Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 12/15/2011
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:14 P.M. EST
MR. CARNEY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for being here. I have no announcement at the top, so I’ll go straight to your questions.
Q Thanks, Jay. There’s a suddenly optimistic tone, it seems, on the Hill about getting all the last-minute business done, including the payroll tax; I wasn’t sure I heard that kind of tone from the President today. So where do we stand, from the White House perspective? Are we close to a deal, or at least closer to a deal?
MR. CARNEY: Well, two things. What you heard from the President today is him making clear what his position is, which is that he’s out there making sure that middle-class Americans, working Americans, 160 million Americans, don’t wake up on New Year’s Day to find that their taxes went up because Congress refused to take action. That’s his number-one priority. And he is insisting that Congress do its work, that Congress do the work that they should be able to do very easily because Republicans say they support this, and take care of the working men and women in this country, everyone who gets a paycheck.
So it is also true that there are ongoing conversations happening on the Hill and among leaders on the Hill and representatives of the President to try to see how we can get this done. And it should be able to get done, both the payroll tax cut extension, the extension of unemployment insurance, and the spending bill, the so-called omnibus, that Congress needs to take care of before it goes.
But what cannot happen is that Congress takes care of its spending bill but doesn’t take action to ensure that Americans’ taxes [don’t] go up. I mean, what would Americans think -- it would certainly, I think, raise the number, the percentage of Americans who have already told, in I think NBC’s poll -- more than 40 percent who say this is the worst Congress in history -- and we have a long history now -- that number would certainly go up, and the approval numbers would go down, and that would be just and right.
We don’t think that’s going to happen, because Republicans have indicated that they want the payroll tax cut extended, which is a change from the position we heard just a few short weeks ago, and we’re very -- we’re certainly encouraged by signs of a willingness by everyone to work together to get this important business done.
Q No matter how the payroll tax and the unemployment benefits are ultimately paid for, assuming this gets done, is it an article of faith at the White House that the wealthy must pay more in some fashion?
MR. CARNEY: Let’s be clear about what the President’s priority is. The President’s priority is to ensure that Americans, 160 million Americans, don’t see their taxes go up on average $1,000.
He made clear in his full American Jobs Act proposal the way that he would pay for all of it, including the payroll tax cut extension and expansion, and he certainly believes it is eminently fair, both in the way that he preferred paying for it and the way that Senate Democrats preferred paying for it, that it’s not too much to ask -- referring to the Senate Democratic version -- 300,000 Americans, the 300,000 wealthiest Americans, to pay a little bit more so that 160 million Americans who are getting a paycheck every week don’t see their taxes go up. That to him seemed fair.
The priority here, however, was not the pay-for. The focus on the pay-for is slightly mistargeted, because the priority here is making sure Americans don’t have their taxes go up, working -- hardworking middle-class Americans don’t have their taxes go up.
And we have said -- I have said from the beginning of this process that we are open to different means of paying for it, and certainly the President’s preference is that this tax cut extension be paid for. We note, with some irony, that Republicans, at least in the House, have it within their own bylaws that tax cuts don’t need to be paid for, but there is this insistence when it comes to middle-class tax cuts that that not be the case.
Regardless, we’re open to other pay-fors; we have been from the beginning. The issue here is, will Americans see their taxes go up on January 1st?
Q Last one. The President was planning to leave for Hawaii on the 17th. When is he planning to leave now?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President has made clear on earlier occasions that he will stay here as long as it takes to ensure that Congress does not leave town without raising -- without extending the payroll tax cut and making sure that Americans don’t have their taxes go up on January 1st.
I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you when this will be resolved. As you noted at the beginning, there are some signs that cooperation may be taking place and that compromise might occur and that we can get these issues resolved sooner rather than later, but I would not hazard to guess when that would be.
Q Thanks, Jay. I wanted to ask you a little bit more about the White House strategy on the payroll tax cuts. The decision to drop the millionaire surtax, how did that come about? Was it the President? Was it the Democratic leadership? And why now? And what do you think about this perception that this means that you’re caving in to the Republicans?
MR. CARNEY: I’ll go back to what I said to Ben. The President’s priority here hasn’t been to raise taxes. The President’s priority has been to lower taxes, to keep -- well, actually, to lower them, to extend the payroll tax cut and expand it for the middle class.
He believed that it was the fair and right way to pay for it to ask, in the case of the Senate Democratic version, 300,000 millionaires and billionaires to pay a little bit more so that Americans, 160 million of them, could have their taxes reduced next year.
But the issue here hasn’t been the pay-fors, as I just said in answer to Ben. We’ve made clear from the beginning that we were open to pay-fors that -- alternative pay-fors as long as they were economically responsible and they didn’t stick it to the middle class, the very people you’re trying to help with this tax cut.
So what your question contains within it is the observation that Republicans refused to ask 300,000 millionaires and billionaires to pay a little bit more so that 160 million working and middle-class Americans didn’t have their taxes go up; they refused, all but a few -- or one, I guess, in the case in the Senate.
So we’re open to figuring out a way how to do this that, again, is economically responsible and doesn’t hurt the very people that we’re trying to help. But the priority here has not been the pay-for; it has been ensuring that Americans who are working hard, as we emerge from this Great Recession, don’t get a tax hike on January 1st. That would be a very unwelcome New Year’s gift to the American people, and Congress should not give that gift.
Let me move around and then I’ll come to you, Jake.
Q Any reaction from the White --
MR. CARNEY: Jake, I’ve been doing this for months.
Q It’s annoying.
MR. CARNEY: Oh, I’m sorry. Tell it to your colleagues.
Q I like it.
MR. CARNEY: I’ll get to you. (Laughter.)
Q You just decide you’re going to break with decades of precedent and just going to -- instead of every --
MR. CARNEY: I’m going to ensure that 49 people in these seats --
Q Okay, then take a question about bestiality, go for it.
MR. CARNEY: -- and move back and forth and --
Q No, America wants to know about your position on bestiality.
MR. CARNEY: I’m absolutely going to take care of everyone in the front row.
Q Here I thought we were friends. (Laughter.) Any White House reaction to Democratic Senator Wyden joining with Paul Ryan on a compromise on the privatization of Medicare today?
MR. CARNEY: George, as you know, President Obama is committed to ensuring that Medicare is strong and affordable for seniors and taxpayers. That’s why the President proposed a plan to strengthen Medicare, cut waste, fight fraud and reduce Medicare and Medicaid costs by $320 billion over the next 10 years as part of a balanced approach to reducing the deficit. And President Obama has made clear that any proposal to reform Medicare must protect our seniors and preserve the promise to current and future beneficiaries of guaranteed affordable Medicare coverage.
We are concerned that Wyden-Ryan, the proposal you mentioned, like Congressman Ryan’s earlier proposal, would undermine rather than strengthen Medicare. The Wyden-Ryan proposal could, over time, cause the traditional Medicare program to “wither on the vine,” because it would raise premiums, forcing many seniors to leave traditional Medicare and join private plans. And it would shift costs from the government to seniors.
At the end of the day, this plan would end Medicare as we know it for millions of seniors. The Wyden-Ryan proposal is the wrong way to reform Medicare. That’s our position.
Q If you don’t support the Wyden-Ryan plan, is the President going to be proposing a plan to solve the problem of Medicare and funding in the future?
MR. CARNEY: What I mentioned at the top is the President has, in fact, proposed that as part of his comprehensive deficit reduction and debt control plan, and he looks forward to working with Congress on that. And his whole point during --
Q As a solution, or -- I thought it just nibbles around the edges, doesn’t it?
MR. CARNEY: No, the whole point the President made during the negotiations this summer on the debt ceiling, and again when he put forward his proposal for the super committee, is that if we approach this in a balanced way, the way that bipartisan commissions recommend that we approach it, the way that the vast majority of Americans want us to approach it, we don’t have to privatize Medicare. We don’t have to severely constrain Medicaid. We don’t have to slice or slash programs that fund education or innovation or clean energy, because if we do it in a balanced way, we can reform entitlements in a way that preserves Medicare for seniors and doesn’t stick them with a $6,000-a-year cost hike as the original Ryan plan would.
Q I just want to make sure I understand. You’re saying that what the President proposed is all that needs to be done to contain the growth in health care and Medicare, and whatever problems Medicare creates. Because that’s what the Ryan-Wyden plan is attempting to do.
MR. CARNEY: What it’s attempting to do, although within it, as I understand it, there’s no -- even in their own proposal, there’s only the hope of cost savings. So what the President has proposed, as I just laid out, would result in $320 billion of savings over the next 10 years; would reform the entitlement programs in a way that would continue to allow them to provide the essential services that, in the case of Medicare, seniors deserve and must have; and would not require the kind of radical privatization or ending of Medicare as we know it that the Ryan proposal suggests and that the Wyden-Ryan plan gets you to eventually.
Q So that’s a yes, that all that would need to be done to Medicare is what the President --
MR. CARNEY: I’m not saying that five years, 10 years down the road that -- I mean, we are always having to push forward with reforms in different parts of our government. But the President’s proposal, as you know, dealt in an expansive way -- $4 trillion if you include the trillion in savings through the Budget Control Act -- dealt with our need to reduce our deficit and get our debt under control at the same level of magnitude as the Ryan plan. And it did it without asking seniors to bear the burden of the cost.
So this goes back to the need for balance. You don’t have to do something this radical. As the President has said, our problems are not as great as they are in some countries that we would have to do something that radical if we were only willing to take a balanced approach, which is what the President --
Q I’m not advocating for the Wyden-Ryan plan, I’m just saying --
MR. CARNEY: No, I know you’re not --
Q I’m just saying -- you were actually saying that’s all that needs to be done.
MR. CARNEY: That’s the President’s plan.
Q Okay. The other question I have is Speaker Boehner today said there’s no need to tie the omnibus bill to the payroll tax because he is willing to keep Congress here, to keep the House here, so that as soon as the Senate passes the payroll tax fix, the House will reconvene within 24 hours and act on whatever the Senate passes. Your response?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to negotiate on behalf of the Senate or the President here. These are ongoing conversations. What is unacceptable is the idea that we should take a promise of future action on behalf of 160 million Americans when, as you know, once Congress passes a spending bill, they can go home, and it sounds like the Speaker would let them go home. He might call them back or he might not. Again, it’s a promise.
What we want is --
Q So you’re saying you don’t believe his promise?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I’m saying I don’t know. What is essential here, the absolute top priority that this President has, is that Congress makes sure it does not go home on its vacation until it has taken care of the payroll tax cut extension and unemployment insurance extension, because it would be unacceptable, he believes, for Congress to hike taxes on 160 million Americans as it’s heading out the door here.
Q Okay. He’s saying you don’t need to tie the two, right? You don’t need to do this -- and he’s trying -- he says he’s trying to avoid a government shutdown tomorrow night. Congressman Moran has said the deal has been done and the Congress is ready to act.
MR. CARNEY: The deal is not done until some of these issues that Senator Reid and others have mentioned, I’ve mentioned, need to be resolved. They are resolvable, no question. There’s no need to shut down the government. There is time to get all of it done. And if more time is needed, Congress should do what it’s done seven times already in this year and pass a CR, a short-term CR, just to ensure that they get their work done. There’s no reason to talk about a government shutdown.
Q I guess I’m just surprised that the Speaker of the House is basically pledging that you don’t need to do this, I’ll keep the Congress here, we’ll reconvene as soon as they’re ready --
MR. CARNEY: Well, we need to make sure --
Q -- as soon as the Senate passes something, and you’re basically saying, we don’t believe you, basically said --
MR. CARNEY: But we need to make sure -- we need to make sure -- no, look, I’m just saying --
Q -- a promise is meaningless.
MR. CARNEY: Jake, I’m just saying that there are negotiations going on. As Ben noted in his questions, there have been some signs of a willingness to find some bipartisan compromises here on these big remaining issues. But the President’s priority is, this is not a question where 50 percent is okay, because if you take these two issues, the omnibus and the payroll tax cut, it is not okay just to get one of them. It simply isn’t, because that means 160 million Americans are stuck with the bill of congressional inaction. So that’s not okay.
Q Jay, we had a story today in McClatchy that parts of the story that President Obama gave in September awarding the Medal of Honor may be untrue, substantiated or exaggerated, according to a lot of military documents we looked at. Does the White House find this a concern, and are you intending to do anything about it, look into whether they embellished history?
MR. CARNEY: Lesley, the President was very proud to present the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Meyer for his extraordinary service in Afghanistan. As the President said that day, “In Sergeant Dakota Meyer, we see the best of a generation that has served through a decade of war.”
The answer to your question is no. Everyone, even the reporter who wrote yesterday’s article, agrees that Sergeant Meyer displayed extraordinary heroism. Indeed, a subsequent article, within I think hours, by that same reporter last night makes it clear that Meyer’s comrades feel he deserves the Medal of Honor. President Obama was proud to present it on behalf of a grateful nation.
Q And suggestions that there were some problems --
MR. CARNEY: Well, I got a little whiplash reading the two articles that McClatchy put out. One said one thing; the other said the other. What the President believes is exactly what I said, that this young man is the best of a generation that has served through a decade of war, and he was proud to present him the Medal of Honor.
Q Thank you. You keep saying that the pay-fors is not the issue, but the President at one point was supporting the insistence on the millionaires’ surtax, and then is no longer doing that.
MR. CARNEY: Well, Dan, I think I’ll say again -- and I would encourage you to review the transcripts -- I have said from the beginning that we are open to other pay-fors. We supported --
Q Right. My question is, what changed, though --
MR. CARNEY: But you said we insisted. We supported one version because we think it’s fair.
Q But what changed? What changed? Why did he drop that?
MR. CARNEY: I think all but one Republican refused to ask the 300,000 richest Americans, millionaires and billionaires, to pay a little bit more so that 160 million Americans could get a tax cut next year, or not see their taxes go up, at the very least. That’s what happened. And we believe that that was a fair way to do it, an eminently fair way to do it, but Republicans, almost in lockstep, disagreed. They were willing to say no to a tax cut for 160 million hardworking Americans rather than ask millionaires and billionaires to pay a little bit more. That’s their position, and that’s the reality.
We have said from the beginning that while we supported the Senate Democratic pay-for and while the President himself put forward a pay-for, that we were open to discussions about alternative ways to fund this payroll tax cut extension and to fund unemployment insurance extension, as long as they were economically responsible and they did not take from the middle class with one hand what we were giving with the other in a payroll tax cut extension. So it should not stick it to the middle class. Those are our principles.
Q As it stands now, what is the biggest hurdle to getting a deal done?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I want to reflect the optimism here that some expressed on the Hill this morning that we believe a deal can get done and that there’s no reason to talk about a government shutdown because if we need a couple of extra days, I think the American people would expect Congress to pass a short-term continuing resolution to ensure that they had time to get this fundamental piece of business done.
There is room for compromise. There are issues that need to be resolved in the spending measure, but they can be resolved. And there are certainly many paths here to getting a payroll tax cut extension done.
So I think that a willingness to be reasonable here would go a long way.
Q And one other question. Yesterday you guys put something out on a briefing that the President received, a national security holiday briefing. Is there any known threat out there or anything in particular that the administration is concerned about with the holidays approaching?
MR. CARNEY: No, nothing -- I have nothing for you on that. This is about making sure, at a moment -- at a time of the year like this one, that everyone is following the President’s directive here that we take every measure necessary to ensure the safety and security of the American people, both here and abroad.
Q You had objections to the defense bill; you’ve dropped them. There’s still a lot of civil liberties experts who are convinced that that bill contains the seed of the future detention of U.S. citizens indeterminately if they’re suspected of terrorism. Are you really that convinced that there was a big enough change that you’d drop an important issue like this?
MR. CARNEY: Well, let me make clear that this was not the preferred approach of this administration, and we made clear that any bill that challenges or constrains the President’s critical authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists, and protect the nation would prompt the President’s senior advisors to recommend a veto.
After intensive engagement by senior administration officials, the administration has succeeded in prompting the authors of the detainee provisions to make several important changes, including the removal of problematic provisions.
While we remain concerned about the uncertainty that this law will create for our counterterrorism professionals, the most recent changes give the President additional discretion in determining how the law will be implemented, consistent with our values and the rule of law, which are at the heart of our country’s strength.
This legislation authorizes critical funding for military personnel overseas, and its passage sends an important signal that Congress supports our efforts as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan lead, while ensuring that our military can meet the challenges of the 21st century.
On the provision in particular that you reference, it does not increase or otherwise change any of our authorities in regard to detention of American citizens. It is simply a restatement of the authorities that were granted to the President in 2001.
Q Is this just a recognition that ultimately the courts would settle disputes like that?
MR. CARNEY: No, the changes give discretion to the President in the implementation of this law. If, as this law is being implemented, the President feels that our counterterrorism professionals are being constrained and that their flexibility is being constrained in a way that does not reflect our values, then he will ask for changes. He will go to the authors of these provisions and ask for legislative changes that are separate from the defense authorization bill.
But again, the changes that were made were sufficient to allow senior advisors to withdraw the recommendation of a veto, but we are still concerned about the uncertainty that this law creates.
Q When the President spoke in Kansas, he spoke about his deep conviction that everyone pay their fair share? How deep is the President’s conviction if he’s willing to abandon the surtax on millionaires or that even the wealthy pay more?
MR. CARNEY: Norah, I know you were here just a few short minutes ago when I answered this question. The issue is not how it gets paid for. The President has his clear preference. He believes, like the majority of the American people, that the 300,000 wealthiest millionaires and billionaires in this country ought to pay a little bit more so that 160 million working Americans can get a payroll tax cut extension. But --
Q So now you’re saying it’s not important how it’s paid for.
MR. CARNEY: No, no, no --
Q Does that hold for future pieces of legislation, too?
MR. CARNEY: Norah, the priority here is making sure that regular folks out there who get a paycheck don’t see their taxes go up by an average of $1,000 next year. We have said from the beginning that we are open to different ways of paying for it. We, at times, marvel at the whiplash caused by the sudden interest in paying for a tax cut among some Republicans who heretofore have insisted that tax cuts not be paid for. That’s an interest we share. We think that’s the responsible thing to do.
But let’s be clear here. The only reason why we’re having this debate is because the President put it in the American Jobs Act, extension and expansion of the payroll tax cut. A few short weeks ago I stood up here and read to you numerous statements by leading Republicans who said they weren’t even for a payroll tax cut extension. They were perfectly happy to see 160 million Americans -- including, I would assume, a majority of their own constituents -- get stuck with a $1,000 tax hike next year, rather than ask millionaires and billionaires to pay a little bit extra, folks who over the past 30 years have done exceptionally well while the middle class has struggled.
So we’ve come a fair distance here. Republicans now say they want this payroll tax cut extension, that they are interested in seeing middle-class Americans not have their taxes go up. That’s progress. What I think is essential here is that the President’s priority has not been how it’s paid for or raising taxes, it’s been lowering taxes for the vast majority of Americans out there.
Q When the President first proposed his American Jobs Act, with the price tag of over $400 billion, part of that was asking the wealthiest Americans to pay more --
MR. CARNEY: Yes.
Q -- not millionaires, those making over $250,000 a year. Successive parts that since have been broken up of the President’s job plan have not passed. Now you’re on the payroll tax, and again, that’s also in jeopardy. Is the President willing to abandon what has been the embodiment of his core value that he’s been speaking about repeatedly, which is that the wealthier pay more and everybody pay their fair share, so he can get one part -- at least one part of his jobs bill passed?
MR. CARNEY: What the President is interested in is making sure that most Americans -- most Americans out there who have an income, 160 million Americans who get a paycheck, don’t see their taxes go up by $1,000 next year. That’s the right position for those Americans --
Q So he doesn’t care how it’s paid for?
MR. CARNEY: -- and it’s the right position for the American economy. You misstate what the President’s priorities here are. We have -- in the American Jobs Act we had an opportunity to put 400,000 teachers back in the classroom. The President believed that the right way to pay for that was asking -- to close some subsidies for corporations, asking the wealthiest to pay more. There were a variety of provisions within our broad American Jobs Act proposal.
Republicans rejected that. They’ve rejected everything that would benefit the economy and the middle class and working Americans when the suggestion is that the wealthiest of us should pay a little bit more to make that happen. Because what’s important to remember is the American Jobs Act would not have added a dime to our deficit. The President is very concerned about getting our deficits and debt under control.
The issue with the payroll tax cut, an issue that Republicans used to support and now in the last few weeks support again, is that the American people cannot in this stage of our recovery -- or should not -- be asked to pay $1,000 on average in taxes extra next year. The President is very interested, that is his priority, in making sure that doesn’t happen, and ensuring that Congress does not leave town having protected their own tax breaks and the tax breaks of the wealthiest Americans, but not made sure that the American people didn’t have their taxes go up. So that’s been his priority here.
Q Jay, you seem, in all this, seem to be downplaying the notion -- when you say the priority here is not the pay-for, you seem to be downplaying the idea that the pay-for is important at all, when, in fact, when the President went to Congress that very first night in September, he said that this American Jobs Act is paid for and that it’s not going to add one dime to the deficit, I think was his phrase.
MR. CARNEY: Yes, right.
Q So are you now opening the door to passing this, because it’s such a big priority, the payroll tax cut extension, without it being paid for?
MR. CARNEY: We strongly prefer that it be paid for. That’s why the President put forward a proposal that it was paid for. That’s why he supported the Democratic Senate alternative that had it paid for. And certainly I have not seen any indication at this point that there is disagreement about the need to have it paid for.
I think the question that you ask --
Q But Senator Reid and Durbin have both said this week that you could pass it without it being paid for, citing the fact that Republicans, as you noted, in fairness, have passed this payroll tax cut extension before without paying for it. You’ve cited --
MR. CARNEY: And generally believe that no tax cut needs to be paid for.
Q Right. So the door is now open to pass it without it being paid for.
MR. CARNEY: I’m not negotiating -- and I had this question in earlier weeks when we were talking about different ways to pay for the payroll tax cut here now.
Q But we’re at the endgame now.
MR. CARNEY: No, no, I know. And I’m saying -- my answer is the same. I’m not going to negotiate a hypothetical about whether -- if that were to happen --
Q But is the door closed? Are you saying, under no circumstances --
MR. CARNEY: I’m not saying --
Q Because the President said he will not add a dime to the deficit. Is that now changed?
MR. CARNEY: Well, his American Jobs Act would not have added a dime to the deficit --
Q Would not have.
MR. CARNEY: -- if Republicans hadn’t blocked it. And his proposal for the American Jobs Act, or at least the version that he supported -- or rather the payroll tax cut in the Senate that he supported -- would not have added a dime to the deficit. I believe that we can -- as I’ve said repeatedly now -- that there are alternative ways to pay for this that can be found and compromised on that meet the President’s principle that we don’t do harm to the economy, we don’t stick it to the middle class -- the very people we’re trying to help in this process.
So how this looks at the end is something I cannot foretell at this point. But the President’s priorities are clear; he restated them again today. And they’re very focused on 160 million Americans who will see their taxes go up, on average, by $1,000 on January 1st if Congress were to leave town without taking care of this issue.
Q Okay. So you know that they’re not going to support the surcharge; they’ve voted against it. You don’t want the pipeline in the payroll tax cut. So how do you move forward? What is the White House’s solution -- since we’re at the endgame here, and it’s no longer a possibility -- it’s --
MR. CARNEY: Rather than negotiating with you --
Q But how are you going to pay for it?
MR. CARNEY: -- I will let those on the President’s team, working with congressional Democrats and Republicans, come up with a compromise solution. I mean, we certainly believe that’s possible. I’ve made that clear here; the President has made it clear. The President’s priority is ensuring that working -- hardworking Americans, middle-class Americans don’t see their taxes go up on January 1st.
Q Okay, last thing on another subject. Prime Minister Maliki was here this week. There have been reports that a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which was -- U.S. officials say played a role in a 1996 terrorist attack that killed 19 U.S. servicemen -- he was here at the White House with Prime Minister Maliki because he’s a transportation minister --
MR. CARNEY: Sorry, whose report is that?
Q I believe The Washington Times has reported it. I think others have as well, but I think this is a Washington --
MR. CARNEY: I’d have to take that question. I’m not aware of it.
Q Okay. Could you give us an answer later, though, whether he was here and whether -- that a background check had been done?
MR. CARNEY: I’ll check on it for you.
Q Okay, thanks.
MR. CARNEY: Laura.
Q One of the prime reasons you gave for opposing the House version of the payroll tax bill was because it lifted the discretionary spending -- I’m sorry, lowered the discretionary spending caps. Would you rule out any agreement that lowered them by any amount?
MR. CARNEY: Well, what we’ve said about that specific Republican proposal is that the President would veto it. Again, what the contours of a compromise would look like I don’t want to speculate about from here. But the principle behind our concern with that specific measure is that, while it was dressed up as one thing, the reality of it would be, in lowering the caps, the requirement that things like education and clean energy and innovation and other issues -- other areas would be further cut.
And there are two problems with that. One, we had a deal, and we expect members of Congress to keep their word on a deal that’s only a few months old, that lowered non-defense discretionary spending to the lowest percentage of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president. So we’re talking about substantial cuts already. And as you know, the President certainly doesn’t believe that that’s necessary. Moreover, the principle here, as I have just stated a few times, is that we not do things that do harm to the very people we’re trying to help through the middle-class tax cut.
So having said that, I don’t want to tease out individual items and say, this one might work in some compromise proposal but this one won’t. The President’s principles are clear, and he wants to make sure that Congress not leave town having not done something to ensure that Americans don’t see their taxes go up.
Q So you’re saying that -- obviously, this is not your preference and you oppose it, but you’re not saying that any cuts to discretionary spending --
MR. CARNEY: Again, I’m not going to tease out individual items. I’m not going to tease out individual items and say that that’s unacceptable, because what was unacceptable was the bill that was presented to us and -- or rather presented, and that we issued a statement of administration policy on. If there’s another bill, we’ll evaluate it once we see it.
Q Thanks, Jay. You just talked about the negotiations that are going on. Has the President been personally involved in the negotiations?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think, as you know, he was here with -- or rather he invited and met with Senator Reid and other Senate Democratic leaders yesterday, and he’s engaged in this very much so, as are key members of his team. I don’t have telephone calls or meetings to read out to you, but absolutely the President is involved.
Q Has he spoken to Speaker Boehner?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t have telephone calls or meetings to read out to you -- or email exchanges.
Q Will he be speaking to Speaker Boehner? I mean, is that important for him to reach out to the Republicans as well, as we’re getting closer to this deadline?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t want to speculate about what conversations he may or may not have in the future here, in the next several days. But I can assure you that he is actively engaged in this, and has made sure that his team is directly engaged in this. And he will continue to do everything he can to ensure that the priority he laid out just an hour ago be met -- that Congress not leave Washington without making sure the middle class doesn’t see its taxes go up on January 1st.
Q Is he actively engaged with members of both parties, without reading out specific meetings?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I don’t have specific calls or meetings to read out to you. But he is engaged.
Q And also, we’re getting closer to this deadline of the government potentially shutting down. Has the administration taken any steps to prepare for that at this point?
MR. CARNEY: As you know, the Office of Management and Budget oversees that process for the White House, for the administration, and I would refer you to them. I can simply say that there are standard operating procedures here with which we are, through recent experience, fairly familiar. And the necessary actions are being taken and will be taken. But -- and that’s just out of an abundance of caution, and it’s basically a requirement when we get this close to a deadline. There is no reason to get there. There’s just no reason to get there.
As Senate leaders of both parties have made clear and other have made clear, the differences in the spending bill are resolvable. And I think, as everybody now has made clear, that both parties want an extension of the payroll tax cut, both parties want an extension of unemployment insurance. There’s no reason why we can’t get that done. And the President insists that Congress get that done, because it’s unacceptable to leave town, go home on a month-long vacation, having not done something to prevent Americans’ taxes from going up on January 1st -- when it would be so simple to get it done; when there’s clearly now bipartisan support for getting it done.
We hope and expect that will happen.
Mara, and then Mr. Collinson.
Q Can you explain what specifically is your problem with the Wyden-Ryan plan? Because it seems like the big news is that he’s backed off replacing Medicare with a private system, and giving these vouchers that are capped. It seems like a lot of the plan replicates the Affordable Care Act. What is it specifically that you think the plan would undermine --
MR. CARNEY: Well, no, what it does is it creates an unlevel playing field that would result in private plans being able to attract healthier Americans, thereby driving up costs and premiums for Medicare, and making it unsustainable for seniors to stay in traditional Medicare and force them to join private plans. So the result is --
Q But the -- would be tied to the cost of Medicare.
MR. CARNEY: But the result is the same. It basically forces -- it causes traditional Medicare to wither on the vine, to use a phrase from your past and mine, Mara. And it’s just not -- it’s not necessary. It would shift costs from the government to seniors, very much as the Ryan plan does. And at the end of the day, it would end Medicare as we know it for millions of seniors. It’s just the wrong way to reform Medicare.
Q So the bedrock position is that Medicare should remain a fee-for-service program without competition from private insurers?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the bedrock position is that we do not need to end Medicare as we know it, which is what the Ryan plan does and what, on a longer timeframe here, the Ryan-Wyden proposal does. And it’s just not necessary. That was the problem with the Ryan budget to begin with, was that, in order to reach the kinds of savings that he set -- the $4 trillion -- because he refused to ask wealthy Americans to pay a little bit more to raise revenues -- in fact, he extended and expanded tax breaks for wealthier Americans -- that meant that he had to end Medicare as we know it and stick 6,000 --
Q To balance the budget. This is a plan that’s confined to Medicare.
MR. CARNEY: No, no, no -- well, it was a long-term deficit and debt reduction plan. So what you’re saying is that we should then excise that, absent from even a deficit reduction and debt reduction plan, and stick it to seniors that way. That’s just not acceptable.
Q Thanks, Jay. I just wanted to return a moment to the McClatchy story on the Medal of Honor winner. You’re a former journalist, and I just -- I’m wondering how important to you and the White House it is that if the -- in answering her question you said that the President stands by awarding the medal because his own -- Dakota Meyer’s own colleagues said he acted heroically.
MR. CARNEY: I simply made clear, in answer to the question, that the same reporter who wrote that story posted a story shortly after that expansively cited testimony from Mr. Meyer’s own comrades about his --
Q It doesn’t sound like anybody disagrees that he deserves the medal necessarily. But how important to you and the White House is it that the President or that the White House corrects a narrative that may not actually reflect the facts and available evidence of that night, regardless of how heroically he acted?
MR. CARNEY: But again, I would refer you to the Marine Corps. And the process of vetting for Medal of Honor -- proposed Medal of Honor recipients is, as I understand it, quite extensive and thorough. Obviously that’s done at the Department of Defense and by the branch of the military that’s affected here, in this case the Marine Corps.
The President was very proud to present the Medal of Honor to Sergeant Meyer. He was that day and he remains proud today of his extraordinary service.
Q Did the White House review the vetted transcript from the -- the transcript that the President read into the public record that day?
MR. CARNEY: The President’s remarks --
Q Who wrote that? Was that --
MR. CARNEY: -- were based on the extensive documentation provided by the Department of Defense and the Marine Corps, including sworn testimony from Sergeant Meyer himself and sworn eyewitness testimonies of others present at the scene.
White House staff also personally spoke with Sergeant Meyer. Our primary resource for the President’s remarks was the official documentation provided by the Marine Corps, including sworn testimony from Sergeant Meyer, and as I said, sworn eyewitness testimonies of others present.
The President remains very proud of Sergeant Meyer and the remarkable acts of bravery that he displayed on that day.
I think -- yes, Stephen.
Q In these negotiations on the Hill, is the White House prepared to discuss at all the Keystone pipeline, or is it still the position that A, that’s beyond the purview of Congress to start with, and B, has nothing to do with the payroll tax?
MR. CARNEY: Well, it certainly has nothing to do with payroll tax cut extension and expansion. It certainly is beyond the purview of Congress to speed up a review process that is essential to making sure that all criteria here, all factors are weighed when a decision is made whether to grant a permit or not.
Remember, the process was extended because of opposition to the location of a pipeline through Nebraska -- opposition that included the Republican governor of that state. Alternative routes are being explored. I believe that the company that’s seeking the permit has said recently, in the last day or two, that they have not even identified yet an alternate route. So the idea that -- as the State Department has made clear -- that we could -- they could properly conduct a review in a 60-day time period is -- seems to be based on politics and not reality, or certainly not sound judgment.
So that’s our position on what is clearly a highly extraneous provision of the House Republican proposal.
Q Would you say absolutely that the President would veto any legislation that has Keystone in it? The word “veto” I haven’t heard.
MR. CARNEY: What the President said, I would remind you, is that he would reject a provision -- he would reject a proposal that tried to mandate approval of the Keystone project. That’s what he said; I believe we were over in South Court when he said that, when he was asked about that.
I, again, having -- what the State Department has said and having just explained in my answer to Steve there, what the House put forward was an attempt to speed up a process that circumvents the kind of thorough and necessarily cautious review that the State Department would need to conduct here. That’s wrong-headed and, I would say, counterproductive.
But I’m not going to -- let’s see what emerges from the discussions that are taking place on the Hill.
Q So then instead of 60 days, if it was 90 days or the process was longer, would that be something he would consider?
MR. CARNEY: I think that the proper way for this to take place is for the State Department to conduct a thorough review based on decades of tradition here -- tradition that exists for a reason, because these are important decisions that need to be made. And as I indicated earlier, the very company that’s asking for a permit hasn’t identified an alternate route. So how could we possibly ask -- or try to short-circuit this process and have a review process take place that would clearly be too short for the kind of review that’s necessary?
Q Just one other thing. The managing director of the IMF said this morning that the crisis is unfolding in Europe and escalating. I’m curious -- and also she said that -- Christine Lagarde said that it’s something that the eurozone countries can’t handle alone.
Is there -- has the President made any phone calls to Merkel or any other leaders recently? And is there a plan B?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have any presidential calls or communications to read out. He’s obviously being briefed regularly on this by Secretary Geithner and others. Our position on the important steps that Europe has taken thus far, and the need for Europe to take other steps to conclusively and decisively resolve this crisis hasn’t changed. And we’re working very closely with our European partners, offering them the advice that we can offer based on the experience that we’ve had, that we hope is helpful to resolving this.
I don’t really have anything else on that for you.
Q Thank you, Jay.
MR. CARNEY: Last one. Carrie.
Q Thanks, Jay. Can you explain why the statement last night called the omnibus -- or the appropriations agreement -- why it was called a Republican proposal, given that Democratic appropriators on the Hill are saying they signed off in it? Or is the agreement --
MR. CARNEY: Well, because the Republicans submitted a proposal that’s not -- it does not -- is not a Democratic proposal. It’s a Republican proposal.
Q But Democrats -- Democratic appropriators signed off on it, and --
MR. CARNEY: Well, they didn’t sign off on the Republicans filing a bill at 11:40 at night on their own. I mean, that’s just not the case. And as Senator Reid made clear, there are still issues that need to be resolved that can be resolved, should be resolved. We’re pleased with the progress that has been made on the omnibus.
But there was a -- this was about tactics and politics, having the Republicans put this down close to midnight last night. I don’t think that’s very much in doubt.
Q So you’re talking about what they put out last night, not what was apparently under discussion earlier in the week and had been -- I’m just a little confused, because --
MR. CARNEY: Well, the House Republicans, I believe, put forward -- filed a bill last night by themselves that is an omnibus bill. And that is not a conference bill, it is not a Democratic and Republican bill, it is a House Republican bill, which is I’m sure part of the atmospherics and tactics here.
What’s important is what we talked about at the top of the briefing, is that both sides seem to recognize that there is the capacity here to compromise, the path to compromise may be clear, the issues that still need to be resolved on the spending bill are resolvable. And that’s one thing.
Separate, and very important to the President, is the need to make sure that Americans don’t have their taxes go up on January 1st. And it is not okay to resolve the differences in the spending bill and leave town without making sure that Americans -- 160 million Americans -- don’t see their taxes go up by, on average, $1,000 next year.
That would be the height of irony, right? That because of Republicans’ refusal to extend the payroll tax cut they leave town having passed a trillion-dollar spending bill and a tax hike? Talk about turning politics on its head. So we’re hopeful that’s not going to happen.
Q It if was all worked out -- even if it was all in doubt and everybody agreed.
MR. CARNEY: Well, then they should pass it, if it’s all worked out.
Q The omnibus.
MR. CARNEY: No, that’s what I’m saying. Wouldn’t it be -- I’m just having fun here -- wouldn’t it be ironic, given what we think we know about the American political system and the two parties, that because of inaction by Congress on the payroll tax cut they simply left town having passed a trillion-dollar spending bill, and refused to take action and therefore ensured that there was a tax cut for middle-class Americans.
Q Tax hike.
MR. CARNEY: I’m sorry, a tax hike. Thank you, Bill. I appreciate that. (Laughter.)
Q Hike! Hike! Hike!
MR. CARNEY: It’s been probably an hour since I started briefing.
Q Two, four, six, eight, hike!
Q Your statement came out --
MR. CARNEY: I’m sorry.
Q Your statement came out before they filed the bill last night.
MR. CARNEY: You know what, I think -- I wasn’t looking at my watch when these things came out. And I’m not sure what the point is. What the Republicans did last night was clear. We’re hoping that progress is going to be made on Capitol Hill. We all are, I’m sure, hoping that progress will be made on Capitol Hill, and that this essential work is completed in as close to an on-time fashion as possible.
Thank you all very much.
Q Thank you.
2:12 P.M. EST