PRESS BRIEFING BY PRESS SECRETARY JAY CARNEY
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
MR. CARNEY: I think we’re ready. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for being here on this very, very warm day in the summer in Washington.
I have no announcements to make, so I will go right to questions.
Ben Feller of the Associated Press.
Q Thanks, Jay. How are you?
MR. CARNEY: I’m great, thanks. How are you?
Q Good, thanks. Two questions. I’d like to get your reaction to something that the Speaker said today in which he said the debt limit increase is the President’s problem, and that President Obama has to put forward a plan that Congress can pass. What’s your reaction to those two things?
MR. CARNEY: The need for the United States to take action so that it fulfills its obligations and pays its debts, as it has in the entirety of its existence, is not a Democratic problem, it’s not a Republican problem. It’s an American problem. And it’s something that we have to do together. The President feels very strongly about this.
I would also note that while Congress has to vote to raise the debt ceiling, the President doesn’t have a vote in this. It’s Congress that has to act.
The President didn’t stand up here yesterday and say, hey, show you a lot of charts and graphs about how previous Congresses under a Republican President accumulated enormous amounts of deficits and debt, and that this is what they needed to vote — to deal with, and it wasn’t his problem. He didn’t say that because he doesn’t believe that. He believes it’s his responsibility as the President of the United States to lead, to work with Congress to resolve these issues together for the American people.
So I think that’s clearly where this President stands, and it’s clearly I think the way that the American people view this.
If we were to default on our obligations, who suffers? Democrats, Republicans or Americans? Americans suffer. The American economy suffers. The global economy suffers.
Q What about I guess the broader issue here? You’ve got the Speaker’s statement that I read; you’ve got the Senate Republican leader, Senator McConnell, offering a harsh speech today on the floor in which he questioned the President’s leadership and said that the real solution to this problem probably isn’t going to happen as long as this President is in the Oval Office. I’m curious what — is this whole process right now moving forward or backwards?
MR. CARNEY: What I think was said was unfortunate, because this President has made clear his willingness to compromise, to take heat from his own party, to do things that would force him and Democrats to move outside their comfort zone in order to meet Republicans halfway to achieve a significant deficit reduction deal the likes of which I think the American people deserve. I mean, this is an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up.
This President is going to be in office for at least another 18 months, and I think that the American people expect Congress to work with him. And this President surely expects and will make every effort to work with this Congress, as he has. I mean, there really isn’t an option.
So, in answer to your question about which direction the process is moving in, I mean, by fits and starts, the process continues to move forward because despite elevated rhetoric, the fact is everyone recognizes, everyone who has been in that room and who will be in that room again this afternoon recognizes that there is no alternative here to taking action and dealing with the problems before us, that there has to be a compromise and, in the end, together, we have to do the right thing so that we don’t default on our obligations and so that we can achieve significant deficit reduction.
Q Jay, did the President hear Senator McConnell’s speech on the floor?
MR. CARNEY: No. He was in meetings.
Q Does the White House have a more specific reaction to what McConnell said?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think I addressed it a little bit, but if you have a specific question about a thing that he said —
Q Is it helpful to this process?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, I think that Americans expect their leaders in Washington to talk to them, not to talk — not to take actions based on the demands of the most vocal elements of their parties, okay? That’s true of Democrats and it’s true of Republicans. And the fact is, no one will get everything he or she wants out of this process. No one will be wholly satisfied by the result. The President knows he won’t be, but he’ll be satisfied by the achievement of an agreement that’s balanced and that gets important things done.
So he will continue to work with leaders of both parties, beginning again this afternoon in the Roosevelt Room, to try to find common ground and to reach a compromise so that we can move this process forward and fulfill our obligations.
Q Even with elevated rhetoric, as you said, aside, on both sides, both positions seem to be very entrenched. How do you see a deal coming when neither side, whether it’s the White House, congressional Democrats or congressional Republicans, are indicating any hint on moving on those specific positions?
MR. CARNEY: Well, as I’ve said throughout this process, there’s — sometimes there’s rhetoric that has been put out there in public that doesn’t necessarily match what has often been very constructive and respectful conversations in the meetings, and usually has been. So I think that the leaders will come together, the President and the Vice President will come together, and they will continue to push forward towards an agreement, because there is no alternative here.
As I’ve just said, the President has said, and the leaders themselves have said, the consequences of default would be so severe, and they would not be esoteric. This would not be just a Wall Street problem. It would be a problem for Americans on Main Streets across the country. It would affect jobs, it would affect interest rates that directly affects housing payments and credit card payments, and it would be severe.
And I think everyone sees that reality and recognizes is. The path from here to there will certainly be challenging, but we’ll get there.
Q Last question. Do you have specific benchmarks that you would like to see reached on a daily basis as these talks continue?
MR. CARNEY: No, we don’t. We are very aware of and we remind others in the room of the fact that we don’t have a lot of time here. August 2nd is a hard and fast and real deadline. Congress needs time to do the things it would have to do to produce legislation, so we have to back up from that deadline. So we’re in the matter-of-days phase of these negotiations.
Q Mitch McConnell said, “In my view, the President has presented us with three choices: smoke and mirrors, tax hikes or default. The Republicans choose none of the above. I hoped to do good, but I refuse to do harm.”
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think I would simply ask you, as you and everyone else in this room and other reporters who are covering this, whether you think that’s true, because what — for better or worse — well, that’s actually not true. For better or worse, a lot of what has been on offer, a lot of what has been considered and talked about, is now out in the public domain. And I don’t think there’s any credible observer of these negotiations and analysts of the general problems we have, in terms of deficit and debt reduction, who would not say that we have not been credible?
Q I think we have a general —
MR. CARNEY: I mean, who would say that we have not been credible. Because the fact is, this President is willing to do significant things, in terms of discretionary cuts, entitlement reform that strengthens the programs and increases their solvency further into the future for future generations — tough things that will not be easy to convince Democrats to go along with.
But he’s willing to do that, because he thinks that’s what leadership requires. I mean, it’s not — he’s not standing here saying, that’s what I want to do; he’s saying, I have to do it because I’m President and it’s important and this is an opportunity that we should not pass up.
Q So in the spirit of rebutting this idea that it’s all been smoke and mirrors, is the President willing to raise the retirement age for Medicare and Social Security?
MR. CARNEY: There is no reason for me, from here, or for the President, from here, when he was here several times in recent days, to negotiate the particulars from the podium.
Q I’m not asking you to negotiate it; I’m asking you to explain it.
MR. CARNEY: And — well, what we have said is — what the President stood here and said, not with regard to a specific proposal, is that a lot of the reporting out about what has been under consideration has been accurate. And I would simply say, for those of you — most of you who are familiar with these issues and know what hard choices are, to judge for yourselves whether that — whether the kinds of things that we’ve been willing to consider do not constitute significant demonstrations of willingness to compromise. And I think the answer is, they absolutely do.
And this President has never taken a “my way or the highway” approach, because he understands that he’s not a monarch, that we live in a great democracy built upon a two-party system, and by and large, nothing big gets done in Washington unless Democrats and Republicans come together. And they only come together if each side is willing to give, the way Ronald Reagan did and Tip O’Neill did, the way Bill Clinton did and Newt Gingrich did, and many of their predecessors in American history. That’s the only way this gets done.
And in the end, because the elected officials who are here are here representing the American people, I think it will get done. And we will press up until the very end for the biggest possible deal.
Q Also, I’m not sure if I missed this, but have you guys — has the White House reacted at all to what’s been going on at the U.S. embassy in Syria, the demonstrations and the violence?
MR. CARNEY: Yes. And we have, and the Secretary of State has. I think —
Q I’ve seen statements from State. I’m wondering if you — if the White House has a response.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would simply say that, echoing what Secretary Clinton said, our position is that President Assad is not indispensible and that we had called on him to lead this transition. He clearly has not and he has lost legitimacy by refusing to lead the transition.
We want to see the Syrian people’s desire for democratic transformation carried out. The attacks or the thugs storming the embassy is not acceptable, and we’ve made that clear to the Syrian government that it is their responsibility, as it is the responsibility of host nations around the globe, to provide security for and to maintain security for foreign embassies, in this case the U.S. embassy.
Q Why does the White House think there has been such tolerance of Assad’s behavior among other Arab leaders who did not — who denounced Qaddafi?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have an answer to that question for you. I mean, what we have said has been very clear about its — the unacceptable things that he’s done, the killings and the arrests that have continued. Even when he had the opportunity to have this meeting with the opposition on July 10th, the unacceptable behavior by the government, the attacks on its people continued. And that proved that he was not going to lead this transition.
Q Thank you. Specific to these talks, are you saying then that the rhetoric that we’re hearing in public from Republicans does not match the tone of what’s going on inside the room?
MR. CARNEY: Look, I think it’s fair to say that the tone inside the room has by and large been frank and constructive and not highly contentious at all. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t disagreements. But as was the case certainly in the Biden-led talks, the atmosphere continues to be constructive and respectful. And we expect that to continue.
Q So do you think the Republicans are then playing to their base by —
MR. CARNEY: I don’t want to play political analyst from here. I just think that it’s important to recognize that we will not get from here to there, either side, if we heed only the calls of our most ideological supporters. We have to be — we have to acknowledge that maximalist positions will not prevail. It’s just — logic dictates otherwise.
And this is not an esoteric exercise because we have the absolute accepted need to deal with fulfilling our obligations and paying our debts. So in the end, the President remains optimistic that we will reach an agreement. He will continue to fight for the most substantial deficit reduction package possible, and he will continue to — in the meeting this afternoon and his discussions from this day forward with leaders — remind them that none of this is easy, so if you’re going to do something hard, you might as well go big. You might as well do something historic and reach a significant deficit reduction package, a package that deals with our long-term debt issues for many years to come and allows us to put the American economy back on solid footing as we enter into sort of full-bore competition in the 21st century. That’s the best outcome here, and that’s the outcome he’s trying to find.
Q So while the President pushes for that big deal, will he also be reviewing the math on the more mid-range package that was discussed in the Biden talks?
MR. CARNEY: Well, as he’s said for a while now, smaller deals are possible — I mean, not the short-term ones that he’s made clear he will not sign because we are the United States of America; we do not come to the brink of defaulting on our obligations every several weeks or months — that’s not acceptable to him.
But deals short of the so-called grand bargain, the deals that put us in the $4 trillion range over 10 to 12 years are certainly possible, and he has asked on two occasions now, when meetings ended, for the leaders who have come to come to the Roosevelt Room, to bring with them their proposal for what can get us to the biggest deal possible. And each member’s definition of the biggest deal possible might — will obviously differ in size.
So they’re doing serious work, both in the room and at the staff level. But the President will continue to push and argue for the most significant package and balanced — that will, in a balanced way, achieve a big number that does something substantial in what he said yesterday, the out-years.
I mean, one of the reasons to do the bigger deficit reduction package, that we’ve talked about — this has been the primary objective, based on their own words, that the Republicans have put forward since the midterm elections last fall. I mean, this was a moral imperative, this is an economic imperative, we have to get our deficits and debt under control, and the President is saying, okay, let’s do it.
And since we have to do it together, then we have to compromise, because obviously the purist position on the Republican side will not pass, will not become law, and the purist position on the Democratic side will not pass and become law. So the alternative is compromise.
Q Jay, John Boehner also says that during their weeks — in fact, he said two months — of discussions, a couple months of discussions, the idea of raising taxes was never even on the table. True?
MR. CARNEY: Well, the President from the beginning, since his speech at George Washington University, has made clear that the approach he brought to the table, that the Vice President brought to the table, was a balanced approach that included dealing with spending in our tax code.
Q What about in the private conversations with John Boehner —
MR. CARNEY: Look, I’m not going to characterize those conversations, except that a grand bargain, a significant deficit reduction deal, is not possible if it’s not balanced, and certainly not possible in a divided government with this President and this Congress. So the — but I’m not going to get into the specifics of the negotiations or the private, one-on-one conversations between the Speaker and the President.
Q And shifting gears, Bernie Sanders was on the floor of the Senate today and he noted that President Obama in 2008, in a taped addressed to AARP, said “John McCain’s campaign has suggested that the best answer for the growing pressures on Social Security might be to cut cost-of-living adjustments or raise the retirement age. Let me be clear: I will not do either.” Is that a promise that has gone by the bye, at least regarding cost-of-living adjustments?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I will not get into the specifics of ideas that have been considered. What I will say is that the President has been willing to get outside of his comfort zone to discuss different measures, to do what he has said — will go to the general program there in terms of Social Security — that he firmly believes — and economists back him up on this — that Social Security is not an issue when you talk about our near- and medium-term deficits. But he is interested in taking steps to increase its solvency and strengthen the program.
But what I won’t get into is which specific measures might be taken to do that. But, again, when we talk about making hard choices, he has demonstrated his willingness to do that because he thinks the American people want something big. And the reason, when we talk about Social Security, even though it is not a driver, it is not the problem when we talk about our deficits, it does have long-term solvency issues that can be — that can be addressed and we can strengthen the program. And he has said that if we’re going to make some tough decisions now in the interest of getting something big, that he’s willing to have those conversations about all entitlements, including Social Security.
So, again, this is not — this is something that we’ve always, from the State of the Union address on, talked about on a separate track, separate from the need to deal with our deficits. But he is willing to do, in the name of doing something big and comprehensive, talk about what he talked about in the State of the Union, which is take measures that would strengthen it and increase its solvency.
Q More generally, then, without asking about what they specifically talked about on Social Security, is the situation now so severe that when the President talks about making tough choices and getting out of your comfort zone, that that means being willing to break firm promises that he made previously?
MR. CARNEY: Again — well, I don’t know what exactly you’re referring to except for the one you just —
Q Well, you won’t answer the specific question, so maybe the general.
MR. CARNEY: What I will say is that it requires making tough choices, and compromise requires not necessarily being exactly where you were in your ideal world. When you put a proposal forward in Congress that passed the House, even though it had no chance in the Senate and no chance to be signed into law, you could stick with that as your absolutist position, or you can recognize that you’re not going to get that and that we are absolutely under an obligation to reach a compromise. You can put forward a framework, as the President did in April at George Washington University, for his vision of $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 to 12 years, that deals with spending in entitlements and discretionary spending, defense spending and the tax code.
But you can also recognize that you’re not going to get that exactly the way you wrote it. That’s the President’s approach.
Q Jay, my understanding is the President, in the interview with CBS, has suggested that there’s some concern that Social Security checks may not go out August 3rd. Can you provide us a little context on that, and did he indeed say that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think it’s up to CBS to — I don’t want to scoop their interview, but the — and I think that will air tonight — I mean, the fact of the matter is, and Secretary Geithner has talked about this — I mean, we no longer have authority to borrow money if we do not raise the debt ceiling, which we remain confident will happen, so this is speculative.
But the fact is one of the reasons why we absolutely have to take action is because we stop — we lose our authority to borrow money. And as you know, we have obligations that exceed the money we take in — significantly exceeds the money we take in. And that would then entail a kind of Sophie’s choice situation where you have to decide what bills you can pay.
And the fact is that whether it’s Social Security checks or veterans’ benefits or disability benefits — I mean, there is — there are — the number of decisions that would have to be made — and this is beyond my expertise, so I encourage you to go to Treasury — I mean, it’s pretty clear that the effect will be significant.
And so, no, we can’t guarantee, if there were a default, any specific bill will be paid. Because the choices that some have said — oh, we can just pay interest, so we can pay the bond holders, in some cases and in many cases Chinese — the Chinese government, but not pay Social Security recipients or veterans or benefits recipients.
So that’s the kind of choice that nobody wants the United States of America to have to make, that’s why the leaders have been clear that we will vote to have the United States fulfill its obligations, and the President feels strongly that that will happen.
Q Does the change in tone, where you hear some Republican leaders saying today that they feel like we may be heading for a missed opportunity in terms of a big deal, suggest that we’re heading for an August 2nd nail-biter on this issue?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, I think it is an unfortunate reality that, as we’ve seen with the CR, as we’ve seen so many times, that we tend to — that Congress tends to push these things up to the very last minute. While that’s inconvenient, in many cases, it is the way things happen. In this case, it’s more than inconvenient because of the — even before August 2nd, the possibility — if it’s perceived to be a possibility — that Congress will not act in time could have an effect on markets, could have an effect that would be damaging to the economy.
So we think it’s very important and the President’s made it clear: Let’s not — let’s get this done sooner rather than later, and the clock is ticking.
Q One quick one on another topic. We understand an executive order is coming related to a gun-related issue. We’ve already heard from some groups, lawmakers expressing concern that this could be trampling on Second Amendment rights. Do you have a response to that?
MR. CARNEY: Well, first of all, I would refer all — you’re talking about the long gun issue on the Southwest border?
Q My understanding was changes to the database used for background checks.
MR. CARNEY: I don’t have anything. I don’t even — I’m not even aware of that. There is obviously an issue that’s about — which is this is a law enforcement issue about illegal gun trafficking to the Mexicans on the border states is the long gun one, which I refer you to the Justice Department for. But I don’t even — I don’t have anything for you on that.
Q Jay, can I follow up on that just very quickly?
MR. CARNEY: Yes. I’ll get to yours.
Q Does the President believe that a new regulation is going to have a real impact on stopping the illegal flow of arms to Mexico?
MR. CARNEY: Well, as the Deputy Attorney General said yesterday, this targeted measure will improve the ability of ATF to detect and disrupt the illegal weapons-trafficking networks responsible for diverting firearms from lawful commerce to criminals and criminal organizations. So, yes, we believe it will improve the ATF’s ability to do that.
Q I want to go back to something you just said. You described the tone of the meetings as frank and constructive. Given the fact that some people with knowledge of the meetings have described them as essentially being stalled, can you explain specifically —
MR. CARNEY: Well, I didn’t say they had come to agreement on the issues.
Q But what’s been constructive about them?
MR. CARNEY: But, I mean, it was the contrast to some of the heated, fairly partisan rhetoric that has been heard elsewhere. And we’re not getting that in the room, which is not to say sometimes there aren’t starkly absolutist positions expressed in the room. That happens sometimes, but they’re done in very calm and constructive tones. (Laughter.)
Q At this point heading into the fourth meeting —
Q How is that constructive?
Q — what do you think the meetings have accomplished so far?
MR. CARNEY: I think the meetings have made clear the absolute imperative to take action, to have the United States make sure that it fulfills its obligations. They’ve been very — remember that most people in that room were not participants in the negotiations led by the Vice President. Some were, but not all. So there’s a level of detail and specificity that essentially others are being brought into.
And, obviously, not everybody was involved in conversations that the President and the Speaker of the House were having. So there’s a sort of broadening of the knowledge base about what has been discussed, where are the possible areas of compromise, and where are the challenges, the disagreements that still exist, and various ways to get from small to big.
Q Some people have described the meetings as not having accomplished anything, though. How would you describe, going into meeting number four, where are we now?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say that this only gets done if we act together, and that means the President and the leaders of Congress of both parties. Doesn’t make the meetings easy. It doesn’t mean that every minute of every meeting is highly productive. But it does mean that it’s essential that we have these meetings to get our work done. I mean, really, there’s no — it doesn’t have to be pleasant for it to be essential.
Q Is there any —
MR. CARNEY: And also I don’t want to suggest that it’s unpleasant. I’m just saying that it’s — that there’s really not a choice here. And so it’s not like if we just break up and go do something else that the problem goes away.
Q Is there any concern, given the heated rhetoric that we’ve heard today, that the talks could break down at the end of today?
MR. CARNEY: Well, no, because I think that there are no alternatives to continuing to talk and to find compromise, and I think that it’s important to remember that the Biden-led negotiations, as asserted by participants in both parties, made significant progress, and that, as the President made clear here yesterday, he and the Speaker of the House had very constructive talks.
Out of that, there should be — and certainly the American expect — people demand that there be potential for compromise. So that’s what we’re working towards.
Q Until just recently, most — there have been a lot of conversations about changing the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security, but it was always in the context of —
MR. CARNEY: There you go again.
Q — always in the context of a Social Security plan, trying to make Social Security solvent for the long term.
How would you respond to people who would say that that that’s the appropriate way to do this, not as part of a debt negotiation — deficit — overall deficit —
MR. CARNEY: I think I just answered this, in that the President does believe that this is a separate issue but it is also an important issue, and that the fact that it’s a separate track doesn’t mean that it’s not — that if there’s the political will to do it as part of this overall package, then we should do it. And by “it” I mean not addressing the specific measures that you raise — or measure that you raise, but to take measures that will strengthen the program and enhance its long-term solvency without slashing benefits.
So the — I mean, I’m not sure — because they can happen within the same framework without — but it doesn’t change the fact that taking measures to increase and strengthen the program — I mean, increase its solvency and strengthen the program is a way of dealing with our short-term deficit issues because they’re not related.
Q But correct me if I’m wrong, there’s been no suggestion that the changes in Social Security would actually solve the 75-year Social Security problem, so essentially you would just be maybe taking a bite out of it without really —
MR. CARNEY: I don’t think anybody is under any illusion that even a significant deficit reduction package or one that includes some of these other things would solve all problems for all times. But it is our obligation to take measures to strengthen and increase and lengthen the solvency of these programs that have been the foundation of economic security for America’s senior citizens — Medicare and Social Security. I mean, any measure we took — look, the significant reforms that Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill put into — made law in the 1980s extended Social Security’s solvency and strengthened it for a very long time — when that Reagan-O’Neill compromise, by the way, was a balanced compromise that included dealing with revenues and —
Q But that was all within Social Security, and this wouldn’t be that way.
MR. CARNEY: Right — I don’t understand the point you’re making. The fact that that was all within Social Security is true and we can do Social Security entirely separate or we can do it as part of this, but it is still solving a separate problem.
Q Does the President have any plans of traveling outside of Washington while this issue is still unresolved? Is he sort of committed to staying here?
MR. CARNEY: I have — I think he’s made clear that we’re going to meet every day until this is done.
Q So we shouldn’t expect him to be going and taking his case out to the public across the country?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not going to — I don’t have any announcements to make about his travel schedule, but he is committed to meeting every day with these leaders until this is done.
Q Thank you.
Q On weekends as well?
MR. CARNEY: Yes, sir.
Q Can you say whether President Obama and Secretary Geithner have had discussions about what you have termed as the Sophie’s choice type of decisions that they will face on funding come August 2nd?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t know. They have regular meetings; I don’t know that they’ve had those conversations. I’m sure that Secretary Geithner has briefed the President on the details of the circumstance that would present itself on August 3rd. But I don’t know if they’ve talked about that. And I’m not even sure — again, I would refer you to the Treasury Department about how those decisions would be made.
Q The President yesterday, he said that he’d like to see more from the business community in terms of lobbying to get a deal done and to sound some of the alarms for if the debt ceiling is not raised August 2nd. Can you specify some of the actions he’d like to see and whether or not the letter that was sent today from some 470 CEOs — was that enough?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, I don’t think — I think it’s welcome. You cited this — I was going to mention this to you as obviously not something we organized — I believe the Chamber did — but a letter from hundreds of business leaders that says, “We believe it is vitally important for the U.S. government to make good on its financial obligations and to put its fiscal house in order. First, it is critical that the United States government not default in any way on its fiscal obligations. A great nation, like a great company, has to be relied upon to pay its debts when they become due. This is a Main Street, not a Wall Street, issue.”
“The debt ceiling trigger” — I’m just skipping around here to relevant points — “The debt ceiling trigger does offer a needed catalyst for serious negotiations on budget discipline, but avoiding even a technical default is essential. This is a risk our country must not take.
“Second, our political leaders must agree to a plan to substantially reduce our long-term budget deficits with a goal of at least stabilizing our nation’s debt as a percentage of GDP, which will entail difficult choices.”
We couldn’t have said it better. And we agree.
Q So is there more, though, beyond —
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, I think — we think everyone has a stake in this. It can seem arcane, understandably, when I and others stand up and talk about debt-to-GDP ratios and the need to not default on our obligations and to raise the debt ceiling. I mean, I honestly — what is the debt ceiling? I think for most Americans, it sounds like gobbledygook. What they want is for the economy to be strong, for jobs to be created, and for Washington to work. And with that as our goal — with those three objectives as our goal, it’s pretty obvious what we have to do.
Q The President is having lunch with two of the CEOs who signed that letter. Is he going to be asking them to do more?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I don’t — I think that lunch is happening now. I’m not sure — I’m sure they will discuss this issue —
Q Was the debt limit on the agenda today?
MR. CARNEY: Well, there wasn’t a printed or written agenda. I’m sure that because this is an issue that so many businesses are worried about, understandably, I’m sure it will come up.
Q Who is he having lunch with?
MR. CARNEY: I think we put this out to or we gave it to the pool here, but he is having, as he has done throughout his administration, he will have lunch, or is having lunch now with four business leaders to discuss ideas to grow the economy and create jobs. They will specifically discuss the importance of working with the private sector to promote job training efforts, including ways that companies have been partnering with high educational institutions to develop curriculum and programs that ensure graduates will have the appropriate background and skills to succeed and get hired within the companies.
The business leaders in attendance are Clarence Otis of Darden Restaurants, Scott Davis of UPS, Sam Palmisano of IBM, and Matt Rose of BNSF.
Q There is no agenda?
MR. CARNEY: What’s that?
Q No agenda? (Laughter.)
MR. CARNEY: Well, this is a broad outline of one topic they will likely talk about. But I don’t want — just because they’re going to talk about this doesn’t mean they won’t talk about those other issues because those other issues are quite clearly of concern and in the news right now.
Q Jay, the Treasury Secretary did say this morning that in its push not only for the debt ceiling but for the big deficit-cutting package the administration could use some support. Is the White House doing anything to rally those less vocal, less ideological elements of the public to get involved?
MR. CARNEY: Meaning which groups? I mean, I think we’re making our case; the President has come before you —
Q You’ve said you feel like lawmakers are responding to sort of the fringes in their party and that Americans —
MR. CARNEY: Well, again, we welcome the letter that was — I think Julianna said 470 business leaders —
Q But the Chamber you said organized that. Is the White House doing anything to gin up some —
MR. CARNEY: As the President said, we have conversations with business leaders all the time. He does; others do. I’m sure this has been an issue. We’re not in some sort of organized effort that I know of. I mean, this is pushing on an open door, if you will. These are issues that they are very concerned about for obvious reasons. And as the letter makes clear, while they are concerned about it for obvious reasons, it is not a concern limited just to business and it shouldn’t be.
It obviously affects every American who has to worry about interest rates, mortgage payments, credit card payments, worries about his or her job. The impact of a default would be catastrophic for so many people around the country and the globe that we simply cannot even entertain the possibility that it might happen.
Q The CBS interview is on their website, so I’m going to read a little bit from it just to clarify this.
MR. CARNEY: Are you going to ask me to confirm?
Q Something like that. “This is not just a matter of Social Security checks. These are veterans’ checks. These are folks on disability and their checks. There are about 70 million checks that go out.” Is 70 million a number you all believe of checks that would stop being given out — this is a very high number, so let me make sure —
MR. CARNEY: I think it’s at least that high that the Treasury Department issues or the government issues. But I would check with Treasury.
Q Was his answer in — was it an answer to a question or did he volunteer this fact?
MR. CARNEY: It was an answer to a question.
Q Is this a point he’ll continue to make on his own?
MR. CARNEY: Look, we’re not — if asked — and he’s spent a lot of time taking questions lately, so if asked I think he’ll make the point, as he did today, we’re not spending a lot of time warning about what would happen if we defaulted, because we do not believe we will default. We accept what leaders of Congress have said about the impermissibility of allowing the United States to default on its obligations.
So we believe we will get there by hook or by crook through this process, and we will — Congress will vote as necessary, Democrats and Republicans, because this is not a Democratic or a Republican problem, it’s an American problem, and we will take action necessary to deal with it, and take advantage, hopefully, in the biggest possible way, of the opportunity presented here to achieve something significant.
And remember that way back when, when this process began, the linkage between raising the debt ceiling and significant deficit reduction was one that was put forward by Republicans because they believed it was the primary objective. The number one item on their agenda list when it came to domestic policy, economic policy, probably all policy was to deal with cutting spending, reducing our deficit, reducing our long-term debt problem. And the President has made clear that we accept the challenge and we are willing to compromise to get there. And he still believes, even at this late date, that the biggest possible deal is the best way to go.
Q Can you tell us what his reaction was when the Majority Whip Cantor — Majority Leader Cantor said that he considered it in terms of who’s making concessions, that their concession in return for you giving spending cuts is to allow a vote on the debt limit?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think that’s one version of the question that somebody in the front row asked, which is that that’s — this is not the President’s problem —
Q I want to know what his reaction was, though.
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think he was asked about this in the interview, and it’s very much what I just said, which is, wait a second, this is an American problem. It’s not a Democratic problem, it’s not a Republican problem, it’s not this President’s problem. In fact, as I said, this is not a vote on new spending. This is a vote to fulfill the obligations made by previous Congresses under a previous President by and large, okay? When President Clinton left office, there were surpluses. Everyone agrees, right? I know that there — people like to argue over absolutely settled facts, but I think we can all agree that there were budget surpluses when Bill Clinton left office — “as far as the eye could see” was the phrase commonly used.
By the time President Obama was sworn into office eight years later, there was the largest debt and largest deficits in history. Okay? And these are — as the President has said, these are cars that have already been purchased and vacations that have already been taken, and now it’s time to pay the bills.
He did not say, however, when asked about this, oh, well, it’s not my responsibility; it’s Congress’s responsibility because they ran up the bills. They voted and didn’t pay for two wars; they voted and didn’t pay for substantial tax cuts, including tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and didn’t pay for them; a Medicare prescription drug program that they voted for, including every leader in that room from the Republican Party — didn’t pay for it.
These are the obligations that we have to now pay. So — but you know what the President said? He goes, “It’s my responsibility, too. It’s my responsibility, too. I will work with Congress because we have to do this as a nation; it’s an American challenge, and we do it together.”
Q But did he say something to them yesterday, in the meeting they had in the afternoon in response —
MR. CARNEY: About this issue?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not aware. I know the — well, on different — I’m not going to — we’re not going to read out the dialogue from the meetings. I’m not aware of anything of that nature that he said. Because what I — when I was just channeling him, with a little filigree of my own, the — that was in response to some of the statements made this morning.
Q Since the President has reconvened these talks under his own auspices, has any progress been made?
MR. CARNEY: Yes, there has, in the sense that, as I was saying I think in answer to Laura’s question or somebody else’s questions, the participants in these meetings haven’t been engaged, all of them, in the detailed discussions that were led by the Vice President or, obviously with the exception of the Speaker and the President, the conversations that the Speaker and the President had.
So there had been progress in that the — more people now are aware of what the playing field looks like, where the compromises can be found, and what it takes to build upon a smaller package to the biggest possible package, and the hard choices that getting from small to big require.
Q That doesn’t sound like anything further agreed to.
MR. CARNEY: That’s progress.
Q That’s progress?
MR. CARNEY: If this were easy, we’d be done and having happy hour at 4:00 p.m. today, but it’s not going to happen.
Q Really quickly, let me ask you from the other direction — the clear impression from this end of the looking glass is that the positions have hardened. Is that wrong?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think there has been some hardening of positions, restating of absolutist positions. We have encountered that along the way. But our only counsel at this point in response to that is that time is running out, ladies and gentlemen. We need to put that absolutism aside, leave it at the door, and get to the hard work of reaching an agreement.
Q Did you say this had been moved today to the Roosevelt Room?
MR. CARNEY: Oh, where was it —
Q You’ve said that a couple times.
MR. CARNEY: Were we not in the Roosevelt Room today?
MR. EARNEST: I think they’re in the Cabinet Room.
MR. CARNEY: I’m sorry. It’s been in the Cabinet Room; it will be in the Cabinet Room. I get my fancy rooms with fancy pictures mixed up. (Laughter.)
Q The statements, the public statements, that everybody — people have been making before you go into the session today, do those hurt? Do those make it more difficult to negotiate once you get in the room?
MR. CARNEY: Well, look, everybody here — or everybody there, rather, in those rooms is an elected official who’s been around politics for a long time. And I think most participants have pretty thick skin, which is not to say it helps, but I think everybody can get over it pretty quickly.
Q And one other thing. Does the White House have any problem with federal dollars being sent to a counseling clinic that engages in the controversial therapy of trying to cure people of being gay?
MR. CARNEY: Ann, I confess I do not have an answer to that question. Sorry.
Let me move around a little bit. Yes, go ahead.
Q Jay, if you could talk a little bit about the assassination of the Prime Minister’s brother in Afghanistan, and who you guys believe might have been responsible for it — the Taliban has claimed responsibility — and whether or not you think there’s an increased threat to security in the south as troops withdraw?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I would say obviously that this is — at a personal level we — our prayers and sympathies are with the Karzai family during this difficult time. The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the murder of President Karzai’s half-brother in Kandahar.
We obviously — we don’t know who is responsible. There have been some claims and we will certainly work with the Afghan authorities on that, but right now I think the moment here is one — is a personal one, and we express our condolences and condemn the murder.
Q Some questions on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Last week the Ninth Circuit issued an order barring the government from enforcing this law. I’m sure the President heard the news last week. Is he supportive of the decision?
MR. CARNEY: Is he aware of it?
Q I’m sure he heard the news last week. Is he supportive of the decision?
MR. CARNEY: The Justice Department is reviewing the order, and I think I would point you to them for further information. The President’s position, obviously, on the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is quite clear. And he fought hard to make it happen and it was a significant accomplishment late last year.
Q But as the head of the administration, was the President in support of this court order ending that enforcement of “don’t ask, don’t tell”?
MR. CARNEY: Again, I’m going to refer you to the Justice Department as they review that decision.
Q Do you anticipate that the administration will challenge or appeal this decision?
MR. CARNEY: I think that’s the same answer.
Q So what impact is this going to have on repeal certification? I mean, the President said before that it’s going to happen within a matter of weeks, not months. Is it going to have any impact on that?
MR. CARNEY: I think that the process moves forward. I’ll refer you to the Defense Department. I know Secretary Gates, shortly before he left, said that it was moving along very well and that we do expect it to happen in the near future. But so I don’t think there’s an impact.
Q Is there any definite date or time set —
MR. CARNEY: I’d refer you to the Defense Department, but I don’t believe so.
Q Thanks, Jay. On Syria, if as you say President Assad is not indispensible and if, as you say, he has failed to lead the transition, then why hasn’t the President called for him to step down?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I think you’ll note that we’ve said today that — and the Secretary of State has said this — that President Assad has lost his legitimacy. And the issue here is a matter of factual analysis, and that is that President Assad had an opportunity to lead this transition. And we have always said he should lead or leave. He had that opportunity and he passed it up.
And for that reason, not because he’s lost — it doesn’t matter nearly as much that he’s lost legitimacy in our eyes. This is a matter of analysis that he’s lost legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people who are increasingly demanding change. There’s really a growing consensus among the Syrian people that this transition needs to take place and that President Assad is not going to lead it. The Syrian people should be able to decide their own future.
Q And given the 1,400-plus deaths in Syria that have occurred against civilians, how is this different from Libya?
MR. CARNEY: Well, I could review the facts for you. But as you know, there was an imminent threat of a massacre. There was a broad-based, multinational coalition that was not just the United Nations — or NATO rather, but through the United Nations Security Council Resolution, included NATO action as well as coalition participation by nations in the region and, again, the opportunity to work in a multinational way to forestall a massacre against the Libyan people. And as we have said throughout the unrest that has affected the region — North Africa and the Middle East — every country and every circumstance is different.
Okay, one more. I always do one more. Lester, for you.
Q Thank you very much. Will the President speak out in support of Maryland’s giving illegal aliens in-state tuition at colleges and universities?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not aware of that issue, Lester, so I don’t have an answer for you.
Q You’re not aware of that issue?
MR. CARNEY: I’m not. Thanks, guys.
END 1:45 P.M. EDT