Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 25, 2013 – 1:23 P.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good afternoon, everybody. Or, shalom, to those of you who were on the trip with us last week. It’s nice to see you all. I don’t see many people who were on the trip. Only a couple, actually. (Laughter.) There are a couple. It’s not an insult, it’s a compliment, in fact.
I don’t think I have anything to do at the top today, so, Nedra, if you want to get it started.
Q Yes, that would be great. Can you give us an update on your view of what’s happening in Syria? Over the weekend you had the president of the Syrian National Coalition leave, and I wonder if the White House sees that as the opposition crumbling now in Syria.
MR. EARNEST: We certainly have seen these reports and we’re sorry to see the news of Khatib’s resignation. Khatib is a courageous and pragmatic leader who has a strong sense of Syrians’ hopes and fears. The opposition has been well served by his leadership and the Syrian people will continue to benefit from his service in whatever capacity he chooses to provide it.
But it’s important to underscore that leadership transitions are inevitable in any democratic process, and Khatib’s announcement does not change the U.S. policy of support for the Syrian opposition and the Syrian Opposition Coalition. We support the coalition’s vision for a tolerant, inclusive Syria that respects the rights of all Syrians. And the opposition to Assad’s brutal rule is bigger than one person, and that movement will continue.
So it’s certainly — the efforts of the opposition in Syria will continue unabated. The United States will continue to support their efforts. As you know, Nedra, the U.S. is the largest bilateral donor of humanitarian assistance there. The President had the opportunity to talk to leaders in the region, including King Abdullah, who talked about the significant humanitarian strain that is being felt by the Syrian people and is starting to have an impact on other countries in the region. So this is something that we remain concerned about and committed to. And while we’re certainly sorry to see the news of Khatib’s resignation, we’re going to continue to work in the region to support the efforts of the rebels and to continue our steady drumbeat to urge Assad to step aside so that the Syrian people can have a government that reflects their will.
Q One of his complaints was that there was a lack of international support, so I wonder if there are any next steps that might come from the United States. Is there any examination of what more we could be doing or any thoughts that we could be doing more over there?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think the U.S.’s position is actually really clear in terms of what we’ve done. We have condemned repeatedly the brutality of the Assad regime. We have lent our support to the Syrian Opposition Council. We have acknowledged them as the representative of the Syrian people. We have also worked in bilateral fashion with countries all around the world, including those countries in the region, to try to offer as much support as we possibly can to the Syrians as they weather what is a terrible, terrible, violent situation there.
And I mentioned, again, before that the United States bilaterally has also offered a number — a lot of humanitarian support, including the fact that we are the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. And we’ve also provided some logistical, non-lethal support that has also come in handy for Syrian rebels who are, again, fighting a regime that has not hesitated to use the military might of that regime against its own people. That is something that we have strongly condemned, and that is something we’re going to continue to work to bring to an end.
Q On another topic, the assault weapons ban is not going to be part of the bill that the Senate takes up. And I wonder — that was when the President was gone last week — if you could give us an update. He’s talked about how important that is. Is he making calls or doing anything to try to change that and fight for that provision?
MR. EARNEST: Well, the President certainly supports an assault weapons ban that would — legislation like that would serve a useful purpose, which is to remove military-style weapons from the streets. And we have seen how those military-style weapons have been used to perpetrate terrible acts of violence in this country, and the President believes that there should be a ban on them.
And this is something that the President has pushed for pretty aggressively not just in the aftermath of Newtown, but also in his inaugural — I’m sorry, in his State of the Union address. But also, it was part of the series of proposals that the President rolled out in mid-January, where he rolled out 23 specific executive actions that his administration could take unilaterally to try to address incidents of gun violence, steps that we could take that would reduce gun violence. But he also laid out a series of legislative proposals that would require congressional action, and this was among those.
So the announcement from the Senate last week is indication that it won’t be part of the bill, but there was a clear indication that this would be something that would get a vote in the Senate. And I think the President spoke very powerfully about this in the State of the Union, that all of these measures that we know would have a tangible impact on reducing violence in communities all across the country deserve a vote. And this is no exception. And we’re pleased to see that that’s going to take place sometime in the weeks to come here.
Q Josh, the EU deal to rescue Cyprus includes a measure that will still affect depositors, and people with less than 100,000 euros will not be affected, but people with more will be. What is the U.S. position on that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I know, Jeff, that my colleagues at the Treasury Department have put out a statement on this. As we have stood with our partners in Europe as they’ve dealt with some of the financial instability that they’ve been experiencing over there, it has been — the senior officials at the Treasury Department have been the principal point of contact for their colleagues. The President has talked about the impact that this instability on the financial system in Europe has had on the American economy, so it’s something that we’re engaged in trying to help the Europeans to solve.
But in terms of — so I’d refer you to the Treasury Department for the statement that they’ve already issued in terms of our view of the agreement that was announced overnight here. But I don’t have anything additional to say about it beyond their statement.
Q Has the President — has he talked with anyone in Europe after this deal came through?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any calls to read out to you at this time. I know that a number of officials in the Treasury Department have been in touch with their colleagues.
Q All right. And let me just ask you on one other topic. The Supreme Court has some pretty high-profile cases this week on gay marriage. What does the White House — how is the White House watching this? Are you sending any staff to the hearings? Will the President be watching? If you can give us any color ahead of those hearings.
MR. EARNEST: Well, as you know, Jeff, the Supreme Court doesn’t actually televise the hearings, so it will impact our ability to watch it. (Laughter.)
Q I bet you he could get a seat.
MR. EARNEST: Maybe so. Maybe so. Maybe so. I know that there are some people who have been waiting in line for quite some time already to try to get a seat, so it should make for some pretty good legal theater, if nothing else.
Q But will anyone from here be in the Court?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t know whether or not there will be administration — Obama administration staffers in the room as the arguments are being held. But this certainly is an issue that the President has followed carefully. There have been briefs that have been filed in the case from the Department of Justice, representing the Obama administration’s legal position on these issues. But I don’t have any details to offer you in terms of who’s actually — or whether or not there will be anybody in the room as the case is being heard — the cases are being heard, I should say.
Q When is the President going to sign the CR?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have a specific date for you. I know that this is something that we’ll sign before the deadline, which is later this week, so in the next couple of days.
Q And do you anticipate it being a ceremonial occasion?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any scheduling updates to offer at this time, but when it gets closer and we can offer some more details we’ll let you know.
Q And will you point out, after the CR is signed, some of the effects of the sequestration, as you did before there was any kind of a deal and before it went into place?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I don’t quite understand your question.
Q There are some departments that do not have the ability, as you know, to reschedule their funds or reprogram them.
MR. EARNEST: Right.
Q Will you be pointing out to us what kind of hits they will take, say, in education, as you did before the sequester went into effect?
MR. EARNEST: Well, there are a number of reports from your colleagues in local television markets and in local newspapers all across the country that are talking about the impact that the sequester has had on their communities. And this ranges from — sort of runs the gamut of the kinds of programs that benefit from federal funding.
So this includes Head Start programs. This includes FAA towers that are being closed. I know that there have been some concerns about the impact that the sequester would have on Meals on Wheels programs that provide food to the elderly. So there are a range of impacts that are being felt all across the country, in communities all across the country, as a result of the sequester.
There are leaders in Congress in both parties — Democrats and Republicans — who have said that the sequester is bad policy. The President agrees that it’s bad policy. The President said that before the sequester went into effect and he said that afterwards. That’s why the President has laid out his own specific proposal for reducing our deficit in a balanced way that would turn off the sequester; that would make sure we’re making smart decisions about where we can make cuts to government spending; that would reform entitlement programs, but would also ask the wealthy and the well-connected to pay a little bit more to deal with our deficit challenges.
Q Yes, I was just wondering if the White House would take pains to point out, as you did before the sequester —
MR. EARNEST: I mean, at this point, now that the sequester has taken effect, you don’t have to take pains. It’s easy to find with the click of a browser or tuning into a television station, which is I know your preferred method of getting news. But that is available and those unfortunate impacts are being felt all across the country. That’s why the President has put forward a plan that would deal with them definitively.
Q But yet you expect that they’ll remain in place for the rest of this fiscal year, don’t you?
MR. EARNEST: I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that.
Q Well, what are we going to do? How would they not?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, the President has put forward his own plan that would reduce the deficit based on the —
Q But it shows no sign of being acted upon by anybody on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess I would say two things about that. The first is that maybe you should ask them what they’re doing to resolve the sequester.
But the President continues to be engaged in the effort, to find a way to reduce our deficits and get our deficits under control. But he is going to insist that we do so in a balanced way. And the only thing that’s prevented us so far from reaching an agreement is Republicans who have said that they are not going to ask the wealthy and the well-connected to pay any more in taxes to deal with our deficit challenges. You don’t have to take my word for it. This is something that they brag about. This is something that they think is a testament to their fiscal reasonability.
But the truth is I actually think — and I think it’s the view of the administration — that it really shouldn’t be difficult to solve this problem; that if we’re going to ask teachers and students and veterans and middle-class families and seniors to make some sacrifices to deal with our deficit challenges — that’s something that the President is willing to do — then we can’t also —
Q But you —
MR. EARNEST: Let me just finish this. We also need to make sure that we’re going to ask the wealthy and the well-connected to make some sacrifices, too. And if we’re willing to make everybody — willing to ask everybody to make some sacrifices to deal with our deficits, then there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to reach a deal that would turn off the sequester before the end of the fiscal year.
Q Except possibly for the fact that the President’s plan is not likely to pass Democrats in the Senate either.
MR. EARNEST: We’ll have conversations with Democrats and Republicans to resolve this. The President has put forward his own very specific plan. If there are others that have their own ideas for how to resolve these kinds of issues, then we’re certainly happy to have a conversation with them. But so far, what we’ve seen — and the reason that we haven’t gotten anything done is because Republicans have said we’re not going to ask the wealthy and the well-connected to pay any more to deal with our deficits. And that is not an approach the President is going to support.
Q Thanks, Josh. I just want to follow up on the assault weapons ban. Leader Reid dropped it because he said he didn’t believe there was a chance that it could actually make its way through the Senate.
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure that he would agree with your characterization as “dropping it.” Because what the Leader — just to be clear, this is important — what Leader Reid has said is that he would allow it to be offered up as an amendment, which would give everybody in the Senate the opportunity to vote on it and to have it be included as part of the legislation.
The President thinks that is really important. And it will be a question for all 100 members of the Senate to ask themselves about whether or not they think that voting for and supporting an assault weapons ban would actually do something to reduce gun violence in communities all across the country. So we’re going to have that debate.
Q They think that it faces an uncertain future. Does the President think that the assault weapons ban can actually make its way through the Senate?
MR. EARNEST: I have found, as Bill was sort of pointing out in his questions, it is unwise to predict what exactly Congress is going to act on. So this is something that the President feels very strongly about. And I think that the emotion and the passion with which he has engaged the American public and the Congress on this issue is evident and it’s an indication of how strongly he feels about this. And I think you can anticipate that the President is going to continue to ask Congress to consider a range of proposals, including the assault weapons ban, that would have a tangible impact on reducing violence in communities all across the country.
Q And, as you know, Mayor Bloomberg is rolling out a $12 million ad campaign. Has there been any discussions between Mayor Bloomberg and the White House about this campaign, any coordination about the messaging? It’s focusing really on universal background checks, which would indicate that that is what the Mayor believes has the best chance of passing. So has there been any coordination?
MR. EARNEST: I can’t speak to any specific coordination. I know that the Vice President recently met with Mayor Bloomberg where they talked about a range of issues, including proposals that would reduce gun violence. So in terms of whether or not there was any coordination or advice that Mayor Bloomberg sought for his political activities, I don’t know the answer to that. But we certainly have been in touch with Mayor Bloomberg, as we have been with a range of individuals.
The Vice President led a process at the beginning of this year where they met with scores of groups and individuals who are invested in both protecting the Second Amendment and reducing gun violence in our communities. And that process of those series of meetings yielded 23 executive actions that the President initiated right away, and a whole set of legislative proposals that we’ve put forward to Congress. So the administration and certainly Vice President Biden and the President have been very engaged in this process.
Q On the issue of Syria, Josh, does the administration have a better sense at this point in time, now that several days have passed, about whether or not chemical weapons were actually used?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any new information to relate to you at this point. We are certainly — we continue to be concerned and interested in a U.N. investigation into what actually transpired so that we can get to the bottom of this.
But the President, from this podium, spoke very clearly about the consequences of Syria or members of the Syrian regime using chemical weapons or moving them around in a way that would contribute to their vulnerability or to their transfer to other groups. The President and others have been very clear that the handling and safeguarding of chemical weapons is something that not just the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, is going to be held responsible for, but the individuals who are actually responsible for safeguarding that material themselves will be held accountable for doing so.
And this remains something that we’re going to investigate and want to get to the bottom of, and we support the U.N. investigation that’s started. And we hope that the Syrian regime will actually cooperate with the U.N. investigation that’s moving forward.
Q The Washington Post quotes an administration official as saying, “If we had to go in tomorrow to deal with chemical weapons, I’d say we aren’t ready.” Does the President share that concern, that assessment, and is that, in fact, the case?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any information to share with you right now about the contingency plans that we have in place.
Q Josh, was today’s event on immigration reform an indication the President might not have as much confidence as he’d like in the Group of Eight’s negotiations?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think the President remains confident that the Group of Eight — this is the bipartisan group of senators, Democrats and Republicans, in the Senate that are working together to try to find a bipartisan approach to comprehensive immigration reform. We are pleased with the progress that they’re reportedly making. The President has had a couple of conversations with members of that group. Our staff at the White House has been very engaged with them at the staff level, meeting with them on a pretty regular basis as they work through this compromise agreement. And we’re pleased with the progress that’s being made.
Q Are you happy with the agreement as it is unfolding, as you understand it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I want to reserve judgment on the actual product until it gets presented, until the bill gets filed. But we take a lot of confidence in what Senator Schumer said over the weekend about the plans that the Senate has for introducing legislation — or beginning this process when they return from their Easter vacation.
Q On the other side of that, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas says the President doesn’t really want a bill to emerge from these talks; what he wants is for the bill to crater so that he can use the issue as a political wedge in 2014 to 2016. What’s your reaction to that?
MR. EARNEST: There’s no evidence to support those claims. What the President has been saying for quite some time now is that he believes that comprehensive immigration reform is in the best interests of the economy of the United States of America. It also is the best way to demonstrate that we are both a nation of immigrants, but also a nation of laws. And what we’re looking for is a piece of legislation that falls in line with the principles that the President has offered.
The President would be very pleased if those principles had strong bipartisan support when they’re presented before the United States Senate and is hopeful that with that bipartisan support would pass the Congress and would be something that the President could sign into law sooner rather than later.
Q Josh, back on gun control, could you clear up once and for all, A, does the President favor a national registry of gun sales; and B, if he does, is he going to use that to take away people’s guns? Over the weekend, as you know, Karl Rove said, “There’s one thing that scares a lot of people who believe in the Second Amendment is the federal government keeping a national registry of gun sales and gun purchasers.” Does the President want that?
MR. EARNEST: What the President has said is that the President is a very strong believer in the Second Amendment. The President feels very strongly in the constitutional right to bear arms. And what the President has advocated is a set of universal background checks that would ensure that people who are not supposed to have guns — so these are people with mental disabilities, these are criminals — should not have access to guns. What we want to make sure is that we’re keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, but without interfering with the ability of law-abiding citizens to get their guns that they would like to buy.
Now, what’s also clear is that the President does not believe that there is any reason that guns would be taken away from law-abiding citizens. There’s no reason for that. That is not part of any proposal that the President has offered, and it’s not something that we support at all.
Q But you need a national registry of those who own guns legally in order to track them and in order to provide background checks. Or could you do background checks without it?
MR. EARNEST: That is not something that the President has supported. What the President has supported are background checks. Well, he’s supported a lot of things, but in terms of in the context in which you’re asking this question — does the President support background checks? The President supported laws against trafficking of guns. The President has supported laws against straw purchasing, which basically is holding people accountable for purchasing weapons and then transferring them to people who couldn’t lawfully purchase those weapons on their own. These are the kinds of reforms that the President is seeking in the system. He’s not seeking a registry like what you’ve described.
Q Thanks, Josh. The President said today that Congress must muster the political courage to pass immigration reform. Why is he saying that now if he’s confident, if he’s encouraged by what he’s seen with the Gang of Eight and hearing what Senator Schumer said?
MR. EARNEST: Because the President wants to continue to encourage them to make progress. As we have laid out — for the last couple of months, we have seen a bipartisan Group of Eight senators working to trying to come together around a compromise to reform our broken immigration system. That’s one thing that we all agree on, both Democrats and Republicans, is that our system needs to be reformed. And that is what this bipartisan group of senators has been working on.
The White House has been engaged in the effort as they’ve tried to put pen to paper to formulate what this compromise would look like. We obviously have a lot of ideas that the President has presented both in the campaign, but also the President presented in his speech that he gave in Las Vegas back in January. There are a lot of ideas that we have to contribute to this effort. But ultimately, this is something that’s ongoing in the Senate right now, and we’re encouraged that this bipartisan group seems to be making progress and we want to support that progress.
Now, we’re going to reserve judgment on the final product until it’s presented. But we’re pleased that they say that they’re on track to present it shortly after they return from their Easter recess.
Q Is he concerned, though, that they’re not mustering the political courage? I ask because you’ve got the Gang of Eight, you have Senator Schumer’s comments sort of about where they are with things. Rand Paul, sort of, of all people, has talked about a pathway to legalization. I mean, does he think that they aren’t mustering the political courage?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President is hopeful that when this bill, when this compromised piece of legislation that has bipartisan support, when it is eventually presented and works its way through the committee process and then presented to the floor of the Senate, that senators in both parties will demonstrate the courage necessary to vote for it. And ultimately, that is the goal here, is for us to have a comprehensive — a piece of legislation that’s comprehensive in nature that reflects the principles that the President has laid out.
And once that occurs, the President is hopeful that there will be a lot of political courage on display in the Congress when that comes up for a vote.
Q And to follow on Kristen’s question about the assault weapons ban, making the ban as an amendment is perhaps an effort, it seems, to stops the proposal from taking down the entire bill. And the thought of so many people is that if it’s an amendment that means it’s — if it’s voted on as an amendment, they look at it and they see, okay, this thing is done. But you don’t see it that way?
MR. EARNEST: I see it as another opportunity for members of the United States Senate to demonstrate some political courage. It is the view of the President. It is the view of a lot of individuals and a lot of leaders and a lot of groups that both support the Second Amendment and believe in the Second Amendment, but also are interested in trying to reduce gun violence in communities all across the country.
Q But is it the strategy you would like to have seen, considering it basically means that it’s dead?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not going to get into legislative strategy in the Senate from up here. I certainly don’t have the standing with which to do that.
Q But if he supports it, wouldn’t he want it to be part of the overall bill and not an amendment, which basically means it’s not going to pass?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President could not — could literally — to paraphrase the Vice President — could literally not have been any clearer when he talked about this in the State of the Union address, in which he said that he believed that these measures, including the assault weapons ban, deserves a vote. And that’s exactly what it’s going to get.
And then the question is going to be what the members of the Senate are willing to do. Are they willing to demonstrate the political courage to take the kind of step that we know would have a significant impact on getting military-style weapons off the streets of communities all across the United States of America? That will be a significant vote when it occurs, and we hope that members of the Senate, and in the House when they have the opportunity, will demonstrate the political courage necessary to see it pass.
Let’s move around here a little bit. Peter.
Q Thank you, Josh. Just staying with the assault weapons ban. Has the President used the full resources of his office to try to get this ban passed? For example, has he asked Organizing For Action, his outside group, to make this an important issue? Is he willing to travel the country? Is he willing to use the full extent of the bully pulpit and try to build a consensus for this the way he’s tried to build consensus for other pieces of his agenda — from immigration to jobs programs in the past?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as I — I think there are a number of ways in which the President has talked about this very publicly. The first is the President and the Vice President and other members of the White House staff have been very engaged by talking to groups with a variety of points of view, a variety of perspectives on these issues, to enlist them in this effort.
The President spoke very eloquently and very powerfully about this issue in his State of the Union address. I think many of you wrote about how persuasive his language about these specific proposals deserving a vote could be. I do anticipate that you will see the President using the power of the bully pulpit, as you described it, by traveling across the country a little bit and talking about some of these issues, including this one.
Q Do you have something to announce?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t at this point. But the Vice President himself has also traveled the country pretty extensively to talk about this issue. And this is something that remains a priority for the President and something that we will push for in a variety of ways.
Q Can you give us any insight into tonight’s White House Seder for Passover?
MR. EARNEST: Well, this is something that the President started doing with members of his staff and some friends during the campaign in 2008. There’s a nice story — and I know that one of your colleagues at The Washington Post wrote about this just today — to talk about the special meaning that this event has for the President, that when the President participated in a Seder during the campaign in I believe it was April of 2008, it was an opportunity for him to spend some time with staff on the campaign and with friends, and it was a very meaningful moment on the campaign for him.
And as President, this is a tradition that he’s continued here in the White House, where many of the staff members who participated in that dinner in 2008 have been invited back to participate in the dinner in subsequent years, actually in the White House. So this has been a very, very powerful event for the President. He even talked about it a little bit in the speech that he gave in Jerusalem last week.
So in terms of — they will participate in the traditional Seder activities, and I know that there are some secret family recipes that are involved in the whole thing as well. So it’s something that the President looks forward to every year.
Q Do you know if he’ll use some of the things that he brought back from Israel?
MR. EARNEST: I am told that one of the gifts that was given to the First Lady by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s wife was a Seder plate, and it’s my understanding that they will be using that Seder plate for tonight’s dinner.
Q Two questions and thank you very much. One, as far as democracy in Pakistan is concerned, they have, for the first time in history, a five years full term as a democratic government in Pakistan. And now, they have a caretaker prime minister and an election will be on May 11th. The President has any message for the people of Pakistan, which they are really saying that in the five years they have not seen much development as far as people-to-people or development for the people — what will the future?
MR. EARNEST: Goyal, I never hesitate to weigh in when it comes to American politics. But when it comes to Pakistani politics, we’ll leave it to the people of Pakistan to make decisions about their political leadership.
Q And second, as far as sequestration is concerned, our economy — economic problem going on, or drama in this — here, global economy depends on Washington, on the White House and on the U.S. economy. What message do you think the President has — or if he has spoken with global leaders, people — leaders around the globe, because they are also worried what happens in Washington is also squeezing their economy back home. Has he spoken with anybody? Or any message for them, what they should do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, what the President has said when it comes to the economy is that the way to ensure that the U.S. is strongest economically is for us to have a thriving and growing middle class here in this country. And so the President has put forward a series of proposals to ensure that we have a strong and thriving middle class.
The President — we’ve talked a little bit about what are the kinds of things that the President is going to be talking to members of Congress about. Some of the things that he is going to be talking to them about are some of the economic proposals that he has put forward to strengthen the middle class in this country — things like raising the minimum wage and then indexing it to inflation; proposals that would include investing in our infrastructure that would have the benefit of both job creation in the short term, but laying the foundation for our long-term economic strength; but also, things like early childhood education, expanding access to early childhood education for children all across the country, that that has a significant impact and could have a significant impact on the ability of those kids to grow up and get a high school education and get a college education, and succeed economically, and eventually have families of their own that would succeed in the middle class.
So when you talk about the President’s economic agenda, that’s what he is really focused on.
Q As far as education is concerned, do you think Obama think knowledge initiative is going to make any impact on this because of a lack of —
MR. EARNEST: Well, there certainly is no reason that something like an early childhood education proposal shouldn’t have some bipartisan support. There are — some of the states where early childhood education programs have been pioneered, where genuine investments have been made are states like Georgia and Alabama, states that are not traditionally known to be dominated by Democrats, as you will. So these are the kinds of programs that traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support at the state level. We hope that will be true in the United States Congress as well.
Q Josh, back to guns for a second — two quick questions. You were talking about political courage would guide lawmakers who would go for an assault weapons ban. Are you suggesting that the White House views any lawmaker who votes against the assault weapons is a political coward? That would be the reason that they vote against it?
MR. EARNEST: That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that this will be a prominent vote in the United States Senate. And the President has been very clear about what he supports and what he believes. And the President believes that an assault weapons ban would actually do something significant to reduce gun violence in communities all across the country. That’s why he strongly supports it. That’s why the President also strongly supports things like universal background checks, legislation that would outlaw straw purchasers and other measures that would reduce the ability of — that would reduce gun trafficking.
So there are a range of measures that are before the United States Senate. The President believes that those measures that would have an impact on reducing gun violence across the country should be passed. And that’s why he strongly supports it and he’ll advocate strongly for their passage.
Q Just to follow up on assault weapons, does the administration concede that there would be lawmakers who have other reservations about the ban as it may be constructed that is separate and apart from their political worries about their seats or their districts or whatever?
MR. EARNEST: Of course. I’m not ruling that out at all. What I’m suggesting is, is that every member of the United States Senate will have the opportunity to cast a vote on an assault weapons ban, and we hope that they’ll support it.
Q Okay. And then the second question I had is, you were talking about how hard the President and the Vice President have been working since November and Newtown to continue to press this issue, to educate the public, et cetera. When the administration looks at the surveys of public opinion, can you point to where the public maybe has moved or they’re thinking has evolved since the administration has been making this press, especially on assault weapons?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think there might be others in this room who look at polls a little bit more carefully than I do. The President, honestly, at this point, is not in a situation where he’s examining polls and trying to determine what are the kinds of things that have — well, let me say it this way — the President is not looking at polls to try and figure out what kind of gun control measures or measures that would reduce gun violence he should support. What the President is doing is he’s taking a look at the different proposals that have been put forward and considering which of those would actually have an impact on reducing gun violence in our communities. And those measures that would reduce gun violence in our communities while at the same time protecting the Second Amendment are exactly the —
Q That’s not what I asked you. My question was, since the President put forward his positions, his proposals, his ideas, his principles, has he seen public thinking migrate because of his communication efforts?
MR. EARNEST: Well, again, I think you may look at the polls a little bit more carefully than I do. What we do see, though, is that there actually is a lot of strong support for the proposals that the President has put forward, whether it’s universal background checks, whether it is outlawing gun trafficking or straw purchasers. There’s even some support out there in the public for the assault weapons ban. But that’s not why the President supports it.
The President is certainly pleased that the public does have strong support for those measures. But the President is supportive of these measures because they actually could have an impact on reducing gun violence in this country. And that’s why the President will urge members of the House and Senate to vote for it when they have the chance.
Q Josh, the President today designated five new national monuments, using his executive authority, and obviously, Republicans have been critical of that. In light of the fact that Congress hasn’t designated a new national park or wilderness in years now at this point, is this something where we should anticipate the President moving again, particularly when there is strong local support if you’re talking about in Utah, Cedar Mesa, or Boulder White Clouds in Idaho? Is this something that the President plans to make a priority in his second term?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we just did five new national monuments today, so I don’t have any additional new national monuments to tell you about at this point. Certainly, these kinds of designations are important both for, in some cases, for the local economy in these communities. Oftentimes, they will designate and commemorate important parts of our nation’s history. And that’s certainly an important part of what the President was hoping to do today. But in terms of future decisions along these lines, I don’t have anything to announce at this point.
Q Josh, just a follow-up on that. Doc Hastings, who’s the Chairman of the House of Natural Resources Committee, said that this was an odd time to be bringing this up when the government is struggling with the sequester, White House tours are closed, many agencies including the Park Service is struggling to keep open what they have. I think his quote was, this is the government spending money it doesn’t have on properties it doesn’t own. How do you respond to that?
MR. EARNEST: Well, my sense is, is that these designations today don’t necessarily — are made for important reasons, as I laid out before; that they have an impact on local economies; that they will — that you can see local economies growing up around the designation of these properties that as visitors come to enjoy these new national monuments that will have a stimulative impact on the local economies in these communities.
They also reflect a way to commemorate and, in some cases, even celebrate the history of this country. So there are important reasons for why the President took this step. In terms of the impact that this is going to have on the budget of the Department of Interior and the National Park Service, I’d refer you to them for that analysis. It’s my understanding, however, that a lot of the land for these new national monuments was either land that was already owned by the federal government or it was donated. And in terms of the immediate costs in terms of the management of the land, I think they’re pretty minimal in the early stages. But certainly future budgets that the administration will offer will reflect the acquisition of these new properties.
Q Just one more thing. Why was it closed, the signing closed? It fairly — I’m sorry, I almost made a pun — it’s a monumental — (laughter) — piece of legislation. I didn’t mean to do that.
MR. EARNEST: That’s pretty good.
Q But why close? I mean, there are not even stills in it?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that we were able at the last minute to include some stills in there. There were a lot of people moving in and out who are participating in the ceremony. But this is something that was announced a couple of days ago so maybe we underestimated your interest in it.
Q On Friday, the President is going to go down to Florida for an event on the economy. Could you expand on that a little bit? What’s he going to announce?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have anything to tell you about that trip at this point, but we’ve got another four days for you to plan for that exciting trip to south Florida, so we’ll have more on that later this week.
Q Josh, I’d like to get your reaction to two recent statements by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. The first about the opulence here at the White House — five chefs on Air Force One, two projectionists, and a high-paid dog walker — true? Necessary?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I know of.
Q Not true?
MR. EARNEST: Not that I know of.
Q How about the fact that Obamacare is literally killing men, women, and children?
MR. EARNEST: I’d like to see some — I’m not sure that there’s any evidence of that. I mean, what the — since you threw that softball out there, it sort of does seem a useful time for us to talk about, if I can find it here, some of the useful parts of the Affordable Care Act.
As you know, Saturday was the third anniversary of the signing of that piece of legislation. And there were some landmark benefits that were included in that bill that people are still enjoying today. There are millions of seniors all across the country that are paying on average about $600 a year less on their prescription drugs. There are tens of millions of Americans who no longer have to worry about the lifetime cap on their insurance policy running out. And certainly something that people in both parties can agree is a good thing is that it will actually have a significant impact on reducing our deficit.
Q You think in both cases she’s deliberately not telling the truth?
MR. EARNEST: I’ll let you — I’ll leave that assessment to you.
Q How concerned is the President with the change that just went on over the weekend in terms of the Syrian opposition leadership? And has the President been in touch with the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Cameron, or the President of France in terms of the conversations as to the next steps, including Prime Minister Netanyahu as well?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific calls to read out to you. I mean, as I mentioned in answering Nedra’s question, that we certainly are sorry to see Khatib step down. But our support for the Syrian opposition will not diminish in any way. We continue to support the effort that’s underway there.
We continue also to work closely with our international partners, our allies, and other interested parties around the globe, who are trying to bring to an end the violence in Syria.
Q Has that created any additional anxiety in terms of the process that’s going on?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I mean, what I would just say is that we’re obviously sorry to see him go, but it’s not going to change our level of support for the Syrian people as they seek to end the violence in their country and to seek to put in place a government that will actually reflect the aspirations and will of the people who live there.
Q Could you tell us, is the U.S. government helping its allies and partners vet who should receive funds and weapons among the Syrian opposition? That question seems to be even more pertinent now given what you were just discussing.
MR. EARNEST: I’ve seen some of the reports that have alluded to some CIA activities along these lines. I don’t have any comment on those reports or on any activities like that. I can tell you that there are a range of other things that we have been doing to support the Syrian people, and I mentioned earlier that we’re single largest donor of humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. You heard the President talk in his news conference with King Abdullah in Amman on Friday about the President’s desire to see more support for Jordan as they try to meet the needs of the tens of thousands of Syrians who are fleeing the violence in that country and are coming to Jordan as a result of it.
And we’re also going to continue to work in international fashion to show our support for the Syrian opposition to offer some non-lethal support to them, but also to generally continue to pressure Assad in the form of sanctions and other things to isolate him further and to make it clear that it is time for him to go, that a transition should take place, and that a government that reflects the will of the Syrian people should take root in Syria.
Q Could you also clarify what is precisely the red line when it comes to chemical weapons in Syria? Are there some chemical agents, non-lethal agents that would not be defined under that red line?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t go any further on describing this than the President himself has when he spoke at this podium, I believe last August or September, and described what that red line was. I wouldn’t add anything to what the President said there.
Q Just finally, I realize you can’t discuss what the CIA is up to. But, presumably, the administration is concerned about more extremist militant elements in the Syrian opposition, and this resignation really underlines that. You must be discussing that with allies and what is the future of the opposition.
MR. EARNEST: Yes, I mean, the President in his news conference, again, with King Abdullah on Friday talked about the concern that he had that because of the vacuum that’s created by the instability and chaos that exists in Syria right now, that that is attractive to extremist elements and those who want to perpetrate violence. And that is something that has not just the United States concerned, but countries throughout the region and our allies around the world concerned about the impact that that chaos could have and whether or not it creates an opportunity for extremists and those with violent intentions to try to capitalize on that terrible situation. And that’s one of the reasons that the President is so urgently working with our international partners to try to find a solution.
Q Thanks, Josh.
MR. EARNEST: All right. Thanks, everybody.
2:06 P.M. EDT