The White House

Office of the Press Secretary

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 12/13/2012

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:08 P.M. EST

MR. CARNEY:  Good afternoon.  Thanks for being here at the White House.  I have no announcements, so let’s go straight to questions.  Jim.

Q    Thank you, Jay.  Fiscal cliff:  At the start of the negotiations, the White House welcomed the Republican movement toward revenue.  You guys said that that was a good step in the right direction.  I'm wondering, can you point to something that the President has done that kind of has moved in the direction of Republicans here?  The cuts that you’ve outlined have been ones that have been in your budget.  You’ve asked for almost double -- now you’ve come down to $1.4 trillion -- it’s almost double what the Republicans have put on the table.  And you have $200 billion in stimulus money there.  So what is it that -- can you point to us how that is a negotiation?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, it sounds like you’ve gotten some points for you.  Let’s just be clear.  There is one party to these negotiations who has put forward a specific proposal for revenue and a specific proposal for spending cuts.  Even when the Republicans -- and I saw Speaker Boehner do this earlier today -- insist that the President hasn’t put forward spending cuts, it begs the question, what spending cuts have the Republicans put forward? 

The proposal that we've seen is a two-page letter, and the much-discussed second proposal is less than half a page.  There is no specificity behind what the Republicans have put forward, and no more than a sentence on revenues.

The President has said when it comes to spending cuts, here’s what I propose.  But he understands that it might require tougher choices and a negotiation.  He’s made that clear and he’s said repeatedly that he’s willing to do that.  What we have seen -- and you noted at the top -- is some rhetorical concession to the notion that revenue has to be part of the equation here, but not a single specified source of revenue; only the vague promise that revenue could be achieved through tax reform that somehow makes permanent the high-end tax cuts for the wealthy -- which is non-negotiable and is not happening -- and has a goal of lowering rates further -- i.e. giving another tax cut, an additional tax cut for the wealthy.

This is fantasy economics.  And I know I'm answering at length here, but in 1993 -- I know because I was there and I covered it -- John Boehner got up and said, if we pass the Clinton budget plan we'll lose jobs, the economy will shrink, inflation will go up.  Verbatim he said that, or close to verbatim; I don’t have the exact quote, I had it on my computer.

In 2001, he fiercely advocated for the massive tax cuts that President Bush insisted on, again in 2003, that went disproportionately to the wealthy, promising that they would lead to economic growth and a middle class that was better off. 

Let me just say that while I personally am very fond of John Boehner, his record of predicting what would happen if certain policies, economic policies were instituted is abysmal, okay?  Because after 1993, after that budget plan was passed, we saw record economic growth.  We saw record job creation.  We saw the middle class strengthened and made more secure, and we saw vast amounts of wealth created in this country.

In the aftermath of those two massive tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 that President Bush authored and then-Congressman Boehner advocated, we saw stagnation for the middle class; we saw anemic economic growth, and then the worst financial crisis of our lifetimes -- not to mention surpluses turned into deficits.

So the President has a plan.  The President has been very specific.  He understands that he will not get everything in his plan.  He is prepared to negotiate.  But it is not a tenable position to say that the tax cuts for the wealthy should be made permanent.  It’s not going to happen.  The President has made that clear.

Q    I guess the question was where has the President moved toward the Republicans --

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think, as it's been reported -- of course, not by us, but has been described by those who have received it -- the President has moved in his proposal for revenue and he has put forward very specific spending cuts.  Again, what we lack on either spending or revenue from the Republicans is a single specific -- occasionally I see in reports Republicans saying, well, we have our budget, too.  Okay, if Republicans are saying that their spending cuts include turning Medicare into a voucher, I think they ought to say so.  I think the American people would be very interested to hear that, since we just had an election where that was a focus and it was roundly opposed by a majority of the American people.

I don’t think that’s their position.  And the fact is, is while they insist on greater spending cuts -- and we're willing to have that conversation about additional spending cuts -- we need to know what it is they're proposing.  And they have yet to tell you that, and they have yet to tell us that. 

Q    The Speaker also said that the debt ceiling demands just would never pass Congress.  Is that something that's negotiable to you?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, here's what the President is proposing.  He's proposing that the legislation authored by Senator McConnell -- not a noted Obama sympathizer -- be taken up again and adopted.  And I noted that Speaker Boehner made the point that then-Senator Obama and Senator Reid at the time would not have supported such a move under President George W. Bush.  But here's what I have to say about that.  What happened last year, when House Republicans, led by Speaker Boehner, brought this country to the brink of default had never happened before.  Congress, prior to that, while raising the debt ceiling had been a matter of debate, had always done its job, had never in the history of this country threatened default on our credit. 

And because we can't do that again, because we cannot do what some Republicans seem to think is wise economic policy, which is engage in that folly every three or six months, the President suggested that we adopt Senator McConnell's proposal, which has been in place since the summer of 2011.  And that is all.  And that proposal, by the way, still gives Congress the authority to vote on, and if they disagree with the President's decision, to override a veto of a rejection of raising the debt ceiling.  So the authority still resides there. 

But we cannot play this game, because while it might be satisfying to those with highly partisan and ideological agendas, it's not satisfying to the American people and is punishing to the American economy.  We cannot do it.

Q    But it sounds like this demand -- you would not let that demand hold up a deal if there’s --

MR. CARNEY:  Here's what I'll say about that.  The President believes Congress ought to do its job.  Let's remember what a vote to raise the debt ceiling is.  It is a vote to pay the bills that Congress has incurred.  The President doesn’t control the purse strings -- the President of either party.  Congress passes bills that appropriate money.  Congress says, we're building this bridge or funding that defense project, and they cost this much. And because it is the United States, those bills have always been paid. 

So when Congress raises the debt ceiling, this is not about spending in the future; it's about paying bills that Congress has incurred.  So it would be the height of irresponsibility for Congress not to do its job and not to pay the bills that it racked up. 

The President will not engage in that kind of brinksmanship.  He just expects Congress to do its job.

Yes, Jessica.

Q    Has the administration given a written offer to the Speaker?

MR. CARNEY:  I’m not going to get into specifics.  Although since so much of this seems to leak from elsewhere, I think it’s known that we have exchanged offers.

Q    Yes, but you keep deriding their offer as nonspecific because it’s just a short letter.  But it’s my understanding that the Geithner offer was verbal.  It wasn’t even written down, so if writing is --

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I’m not going to get into specifics, but everything that's behind --

Q    -- the measure of seriousness, your offer wasn’t even written.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, again, Jessica, everything that -- every conversation that we’ve had with Congress both at the level of Secretary Geithner and Rob Nabors and at the level of the President has been backed by the specific proposals that we have on paper.  So when we say $1.6 trillion in revenue, it’s documented.  When we say, $600 billion in spending cuts, it’s documented that --

Q    So do you dispute that?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I don't understand what you're saying.  So we have the documentation; they have the documentation.  If you’re saying, verbally, if he repeats everything in an 80-page proposal -- no.  But they know where our proposed cuts from come, and they know where our proposed revenue comes from.  And when we reduce our revenue proposal --

Q    It was in the original proposal, you’re saying, from this --

MR. CARNEY:  That's correct.

Q    -- but it wasn’t -- when Geithner went up to the Hill, he didn’t present it --

MR. CARNEY:  But that is our proposal.  They know what our  --

Q    So he was reiterating a past proposal?

MR. CARNEY:  Right.  We have put forward specific cuts.  And let me remind you that even the House Republican budget, which is sometimes cited as the source for their cuts, is wholly unspecific.  It’s just targets.  It’s just across-the-board stuff.  There’s no specificity beyond the voucherization of Medicare for how they would achieve cuts.  So again, the only party to these negotiations who has put forward any specific cuts or any specificity when it comes to raising revenues is the President of the United States. 

And here’s how we know that -- because if you were to ask the leaders in Congress on the Republican side, what are their specifics, they will not tell you, and they have not told us.

Q    Does the White House dispute the Speaker’s contention that negotiations are at the 11th hour now?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I’m not sure if we are 11/12’s of the way through the year -- we are, we’re even beyond that.  So I think that’s a fair assessment that we are close to a deadline.

Q    So does the President feel it’s incumbent on him to make a new offer now?

MR. CARNEY:  The President does not believe that he should negotiate with himself.  He has made abundantly clear that Republicans need to accept the fact that rates will go up on the top 2 percent and that we should extend tax cuts for the remaining 98 percent.  Thus far, we have not seen an acceptance of that by Republican leaders, and in fact, the proposal that we’ve seen and that you guys have reported on doesn’t just reject that, it says we should make permanent the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. 

Q    Speaker Boehner has said he is leaving town tomorrow and he won’t be here this weekend.  Does the President read this as a sign that negotiations have been unsuccessful, that he’s been unable to --

MR. CARNEY:  Well, look, there’s no question that we haven’t reached an agreement.  It’s also true that the parameters of an agreement are very clear, and how we -- the building blocks --

Q    Is that worrisome?  You guys need to be making --

MR. CARNEY:  Well, look, I think it’s worrisome for the American people that thus far the House Republican leadership has refused to accept the fundamental principle that was debated again and again and again throughout a presidential election and on which the American people made their voices heard and their opinions clear.  It is a position the President has been utterly transparent about and a position that some pundits thought was politically risky but that he believed was absolutely the right position to take for our economy.

So there is no particular reason why we can’t get this done very quickly beyond the single obstacle here, which is that the Republicans refuse to accept that rates are going up on the high end -- the top earners in this country.  And again, if the Republicans have specific spending cuts that they would like to propose that build on or are different from the ones the President has proposed, I think they should.  And the President looks forward to negotiating that, but we haven’t seen that yet.

Q    Okay, on a different topic.  As senator, President Obama repeatedly traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan with then-Senator Chuck Hagel.  He has said flattering things about him and appointed him to this Intelligence Advisory Board.  He obviously thinks very highly of him.  But what would the President say to pro-Israel advocates who are concerned or have voiced strong concerns about his position on sanctions, Iran and Israel?

MR. CARNEY:  You’re asking me, I can tell, to engage in conversation about potential personnel decisions the President is making and will make.  And I have no opinions to offer.

Q    Well, we know Mr. Hagel has met with the President and Vice President.

MR. CARNEY:  The President thinks very highly of Senator Hagel.  I think a lot of people in Washington and around the country, and especially in Senator Hagel’s home state think very highly of him.  But I have no news to make for you on that process.

Q    Was the offer that Speaker Boehner made on Tuesday different from the offer that he had made previously?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, I’m not going to get into specific --

Q    I’m not asking you for specifics.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, that is a specific difference.  What I can say is that we have yet to see --

Q    You say that the President is not going to negotiate with himself --

MR. CARNEY:  Here’s what I will tell --

Q    -- which suggests that Speaker Boehner wasn’t offering something different.

MR. CARNEY:  Fair enough.  Here’s what I will say, is that on the fundamental obstacle, the answer is, no, we have not seen in any of our conversations or offers any difference in the stated position by the Speaker of the House when it comes to revenues. 

And the irony of even the proposal that was in the Speaker’s letter and that has been put forward as the Speaker’s  -- the Republican position, they called it -- that promises $800 billion in revenue, which is not enough to create the balanced plan that's necessary for our broad-based deficit reduction goals.  But even that $800 billion has been totally unspecified beyond their insistence that lower tax rates be extended for the wealthiest Americans.  So that's where it stands.

Q    Maybe the $800 billion is part of the $1.2 trillion that the President said would be in tax deductions and limited closing loopholes last year.

MR. CARNEY:  Again, we see no specificity.  And what Jason Furman got up here and described to you in great detail, using solid facts and analysis by independent economists, not reports commissioned by industry in support of a political agenda, makes it very clear that we cannot achieve the kind of revenue necessary simply through cutting deductions, or capping deductions and closing loopholes limited to the wealthy, or to those making more than $250,000 in any economically sensible or politically feasible way.  It's just not possible. 

So again, you can write that --

Q    There are other contentious issues, including the --

MR. CARNEY:  Sure.

Q    -- and House Republicans think that the degree to which spending will be reduced or cut is a big, contentious issue.  Did the Speaker's second proposal not -- was it not different a little bit at least from his first proposal when it came to spending cuts?

MR. CARNEY:  We have not seen any specificity when it comes to spending cuts.  We know that Republicans want greater spending cuts, but we don't know how they would achieve them, what their proposals are.  If the answer -- which we haven't heard -- but if the answer is, well, go look at the Ryan budget, we know that, A, that lacks specificity, too, always did -- and, B, that it contains the voucherization of Medicare, which is not happening. 
So that doesn't mean that there are not serious and credible ways to further reduce spending that this President would entertain and be able to come to an agreement on with Republicans.  We believe there are.  And this President has made clear that he understands that it's -- that this is not easy, that he will not get everything that he wants, that his plan as written will not be what's passed and signed into law.  And he is willing to make tough choices.

But there are some clear red lines when it comes to how we build a broader deficit reduction package.  And one red line is he will not sign into law an extension of tax cuts for the top 2 percent.  We can't afford it and it's bad economic policy.

Q    Is there any sort of plan B being discussed, whether with the Speaker or on some sort of separate track, so that if there isn't a deal cut, there is at least some way to pass the 98 percent -- extending the tax cuts for 98 percent and paying down some of the sequestered spending cuts at least for a few months until something can be worked out?  Is there any effort being made by Mr. Nabors or anybody in the White House to at least have that ready so we don't entirely go over the cliff on January 1st?

MR. CARNEY:  It's a good question.  We still believe that a big deal is possible.  We believe the parameters are there and we remain confident that if Republicans agree with the basic idea that rates have to go up for the wealthiest while we extend tax cuts for everyone else that we can reach a deal fairly quickly.

Yes, I mean, one aspect of a way to deal with this at the very least would be to pass the tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people.  That would deal with a chunk of the so-called fiscal cliff.  And I am sure that there are others who have -- as part of putting together a bigger proposal, but also independent from that, I'm sure there are ways to address issues of the fiscal cliff. 

The President believes that this is an opportune time to think bigger than that, to do more than that, to try to pass a broad package that, combined with the spending cuts already signed into law, achieves the kind of significant deficit reduction that puts us on a fiscally sustainable path for a decade.  And he doesn't want to pass up that opportunity.

Q    Got it.  But just in case --

MR. CARNEY:  That's not saying that there --

Q    -- in case of emergency, break glass.  Is there some sort of plan B?
MR. CARNEY:  In case of emergency, the House should break the glass; the House Speaker ought to allow the Republicans to vote on extending tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people. That would deal with a chunk of the so-called fiscal cliff.  \

And I will refrain from reading the quotations from congressman after congressman of the Republican Party, as well as senators who have said that we should do that at the very least. And I'm hoping that, and the President hopes that those voices are heard and that action is taken, because the dysfunction that appears to continue to exist in Washington should not result in punishment for the middle class.  That’s unfair and it's bad for our economy.

Q    One last question.  The President went to Michigan and he waded into the local controversy there involving right to work.  There was violence at some of the demonstrations, with the union activists being involved.  I was wondering if the President was aware of any of this violence, if he had any response to it.

MR. CARNEY:  I haven't discussed reports like that with him, so I'm not sure he's aware of it.  But we deplore violence in any case.  And the President feels very strongly, as he said on his visit to Michigan the other day, that right-to-work laws are really right-to-be-paid-less laws, and that they reflect a political agenda and not an economic agenda, and he opposes them. We should not make it harder for workers to organize, and that's his position.  But certainly, we do not support violence.

Q    There's been no negotiation back and forth --

MR. CARNEY:  I'm sorry, Bill.

Q    Thank you.  (Laughter.)  There's been no negotiations back and forth as far as anybody can tell, in the sense that terms have been discussed, debated, swapped back and forth, and won't be, if I hear you correctly, unless and until Republicans agree in advance that they will drop their opposition to the tax hike on the upper 2 percent.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I guess it's a question of semantics in terms of what negotiations mean.  But we have obviously had meetings and we've had discussions and we've had phone calls, and we've presented ideas and ideas have been presented to us.  But this is -- on the issue of -- on the revenue side, I think the President could not have been more clear, and I will reiterate the clarity, which is he will not sign --

Q    Right.  So nothing happens until they agree -- is that what you're saying?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, no, because we've put forward spending cuts.  And if --

Q    Yeah, but you put them forward a long time ago.  They were written into a budget and --

MR. CARNEY:  Right, and they achieve a significant amount of savings.  And if the --

Q    The other side says they don't, they’re never going to pass on that --

MR. CARNEY:  Do they?  Because the math doesn't back up their words, which is frequently the case.  They do achieve significant savings.  And what distinguishes them from spending cut proposals by the Republicans is they exist and they're in detail. 

So what the President believes is that there is an opportunity for a deal here, for a compromise here, one that achieves security for the middle class, certainty for the middle class by extending those tax cuts for the middle class, and one that deals with the fiscal cliff and one that broadly puts us on a sustainable fiscal path.  That opportunity exists.

But here's the thing.  You have reported -- I don't know if you personally, but many of you in this room have reported on the offer we made earlier this week, which actually does reduce the amount of revenue that the President believes should be part of this package.  Again, but we're not going to just negotiate with ourselves.  What we have not seen is any specificity from the Republicans or any indication from the leadership that they're going to accept the basic principle that wealthier Americans are going to pay higher rates, rates that were in place under the Clinton administration when this economy grew rapidly, the middle class saw its incomes rise and the wealthy did very well, to boot.

Q    But if you're saying that no negotiation can really begin until they accept your first principle --

MR. CARNEY:  That's not what I'm saying, Bill.  That's what you're saying.

Q    -- and if the Speaker is saying no negotiation really can begin --

MR. CARNEY:  Negotiation is taking place and we've put forward offers.  And what we have not seen from the Republicans is any movement at all on the fundamental issue here. 

Q    Jay, tax reform is a big piece of this.  You were outspoken in the last campaign about saying Mitt Romney's use of offshore accounts while legal was not fair.  Do you share the same concern, level of concern about Google and Eric Schmidt, who has been an advisor to the President, informal advisor, using accounts in Bermuda to not pay their fair share of taxes?

MR. CARNEY:  I'm not even aware of that story, so I don't have an opinion.

Q    There were several reports in that last couple of days. 
MR. CARNEY:  I've been focused on the fiscal cliff, on Syria, on North Korea -- so I'm not aware of those stories.

Q    Democrats have talked up the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, because it pretty much hit the election in the weeks and months leading up to it in terms of how it was going to turn out. 

MR. CARNEY:  And what's the Republican view?

Q    They don't like that poll as much.  They had a poll last night that said if we go off the fiscal cliff and we can't get a compromise, who's to blame?  Nineteen percent said the President and Democrats, 24 percent said Republicans, and 56 percent say they'd be equally at blame.  How does that square with you saying in recent weeks that if we go off the cliff, this is all the Republicans’ fault?  That's not what the people seem to be saying.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I haven't said that.  I've said -- you've never heard me say if we go off the cliff, the American people will blame one side or the other.  What I have said is the American people support the President's position overwhelmingly. And that was demonstrated in exit polls from the election.  It's been demonstrated in polls ever since.  And that's just a fact, and it was an uncomfortable fact.  But the proposition that middle-class Americans should have their taxes go up on average of $2,000 if wealthy Americans don't get a tax cut I think is bad politics as well as bad policy.  And the American people have responded that way.

The fact that Americans do not like to see dysfunction in Washington is not a new fact and it certainly is not surprising. But we are trying very hard to reach a broad agreement that achieves not just a mitigation of the fiscal cliff and avoids that coming to pass, but more broadly, actually achieves deficit reduction, a goal which supposedly the Republican Party shares, even though when they were in control last time we saw record deficits, and deficits went down under President Clinton.  I mean, there's a little history lesson that needs to be learned here.

But the fact is this President is committed to sensible deficit reduction that helps our economy grow and that insulates the middle class from bearing the burden that, unfortunately thus far, Republican proposals -- Republicans would like to see them bear.

Q    As a last question, you're saying the President is committed to getting this done.  To follow up on Bill, in terms of negotiations -- and the public is saying, this poll, 56 percent think the parties would be equally to blame -- why not -- with Jessica saying Speaker Boehner is leaving town, why isn't the President bringing the leaders over here and just saying -- as you've said over and over --

MR. CARNEY:  Speaker Boehner was here --

Q    Earlier in this process you dismissed that idea, but now it's late --

MR. CARNEY:  Speaker Boehner was here a few days ago.

Q    -- and you just said the parameters of the debate are obvious -- okay, you said parameters are obvious here.  So why doesn’t the President bring the Speaker in here and just get this thing done?

MR. CARNEY:  I’m sure that if -- first of all, the Speaker of the House was here.  The President has spoken to the Speaker of the House recently.  The Speaker physically was here Sunday; the President has spoken with the Speaker since then.

Q    It's now Thursday and we're getting closer.

MR. CARNEY:  Every time that you guys seem to think that a physical meeting is the elixir to all our ills, I think it would behoove you to ask the Speaker if he believes that, or ask the House Majority Leader if he believes that.

We have put forward proposals.  We have received proposals. The process continues.  There are clear obstacles here, the principle one being the rather amazing insistence -- given the road we've traveled these past several years, given the degree to which this was debated, the degree to which independent economists back up the President's position -- we still have this insistence that we're not going to do anything that doesn’t include tax cuts for the wealthy from the Republicans.  And that’s just not acceptable to the President.

Q    If I could just interject -- the Speaker's office says there is cell phone coverage in Ohio, and if the President wants to talk they can.

MR. CARNEY:  And there's actually hard lines here, and I think the Speaker knows that. 

Q    But will he be talking to him?

MR. CARNEY:  I don’t have any phone calls or conversations to preview for you.


Q    Jay, thanks.  I want to go back to the issue of the debt ceiling.  You compare it to the McConnell plan.  Republicans push back against that.  They say the McConnell plan was never meant to be permanent and it also came with a guaranteed amount of spending cuts.  They say the President's plan does not come with that.

MR. CARNEY:  No, the McConnell plan was separate from the spending cuts that were part of the Affordable Care Act.

Q    Well, the concern is -- and House Speaker John Boehner said today that the debt ceiling brings fiscal sanity to Washington.  Why is that not true?  Why shouldn’t you have to get --

MR. CARNEY:  I think you ought to ask the Speaker if in the 1990s when Bill Clinton was President and Washington was able to erase deficits for the first time in decades and create surpluses for the first time in decades -- Speaker Boehner was here, he should remember -- did Congress then flirt with default when the debt ceiling was raised?  The answer is no.  Did Congress under President George W. Bush flirt with default and cause the markets alarm and our economy to slow down and job creation to slow down because one party or the other had demands that insisted on being met?  The answer is no.

That has happened once, and it happened last year, and Speaker Boehner was Speaker of the House.  That is why the President believes we need to take -- I understand that it was a -- the McConnell plan was passed once, and we believe we ought to take it up again and pass it again, because the American economy cannot afford the consequences of that kind of political gamesmanship.  It's just -- it is unconscionable to imagine that because Congress insists it be so that the entire economy could default and that for the first time in our history we would not pay our bills.

Because remember as I said before, the debt ceiling is -- raising the debt ceiling merely gives Congress the capacity to pay for the work they’ve already done.

Q    No, it gives them the power to borrow more.

MR. CARNEY:  To pay for the work that they’ve already done.

Q    But to borrow more money.

MR. CARNEY:  Correct.

Q    And raise the debt.

MR. CARNEY:  Okay, so the alternative, which is default, is to not pay for the bills that Congress has incurred.

Q    And, Jay, I’m not disputing that it’s a difficult process.  But isn’t this the best way to keep deficits in check?

MR. CARNEY:  Again, I could go over the history again.  In our lifetimes, certainly yours, the last time and the only time that deficits have turned into surpluses -- I just mean that I’m a lot older.  (Laughter.)  But my lifetime, too.  You are still the fountain of youth by comparison to me.  But I’m pretty sure in my -- in fact, I know in my lifetime as well, the only time there have not been deficits, the only time that the budget has been balanced, the only time that we have been creating surpluses was under President Bill Clinton.  And we did not have this kind of gamesmanship.  We did not have members of Congress threatening to default.  It’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.  It’s damaging to the economy. It’s punishing to the middle class.

And if the position is that the middle class ought to have its taxes go up and then get stuck again because of a refusal of Congress to do its job, that's just absolutely unacceptable.

Q    I want to ask one on Syria.  Jay, based on your comments yesterday, it appears as though there are no plans to interfere militarily in Syria.  But does the President worry that this sends a message to Assad that he can use Scud missiles and other types of weapons against his own people without the fear of international --

MR. CARNEY:  Absolutely not.  We have explicitly condemned the use of missiles.  It is just another demonstration of the utter depravity of the Assad regime and the lengths to which he will go to retain power.  The assault on his own people has been heinous.  It has been proof that he’s a tyrant and proof that he has no place in Syria’s history.  And we have joined our international partners in condemning it. 

We have joined our international partners in providing a variety of forms of aid to both the Syrian people and the Syrian opposition.  I believe we have made announcements of additional aid that we’re providing.  And we will continue to take that path because Syria’s future cannot include the kind of leader who would launch missiles against his own people, slaughter them in the way that he has, repeatedly, over the past year or so.  And it’s unacceptable.

Q    Given the escalation, is he in any way considering his red line in Syria?

MR. CARNEY:  Our policy remains what it was, and we obviously consult with our allies and others and evaluate the situation regularly.  But we believe that providing continued support to the Syrian people as well as non-lethal support to the opposition is the right approach.  We’ve been very engaged in assisting the opposition unify itself.  We recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition just this week as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.  And we will continue to work with our partners to isolate Assad and to help bring about the day when the Syrian people can decide for themselves on a better future for their country.

Jon Christopher.

Q    Fiscal cliff:  We are way beyond the early stage, and the international markets are very concerned.  Instability is something that they deplore.  Is there one more thing you can say to calm or quell the fears that international finance has --

MR. CARNEY:  Look, I think that the parameters of an agreement are clear.  They’re not complicated.  And we hope and look forward to the time when Republicans acknowledge that revenues not only have to be part of the equation, but that rates on top earners have to go up as part of the revenue equation.  And when that happens, we believe that we can reach a deal fairly quickly, because the President has made clear that as part of a balanced package, spending cuts need to be part of this and that he’s willing to work with Republicans and make tough choices to achieve the kind of balanced package that he seeks.

Q    Senator Durbin said that the President is no longer open to raising the Medicare eligibility age.  Is that the case?

MR. CARNEY:  I haven’t seen those remarks, but I can tell you that I’m not going to negotiate specifics of the -- I'm not doubting them, I’m just saying -- I speak for the President, and I’m not going to get into details of hypothetical --

Q    But he’s someone from your own party from the President’s home state.

MR. CARNEY:  Let me take the answer for the President, which is that we’re not going to engage in hypotheticals about what a package would like on the spending cut side and negotiate it with the Republicans.  What we will not accept, I think has been clear, is the promise of future revenues achieved miraculously through means that are so amazing they won’t even be put on paper, that allow for extension of tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and that end up sticking it to the middle class and seniors.  That's not a package the President will accept.  He is willing to make hard choices, however, but he will make hard choices that make sense for the economy and for our seniors and our middle class and our students and families with disabled children.

Q    Why would Senator Durbin say that?  

MR. CARNEY:  I don't speak for Senator Durbin.


Q    You said there are clear red lines on revenue, no tax cuts for the top 2 percent.  Are there clear red lines on entitlements other than keeping Social Security on a separate track and not using that as part of the deficit reduction?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I mean, that’s -- there’s a broad range of crazy ideas I’m sure that I could rule out.  But the President is committed to making sensible choices in terms of deficit reduction that ensure the integrity and sustainability of our very important entitlement programs for seniors. 

But is voucherization of Medicare not something the President would accept?  I think that's fair to say.  But I’m not going to get into --

Q    That's the only red line you draw --

MR. CARNEY:  No, that's not what I said, Mara.  Go back to the beginning of my answer.  I’m sure there are all sorts of bad ideas that could be thrown out there that wouldn’t pass muster and wouldn’t pass Congress.  But I’m not going to negotiate the details of a sensible compromise from here.

Q    Yesterday, even though Senator Durbin said what he said, to Barbara Walters, the President did not rule out raising the Medicare retirement age.

MR. CARNEY:  Well, again, the President is not going to rule in or rule out things in interviews.  He has been trying to have these conversations and negotiations in a constructive way.  What we haven’t seen from Republicans is any specificity about how they would achieve the kind of spending reductions, the levels of spending reductions that they claim to seek.  And we look forward to the time when we can see some specifics from them.  So I think he like I is not eager to negotiate the specifics of a potential compromise with the media.


Q    House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told his members today to be prepared to stay here through the weekend before Christmas, into the holidays if a deal isn’t reached.  What can you tell us about the President’s vacation plans and any contingencies at the White House as these negotiations kind of build into the holiday season?

MR. CARNEY:  I don't have any updates on the President’s schedule.  The President’s schedule is what it is.  And when we have -- if we have adjustments to that schedule, we’ll make you aware of them.

But right now the President is focused on what he believes is an achievable compromise that would not take very long to put together if we saw some specificity and some flexibility from Republicans.

Q    So are you prepared for this to go into the --

MR. CARNEY:  I don't think that's required.  But again, what we hope to see is some acknowledgement by Republican leaders that existing law when it comes to the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans should stay in place.  Those tax rates that provide generous tax cuts to the top 2 percent should not be extending.  The President will not sign an extension of those rates.

The rest of the country, 98 percent of us, should see tax cuts.  Everyone in Washington agrees on those tax cuts.  The President is eager to sign those tax cuts, and he hopes that Republicans in the House will follow the lead of the Senate and pass those tax cuts.

Q    Following up on that question, when does this get to the point where there’s not enough time to get legislation through Congress and to the President’s desk to sign it?  Where  -- given that the end of the year is the deadline, when in December are there not enough days left?

MR. CARNEY:  I think that that's a question that you’d have to ask leaders in Congress because they decide the calendar.  They have an even deeper understanding of the rules than I do, so I would refer you to them.

Yes, Steve.

Q    Back to Syria.  Russia has said for the first time that it looks like the rebels might win.  Does the White House see any sign in this that Russia is disengaging from Assad?  And if so, would it represent an opening for the frustrated efforts to get rid of him diplomatically?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I saw those remarks.  I would say that we certainly agree that Assad will not be a part of Syria’s future. We have noted as the media has the progress that the opposition has been making.  We still believe that for the sake of the Syrian people Assad ought to leave now.  He ought to remove himself from power now, because it is terrible what damage he has inflicted on the Syrian people, the lives that have been lost because of his brutality.  But we welcome all progress in the effort to bring an understanding of the fact that Assad has to go, that he has no place in Syria's history -- I mean, in Syria's future.  Unfortunately he does have a place in Syria's history. 

But I have no other assessment to make of those remarks, which I just saw before I came out here.


Q    Jay, quick question.  The President is going to be talking to media this afternoon, local media.  He's been traveling, trying to apply pressure from the outside in, talking to the business community.  Can you give us any examples of where the President believes that that -- working from the outside in is getting closer -- getting everyone closer to a negotiating deal before the end of the year? 

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I can certainly tell you that in the effort to extend the payroll tax cut last year and in the effort to ensure that rates on student loans didn’t double, the President's approach was both to work directly with leaders of Congress and to bring his position to the American people out in the country, and that that strategy, we believe, proved effective.  And it's entirely sensible, because these are debates that are not about obscure subjects that most Americans don’t have the time to pay attention to; these are debates that affect every American’s life.

And so he looks forward to every opportunity to communicate with the American people where they live and where they get their information.  And that’s often -- in the latter example, that’s often from local television, and that’s why he's doing interviews today.

Q    And is it showing -- are there examples of where you can see the ground shifting now?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I don’t have -- I cannot say that a Republican congressman who now believes we ought to extend tax cuts for the middle class and accepts that we will not extend tax cuts for the top 2 percent came to that position after he or she saw a local news report.  But I think that the broader effect of the campaign and the debate that we had over this past year that focused on these issues, and the President's continued efforts to explain to the American people what his views are and why he's taking the positions that he's taking and what he believes the stakes are has had an effect. 

The purpose being that we believe there ought to be a compromise where nobody gets everything that he wants, but that we all come together to agree to a package that achieves something that would be very beneficial to this country's economy, which a long-term deficit reduction deal that protects the middle class, that helps the economy grow and create jobs, that ensures that we continue to invest in areas that will help the economy grow long term and that brings down our deficits in a way that puts us on a fiscally sustainable path -- that's a goal that I believe, the President believes, many share here in Washington, both Democrats and Republicans, and he looks forward to the opportunity to achieve it.

Q    Jay, a follow-up to what you said to Kristen really.  I, too, am old enough to remember the mid-'90s.  And I'm old enough to remember --

MR. CARNEY:  Kristen remembers that.  I just mean that -- I just want to be clear that the only time in her lifetime there's been a surplus was under Bill Clinton.

Q    But before, in '95 and '96, I remember, before the budgets were balanced, we had two major government shutdowns.  And it became very personal, the negotiations became very personal.  Don't we run the risk of this becoming a personal kind of thing with this crisis?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I'm not sure about that assessment.  I think that President Clinton and then-Speaker Gingrich continued to talk and negotiate, even though they came at it from different points of view.  And I don't think that's very different from the situation we have now. 

At the personal level, I think and I know that the President likes and respects Speaker Boehner and has good relations with congressional leaders of both parties, as well as rank-and-file members in both parties.  And that's a good thing.  But the most important thing is that we here in Washington respond to and listen to the American people, and we make the tough choices that we believe are right for the economy and for the middle class. 

And that's why he hopes that Republicans in the House will pass tax cuts for the middle class; why he hopes Republican leaders will agree to the basic principle that in order to achieve the kind of deficit reduction that's necessary and balanced, we need rates to go up on top earners.  And then, we can move forward with a package that includes tough spending cuts, but spending cuts that are sensible and make sure that we achieve the balance the President believes is both the right way to go and that the American people want to see.

Q    They're not slamming the phone down on each other or anything?

MR. CARNEY:  I have never seen that happen on this end.

Q    Two questions on North Korea.  A few years ago, Defense Secretary Gates said that North Korea's attempt to develop an ICBM program could in a number of years pose a direct threat to the American homeland.  The North Koreans have now successfully put a long-range missile into orbit.  I'm wondering whether you believe, the President believes, that the American people should feel directly threatened by what the North Koreans did this week. 
And then, the second is, the Chinese, as they often do in a case like this, have been extremely muted in their response, I think expressing regret but little more about what happened.  Is the President frustrated?  And would he like the Chinese to take a tougher line with Pyongyang? 

MR. CARNEY:  On the second question, I think you've seen us be very explicit about our desire to have China exert the influence that it has on North Korea.  I think that the Chinese, in our view, have made clear both prior to this launch and in the aftermath of the launch their opposition to it.  And that, we believe, is a positive thing. 

On the broader issue, there is no question that North Korea's flagrant violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions that apply to its nuclear program and to its ballistic missile program matters of serious concern.  And that continues to be the case.  And that’s why we have spoken out so clearly against this action and why we are working with our partners up in New York at the United Nations on the Security Council discussing next steps.

There will be consequences for this decision.  And that is because we are, rightly, concerned, with our international partners, about this development.  But let's be clear.  Under this President we have marshaled an international consensus about North Korean behavior and applied the kind of sanctions that have further isolated and brought pain to the North Korean leadership, which is entirely appropriate.  But it is a matter of concern.

Q    But, Jay, I guess what I'm asking is --

MR. CARNEY:  But in terms of what Secretary Gates said, I don’t have a timeline for you, but we certainly believe, as demonstrated by what we've said in reaction to it, that this kind of violation of North Korea's international obligations is a serious matter.

Q    I guess -- just one more shot at this.  The issue up until now has been primarily regional; it's a threat to the South Koreans, it's a threat to the Japanese.  But no one has really thought that these missiles were technologically capable of reaching the American homeland.  Is that still the view?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, I think it's certainly still the view that is the case, but I don’t have a timeline for you and I would simply refer back to Secretary Gates's comments.  But I would also note that one of the reasons why this President has pursued missile defense that is oriented towards threats that we perceive as real is so important.  And that includes, obviously, North Korea as well as Iran.  So we're pursuing this issue from a variety of fronts because we consider it to be very serious.

Q    Thanks, Jay.

MR. CARNEY:  Last one. 

Q    Thank you, Jay.  How would you compare the situation with North Korea and with Iran?  Are they on the same -- is it the same dynamics that you seek a Security Council resolution that there will be timelines, there will be red lines?  Or is North Korea a different case than Iran?

MR. CARNEY:  Well, they are certainly at different stages in the developments of their prohibitive programs, and there are different countries -- there are in some ways different issues at stake.  But the overall principle that Iran ought to forsake its nuclear weapons program, abide by its international obligations and thereby end its pariah status, re-enter the international community and enjoy the benefits thereof applies to North Korea. And North Korea ought to cease violation of its international obligations and take the necessary steps to assure the international community of that cessation, and that that would be better for North Korea and better for the North Koreans.

Thanks very much.

1:58 P.M. EST

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