privilege.  The assertion of executive privilege makes the contempt matter moot, if you will.  I mean, I’m not a lawyer, so I’m probably not using quite the precise language.  But it is my understanding, and I would refer you to the Justice Department, that dating back to the administration of President Reagan that prosecutions will not take place under this -- in this circumstance.

And let’s just be clear, as I know all of you recognize, that this is pure politics -- pure politics.  Again, in some ways, remarkably, the chairman of the committee involved here has asserted that he has no evidence that the Attorney General knew of operation Fast and Furious or did anything but take the right action when he learned of it.  No evidence.  So if you have no evidence, as he’s stated now about the White House and the Attorney General, what else could this be than politics?

And this administration, the Department of Justice, the White House have made several good faith efforts to try to accommodate the committee’s request.  Thus far they’ve made a strategic choice to try to somehow make a political play here that I don't really think will be effective, because perhaps short of inspiring some small segment of the American electorate out there, I think it will turn off most Americans who just are sick of the political gamesmanship in Washington and want Congress to focus on the things that they care about, like job creation and economic growth, and national security and innovation, education -- those issues that are absolute priorities for the American people.

You know, I was -- I covered Congress back in the ‘90s when the chairman of that same committee, I think as I recall correctly, managed to pass -- when the Republicans controlled Congress -- get a contempt -- a vote of contempt of the Attorney General just through the committee of Janet Reno.  And then Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was, I think we can all agree, not a political friend of the President of the United States at the time, refused to have that vote come to the floor. 

What we have in this situation was a highly partisan political vote in the committee, despite efforts to accommodate the committee, despite all the thousands of pages of documents that were provided, despite the hours of testimony that have been provided.  You had this highly partisan vote in the committee, and then a rush to take it to the floor of the House in what was clearly a political vote.  But I think the American people see it for what it is, which is unfortunate -- because you know what, we’re not here to -- that’s not why -- that’s not what the American people want us to do.  I know it’s not what the President wants to engage it.  It’s like tit for tat, back and forth.  He wants to get things done. 

Q    Jay, on the transportation and student loan bill, which is expected to pass today, I understand from the Hill that it may take several days to get the President’s signature on that.  And a colleague is asking, does the White House believe there will need to be a bridge bill to cover the time period between when the bill passes and when the President will sign it? 

MR. CARNEY:  -- when the President will sign it.  I think the issue is how bills that have to be enrolled -- I mean, this -- as we’ve seen in past cases, there is a slightly anachronistic process that exists in Congress that requires a certain amount of time from passage of a law to its enrollment to its transport to the President’s desk. 

In terms of how that works out to ensure that the transportation funding goes forward and the loan rates aren’t doubled, I’ll leave that to your reporters in Congress to find out for us.  But the President is pleased that Congress has finally reached a bipartisan agreement on the transportation bill that would put Americans to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges and create thousands of jobs.  There is still much more that Congress can do to put Americans back to work.  And the President will continue to call on them to pass pieces of his American Jobs Act that would put teachers, cops, and construction workers back on the job.

But on the whole, going back to this bill, it’s a good bipartisan bill that will create jobs, strengthen our transportation system and grow our economy, and the President looks forward to signing it.

Q    I’m sorry, the President what?

MR. CARNEY:  Looks forward to signing it.

Q    Is the White House aware of a pending deal between BP and Transocean?

MR. CARNEY:  Not that I’m aware of.

Q    One last question, maybe just before we get to Colorado -- do you have any reaction to some of the criticism -- the usual criticism that comes from a trip like this?  We saw former governor -- Governor Owens making the criticism that now is not the appropriate time to go.  And also, there was some criticism about the cancellation of a tanker, air tanker contract earlier in the President’s term that apparently may now be coming back to haunt him a little bit here. 

MR. CARNEY:  I would say a couple of things.  Every time we travel, this is the case.  And the truth is that we are not in any way pulling resources away, because we make sure that we don’t.  And that’s why we're traveling in the manner that we are. 

Additionally, I would say that it's more important to listen to the folks who are actually leading a response.  And you haven't heard similar statements from people on the ground, including the governor, the mayor, or the head of the Forest Service; from them, you've heard just the opposite.  For example, in the Denver Post today, Colorado Mayor Steve Bach said he welcomes President Obama, and said city officials have told the White House that the city won't be able to offer resources to provide security for the President's visit.  I really appreciate the President coming here. 

Q    (Inaudible.)

MR. CARNEY:  Is that right?  Yes.

So I can promise you we will not be diverting any resources.  And as you know, the President signed a disaster declaration for Colorado last night that will enable more federal assistance to come to the aid of Coloradoans suffering from this fire.  And I would just let you know that the disaster declaration Colorado received allows individuals and households who are affected by the High Park and Waldo Canyon fires to receive federal assistance, including disaster unemployment assistance, as well as it makes federal assistance available to support emergency response efforts.  The damage surveys by FEMA are continuing in other areas, and more counties and additional forms of assistance may be designated after those assessments are fully completed.

As of yesterday, 21 air tankers continue to cycle in and out of firefighting action across the western states, and more than 8,800 personnel, more than 550 fire engines, and 170 helicopters are operating on wildfires around the United States.  Approximately half of active, federal wild[fire] fighting resources are currently staged in Colorado. 

More than 1,000 federal, state and local firefighters, approximately 70 fire engines and 6 helicopters are fighting the aggressive Waldo Canyon fire today in the hillsides west of Colorado Springs.  This includes four C1-30 aircraft provided by the Department of Defense, equipped with U.S. Forest Service modular airborne firefighting systems, which have conducted 47 air drops and have dropped more than 127,500 gallons of retardant on the Waldo Canyon and Flagstaff fires. 

Q    Thank you.

MR. CARNEY:  Thanks.

12:09 P.M. EDT

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