Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/6/2015
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:07 P.M. EST
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Glad at least some of you were able to navigate the snowfall this morning and make it to work. One quick announcement before we get started with questions. Some of you asked about the President meeting with members of Congress. I can tell you that the White House has invited the top four leaders from each party and from each chamber of Commerce -- each chamber of Congress --
Q Commerce, too? (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: -- Congress -- to participate in a meeting early next week at the White House. I believe it's slated for Tuesday. So this is the same group of members of Congress the President had lunch with here a couple days after the midterm elections. So this will be an opportunity for them to talk about a range of issues, most importantly, the legislative agenda for 2015 as well as a couple of foreign policy issues as well.
So I'm confident we'll have an opportunity to talk about how that discussion goes after it has taken place.
With that, Julie, let’s get started with questions.
Q Thanks, Josh. To start, can you be any more specific about the President’s priorities for that meeting both in terms of the legislative agenda and what he’s going to be talking about on foreign policy?
MR. EARNEST: As a general matter, I can tell you that what the President is looking forward to talking about is some of the ideas that he'll be talking about this week, frankly, as it relates to policies we can put in place that will benefit middle-class families. The President believes that the best way to grow our economy is by growing the middle class, so some of those policies will be on the agenda for some discussion.
We've already talked previously about some of the areas of common ground that we think are certainly possible to be found in the context of this Congress. That would include tax reform, opening up overseas markets for American businesses, and even the need to modernize our infrastructure -- that these are areas where the President has long talked about the benefits it would have in the American economy to make progress in these areas, and Republicans have indicated an interest in pursuing them as well. So that would be part of it as well.
On the foreign policy front, it's just an opportunity for the President to update members of Congress based on their own areas of interest. So there won't be anything specific that he'll be bringing to the agenda, but it's an opportunity for him to update them on a number of foreign policy issues since they last met about a month ago.
Q Okay. Obviously you know that Republicans have expressed frustration over the last couple of years about their level of contact with the President. I'm wondering if the White House has given any thought or come up with any strategy for what the President’s outreach to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner is going to be like now that Republicans control Congress. Are there going to be monthly meetings, weekly phone calls? Is there anything that's going to be sort of structurally in place to keep the President and Republican leaders in contact?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don't anticipate that there will be anything structured like that, but I would anticipate that the President will be in regular touch with members of Congress. And of course, if there are members of Congress that want to -- particularly leaders in Congress who want to have a conversation with the President, then they’re welcome to call here as well.
Q Does he feel like he needs to be in more contact, particularly with McConnell, than he has been in the past?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Mitch McConnell obviously has a different job now than he used to have and I think that that probably would necessitate more frequent conversations with the President of the United States. But, look, the President does recognize that there’s an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to work together, and the key to doing that is not the frequency of conversations but more the willingness from people on both sides to try to find common ground and not allow disagreements over one issue to become an obstacle to making any sort of agreement on any issue.
So that's the spirit that the President will bring to that meeting. I think there are some indications that at least some of the Republicans who attend that meeting will bring that spirit as well, and we look forward to doing what we can to try and foster more of that spirit in the New Year.
Q I'd like to ask about some comments that the French President made about the situation between Russia and Ukraine. He said in an interview that Western nations should stop threatening Russia with new sanctions and that Russia’s position vis-à-vis Ukraine is misunderstood. Given that the President has put such a premium on coordinating with Europe as it relates to Russia, does he agree with what President Hollande said?
MR. EARNEST: Julie, I have not seen the interview that President Hollande gave, but let me just say as a general matter, I don't think that there’s a lot of daylight between the position that President Hollande articulated and what the President here has said. What the President has said is that as soon as Russia starts living up to the commitments that they made in Minsk to deescalate the situation in Ukraine the President stood ready to work with the international community to roll back some of the sanctions regime that has been put in place so far.
You’ll recall that there was a piece of legislation that was passed by the United States Congress at the end of last year related to sanctions, and the President made pretty clear even as he signed that legislation that he did not believe that there currently was a need to add additional sanctions. But it certainly is true that --
Q He didn’t say that -- he said he didn’t feel like he should add them through congressional legislation, but he would want to coordinate with Europe. So does he feel like right now there is not a need to threaten any additional sanctions against Russia?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think what he feels the need to do -- and something that I have done on a number of occasions -- is make clear to the Russians and to everybody else that the longer that the Russians refuse to abide by the commitments that they’ve already made, the more risk they face from additional sanctions. I don't know of any impending plan to add to that sanctions regime right now, but certainly the risk only increases as long as Russia continues to essentially ignore the important commitments that they’ve made to try to deescalate the situation in eastern Ukraine; that there are basic things that Russia can do to live up to those commitments, including ending the support, particularly the military support that the Russian military has offered to the separatists in eastern Ukraine, and to acknowledge and abide by generally accepted norms about the territorial integrity of independent countries on their border.
Q Two years ago, Josh, the President was reelected and took over and launched a bit of a charm offensive aimed at wooing members of Congress, and I don't sense that you're going to do anything like that this time --
MR. EARNEST: It worked great, didn’t it? Is that what you're suggesting?
Q Well, no. Should we see this as the beginning of a charm offensive next Tuesday?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think what you should see this as is a clear piece of evidence from this President that he wants to try to find common ground with Republicans to make progress for the American people. Now that there is Republican leadership of both houses of Congress and a Democrat in charge at the White House we're going to have to try to compromise and try to find common ground in order to move this country forward. And the President is determined to do that. And we're going to have disagreements over a wide range of issues, but we can't allow those other disagreements to become an obstacle to trying to find some common ground.
Q Now, you and the President have been fairly downbeat on the Keystone pipeline. Republicans are moving ahead with their legislation. Have you taken a fresh look at this?
MR. EARNEST: Well, not really. I mean, the fact is this piece of legislation is not altogether different than legislation that was introduced in the last Congress, and you’ll recall that we put out a statement of administration position indicating that the President would have vetoed had that bill passed the previous Congress. And I can confirm for you that if this bill passes this Congress the President wouldn't sign it either.
And that's because there’s already a well-established process in place to consider whether or not infrastructure projects like this are in the best interest of the country; that in previous administrations when pipeline projects like this were considered they were evaluated by the State Department and other experts in the administration to reach a determination about whether or not that project was in the national interest.
Now, the thing that is impeding a final conclusion about this pipeline is the fact that the pipeline route has not even been finalized yet, that there continues to be an outstanding question about the route of the pipeline through one part of Nebraska, and that’s related to an ongoing legal matter in Nebraska. Once that is resolved, that should speed the completion of the evaluation of that project.
Q Would you consider putting Keystone in some sort of overall legislative package where you give some things, you get some things in return?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, that’s -- I haven’t heard any Republicans float that as a possible measure so I think I’d withhold judgment on that. But I think the President has been pretty clear that he does not think that circumventing a well-established process for evaluating these projects is the right thing for Congress to do.
Q Last thing -- the President just now said he’d like to bring up human rights in Cuba in the Summit of the Americas that is coming up. How would he do this? Would he meet directly with President Castro?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t have any meetings like that to discuss at this point, but there certainly would be an opportunity for the President to speak publicly at that summit, and with so many world leaders from the Western Hemisphere gathered in one place it obviously would be a pretty high-profile venue for the President to step forward and raise his concerns about human rights in Cuba.
I think one of the important things about this policy announcement that we made here at the White House three weeks or so ago is that for so long when we have attended previous Summits of the Americas the focus has been on the U.S. policy toward Cuba, that many other countries in the Western Hemisphere thought that this was counterproductive and would spend a lot of time urging the United States to change our policy toward Cuba.
Now that that policy change has been enacted, we anticipate that there will be greater focus on encouraging the Cuban government to change their policy toward their own people and start respecting basic human rights and releasing political prisoners and doing the kinds of things that reflect the will and ambition of the Cuban people. And that I think is an important consequence of the kind of policy change that the President made, and I do think that that will be on display at the Summit of the Americas later this year.
Q On that same subject, it’s been suggested that -- by some Republicans now that maybe the President should not have these high-level talks with Cuba until all those political prisoners, the 53, are released. And you took a question yesterday as to the status of those. So do you have a clearer answer on how many exactly have been released, what the status is? And is that something you would consider, not having high-level talks until they’re released?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we have not made any sort of commitment to have high-level talks at this point. But I can tell you, as it relates to -- with the Cuban political leadership, what I can tell you is that the government of Cuba did make a decision to release a number of political prisoners, and that was announced in a speech that Raul Castro delivered on December 17th.
It’s always important to get political prisoners released, and so we welcome the step that he announced and want to see the Cuban government actually follow through on that commitment. They’ve already released some of the prisoners, and we’d like to see this commitment completed in the near future. I’ll remind you that this is a commitment that the Cuban government made to release political prisoners not just to the United States but also to the Vatican.
The other thing that I will say is we’re not in a position to talk about specific numbers, and the reason for that is simply that we’ve been careful about talking about the number of prisoners and who they are because we don’t want to put an even bigger target on their back as political dissidents. So we want to make sure that they’re released, and this was a decision that was made by the sovereign Cuban government to do so. They’re not doing us a favor, but they did make a commitment, like I said, to the United States and to the Vatican to do so. And we anticipate and would hope that they will follow through on that commitment and do so in the very near future.
Q Is it something that the administration would consider doing, though, kind of a quid pro quo? I mean, not doing this unless they release the -- or unless they live up to any of their commitments that they’ve made?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the expectation right now is that they’ve already made this commitment and we expect them to live up to it. I don’t think we’re going to be looking to do them any additional favors to live up to commitments they’ve already made. That’s something that they should do.
Now, of course, in other settings when we’re dealing with other countries where we have concerns, the idea -- the prospect of the leader of a country getting a one-on-one meeting with the President of the United States can in some situations be used as a carrot. They appreciate the opportunity to sit down with the President in a high-profile setting and have a direct exchange of views with the leader of the free world. I wouldn’t speculate about whether or not that’s the way that the Castro regime would consider an invitation like this, but it certainly has been viewed that way by other world leaders.
But as it relates to the commitment that the Castro regime has already made to release political prisoners, we anticipate that they -- and hope that they will follow through on that commitment. After all, that is a commitment that they made not just to the United States but to the Vatican.
Q Are you looking forward to any compromises or working together with this Congress on the issue of Cuba? I mean, already it looks like there might be great difficulty in getting an ambassador confirmed.
MR. EARNEST: Well, we would welcome the opportunity to cooperate with Democrats and Republicans on our Cuba policy. But I guess that will sort of be up to Democrats and Republicans in Congress to decide whether or not they want to cooperate with us.
Q And then really quickly on Keystone. You just said that the President would veto this bill, yes?
MR. EARNEST: I would not anticipate that the President will sign this piece of legislation. We promised -- we indicated that the President would veto similar legislation that was being considered by the previous Congress, and our position on this hasn’t changed. Again, there’s a well-established process that should not be undermined by legislation.
Q For a long time, though, you said -- as recently as yesterday -- that you’re not ready to issue a veto threat. So what has changed from yesterday to today? I mean, why are you saying this now?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the text of this legislation was made public since the last time I discussed this.
Q Thank you, Josh. I just want to go back to Julie’s question on Russia, France and Ukraine. It feels that there is more daylight than you seem to see or not see between the positions.
MR. EARNEST: Well, you’ve seen the interview; I haven’t seen the entire thing. But go ahead.
Q Yes, I understand. But he talks about his willingness to lift the sanctions as soon as there is some progress in the discussions, in the January 15 discussions. I just want to see if -- it sounds to me that the unity has been shaken within the group of countries that have imposed sanctions. Do we have the wrong perception that more and more countries, especially in Europe, considering the impact on their economy -- Italy and Hungary -- that they are less enthusiastic with the idea of maintaining the sanctions than the U.S.?
MR. EARNEST: I mean, again, you’ve read the interview more closely than I have. I wasn’t even aware that it had been conducted. But let me just say as a general matter, I think that the success of the sanctions regime that has been put in place has depended on the unity -- or unanimity of opinion among the coalition to put in place the sanctions regime; that the United States putting in place unilateral sanctions against Russia would not have the same kind of impact on the Russian economy that this more integrated set of sanctions would have, simply because the economy of Europe and Russia is more deeply integrated than the economy between the United States -- the economies of the United States and Russia. So the success of this strategy depends on maintaining some unity.
And we have spent a lot of time over the last few months talking about what impact this sanctions regime has had on the Russian economy and the bite of those sanctions will only worsen as time goes on. That’s why there’s such a clear incentive for President Putin to change his behavior. And we hope that he’ll avail himself of that opportunity to live up to the commitments that he has made previously to deescalate the situation in Ukraine. I haven’t seen any indication -- again, I haven’t seen the interview, but I do believe that that continues to be the prevailing view of those who are working closely with the United States in this endeavor.
That doesn't downplay that there are some sacrifices that are being made by countries in Europe, including France and Hungary and others, who do have an important economic relationship with Russia. There’s no doubt that they're making some sacrifices. In some ways, I think that illustrates how committed those countries are to the strategy that the President has laid out, the fact that they are willing to make a substantial sacrifice to stand up for this critically important international norm of respecting the basic territorial integrity of other countries.
Q But it sounds like they're not ready to continue making the sacrifice. Has the President been making some phone calls or trying to tighten this unity or unanimity?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of any presidential-level phone calls that have been made in the last few days at least that have been specifically focused on this topic.
Q I just want -- because I’ve read about that, is the White House fine-tuning a new working relationship with Russia?
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen those -- I saw those reports over the holidays, too. Obviously, the relationship that we have with Russia is something that we’ve talked a lot about in here, particularly over the last year. It’s a complicated one because we do have this significant disagreement about the way that Russia has conducted themselves, if you will, in Ukraine. They have violated a basic international norm. They’ve violated the territorial integrity of an independent nation that's on their border. And that's something that the United States has strong concerns about. We obviously see the situation very differently than they as it relates to Ukraine.
There are, however, other important national security issues where the United States and Russia have found some more common ground. For example, Russia has been an important participant in the P5-plus-1 talks with Iran. That has been beneficial to that broader process.
We talked last year about the role that Russia had to play in destroying the declared chemical weapons stockpile of the Assad regime. That was an important step because it reduced or essentially eliminated the proliferation risk from that declared chemical weapons stockpile, that we could essentially destroy those chemical weapons and ensure that terrorists would not be able to get their hands on them and use them in other places. So that's where the United States and Russia worked closely together for the benefit of not just the Russian people and the American people, but people all around the world.
There has also been close and ongoing Russian-America cooperation as it relates to the space program. Right now there are Americans and Russians that are orbiting inside the International Space Station together. So that reflects I think, again, an ability to cooperate on very complicated issues in a way that benefits both countries substantially.
And we're going to continue to make sure that we are making clear the concerns that we have with some aspects of Russia’s behavior while also trying to work with them constructively to advance our national security interests and to make the world a little safer, like we did when we destroyed the declared chemical weapons stockpile of the Assad regime.
Q Would you call it a new relationship?
MR. EARNEST: No, I wouldn’t. I would say that it’s -- I guess as I’ve said a couple times now, I would describe it as complicated.
Q Could you just clarify the veto threat about Keystone? You will veto the House version of this legislation that -- as you understand it, correct?
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s my understanding that the House and Senate bill are identical.
MR. EARNEST: Is that not right?
Q Well, that's what I wanted to --
MR. EARNEST: I was -- I’m under the impression that it is, that they are the same.
Q So you're issuing a veto threat to Keystone legislation coming out of Congress? Is that -- okay. And then I have a question about the President’s travels this week, just if you could describe kind of what he’s doing in these states, what he wants to accomplish. But also specifically about the visit to Tennessee, is he going to make a proposal that would make community college virtually tuition-free?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me just speak more generally about this week. The President is looking forward to the opportunity to traveling over the course of the next three days to talk about the American economy. We have seen the American economy build up some more momentum, particularly in the second half of last year, and that's due to a wide range of forces.
Some of that is due to very difficult policy decisions that this President made early in 2009 in the earliest days of his presidency. He had to make some pretty politically unpopular decisions to rescue the American economy. And the result has been not just that we staved off a second Great Depression but we’ve actually laid the groundwork for a stronger recovery that's actually the envy of the entire world.
And one of the things that the President will talk about tomorrow is to highlight one of those politically unpopular decisions at the time that has really paid off in spades for the American people and for American workers, and that was the decision that the President made to rescue the American auto industry. The American auto industry is as strong as ever. That’s thanks mostly to the very hard work and skill of the more than one million Americans that work in the American auto industry, but it would not have been possible without this administration stepping in and making the kinds of important decisions that have saved that industry, laid the groundwork for them to come back stronger than ever, but also revitalize the manufacturing industry inside the United States.
So the President is very pleased with the way that that came out, and that will certainly be something the President will be highlighting tomorrow. He’ll also spend a little time talking about how important continued investments in the manufacturing sector, particularly when it comes to advanced manufacturing, are for our economy and for our workforce.
When the President travels to Phoenix, he will spend a little time talking about how the policies that this administration has put in place have benefitted American homeowners, middle-class homeowners. This has been a sector of the economy that has not recovered as quickly as the manufacturing sector, but we’ve seen important gains in the second half of last year and the President wants to build on those gains and see if there is more that we can do to try to help responsible middle-class homeowners who, again, are trying to do the right thing. So we’ll have more to say there on Thursday.
Then on Friday, the President does look forward to the opportunity to visit a community college in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he’ll talk about a range of ideas that he has for making sure that we have the kind of workforce that we need in this country to continue to remain the strongest, most vibrant economy in the world, but also do it in a way that’s good for middle-class families and making sure that American workers have the skills they need to find the middle-class jobs of the future.
So I don’t have a lot of details I’m prepared to reveal at this point about some of the ideas the President will discuss.
Q So nothing about -- because Tennessee is about to do that, is about to have a project that would make community college virtually tuition-free. He’s not going to talk about that?
MR. EARNEST: Tennessee is a place where they have been focused on making sure that they have a workforce that’s very well equipped to compete for good-paying jobs. And I guess I would point out that Tennessee has a Republican governor, they’re represented in the United States Senate by two Republican senators, so investing in the American workforce and making sure that we have a skilled workforce and making sure that middle-class families get the training and education that they need to compete for middle-class jobs, that shouldn’t be a partisan issue. And the President will have a lot more to say, and I anticipate that he’ll speak more eloquently about this than I was just able to.
Q Just on the auto bailout, you would concede that President Bush set it in motion and the President expanded it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I would concede that what President Bush did was he made what was also a very politically difficult decision to forestall their death. He gave them some key infusions of cash that prevented them from going under before President Obama took office. Yes, that is certainly true.
However, there were very important and difficult policy decisions that this administration made to essentially send a couple of those companies into bankruptcy and to help them make the kinds of tough decisions that are required and are paying off in spades.
Q -- entry-level wages, et cetera.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. So certainly, President Bush, if you will, prevented them from suffering a terrible death, but it’s under President Obama that these companies have experienced a new and vibrant life.
Q Talking about other legislative matters -- not Keystone but that do have some bipartisan support and may come to the President’s desk. There’s an effort in the House and Senate to, under the Affordable Care Act, replace a 40-hour work week as opposed to a 30-hour work week to avoid the mandate for businesses with fewer than 50 employees. What is the administration’s position on that fine-tuning of that aspect of the Affordable Care Act?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my understanding -- I actually think this is something that Republicans have talked about before and something that we’ve been pretty critical of in the past.
It is the view of this administration that this would actually -- that this proposed change would actually do a lot of harm not just to the Affordable Care Act but also to a substantial number of workers across the country. Ironically, at least a couple of conservative thinkers happen to agree that we’re right -- that Mr. Levin, who writes for the National Review, has said that this seems likely to be worse than doing nothing -- this Republican proposal. Now, the irony here is that this is somebody who I assume is not exactly an enthusiastic advocate of the Affordable Care Act, but yet he is suggesting that the proposed Republican change is even worse than the Affordable Care Act. I assume there’s no worse criticism that could be leveled by one Republican toward another than to say that something is worse than the Affordable Care Act, but yet that is the criticism that has been lodged at this Republican proposal.
Q What does the administration believe is the policy error of this approach? What would it make worse?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the issue is essentially that we would be putting even more workers in a situation where we could see some employers cutting back on their hours to try to avoid the requirement of providing them quality health insurance. That’s what many responsible business owners and the majority of responsible business owners across the country already do, but there are some who are looking for loopholes where they can try to avoid taking that responsibility, and we certainly don’t believe that we should make that easier. That’s not good for the Affordable Care Act; it’s not good for these workers. That’s a position that’s long been articulated by this White House and it’s also a position that’s articulated by a number of leading conservative thinkers.
Q And is it the administration’s point of view that this really isn’t a problem, that there is that sort of anecdotal sense that it’s a problem that employers are officially keeping hours down but, in fact, that’s not what’s happening?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think it’s something that I think is hard to quantify and hard to generalize about. I certainly wouldn’t quibble with the individual experience that somebody cites, but I think it’s sometimes hard to make -- see inside the mind of an employer and to determine why they’re making different staffing decisions. What’s clear is that the temptation that some employers might have would only be sweetened significantly if this Republican change were to be put into place.
Q Let me ask about the protests that are going on in Lafayette Square. I don’t know if you can hear them, but there’s a decent-size crowd wanting to bring attention to the deaths of 43 students in Mexico, and the perception that many have -- and there’s an investigative trail that suggests either government complicity or government indifference to the investigation itself. Richard Trumka, the President of the AFL-CIO, sent the President a letter today describing this crime as part of the systematic violence, corruption, and dissolution of the rule of law in all of Mexico, indicating that the AFL-CIO believes there is a human rights crisis in Mexico in addition to a labor rights crisis. This is a friend to the administration. It’s pretty stinging criticism. What is the President and the administration’s take on the state of criminal justice and human rights and labor rights in Mexico, and to what degree is that factoring into the conversations today?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Major, I can tell you that as a -- we have previously expressed our concern about this horrific crime that was committed in terms of the disappearance and apparent killing of 43 students in Mexico. That is something that we have expressed some concern about. I know that this is something -- that this matter generally is something that the President discussed with President Peña Nieto during their meeting today. They’re still meeting so I assume it could come up again.
The thing that’s important, though, is that we want to see the President of Mexico, President Peña Nieto, live up to our view -- and a view that I think that both countries share -- about the importance of the rule of law, and that peace and justice are ultimately necessary to fully achieve inclusive economic growth. So there’s a clear incentive for both sides to live up to those kinds of values.
Q This is a very live topic in Mexico as to whether or not this investigation itself is even credible, has met any basic standards of credibility or transparency. What does the administration think about that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the investigation is still ongoing and there have been some -- there have been concerns that have been raised; we’ve noted them. There also have been some arrests that have been made, and President Peña Nieto has previously expressed what he believes is the priority that should be placed on human rights and on the rule of law. And the President stands with him as he tries to put in place the important reforms that are necessary to try to address the situation. But it’s clear that the work on this continues.
Q Would you agree that the human rights situation is deteriorating, as Richard Trumka says and many human rights activists allege?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t know that I would be willing to make that judgment from here. I think what I would say is that President Obama and President Peña Nieto share a point of view about the importance of the rule of law, and they share a point of view that peace and justice are ultimately necessary for inclusive economic growth. And so there is a clear incentive for governments around the world, including in Mexico, to pursue policies in that vein, and it is clear that there is more that needs to be done in Mexico to ensure that those values are being upheld.
Q Josh, I wanted to go back to the Phoenix agenda. You didn’t mention the President going to the VA hospital there. Is he not going to visit the VA hospital in Phoenix that was the source of so much controversy and possible death?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t seen the President’s full schedule yet but I don’t believe at this point that that’s something he’s planning to do.
Q Why not? I mean, this is the first time he’s had a chance to be in Phoenix. He talked from that podium and many other podiums about how important it is to send a signal to America’s veterans that he is taking care of them.
MR. EARNEST: Well, Ed, the thing that I can tell you is that when the President appointed an Acting Secretary of the VA, Sloan Gibson, to that responsibility in the aftermath of some of these revelations, Mr. Gibson’s first visit as the Acting Secretary of the VA was to that Phoenix facility. I can tell you that once the President put in place -- nominated a permanent Secretary of the VA, Mr. McDonald, to that job, that his first trip as VA Secretary was down to Phoenix. And there have been some important personnel changes that have been made at that facility there. There have been substantial operational reforms in place that are ensuring that the needs of the veterans in Phoenix are being better met by the medical facility there.
So we’re pleased with the pace of reforms that have been put in place. It is clear that there is more that needs to be done not just in Phoenix but at medical facilities all across the country. We’ve made a covenant with our veterans, and this President is determined to make sure that we uphold it.
Q On Keystone, I guess I want to drill down a little bit on what Mara was saying before. When you answered Mara I think you were saying -- specifically referred to the House bill. I just want to make sure -- this veto threat, is the door open to supporting -- I mean, I know you can’t comment on every possibility, every variation, but is it only a veto threat on the House version, or pretty much the President is saying, you put something on my desk on Keystone I’m vetoing it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me say a couple things about that. The first thing is I am under the impression that both the House version and the Senate version are the same. So essentially the veto threat would apply to both.
The second thing is there’s an important principle at stake here, and I think that’s what I would try to articulate in answering your question, which is there is a well-established process for evaluating projects -- transportation infrastructure projects like this that go across international borders, and that these kinds of projects in the past and even in previous administrations have been evaluated by the State Department and other relevant government agencies to determine whether or not the completion of these infrastructure projects is in the clear best interest of the United States. We believe that is the right way for determining the future of the Keystone pipeline.
Now, the thing that has inhibited the evaluation of that project is the fact that the root of that pipeline hasn’t been completed, that there still is a disagreement in Nebraska about what the proper route through that state should be. So it would be premature to try to evaluate the project before something as basic as the route of the pipeline has been established.
Q I understand the state aspect. But on the State Department piece of this and cross-border -- as you know, the State Department has been studying this two, three years. I understand it’s a serious issue, it needs careful study. How many years are you going to study the project before you say yay or nay?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we’re going to make sure that we know what the route of the pipeline is before we render judgment about whether or not it should be completed.
Q You have an idea of the pipeline. I understand the exact -- maps have been drawn. I mean, this has been, again, studied two, three, four years.
MR. EARNEST: Well, and that’s because the route of the pipeline has changed a number of times because of legal proceedings in Nebraska.
So, look, Ed, this has been something that has been simmering for a little while here, and the administration has done a lot of work on this. I think that is how you can tell that whatever decision is eventually reached by the administration will be one that reflects the kind of careful reflection and investigation that’s been conducted already.
But again, we’re not going to render judgment on the pipeline project until the pipeline project has been -- until a final project has been put forward.
Q More big picture. You were talking yesterday at the podium about cooperation and trying to work with Republicans and this meeting next Tuesday. Not concerned at all about -- day one of the new Congress, you’ve been sitting on this veto threat -- well, we don’t know yet. Day one, we’ll veto this bill. Doesn’t that send an odd signal for cooperation?
MR. EARNEST: I guess, Ed, to pick up on your metaphor about pipelines, I guess that spirit of good feelings flows both ways, between Congress and Capitol Hill. Congressional Republicans are well aware of the position of this administration, which is that we believe clearly that this administrative process is the one that should determine this -- the viability of this project. And that is a long-held view. It is a view that we clearly expressed in the previous Congress. And so I guess, based on the construction of your question, maybe it raises questions about the willingness of Republicans to actually cooperate with this administration when you consider that the very first bill that’s introduced in the United States Senate is one that Republicans know the President opposes.
Q He can sign it or veto it, and he’s saying veto, though.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, that’s true.
Q Okay. On health care, just the last thing you were talking to Major about -- on another aspect of health care. Long story in The New York Times saying that large segments of the faculty at Harvard University, where the President went to Harvard Law School, of course -- is sort of up in arms about the fact that the professors are going to have to bear a larger share of their own health care costs under the President’s new law. These are some of the same professors who were advisors to the President’s first campaign in 2008, advocated the Affordable Care Act, and they basically said this is a great deal for America. But now when they have to pay more, they’re up in arms about it. Isn’t that a little bit hypocritical that some of the President’s supporters at Harvard are saying, this is a great deal for America, but when I’ve got to pay more it’s terrible, it’s awful.
MR. EARNEST: I can only imagine the question you’d be asking me if The New York Times reported that the faculty at Harvard was getting a great deal.
Q Well, this is the fact, though -- and Harvard also put out a statement, by the way, saying, the trend -- they’re doing this because the trend of rising health care costs, including some driven by health care reform itself -- yesterday when we talked about this you said -- and there are stats backing up that health care costs are coming down in some respects, but Harvard is citing that the law itself is raising health care costs. Isn’t that the opposite of what the White House says?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I haven’t seen exactly what Harvard has said, but I do think as a general matter, the results that we’ve seen so far -- they’re early, but the early results speak to the enormous benefits that the Affordable Care Act has paid to middle-class families across the country, to small business owners, to the government’s bottom line, and to the success that we’ve had in lowering health care cost, or at least slowing the growth of health care costs for people all across the country.
Q Is the President disappointed that professors at his alma mater just don't see those benefits?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let’s be clear. There are some important benefits that they do see under the Affordable Care Act, that there are a number of patient protections that will apply to everybody. So everybody who is on the Harvard faculty can get a free annual checkup from their doctor. And again, that's thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Nobody at Harvard who has a preexisting condition can ever be discriminated against again because of that preexisting condition. And every Harvard professor that has an old child can keep that child on their quality Harvard insurance up to age 26. And those are the kinds of patient protections that don't just benefit those at the bottom of the income scale, they actually benefit everybody, including the esteemed academics at Harvard University.
Q Steve asked you earlier about whether the President was going to engage in a new charm offensive with Republicans in Congress, and you said no. Why not? It’s a new world now. They're now in charge. A little charm may be called for.
MR. EARNEST: Well, there’s been talk about a bourbon summit. I don't know if you can charm people over bourbon, but maybe we’ll try. (Laughter.) I think the point --
Q What is the status on that bourbon summit? That was November 5th I think we talked about that.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I don't know if that's been scheduled, but I’m confident that the President and the new Majority Leader will follow through on that promise.
What I’ll say about it is this: We're focused a little less on sort of the charm and more on the substance. There should be an opportunity for us to try to find common ground. And it’s not the frequency of telephone calls or the pleasantries that are exchanged at the beginning, but actually the willingness from people in both parties to try to come together around common ground.
And look, we're going to disagree -- whether it’s the Keystone pipeline or the Affordable Care Act, many of those differences have been well chronicled and those aren’t going to change. I’m not trying to paper over them, but there should be an opportunity for us to try to find some common ground.
And we’ve had this discussion a little bit before -- in some cases, it will involve -- Cheryl and I talked about this a little bit yesterday -- in some cases, that will involve compromise; we’ll have to give a little, people on the other side will have to give a little. But there may be just some places where we can say, hey, we both agree that we can invest in infrastructure. Let’s pursue that idea. That's something that we -- we don't have to compromise around that. That's something we both agree on.
Now, we may have to compromise on things like the pay-fors or the priorities. But that is something where Republicans can advance their priorities and Democrats can advance their priorities because these are priorities that they believe should exist for the whole country. So that doesn't require any charm. That just requires a willingness on both sides to try to meet in the middle, to try to find some common ground and compromise and move the country forward.
Q So why -- right out of the gate here, the new Congress coming in, the President’s leaving town, going and talking about his plan when it comes to mortgages, touting the auto bailout, doing some education. None of those are on the top issues that you've talked about where there is common ground with Republicans. Why aren’t you out there talking tax reform, trade, infrastructure right out of the box? Seems like you're starting from a point of confrontation, not necessarily cooperation? You mentioned the veto threat, obviously.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, well, I think there will be an opportunity for us to talk about some of those issues, as well. I don't know if it will be in the context of this trip, but certainly we may have an opportunity to do that.
The last time the President -- I guess it wasn’t the last time the President traveled to Detroit, but on one of his previous visits, the President traveled to Detroit to talk about the Korea free-trade agreement that was completed under this President. And we took the then South Korean President along, and I remember that he donned a Detroit Tigers baseball cap. So I think that's a pretty good illustration of the President’s commitment to those issues.
But, look, there will be an opportunity for us to talk about a bunch of things that Republicans agree -- that Democrats and Republicans can agree on. And I’m confident that that will come up in the President’s remarks that he delivers over the course of this week. And I’m confident -- I’m even more confident it will come up in the meeting the President intends to have with Democratic and Republican leaders here at the White House next week.
There will be ample opportunity for us to talk about those things. And again, we’ll do that because the President senses an opportunity to make some progress in priorities that the President has identified. And there is some overlap between the priorities that the President has identified and the priorities that Republicans say that they believe in. So we look forward to trying to stake out that common ground and move forward.
Q And can I just get you to react to something that happened while you were standing up there but you probably knew it was going on?
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q The House was in the process of electing a Speaker of the House.
MR. EARNEST: That's what I hear.
Q It looks like over two dozen Republicans failed to support John Boehner for Speaker, many of those not supporting him because they think that he has not been confrontational enough in dealing with the President. I wonder if you have any reaction.
MR. EARNEST: Yes. Well, it’s my understanding that it would require substantially more than two dozen defections to prevent --
Q Not substantially more. It’s pretty close. (Laughter.)
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not an expert on these things. But it sounds to me that you may have buried the lead here. I’m not a journalist the way that you are, but it sounds like he’s been reelected as Speaker of the House. And if that's the case, then he certainly deserves and has the congratulations of everybody here at the White House. That's a substantial achievement.
The President’s differences with Speaker Boehner on a wide range of issues that we’ve been talking about today are not new. I know that the Speaker does not share the President’s view when it comes to the Affordable Care Act, that they disagree over the Keystone pipeline. I know that that's something that Speaker Boehner -- that legislation is something that Speaker Boehner supports. But there is no doubt that there are going to be strong differences of opinion between the President and the Speaker, as there have been over the course of the last four years. What the President is determined to do, however, is to move past those disagreements and try to find some areas of common ground. And we're hopeful that Speaker Boehner will be willing to do the same.
Q Somewhat related to the meeting today with the President of Mexico -- would the U.S. be open to allowing exports of crude oil to Mexico as the U.S. now does with Canada? And did this come up in the meeting between President Nieto and President Obama?
MR. EARNEST: My understanding, Mike, is that there has actually been no change in our policy on crude oil exports. There was this decision that was announced by the administration during the holidays to provide additional clarity about how it will implement longstanding rules related to crude exports. But our policy as it relates to crude oil exports have not changed.
Q -- be open to giving Mexico the same permission you give to Canada on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I was just going to say that as it relates to the specific policy that we have with Mexico, I’d have to take the question to see whether or not there is any sort of policy change being contemplated there.
Q And did this come up in the meetings, do you know?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of. But if we can get you a more detailed readout, we’ll let you know.
Q And one other thing. People familiar say that the President will, later today, announce that Allan Landon, the former CEO of the Bank of Hawaii, is going to be nominated to the Federal Reserve Board. One, is this correct? And two, since the only thing I know about Mr. Landon is that he is the former CEO of Bank of Hawaii, where Obama was born --
MR. EARNEST: Yes. (Laughter.)
Q -- and is a law lecturer at the University of Hawaii, does the President know him personally or is he acquainted with him? Just since he’s from his native state, obvious question.
MR. EARNEST: Well, it’s a clever question, too. I’ll say that I don't have any personal announcements to make from here. But --
Q Is he personally acquainted with Mr. Landon regardless of what might be --
MR. EARNEST: I don't know whether or not the President has a relationship with the gentleman that you've mentioned, but we’ll see if we can get you some more information about that.
Q Josh, free-trade agreements with places like Colombia have been held up over issues of human rights. Is it time for the U.S. to reconsider aid to Mexico conditioned to or based on human rights?
MR. EARNEST: I have not heard anybody discuss that from our side principally because many of those concerns that were registered with those governments had to do with the view of the administration that the leaders of those countries were insufficiently committed to the rule of law and to respect for basic human rights.
And while we certainly believe that there is more work that needs to be done in Mexico -- and this terrible crime that was committed against these 43 Mexican students I think is indicative of that -- we do, however, believe that there is some -- that there is a view that's shared between President Obama and President Peña Nieto about the importance of the rule of law and respect for basic human rights. So I have not heard anybody discuss using that as an option.
Q What assistance, or what more assistance perhaps, is the U.S. specifically providing right now in the effort to try to track down the perpetrators behind these 43 --
MR. EARNEST: Well, I can tell you that this is something that the President -- that they did discuss in the meeting, that they discussed this issue. And the United States has supported the efforts of the federal government in Mexico to conduct this investigation and to learn more about what exactly happened. I’m not aware if any new offers were made or any specific requests were made in the context of the meeting. But if so, we’ll try to get you that information.
Q Gay marriage is beginning in Florida at midnight, effective today. Thirty-six states in the country and the District of Colombia now allow for same-sex marriage. Is it time that we get rid of this sort of patchwork situation right now and move forward with a law of the land on gay marriage?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by saying that the President certainly -- the President’s views on this are well known and the President is certainly pleased to see that Florida is taking a step in the direction of freedom and liberty and allowing these marriages to take place.
But the President has also said that he does not at this point enthusiastically support a national law. But at this point, as you said, Florida is, what, the 36th or 37th state to take this step, and that's -- the 36th state. And that's an indication that we're moving in the right direction. And the President is certainly pleased about that.
Q The Department of Homeland Security -- obviously, the next funding battle of sorts will be whether or not -- the funding they receive effective February 27th right now. Are there contingency plans or anything being done by this administration protectively in case that funding does not go through?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I’m aware of, but you should check with the Department of Homeland Security and they can provide you with -- they may be able to provide you at least some more information about what sort of contingencies they're working on.
I know that we have seen expressions from Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate indicating that they don't want to get to a place where we're shutting down the Department of Homeland Security.
Q How big a deal would that be, though? How significant is that sort of threshold?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I’m not steeped in all of the budgetary details to give you a very precise estimate of the impact. I know that during the last government shutdown that we experienced a little over a year ago that many Department of Homeland Security employees were considered essential government employees, which meant that they came to work anyway even though they weren’t getting paychecks right away. So I don't know what any tangible impact would be beyond basically withholding paychecks from a large number of individuals who show up at work every day trying to keep America safer. So I don't think that's really an outcome that all that many people support. So we continue to be optimistic that by working together, we’ll be able to head off that eventuality.
Q Thanks, Josh. The language you used on the Keystone issue -- you said that the President would not sign it. If I remember civics correctly, that's different from a veto. Are we correct in reporting this as a veto threat?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q And second, is the threat to veto an objection to the project itself? Or is it an objection to Congress getting involved in the State Department process?
MR. EARNEST: That's a good question. I tried to answer that, but let me see if I can clarify that. I’ll just put a finer point on it. The concern that we have right now is principally on the idea that this piece of legislation would undermine what has traditionally been and is a well-established administrative process to determine whether or not this project is in the national interest. And that review process is underway.
You heard in the news conference that the President did at the end of the year, the President did make clear that he was a little skeptical of the claims that were made by some of the most enthusiastic advocates of the pipeline’s construction, about the impact it would have on energy prices or on job creation. But the fact is a complete evaluation of that project can’t be completed until this legal dispute about the route of the pipeline has been settled and we know what the final route of the pipeline actually looks like.
So I guess what I would say is I’m going to withhold, and the administration would withhold, broader judgment on the project itself, although you could note our skepticism about some of the claims made by the most enthusiastic advocates of the pipeline and note that our principal objection right now to this legislation moving forward is that it undermines a well-established process that has succeeded so many times in the past, including in previous administrations, to ensure that we are carefully and properly evaluating whether or not a particular infrastructure project is actually in the interest of the United States of America.
Q Wait, can you clarify that? You say you’re skeptical of the claims of the advocates? Are you skeptical of some of the claims of the opponents? Because there have been some pretty extreme claims on both sides.
MR. EARNEST: I think in the past, the President has expressed some skepticism about those, too.
Q The President -- I just want to put a finer point on the 30-hour, 40-hour work week.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q I know that you’ve explained why you guys oppose it, but would you veto that legislation as well?
MR. EARNEST: We would, yes.
Q Okay. I wanted to ask also, then, about the Regulatory Accountability Act, which is another piece of legislation you guys have previously said you’d recommend that the President veto. It’s the one that requires cost-benefit analysis of all regulations. That’s kind of the third of these Republican bills that they plan to bring up early at Congress. Would you guys veto that legislation?
MR. EARNEST: I haven’t actually been updated on that piece of legislation and how carefully it tracks with the previous offerings on this, so I’d withhold judgment on that for now. I can just say as a general matter that one of the aspects of the regulatory agenda that this President has advanced is a focus on a careful cost-benefit analysis. And if you take a look at the regulations that have been put forward under this administration, the regulatory benefits far exceed the costs, and that’s a record that the President is pretty proud of and I think it speaks to the kind of approach this administration has taken when it comes to rulemaking.
Q And then finally, on the meetings going on with the Mexican President, I’m wondering the extent to which you’re aware of what kind of discussion the leaders had on immigration and specifically whether President Obama was open -- I know the Mexican President said that he wanted to come in and discuss the possibility of the U.S. government, as part of the President’s executive action, accepting documents issued by the Mexican government to satisfy some of the eligibility requirements. And then I’m also wondering what some of the asks that the President -- kind of specific asks on border security and sort of addressing the child migrant crisis that the President might have had that have changed from last year.
MR. EARNEST: Well, that’s a good question. They did have an opportunity to talk about immigration reform policy in the context of this meeting. There are two aspects of the discussion that I can tell you a little bit about. The first is that one of the priorities that we have identified is making sure that people in Central America who might be contemplating entering the United States illegally through the southern border, make sure that they understand that they would not qualify for the immigration reform proposal, essentially the relief that the President discussed in his executive action on immigration, that, in fact, as a result of the executive action that the President chose to pursue, we’ve actually prioritized the apprehension of individuals who have recently crossed the border.
So we want to make sure that that message is not just sent but actually received in Central America by people who might be contemplating making what is a pretty dangerous journey across Central America to try to enter the United States. And the Mexican government has been helpful in communicating that message not just to their own population but also to other governments and people in other countries in Central America. So that’s one thing. And that is an important priority, and it would --
Q But are there specific asks for them to -- I don’t know, air PSAs, or how do you want them to kind of --
MR. EARNEST: Well, as it relates to more specific details, I can have somebody follow up with you. I know that this has been the subject of some discussion because it’s something that we are focused on here at the beginning of the new year. And again, it is related to our efforts to try to stem what had been a rising tide of children who were making that dangerous journey across Central America to try to enter the United States. This was a pretty serious situation that we were dealing with over the summer. That situation has largely abated because of the efforts that this administration has undertaken, and we want to take the kinds of steps that we can in advance to try to prevent it from happening again. So that was part of what they discussed.
A second thing that’s not unrelated is that there is a pretty clear route that was taken by a lot of smugglers across Mexico’s southern border, across the nation of Mexico to the U.S. border, that there was this rail line that transported a lot of people. And we’ve worked closely with the Peña Nieto administration to enforce tighter border controls along their southern border and try to shut down the convenience of that transportation. And we’ve made important progress in doing exactly that. And the President thanked him for the steps that they have taken to better secure their border, because there are ancillary benefits for the United States when they do that, but also to encourage him to continue taking the kinds of steps that will help us deal with that problem, too.
Go ahead, Justin.
Q Do you know how the President responded to Peña Nieto’s request on identification for those who are here and might be eligible for --
MR. EARNEST: I don’t, but let me have somebody follow up with you who maybe can speak to that a bit better.
Yes, Dave, go ahead.
Q On the train line issue, can you elaborate on what -- I mean, did you shut down their Conrail, the equivalent of their Conrail, or what happened?
MR. EARNEST: Well, these are steps that the Peña Nieto administration would take on their own, so it wouldn’t be a situation where we’re shutting anything down. But we certainly have raised our concerns about the way that that rail line has been used to transport a large number of essentially people who are being trafficked along that rail line. And there are some steps that the Mexicans have taken to reduce the incidents of that tracking along that rail line. I can have somebody follow up with you to talk about some of those details if you’d like.
Jessica, I’ll give you the last one.
Q Yesterday on the call, they talked about if the Presidents were going to announce the doubling of the contribution to the Inter-American Bank to $6 billion. Can you confirm that that’s taken place? That was an “expected outcome” of today’s meeting.
MR. EARNEST: I can’t, but let me have somebody follow up with you on that just to make sure that we’ve got that locked down.
Q Any other outcomes that we haven’t heard you talk about?
MR. EARNEST: There may be. We’ll have some more information.
Q -- a document at all?
MR. EARNEST: I do think that we’ll have a factsheet later today so you can look for that.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: Thanks, everybody. Have a good Tuesday.
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