Press Briefing 7/20/09

July 21, 2009 | 45:50

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Briefing by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, 7-20-09

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                                                                   July 20, 2009

James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:58 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: I just have one quick announcement before we get started. In the week ahead on Friday that we e-mailed out we discussed the news conference on Wednesday starting at 9:00 p.m. That's now been moved to 8:00 p.m.
Q Thank you.
Q Thank you very, very much.
MR. GIBBS: Hell, let's go for 7:00 p.m. -- everybody seemed happy with that.
Q Is it going to be rigged?
MR. GIBBS: Is it going to be?
Q Rigged? (Laughter.)
Q The same 14?
Q Are all the reporters going to be told when they're called on?
MR. GIBBS: They will be given the same instruction that you were for the very first news conference, which I believe you weren't told, right?
Q No.
MR. GIBBS: Okay. That's one down and --
Q I didn't want to be told. I don't want to be told. And I don't think you should tell.
MR. GIBBS: And we don't.
Q Thanks, Robert. Earlier today the President seemed to upping the ante with his rhetoric on health care, directly engaging Senator DiMint. Is this a sign that he thinks health care overhaul is in trouble or that his -- or is he just being confident?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think what we want people to understand are a few things. One, we've been discussing this for decades. And the familiar mantra of delay has been the message for many of those years to put off the needed and necessary reforms that have to take place in our health care system. You could just as easily have quoted a Republican strategist today who said to go for the kill and asked opponents to resist the temptation to be responsible.
You know, I think it's a unique message. It's one, if that what some opposed to health care reform or special interests that stand in the way of real reform and cost-cutting -- if that's the message that they want to have, that's certainly their business.
But understand that delay means real things. Delay means more people will lose their health care coverage. Delay means more people will not get a chance to choose who their doctor is because that coverage will disappear. More people will be denied coverage on the basis of a preexisting condition. More families will spend more money and get less. And more businesses will drop their coverage based on the burden of increasing costs. That's what delay means in this scenario. That's why the President is focused on moving the process forward so that we can see real reform this year.
Q But why directly engage with Senator DeMint?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think it was a -- it's a fairly breathtaking message. It is -- we've been asked and we've talked a lot in this room about bipartisanship, about trying to work with the other side in a way that's constructive. There clearly are those that want to oppose this purely to continue the 40-year-old Washington gamesmanship of playing politics on health care. I think there are people in Senator DeMint's home state and throughout this country that are struggling with the high cost of health care and they want the people that represent them in Washington to finally get about doing something about it. That's what the President was elected to do and that's what he's working on.
Yes, sir.
Q Can I just follow -- not on health care please?
MR. GIBBS: Well, let's -- I have a feeling that's not only the health care question today, so you'll get a chance.
Q Continuing on the issue of delay, the President's poll numbers have slipped on the issue of health care reform, and Senator Snowe has said that there's no reason to rush through an unfinished package. So what is the big deal about just taking a few more weeks to iron things out and get a deal done properly?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't think one -- I don't think necessarily doing something on the timetable that the President has laid out is doing some improperly. Again, this is not a debate that started last month or even last year. Many of the issues that we're talking about are 40 years in the making -- maybe some longer than that. I think the President strongly believes that we can continue to make progress, that it's important to do that, and that delay is what opponents and special interests want to do to slow the process down, but American families and small business can't afford it. I think we're working through this on an expeditious timetable that can see reform happen this year.
Q Is the President actually ruling out agreeing to any kind of delay beyond -- that would take us beyond the August recess?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think that you heard the President say on Friday here that looking at what had happened over the course of the week -- nurses supporting health care reform; doctors supporting health care reform; for the first time ever three committees introducing the same bill in the House, two of them getting that bill out of committee -- that we're continuing to make progress, and the President hopes that continues.
Q But is he ruling out -- agreeing to any delay beyond the August recess?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we think we're doing just fine right where we are making progress.
Yes, sir.
Q A couple of questions, Robert. The President had said a lot of kind words to say about the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in their ability to provide quality health care and reduce costs, but the clinic issued a statement about the House Democrats bill, saying the proposed legislation "misses the opportunity to help create higher quality, more affordable health care for patients. In fact, it will do the opposite. In general, the proposals are not -- under discussion are not patient focused or results oriented. Lawmakers have failed to use a fundamental lever -- a change in Medicare payment policy -- to help drive necessary improvements to American health care."
Does the President have any response to that, given his respect for the way the Mayo Clinic provides health care?
MR. GIBBS: I saw that not long before I came out here. I don't -- I've asked the health policy people to look directly into that. I know that we've worked with, as I said, doctors and nurses and lots of stakeholders on improving legislation, making sure that we're focused on patient quality, making sure that we're focused on cost-effective medicine, and that's what we'll continue to do. I will work on getting something more specific.
Q Okay, and then if I could just ask one other question. On April 20 -- I know you remember when the President said -- that he asked all the Cabinet Secretaries to identify at least $100 million in additional cuts from their administrative budgets, separate and apart from what Orszag and the rest of the team did. And they were required to report back with their savings at the end of 90 days. So that was 91 days ago, and I'm wondering if you guys have any list of the spending cuts.
MR. GIBBS: Those are being reviewed now, and we'll release something in the coming days.
Q Okay, thank you.
Q Robert, the President did engage Senator DeMint, and obviously there are some Republicans who have publicly suggested they want to block things. But isn't the hold-up really now Democrats like Max Baucus, conservative Democrats in the House and Senate --
MR. GIBBS: No --
Q -- who are concerned about taxes going up and other things? I mean, what is the President doing to engage them to actually move it forward?
MR. GIBBS: He speaks with Democrats and Republicans virtually every day on this. I think staff spent a decent portion of their weekend working with Capitol Hill -- again, Democrats and Republicans, on several committees.
I would not suggest that somebody that's sitting at the table working constructively to find a solution to these problems is more of a delay than somebody who goes out clearly to give a purely political speech about how they're looking at this issue not through the hearts and minds of millions of Americans that are sitting at their kitchen table right now trying to figure out what bills to pay, what bills they can't afford to pay, hoping that if they have to change jobs their coverage doesn't get dropped -- rather looking at this through some political lens, which clearly that's the only view that some people have.
Q Some of those Democrats have raised concerns about adding to the debt. And it seems that today the Office of Management and Budget is suggesting that they're going to delay the release of their mid-year review. And there are suggestions out there, and the Republicans in particular are suggesting that you're delaying this beyond July because you don't want more bad news about the budget to shape the health care debate.
MR. GIBBS: Look, as happens in virtually every transition year in government, mid-year reviews tend to get pushed back because of the transition of moving people in and out of their former and current jobs. For instance, the mid-session review under the most previous administration took place on August 22. President Clinton's first year in office, the review was released on September the 1st.
So I think the notion that this is somehow motivated by anything other than a transition from one administration to the next is a little on the silly side.
Q But you've been trying to change the way business is done just because Washington has been doing it that way and pushing the deadline back for years, why not --
MR. GIBBS: Well, Ed, understand the deadline doesn't get pushed back because of the way Washington works. The deadline gets pushed back because a series of people that have to review the budget and the economic conditions have to get to their desks, right?
/ublican administration, it takes some time to get those people into their desks and turn their calculators on. After eight years of a Democratic administration, there might get a delay pushed back because it takes a whole group of people time to get in. We're now on the other side of that eight years, after the other side of the other eight years, after the other side of that 12 years. So I think the notion that somehow this is a out of the ordinary seems somewhat silly.
I think, as we've discussed in here, the economy is not at a point where anybody would hope it would be. We've seen over the course of the first six to seven months of this year a fairly rapid deterioration in the very beginning of this year on the economy, and I expect that the budget situation is going to be even more challenging. I don't think that's surprising. And the notion of somehow hiding the ball when you're congressionally required to come up with a mid-year review seems not to make a whole lot of sense either.
Q But I want to go back to this -- why did you lead us to believe that it was coming in July? Because you guys did -- all throughout the last three or four months, every time we would ask, because of the economic -- this has a constant question about the wrong economic forecasts at the beginning. And you said, by mid-summer, by July, and I said -- we said, what's mid-summer? I think in here we said it was July. So when was the decision made to delay this?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know when the decision was made -- based on getting personnel in to make the review.
Q Then why did you guys, knowing the history of this, why did you guys promise July?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, it's a congressionally required thing, Chuck, and as -- we're producing it as soon as the guys can produce the forecast.
Q So if it's congressionally required, then you -- you know when you made the decision to delay this, when was that decision made?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know the answer from the question you asked a good 37 seconds ago, so let me -- I appreciate the -- if you asked it maybe three or four more times, I can --
Q Well -- and then on health care, the President today did not use the word "August" for perhaps the first time -- talk about the August recess, at least in the way he said -- should we read anything into that?
MR. GIBBS: I think Peter was pretty clear on this over the weekend.
Q No, actually -- wait a minute -- (laughter) --
MR. GIBBS: Well, he said -- I think he said --
Q This was a goal.
Q That's what he said, it was a goal, not a --
MR. GIBBS: But he said August, so, I mean, I appreciate your -- the attention with which you're paying the President's words these days.
Q Well, but, no, you just said Peter was clear. That actually -- the whole -- so all of the stories that are interpreting Peter's words as saying, "oh, there seems to be some flexibility here with the idea of August" -- is that fair or unfair?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, the President says we're making good progress and the President believes we can get this done by August.
Yes, sir.
Q Back on health care and DeMint --
MR. GIBBS: We didn't leave health care. (Laughter.)
Q We took a slight detour for a moment. He said -- just a little more context -- he said, "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him. And it will show that we can, along with the American people, begin to push those freedom solutions that work in every area of our society." That's not pure politics, is it? I mean, he's saying that we disagree with the President on policy on a whole range of issues where the administration favors government-oriented solution and they favor free market solutions.
MR. GIBBS: What's his bill?
Q I don't know, but certainly want free market solutions to these things.
MR. GIBBS: I'll get Chuck's answer when you --
Q So any time the President just makes a statement on philosophy, that's pure politics? I mean, they're talking about their philosophy. That's policy. This isn't political games if -- I mean, why should you be surprised that he would like to break the President politically and move in a direction that's friendlier with his policies?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think maybe you and I have a difference, as the President does, on the interpretation of what he said. Again, not -- you not being able to enunciate for me exactly what it is that Mr. DeMint is proposing in such -- as he termed it, freedom-loving solutions -- I think denotes that the grasp of what he was saying was a lot less on what he was proposing in lieu of what the President was proposing, and much more focused on the pure and overt politics of this.
Just as I, you know -- let me quote somebody else. This is Bill Kristol: "There will be temptation for opponents to let up on their criticism or try to appear constructive or at least responsible" -- the temptation to appear responsible. We've been asked a lot in this room about what the President and others are doing in order to work in a bipartisan basis, right -- when the President calls Senator Grassley to talk about health care reform, when the staff goes to meet with Democrats and Republicans. The President and his team are working constructively and responsibly.
Bipartisanship is not a one-way street. It has to be a two-way, two-lane street. We want to work with people that want to work with us to find solutions for the problems that the American people have faced for years and years. I would suggest that the comments that were made by the senator and by this particular Republican political strategist are not designed to come up or foment an alternative policy solution, but instead to perpetuate the same old Washington games that have --
Q Well, by your bringing them up you're playing them, -- I mean, you're using them for political purposes. You're not --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I'm reading what they said, Chip.
Q Yes, but you know that -- you know that they're vulnerable if they look like they're being political, so you do the tit-for-tat on politics. What's the difference?
MR. GIBBS: Well, they seem to help a little bit by, say, overtly looking political. I think if I were to call something your "waterloo," Chip, would that -- I don't think you would interpret that as an effort to do anything other than deride the ability of the end of whatever we were talking about. It's not an uplifting message. I don't think people --
Q Only in France.
MR. GIBBS: Well, there you go. (Laughter.) Fair enough. Fair enough.
Q One other topic. On Thursday there is a town hall. Is this going to be a real town hall, or one of those invitation only things?
MR. GIBBS: If you haven't been invited, I guess it's an invitation only.
Q Is it really invitation-only?
MR. GIBBS: I appreciate your question.
Q No, I'm serious. It's a serious question. Helen will probably chime in.
MR. GIBBS: You're hoping for a little help now from Helen, aren't you? I don't know the procedures by which tickets are distributed. I'm happy to look into it, and --
Q Well, Robert, it is a fair question. In the beginning, the first town halls you guys held were always -- you guys -- you bragged about how --
Q You could line up and go in --
Q -- you bragged about how this --
Q Is this one different?
MR. GIBBS: Chuck, I appreciate most of all your penchant for asking me follow-up questions about something I said I would look into. In the intervening 17 seconds, I haven't figured out the answer to Chip's question.
Q But that implies that there is a policy change if it's not the same.
Q Well, they already it changed it a week ago.
MR. GIBBS: Let me figure out what the distribution policy is before you go off and get half-cocked and excited.
Q Oooh!
Q Okay, hi. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: You want to follow up on Chuck's question?
Q I'll start with something new -- but it is still on health care.
MR. GIBBS: I'm not surprised. Go ahead.
Q This White House is filled with veterans of Congress who understand how congressional timetables work. Could you explain how it's even at this point possible to get a bill through the Senate before the August recess, given that there are three weeks remaining, including today, that we don't even have an agreement, and now it's much less actual legislative language, much less a mark-up, which would then have to be merged with the HELP bill, which would have to be scored, go to the floor, and we have a whole week of Sotomayor hearings?
MR. GIBBS: Right, but let's -- not to get in the way of your timeline there, we do have a piece of legislation that has gotten through extensive committee discussions, had 160 Republican amendments added to it, passed through the committee on something that does incorporate a good chunk of what has to happen on health care reform.
Look, we're, like you, working with and watching the Finance Committee to see what progress can be made. Again, as I know, the administration worked with them throughout the weekend to go through issues that they've raised. We're making progress on the House side, as well. And they're in a little bit longer than the House is, so --
Q But that wasn't my question. My question was, given that, yes, HELP has acted but everybody knows Finance needs to act, as well, is there enough time remaining to do that?
MR. GIBBS: The President believes so and we're going to continue to work with the committees in order to make that progress.
Q Can you outline that realistic scenario?
MR. GIBBS: Yes -- if the Finance Committee were to come up with something relatively soon, have a mark-up early next week, giving us, what, a little bit more than a week and a half to get through the floor. Sure.
Q And a moment ago you said, and the President often invokes, that special interests will be geared up to try to stop this bill. What specific special interests are you referring to?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think there's been a number of different entities that have come out and been specifically critical of the legislation. I think the interest group that's run -- repeatedly run commercials, which, as I understand it, was where Mr. DeMint gave his motivational speech, according to Chip, on freedom-loving health care solutions.
Q By the way, I was just informed that he does have a comprehensive health care bill and I'd be happy to read it to you.
MR. GIBBS: Well, how about you read that and we'll discuss this a little bit later. We can get you up to speed first.
Q So what is the special -- could you just name a few of the special interests you're referring to?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I -- what's the the name of the group that ran the --
Q The Conservative for Patients' Rights.
MR. GIBBS: The Conservatives for Patients' Rights.
Q Well, that's -- right, that's one guy's money and a philosophical group. Is there a special interest group, a lobby group, in Washington that you're --
MR. GIBBS: I think there's no doubt that some of the insurance companies have been opposed to comprehensive health care reform. I think there's obviously --
Q But out --
Q Which ones?
Q Yes, they're out with an ad today promoting it.
MR. GIBBS: There are some. There are -- I think we've seen some business groups. I remember how savagely did Wal-Mart get attacked when they put out a letter denoting that they thought that continuing to incur rising cost after rising cost, year after year, was a bad deal. They were savaged by many of their friends. So there are plenty of people that are -- there are plenty of people whose strategy is delay, there's no question about it.
Q Robert, does the President's strategy on health care reflect expanded concern on his part that the Republicans or those he calls the nay-sayers are gaining ground and traction with their arguments against his plan?
MR. GIBBS: No, I think the President's -- particularly the President's schedule, the President's focus on this issue denotes the seriousness with which he comes at this, and his strong desire to see something finally get through Congress rather than debating this year after year.
Q But we'll hear from him every day on this, right?
MR. GIBBS: Many, many days, yes. I think obviously this is a -- this is a crucial time for health care reform. You've got upwards of five committees in Congress working on legislative solutions. And I think the President's time and public schedule will be -- will reflect that priority.
Yes, sir.
Q Robert, is there any consequence if the House or Senate or both don't get a bill out by August 7?
MR. GIBBS: Any -- I'm sorry -- consequence?
Q Consequence.
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I don't -- I hate to do ultimatums at this point. I think the President believes that we're making constructive progress, and I think we can continue to see it.
Q But other than hold their feet under the fire to keep them on schedule, there really isn't any consequence beyond that, is there?
MR. GIBBS: I don't know what you're --
Q There isn't any consequence if they fail to meet the deadline.
MR. GIBBS: Well, delayed reform year after year. But --
Q There was talk of keeping the House and Senate through the August recess.
MR. GIBBS: Well, you know, again, we'll see what the leaders decide, based on, as we get closer to those calendars.
Yes, sir.
Q The RNC appears to have seized on a Washington Post/ABC poll that shows support for the President's handling of health care reform slipping to, in Michael Steele's words, emphasize the risk -- risky in terms of its costs, risky in terms of availability of health care, to people who already have it. How does the President sell it? How does he argue against a Robert Steele to --
MR. GIBBS: Michael Steele.
Q Michael Steele, I'm sorry, people who already have health insurance -- I apologize -- (laughter) -- given he's got to sell the reforms to people who by and large have health insurance already and are worried about keeping it, worried about it becoming more expensive?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, the President -- look, understanding that -- I forget the exact percentage, but by and large the vast majority of people in this country have access to affordable health insurance. But we talked about this a few weeks ago. As the cost rises, businesses are going to have to make a decision to whether or not they're going to keep that health insurance. People that are coming in to the health insurance market -- or if you're thrown off of your insurance because a business drops it, you're then at the whim of the private market, right? The private market right now can preclude you from purchasing insurance if you've got a preexisting condition.
So I think there are a number of different ways that the President can continue to discuss with the American people the strong benefits of health care reform -- not to mention the price that each and every one of us pays as a result of uncompensated care when somebody who doesn't think they're ever going to get sick or doesn't have access to affordable health coverage gets sick, gets in a car accident, doesn't have insurance but goes to the emergency room to get care. All of that drives up the cost for what those with insurance pay for health care.
So I think those are just some examples of why everybody has a stake in this game. It's not just about those that are unfortunate in the sense that they don't currently have coverage, but there are great risks even to those that are lucky enough to have that coverage now -- because as we've seen, when the cost of a premium for health care outstrip any increase in your wages by three or four-to-one, it's not going to take long before businesses, particularly in a bad economic environment, are making decisions to get out of providing health care.
Q And in a bad economic environment, the President is proposing a fairly expensive effort. At what point do you begin to worry about -- or worry more about overall spending, overall size of the deficit, given that we're in a place no one felt we'd ever be in right now?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think the President -- and I think he will do this throughout the week -- will address the budget challenges that we face. We talked a little bit about them here today. The main drivers of our federal budget deficit are things like Medicare and Medicaid; that unless proposals to see cost savings as it relates to Medicare and Medicaid are instituted, it's going to be hard to drive down the budget deficit and the cost of health care from the government's perspective.
Understand, this isn't -- none of this is going to be easy. I'll segue a little bit to a different fight -- the President has laid down a veto threat on F-22s, right? You guys are -- I think Jake asked me about a hundred million dollars in savings -- this is $1.75 billion for a plane that our Pentagon and the previous Pentagon say they don't need; say that spending for that aircraft, those additional aircraft, come in direct competition with the resources that our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are in need of now. That's an assessment held by our Secretary of Defense and a former Secretary of Defense; our Chair of the Joint Chiefs, a former Chair of the Joint Chiefs. And we're right now in a neck-and-neck battle just to cut $1.75 billion for a plane the Pentagon itself says it doesn't want. It's not going to be easy to change this budget deficit, but the President is going to continue to work on it.
Q Robert, how much concern is there in the White House that people who have health insurance don't recognize the risk you just outlined in terms of rising costs, the cost of uncompensated care? Is there some concern that people with health insurance don't see these, and do you need to do more to sort of emphasize that?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President -- and I think the President started to emphasize that even more today. I don't doubt that we have to continue to make the case to everybody involved that they have a genuine stake in health care, whether they have access to affordable insurance or not. And I think that's one of the things that you'll see the President continue to highlight this week, again, is to understand that everybody involved has a stake in this.
To build off of Wendell's question, everybody that has a care or concern about the budget deficit has a care or concern and has, to some degree, skin in the game as it relates to the direction of our health care spending from a federal level, from a state level, from a local level -- all of that I think is something that the President is concerned about and the American people are rightly concerned about, as well.
Q Robert, just two questions?
MR. GIBBS: I thought we were going to do yours at 4:00 p.m. today, Lester. Go ahead.
Q Oh, Robert.
MR. GIBBS: I know, I'm going to skip you for right now, Lester, I know.
Q You'll be back?
MR. GIBBS: Do you have your birth certificate with you, can you -- go ahead -- (laughter.) You do?
Q I'm not going to ask about that.
MR. GIBBS: We'll save that for next week.
Yes, sir.
Q I want to briefly change the subject to the manned space program. I know the President is going to be talking about this momentarily, but from a budgetary standpoint, does the President think that America can afford to go back to the Moon or to Mars? I know it's under review, but in the larger sense is he not worried about the cost?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, as I said to the most -- two previous questions, you're always worried on any expenditure about cost. I know that the administration is committed to human space exploration. We've said that throughout the campaign. And as you mentioned, there is a committee set up through NASA to evaluate this and come back with recommendations as to NASA's policy going forward I think later in August. And the President looks forward to seeing those commission recommendations, and I have no doubt that the President will get an opportunity to listen to astronauts that walked on the Moon 40 years ago -- listen to their perspective and get a sense of what those missions did for scientific discovery and how that will impact the future.
Q It's been estimated that in today's dollars the Moon project would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Is it conceivable that that kind of money could be spent in this environment?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think, without looking at that study, my assumption is that if you have no space program and start a space program, there are significant start-up costs, development costs, R&D costs that I think, factoring 40-year-ago dollars into current decisions, may not extrapolate quite as perfectly as one might presume. But again, the President looks forward to the commission's recommendations.
Q Why did he drop in the polls on the big issues?
MR. GIBBS: I'm sorry?
Q The President dropped in the polls --
MR. GIBBS: They haven't called me, Helen. I would answer a different way on the poll.
Q You haven't looked into the reasons why?
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I made a joke. It clearly didn't work. (Laughter.) Don't worry, I'll try again in a minute.
Q Yes, I'm not laughing. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I noticed. See, now you are going to laugh and you're going to mess the whole joke up. You can't quite hold it --
Q I'm sorry.
MR. GIBBS: Okay. Look, I think the President is confronting a number of difficult challenges, many challenges that have been put off for many years, but finally have to be addressed. Not all those are going to be easy. Many of them -- some of them will compete, though I would note that if you look deeper into the poll just in the Post, you'll find that a majority of those support the health care ideas that were outlined in the poll. And I think America holds, according to that poll, a 59 percent approval rating of the President, which is a pretty darn good number for six months in.
Q How does he feel about the banks making so much money, more than at any time in history, out of taxpayer money?
MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously the President continues to share concerns that everybody has; that nothing will be learned by what happened just a few months ago. Obviously the President has put a strong focus on financial reregulation to ensure that what happened and got us into this mess can't be repeated, and continues to believe that the decision that banks make and that executives make have to be made in what's in the long-term interest rather than in the short-term gain, and that's what the President will continue to focus on.
Q This Wednesday the President has invited the Prime Minister of Iraq al Maliki to join him. What is the significance of the timing on this, Robert, and what issues do you think will be preeminent in discussing -- when he arrives?
MR. GIBBS: Well, obviously we'll be joined by Ambassador Hill. I know the President speaks regularly with General Odierno about the continuing security challenges that we have to be mindful of, as well as much of the political change that still continues -- or needs to continue in order for us to continue to see progress in Iraq. I've no doubt that that will take up a large part of the meeting with the Prime Minister. They had a chance, as you all know, to sit down earlier in the year in Baghdad, and they'll continue these discussions.
We want to make sure we continue to keep the focus on, as I said, the political engagement that has to happen to see that necessary progress. And I think that's one of the reasons the Vice President is focused on this, as well.
Q A question about how you interpret one of the President's campaign commitments that's relevant to the discussions over how you finance health care. When the President said in his campaign that he wasn't going to raise taxes on anybody earning less than $250,000 a year, does that mean that no tax goes up for those people, even if offset by other benefits and savings in the same legislation? Or does it mean no tax goes up for those people at all?
MR. GIBBS: I would point you to what the President said earlier -- not earlier this week but sometime last week about holding the line on those that make $250,000 or less.
Q Do you understand what I'm asking? It's the difference between whether -- that means --
MR. GIBBS: You're talking about --
Q -- that means any--
MR. GIBBS: -- versus net tax, right?
Q Correct. Does that mean on net or does that mean any tax?
MR. GIBBS: My impression was on the former rather than the latter.
Q Net.
MR. GIBBS: No, no, not on net, but on --
Q Not on net. Okay.
MR. GIBBS: Right.
Yes, ma'am.
Q President Obama told reporters in Cairo that he wanted to stop in Indonesia when he goes to Singapore in the fall. Has the White House reevaluated that at all, given the attacks last week, or kind of -- where is that in the process?
MR. GIBBS: I think stops, in terms of that trip in the fall, will be the subject of some meetings, some scheduling meetings this week with deputies and principals, including the President. I have not seen those drafts. I doubt that -- but I have no reason to believe that the events of the past few days have changed or lessened the President's desire. Obviously it is the -- a country with the largest number of Muslims in the world, important to him from that standpoint as well as personally.
Q And has he consulted at all with Secretary of State Clinton about health care? Have they talked about her experience with the health care plans?
MR. GIBBS: I can check. I have not heard of any discussion recently on that. But I'll have to check.
Q Robert, Jim Clyburn this morning said that he no longer thinks the surtax on the wealthy is necessary, that health care -- even the Democratic House bill -- could be financed entirely through savings. Does the President think he can finance the whole thing through savings, or will there have to be some revenue?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I don't know what Representative Clyburn has in mind about the full panoply of savings. Obviously we have outlined a number of what people around here call game-changers in terms of the direction of federal spending on health care, and obviously there are proposals that our team support to fast-track votes on Medicare and Medicaid savings that come to Congress each year but rarely get addressed.
But I don't have in front of me what Mr. Clyburn has in terms of the full level of savings.
Q He also said that he's met six times now with a number of House Democrats and there's growing sentiment that they don't want to do this tax increase. What's your sense of the politics? You talk obviously about a tax increase on those below $250,000; what about those above $350,000?
MR. GIBBS: Well, we addressed this a little bit last week. I mean, when you're talking about $350,000, $500,000, a million dollars, these are people that have tended to have a pretty good time of it for quite some time. Without getting into this tax or that tax, I think the President has laid out ideas that he thinks are best in order to move forward. But we'll let Congress work through its process of deciding how to fund health care reform.
Q Thanks, Robert. Now that the hearings involving Judge Sotomayor are over, what impact, if at all, did they have in terms of the President's thinking about future Supreme Court nominees?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I have not heard the President discuss the impact of those hearings on future nominees. Obviously I think like every President, he's hopeful to appoint many to the Supreme Court, but I think he's focused on ensuring that one is seated before the Court hears its important case in September and before the beginning of the full term, but hasn't gotten much into what happens next.
Q Any rethinking of his own standard of the importance of empathy for judges?
MR. GIBBS: None that I've heard him enunciate.
Q I have two questions on health care. One, going back to the President's visit to the Vatican, he reportedly told the Pope that he would work to and do all he could to reduce the number of abortions --
MR. GIBBS: I think he said -- he said that in a speech to Planned Parenthood in 2007, so yes.
Q Could someone reasonably say that in doing all you can do to reduce the number of abortions would also mean supporting the Hatch amendment to the health care bill that would prohibit federal funds going to abortion?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I have not seen the Hatch amendment. I know the President believes that current policy -- certainly current policy for Medicaid prohibits federal funding for abortions. That's the Hyde amendment. I think when it comes to designing a benefit package, I think the President and this administration agree that that's -- a benefit package is better left to experts in the medical field to determine how best and what procedures to cover.
Q And also, over the weekend at the National Governors Association, Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee had said that he feared that Congress was about to bestow the mother of all unfunded mandates on states with the health care bill. Governor Bredesen has been dealing for two terms on TennCare. How closely has that -- and that is, in fact, a version of a public option. How closely has the administration studied that plan and how well it's worked? Because it's run into a number of financial problems.
MR. GIBBS: Yes, I don't know the degree to which folks here have looked at either TennCare or other plans. I would note that the House bill fully funds additional benefits passed through its legislation on Medicaid. And as you know and as others have pointed out during the briefing, the jurisdiction for that in the Senate is the Finance Committee. They have not yet acted. So I think the fears expressed by the governors, certainly as it relates to the House bill, are unfounded.
Q But do you see similarities between the two, though -- TennCare and your public option?
MR. GIBBS: That would be a bit out of my policy depth in terms of an off-the-cuff analysis from a policy perspective. I will say this: I think a number of plans and proposals that have been instituted by states have not necessarily begun first by addressing the rising cost and how to turn the curve on what government spends on health care. I think that's why the President has decided, rightly so, to put his time and resources -- no pun intended -- into ensuring that we don't forget addressing cost even as we look to expand coverage for those that don't have care.
I'll take one more, April, and then --
Q Robert, on health care again, understanding that this administration is reaching out to a lot of grassroots organizations to get them to put pressure on Congress to support the President's plan, what kind of outreach is going on from this administration into the small business community -- because I'm hearing on a grassroots' level from small businesses, that if the President's health care plan does go into effect, it could create a worsening recession. A lot of businesses have said, look, if this does happen, that they will have to make a lot of their full-time people that they would have to cover part time and maybe even close up shop. What are you doing to allay a lot of their concerns --
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think it's probably -- I'd start with, I'm not sure that -- I don't know who you talked to, but I'm sure that there's a full understanding of -- I think the President has spoken about the notion that there are businesses that are not going to come under some of the requirements of any of the health care bills as it relates to providing immediate coverage based on the size of those businesses. So I think in some sense, their fears sound likely unwarranted.
But I know the administration has and continues to reach out to business groups, both small and large, and the rest of the stakeholders involved in searching for a reform plan that addresses the rising cost, again, for both large and small businesses. I don't think anybody is immune or exempt from what we've seen happen over the past many years in terms of rising cost. In fact, many of the smaller businesses lack the larger pool purchasing power to drive down rates by covering more people than just a smaller universe that is employed by a specific business.
Thanks, guys.
2:44 P.M. EDT

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