Washington, D.C.–(ENEWSPF)–December 13, 2010 – 1:50 P.M. EST
MR. GIBBS: Mr. Feller.
Q Two topics. On the health care ruling, the passage here in which the judge says that the unchecked expansion of congressional power to the limit suggested by the minimum coverage provision would invite unbridled exercise of federal powers. And this is not about — just about health care, but it’s about individual right to choose to participate. Doesn’t this vindicate or validate a central argument of skeptics, which is that despite your intentions you can’t require people to participate in a law like this?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think a couple of important things for perspective, Ben. First and foremost, obviously the administration argued on the other side of this case and disagrees with the ruling. I do think it is important to keep some perspective about the fact that there are now 20 or so cases making their way through federal courts. This was the Eastern District of Virginia; 115 miles away, the Western District Court of Virginia ruled November 30th to uphold the same provision that the Eastern District and its judge had ruled against. So I think the other court — the Eastern District of Michigan on October 7th ruled in favor of the law as it was passed.
So, again, we disagree with the ruling. Obviously the individual responsibility portions of the Affordable Care Act are the basis and the foundation for examining and doing away with insurance company discrimination on behalf of preexisting conditions. Obviously, without an individual responsibility portion in the law, you could not find yourself dealing with preexisting conditions because the only people that would likely get involved in purchasing health care would be the very sick. And obviously, that would be enormously expensive.
Q So given that it is so fundamental to the whole law and you have these different court rulings, is it clear to you that this is going to go to the Supreme Court? And if so —
MR. GIBBS: I am not a legal scholar, Ben. I think it is safe to say that because there are several other cases in the pipeline and because of — again, you’ve got disparate court rulings 115 miles away — that the bill will continue to have its day in court.
I do think it is important that even this judge ruled that the bill continues to move forward in terms of its implementation. And obviously, the individual responsibility aspects of this legislation weren’t to go into effect until 2014 so there’s some time to work this through.
Q Well, just to wrap up this part, what gives the White House confidence that ultimately it will prevail if this case continues to go to the —
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think — and I’m certainly not, Ben, a lawyer in terms of the legal arguments that underpinned each of the briefs. But I would say that challenges like this are nothing new in terms of laws that have come before the courts in the past in which our position has prevailed. We’re confident that it is constitutional. And quite frankly, of the three courts that have rendered decisions on this question, two have ruled in our favor.
Q Real quick question on the tax deal. Democrats in the House are talking of targeting the estate tax provision that they’re unhappy with and maybe dealing with that in an amendment or legislatively trying to change that language. Is the White House urging those Democrats not to do that out of fear it could cause the whole deal to unravel?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I will say this, Ben, obviously, the Senate is going to vote on — have a procedural vote a little bit later on this afternoon. I think the President is encouraged by what we hear in the Senate and believe that the legislation will pass that hurdle and be one important step closer to passage.
In terms of — I’m not going to get involved in sort of what the amendment process might be in the House at this point. I think you have seen, whether it was in here on Friday with former President Clinton, or whether you have seen just this morning that this is something that has broad bipartisan support in the public, it’s an excellent — it’s a good agreement. It’s an excellent agreement on behalf of millions of Americans who won’t see their taxes go up. Those that are impacted in having lost a job in this recession will have the security of knowing that their unemployment benefits won’t fall victim to politics. And the middle class will enjoy a significant tax cut in the payroll tax portions of this bill. So we are encouraged that we get closer and closer each day to having this agreement become law.
Q Can you talk about the initial reaction to the health care ruling? Were you surprised by it?
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q And how concerned are you about the fact that there’s a lot of other lawsuits out there?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, this is the third federal court that’s rendered a decision on this portion of the Affordable Care Act. And two of those courts have upheld it. So I think we are confident that the Affordable Care Act will be upheld.
Q So what’s the next step for you?
MR. GIBBS: Well, the Department of Justice, obviously, is going to have to make some decisions about appealing this particular case. My sense is that that appeal decision is something they’ll likely make, but I would point you over to them.
Q And just a question — Larry Summers gave a farewell speech today at a think tank, and I’m just wondering how the decision-making is going on his replacement. Do you still hope to do that before the end of the year?
MR. GIBBS: Look, I will say that it is — I’m not sure that that’s going to get done by the end of the year. Obviously, a whole host of legislative — lots of legislative work around the lame duck with a budget, taxes, START, “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the DREAM Act — there are a whole host of things that have taken up a bunch of bandwidth and a bunch of time. And it’s unclear to me whether that will get done before the end of the year.
Q It appears that one of the main reasons why the judge ruled this way — ruled that Congress exceeded its constitutional power — is because, for what I can only imagine were political reasons, the word “tax,” in terms of the penalty for those who don’t have insurance who can afford it, was replaced by the word “penalty.” And he said, because the legislators who drafted —
MR. GIBBS: I have been getting ready for this. I have not had a chance to read that. And I know our folks in here are taking a look at it as well as at the Department of Justice. I don’t have a direct response to the judge’s — some of the individual reasoning in the judge’s decision just because I have not had an opportunity to look at it.
Q I mean, this is how it is. I’m just reading his own —
MR. GIBBS: No, no, I’m not doubting what you’re reading. I’m just saying we have not — I have not had a chance to read it and I’ve not had a chance to talk to counsel here about how they take it.
Q All right, well, the question would be was it, in retrospect, a mistake to change the terminology from — I understand you’re not ready to answer it right now. Maybe you could get back to me.
MR. GIBBS: I need some time to have somebody take a look at it.
Q Okay, but can you get back to me on that point, though?
MR. GIBBS: I’ll see whether they can, yes.
Q You keep talking about the two other cases where a judge ruled otherwise. In those, it’s my understanding that those were Democratic-appointed judges, and in this case this judge was appointed by a Republican. Is politics, you think, playing into any of this?
MR. GIBBS: I, Dan, don’t know the answer to that. The judges clearly make different decisions based on different points of reasoning. I think — our belief is that the health care act is — will go forward and that it is constitutional; that it improves people’s lives, and particularly this is the basis, as I’ve said, of the provision that allows us to finally address the lingering discrimination against those who have a preexisting condition.
It also, by the way — your health care, my health care, everybody who has health care in this room pays the uncompensated — the cost for the uncompensated care when somebody doesn’t have health insurance, gets into a car accident, becomes sick and ends up going to the doctor through the emergency room or because of the seriousness of their illness and not having regular checkups or primary care. All of that is — that’s paid for by you and me. We seek to address that in the Affordable Care Act. That’s why I think the progress that we’ve made in offering tax credits for those to afford to be able to have a minimum set of health care — a minimum standard of health care that allows us not to pay for their health care in that sense, and to get the health care that they need.
Q Can you tell us what the President’s reaction was when he was briefed?
MR. GIBBS: I have not seen the President since the ruling came down.
Q And is it any annoyance at all that this signature item for the President and for this White House continues to be challenged — something that the President says is critical for all Americans, yet it continues to be challenged in a court?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I don’t — I can’t speak to the motives of — I would appeal only this basis — I don’t remember quite the coverage when both courts upheld the law, but that’s just from the cheap seats of being —
Q It was a plane that landed safely.
MR. GIBBS: — an armchair executive producer. Well, you do mention that — sometimes when planes land safely there’s not breaking news.
Q Can I get another crack at a question?
MR. GIBBS: You can try.
Q Okay. Do you —
MR. GIBBS: You’re sort of like the district court. One court ruled — go ahead.
Q The Congress that’s about — the House that’s about to take office in January is much more predisposed to oppose the health care law. Do you worry at all this ruling politically will help provide momentum for either starvation of the health care law through lack of funding or stronger action against the health care law? Do you think this politically will be ammunition?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t because I think the position that’s held by those that seek to repeal the law I think has been their position both when courts ruled against their position and when courts rule in a way that upholds their larger position. So I don’t think that impacts it.
I think is important to understand, though, when you roll these provisions back, or when you repeal these provisions, the impact of that is, as I said — if you are somebody that cannot get health care because of a preexisting condition, the guarantee that when this is fully implemented in 2014 that you’ll be able to do that, that’s wiped away in a ruling like this. And I think that’s important for everyone to understand.
Q Thanks, Robert. Given the signals that Henry Hudson had sent in previous writings on this, back in October for example, would you have been surprised if he had done anything other than what he did in this —
MR. GIBBS: As I said earlier, I don’t think this was — I don’t think the decision today and how he decided it was a surprise to anybody here.
Q And you said you’re not a legal scholar, and I’ll accept that, although — the President is —
MR. GIBBS: I didn’t go to law school like you did, Chip. And that’s worked out so well, you’re here in the front row of the briefing room. (Laughter.)
Q I’m not even the only one —
MR. GIBBS: Savannah as well.
Q Yes, we’re both trying to forget it.
MR. GIBBS: I hear the theme music to L.A. Law playing in the background. (Laughter.)
Q That’s exactly what it was like, too. (Laughter.) But the President was a legal scholar and still — and you said you haven’t talked to him since this came down —
MR. GIBBS: I have not.
Q — but has he been keeping up on this, talking to the Attorney General? Does he get personally involved in making the arguments and discussing it with Justice?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I’ll say this. Not that I’m aware of with Justice. Obviously in our regular meetings with him, White House Counsel Bob Bauer will update him on where different courts are, a few — not long ago in terms of the Western District of Virginia, that was something we covered. I don’t honestly remember, and I can go back and ask and see if whether or not he’s read rulings before.
Q Not just whether he’s read and whether he gets briefed on them, but does he put in his two cents and make suggestions about how to argue these things?
MR. GIBBS: Let me take that question. Not that comes to my memory, but let me go flesh that out with others who may.
Q I don’t think this has been asked — START, where do we stand on START? And is it still the President’s position that he’s going to stay here until it’s done?
MR. GIBBS: Yes, to the second question. I think — quite frankly, I think it’s probably one of the next couple of pieces of business that the Senate will move to, not long after the procedural vote and then — obviously it’s unclear yet the number of hours of debate after the procedural vote today before the Senate takes up for final passage of the tax agreement. But I think fairly soon after, the Senate will move to the debate on START ratification.
Our belief is, as you’ve seen a number of Republican senators come out, that this is a treaty that has the votes to pass the Senate and I believe will pass the Senate before Congress goes home for the holidays.
Q Will he stay here until Christmas Eve or beyond if necessary?
MR. GIBBS: If that’s what it takes.
Q Will he — right up till New Year’s Eve if that’s what it takes?
MR. GIBBS: I think the President is hopeful to spend a little time with family and friends in Hawaii, but if Congress is here the President will be here.
Q Sounds like any chance of getting out this weekend is —
MR. GIBBS: I think you’ve got a few extra days to pull together those Christmas presents that you put off buying. I think obviously there’s a decent amount still left that getting out of here Friday or Saturday is probably not the day I’d pick in the pool.
Q And would he also stay until “don’t ask, don’t tell” is —
MR. GIBBS: I’ll say this. I think the President will be in Washington and in the White House for as long as Congress is in session.
Q Any comments on the Boehner interview last night?
MR. GIBBS: I only saw some clips of it, so I don’t have anything on it.
Q Don’t want to go there — (laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: I wasn’t going to talk about — (laughter.)
Q Does the administration view the mandate to purchase health insurance as a tax?
MR. GIBBS: Look, again, Mike, I’m not a lawyer. I think we look at it as the basis by which we can address important issues like the discrimination against those who have a preexisting condition. We look at it as how you deal with uncompensated care as a result of people going to the emergency room and everyone’s health insurance going up as a result of that.
Q Because one of the legal arguments against this ruling seems to be that it goes against Congress’s ability to issue a tax.
MR. GIBBS: Again, I’ve not, as I said to Jake, I have not had an opportunity to speak on the merits of some of what the judge ruled.
Q CEOs are coming to meet with the President on Wednesday. Can you talk a little bit about what he’s hoping to accomplish in that meeting?
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think the President has over the course of the last several years, last two years, at fairly regular intervals had CEOs in for meetings, discussions, for lunches. Over the past few weeks the President has met with what I think you would consider economists on the left, economists on the right. He has and will have an occasion to have similar meetings with labor and discuss a whole range of ideas that are out there in terms of continuing our fragile economic recovery.
And I think if you look at something like the South Korea free trade agreement, I think it’s an issue — there are clearly issues that Congress is going to deal with and the administration is going to deal with where we share the opinions of those in business as to how to expand our economy, how to create jobs, and how to keep things going.
Q Mr. Donohue from the Chamber of Commerce, in an interview with FOX on Friday, suggested that the relationship with the business community — he’s seeing signs of improvement. Do you have reaction to that? Because obviously there have been some tense times between the administration and the Chamber of Commerce.
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I think whether it’s — I mean, obviously one of the biggest proponents of the Korea free trade agreement was the Chamber of Commerce. I think that whether it’s individuals at the Chamber, whether it’s members of the Chamber, whether it’s CEOs that aren’t members of the Chamber or belong to other organizations, again, I think there are a series of issues that are important to the business community, that are important to getting our economy moving again, and I think those are issues that the President is eager to work on.
Q Just to follow up — you know the administration is taking a legal position in its papers that the authority for the individual mandate lies in the power to tax. Is that inconsistent with your political arguments that health care reform will not raise taxes on the middle class?
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q How so?
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think it is — again, it’s the basis for — I guess would you presume that you pay a tax right now on your health care for — would you consider the thousand dollars that you pay as part of your health care a tax because somebody who does not have health care is paid for by you?
Q No, but I’m not paying it to the government.
MR. GIBBS: No, you’re paying it to an insurance company.
Q The administration states that the individual mandate and the fees raised, the penalty, constitutes a tax — leaving aside how much revenue —
MR. GIBBS: You went to law school, not me. I — we think, and based on the rulings of two other courts and the belief of this administration that the law will be upheld.
Q You just said a couple of minutes ago when Dan asked, you said you didn’t know if politics motivated Judge Hudson’s decision. You also said to Chip you weren’t surprised by the result. Just to clarify, some Democrats are saying this is a case of judicial activism —
MR. GIBBS: Again, I think what — Chip mentioned that there had been earlier writings that I think led most people to believe and understand that this would be the ruling that he would make. So, again, I don’t —
Q You’re not signing onto Democrats who are saying this is a case of judicial activism by a Bush appointee?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I’m not rendering a decision on that. I’m just saying that I think some of what we’ve heard about this case — look, I don’t think there’s — 115 miles away a different judge in a different district rendered a different decision. So I think there are obviously a number of different viewpoints on this. Our belief is that when all of the legal wrangling is said and done, that this is something that will be upheld.
Q On the tax deal, there was a poll this morning from the Pew Center that found that there was support for the tax compromise fairly evenly distributed with Democrats just as likely as Republicans to support that. Do you think that that —
MR. GIBBS: I think I tried to make that point last week.
Q Do you think that that’s a sign, and does the White House believe that the rancor that we’ve heard from liberal Democrats in Washington is not reflective of how the country as a whole, how Democrats in the country feel about it?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think — look, I think whether you — we sent out the statements from a number of people across the country that represent Democrats, Republicans, and independents — mayors, governors, governors-elect. You heard from in this room former President Bill Clinton. I think the notion that the view of some in Congress is monolithic to the viewpoint of every person in the party — I didn’t think that then. I’m not surprised by the polling that shows that a vast majority of people don’t want to see their taxes go up at the end of the year.
Q So do you think that the protest, very loud protest — in fact, so loud that they’ve put passage in the House in some doubt — are — what’s behind that if it’s not reflective of how people really feel? Is it just politics?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, that’s a question for them. Look, I understand —
Q — your analysis is.
MR. GIBBS: I understand that people are frustrated that, as a result of a whole series of things, we find ourselves having to make an agreement that contains things that the President finds less than satisfactory. That’s the nature of how this place works. But again, I didn’t think last week that it was the monolithic viewpoint of every person in the party or every person even in the progressive wing of the party.
Q Robert, is the administration inclined to seek an expedited Supreme Court ruling on this health care matter?
MR. GIBBS: Mark, again, I think I’d leave that to the Department of Justice, who will make some legal decisions on that.
Q On tax cuts, why is the President doing this mini media blitz, this afternoon with four TV stations?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think this is — I think the President is just looking for more ways and more opportunities to talk to the American people about what he thinks is important and what’s good in this agreement.
And I said this a lot last week and I should start this week by saying it again, and that is if you look at the individual components of this agreement, they make sense economically. We are — by preserving the rate for middle-class taxpayers, we’re providing them certainty in not having their taxes go up at the end of the year. We’re taking the politics out of unemployment insurance for the 2 million people that would stand to lose those benefits this year and the millions more next year that could see those benefits threatened.
The payroll tax cut is important for middle-class families. It’s obviously a tax that — you pay taxes on Social Security up to $106,800 of your income. By reducing the amount that an employee is required to pay into that, that’s money that’s going to come into — that money will be in the pockets of those middle-class families.
This makes sense for the economy. It contains things that the President doesn’t like, but it contains much more of what we think is necessary and what we like than there is to dislike.
Q How did you choose the cities that get the interviews?
MR. GIBBS: Finkenbinder with a dart and —
Q No, really. I know you’re not a lawyer. (Laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: But I’m a good dart-thrower. Look, truthfully, we picked a few markets around the country that represent some geographic diversity — the South, the Midwest, the West. We had animated discussions with scheduling. I would like to do 14, not four. So I think it’s a good opportunity to talk to the American people.
Q Who said he wanted — he said he wanted to do 14 not four?
MR. GIBBS: No, this is a sort of argument that we were having with scheduling.
Q Robert, to follow up on that, were they in districts where there are members who are undecided?
MR. GIBBS: I have not heard any discussions about that so I don’t — they were not picked because of that.
Q I’d like to shift to the Afghan review. That’s coming up I believe this week. What’s the outline, what’s the plan? Is there like a final NSC meeting that the President attends — and will we hear from him?
MR. GIBBS: The President’s regular monthly AfPak review meeting will be Tuesday, tomorrow morning at 11 a.m., as it’s scheduled now, in the Situation Room. That will have the people that you are used to seeing at that meeting. The President will make a statement on Thursday and we will have — there will be a public release for the December review. That will happen on Thursday —
Q Of the document?
MR. GIBBS: Of the document. And I think it’s our hope that after that we’ll have in here, schedule permitting, Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton and others to take some questions on the review.
Q And should we expect any broad changes in policy or —
MR. GIBBS: I don’t want to get ahead of all the meetings. I think we are — as you’ve heard the President say on his most recent trip to Afghanistan, I think we are seeing some progress. We still have — and I think you know many of them — we have many challenges in both security and governance. We have — well, we have progress and we have challenges. That is something that is talked much about when we go into these meetings in the Situation Room.
Obviously there will be another meeting before the review is released, so I don’t want to get ahead of where we are on that. But I think the President feels confident that we’re on track on where we should be and that we can certainly meet our commitments to begin a conditions-based drawdown of our forces next July.
Q Just to be clear, he’ll get the review tomorrow? He’ll see the review tomorrow?
MR. GIBBS: He’s been — there are different aspects of and drafts of this, some of which he has seen. Tomorrow obviously is the normal meeting that generally takes about an hour and a half to two hours. Obviously some part of that will be based on the review and some part of that will go through in his briefing some of what has been talked about both in the review and in the weekly memos that he gets from commanders and ambassadors.
Q So, I’m sorry, will there be a meeting that’s just focused on the review, or is that tomorrow?
MR. GIBBS: There have been a number of those. It will be covered in tomorrow’s meeting, too.
Q Is there any reaction to the comments from President Karzai in The Washington Post today, which — he’s quoted, “If I had to choose sides today, I’d choose the Taliban”?
MR. GIBBS: I have not talked to anybody about that, no.
Q And as the House Democrats talk about what they want to change in the tax deal, are Geithner, Lew and Vice President Biden an active part of those discussions as they were in the initial conference with Republicans and Democrats?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t — look, I think a number of people are having discussions with members of Congress. The President is having discussions with members of Congress. So I think that subset of people is likely involved as well as others.
Q But it’s not as though it’s round two of negotiations with regular meetings on the Hill?
MR. GIBBS: No.
Q And then, about the health care fight, when you’ve got a full plate of things that you want to accomplish in the next two years, how much of a distraction is it to have to keep litigating your major fight from the last two years at the same time?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, people challenging the constitutionality of different laws is nothing new and nothing that’s unexpected.
Q Just a quick one on the health care ruling. You said that you remain confident that it’s going to — that the law will be upheld. But the judge that just ruled against the administration was appointed by a Republican; the two who ruled for the administration were appointed by Democrats. How can you stay confident when this could end up in front of the Roberts Supreme Court?
MR. GIBBS: I think we have a good argument. I think the merits of the case are strong and I think its constitutionality will be upheld.
Q Two aspects on the tax — for the House Democrats who have said they cannot vote for the language as it’s currently in the Senate, has anybody in recent days brought the President language, particularly on the estate tax, some kind of changes in language that might be proposed on the House side that could still work on the Senate?
MR. GIBBS: Again, the President has talked with members and heard their concerns, but I do not know of — I don’t know of anything that would fit the requirement that you just said about language for both.
Q Are there some changes being kicked around or at least run by the White House?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the biggest changes that we’ve seen in the agreement are the addition of the energy credits for production and that’s the basis by which the legislation is written that will be voted on by the Senate.
Q And on the Senate vote this afternoon, what will you take from that — a measure of what? Of strength, or of where people are?
MR. GIBBS: I mean, I think — look, I think this will give you a sense of where people are in the overall agreement. I think — again, I think if you look at — I think there’s broad bipartisan support in the Senate for this. I think there is clearly broad bipartisan support throughout the country, and I think and believe that that will be reflected in the vote that the Senate makes.
Q Thanks, Robert. As you look at what’s achievable in the rest of the lame duck session, where does the DREAM Act and “don’t ask, don’t tell” sort of come into play? How is the President going to prioritize those?
MR. GIBBS: Peter, there’s not a list of one, two, three, four; there’s a series of things that I think the President believes are important and can be done this year. I think the Senate is likely to move not long after taxes to the START — ratification of the START treaty. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” and DREAM, along with government funding, are all in a basket of issues that are likely to come after that.
Q Very much alive?
MR. GIBBS: Absolutely.
Q Is there anything else that you want —
Q Can I ask a follow-up?
MR. GIBBS: Let me come around. Well, let me just — there’s judicial nominations. There’s Senate confirmations. This is not an exhaustive list.
Q Robert, two questions. There’s a considerable likelihood here on this tax vote that Speaker Pelosi is going to vote no. It’s really going to be the first example that I can think of on a major legislative initiative where the President and her have been at variance. How does he feel about that and what does it say about the respective directions they’re moving in?
MR. GIBBS: I, Glenn, have not spoken to the President about that. I have not heard a ton about vote counts in the House. I think obviously the first procedural hurdle will be encountered this afternoon in the Senate and I think that’s where a decent amount of our energy has been directed.
Again, as I said, the President has reached out and talked to individual members of Congress. And, look, I think each is going to have to evaluate what they feel is — or how they feel about the agreement and whether they think it’s important for the economy.
Q Is he actively trying to convince her, or vice versa, to deal with this differently? I mean, are there ongoing conversations between the two of them?
MR. GIBBS: I don’t know when the last time they spoke. I can check on that, but —
Q What were his thoughts to the Bernie Sanders lengthy filibuster on Friday?
MR. GIBBS: I have not talked to him about that.
Q Robert, one other quick thing. There was a sense that there were going to be some personnel announcements and some various moves prior to Christmas, prior to the end of the year. You’re now telling us that NEC is not likely going to be announced until the beginning of the year. Are we going to see any really significant —
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think that because of the volume of the work that’s been done in the lame duck, that most of this is going to get pushed over.
Sam, let me address just tangentially that what you said about Sanders. Look, I think the President will be the first to agree that there are aspects of this that he doesn’t like, as I’ve said before and as he said before. Our preferred method was to make permanent the tax cuts for the middle class. The votes weren’t there in the Senate to do that. And rather than threaten our economic recovery, the President believed that this bipartisan agreement was the best way to go.
And he respects and he understands the frustration of those that have a different viewpoint on the agreement. I think, at the same time, he believes that it is important for our economy, it’s important for middle-class families and important to get done.
Q Robert, just to be clear on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” will the President direct the Senate to stay in session longer for this week if work on repealing that law isn’t finished by the end of this week?
MR. GIBBS: Well, again, I think the Senate is going to be in longer than this week. And I think there’s no doubt that based on the votes last week, it’s clear that a majority of the Senate supports the President’s position of doing away with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” repealing that. And our — certainly our hope is that the Senate will take this up again and it will see this done by the time the year ends.
Q Can I follow up on that? New litigation was filed in courts today challenging the constitutionality of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What does the President have to say to opponents of that law who feel like they need to pursue litigation to get that off the books?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President would say the same thing that I’ve said and the same thing that Secretary Gates has said, that one of the two entities, either Congress or the courts, is going to repeal or do away with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The best way to do it would be to do it through Congress. And the House has passed that legislation. And it is clear that a — well more than a majority of — well above a majority of U.S. senators believes that’s the case as well. And I think that — I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been to making repeal a reality.
Q A slightly different take on the question — the President has pledged to stay in town himself until START is done. Would he pledge to stay in town until “don’t ask, don’t tell” is done?
MR. GIBBS: Let me be clear, the President isn’t — if START gets done, the President and Congress is here, the President is not leaving. I said earlier that the President will be here as long as the Congress is here.
Q I thought he pledged specifically, though, to stay in town until START was done.
MR. GIBBS: No, I think that we always envisioned it that if the Congress was here, the President would be here. There’s a whole host of important things beyond the tax agreement and START — “don’t ask, don’t tell” being one of them — that the President believes can be dealt with before Congress leaves town.
Q If the legislative effort fails, are there other options on the table? I mean, this is a distinct possibility now.
MR. GIBBS: Well, I should say this. I think it’s a distinct possibility that “don’t ask, don’t tell” will be repealed by the end of this year and that’s where our effort is focused.
Q Robert, the American Legion —
MR. GIBBS: Tommy.
Q The American Legion opposes legislation that would open up —
Q I have three quick ones.
MR. GIBBS: Tommy —
Q Can you come back to me, Robert?
MR. GIBBS: Go ahead. Tommy passed to you. Go ahead.
Q All right, thank you.
MR. GIBBS: I’ll come back.
Q Thank you very much.
MR. GIBBS: Your name is Tommy.
Q Yes. (Laughter.)
Q The American Legion, “opposes legislation” that would offer up to 2.1 million illegal aliens amnesty by meeting educational or military requirements. And my first of two questions: Will the President defy the Legion on this or try some sort of compromise?
MR. GIBBS: Well, I think the President understands the viewpoint of the Legion, but also is getting advice from military commanders and those at the Department of Defense right now that the legislation is important and believes it should be passed.
Q What is the White House reaction to what both FOX and CBS reported as a Ralph Nader statement, including — and this is a quote — it’s not my quote —
MR. GIBBS: I bet it’s not.
Q “The President has no fixed principles. He is opportunistic. He is a con man. I have no use for him.” What is your reaction to that? They both reported it.
MR. GIBBS: Well, and we’ve had that discussion about what people report and what is true. Right, Lester? But we won’t — I digress.
Q Are you claiming it’s not true?
MR. GIBBS: No. I don’t know when the last time I talked to Ralph Nader was. I don’t know when the last time you have. I don’t have any specific comment to that.
I think the President — the President’s viewpoint on this, Lester, is that we have to make decisions each and every day — and he makes decisions every day on what’s in the best interests of the American people and of this country.
Q Thank you, Robert. Thank you, Les. (Laughter.) I have three quick questions. First one, last week during his special comment, Keith Olbermann compared the President’s tax compromise to Nazi appeasement. I wanted to see if you guys had a reaction to that. Did the President hear that, or what do you think about that?
MR. GIBBS: I doubt the President heard that. I obviously have given a number of answers that would denote that we think it’s a good agreement. And I would say this to Democrats or Republicans. I think whenever you compare anything to what the Nazis did, if you ever get to that point in your speech, stop, because nothing does. And hopefully, God willing, nothing ever will.
Q Fair enough. Second, over the weekend, Sarah Palin was visiting Haiti. She told reporters that she thought that anyone who was considering freezing aid to Haiti should go down there and visit first. I think she was referring to a statement by Senator Leahy. Does the White House have a position on that, on freezing aid?
MR. GIBBS: Let me look at what the statement is and whether or not there is some reasoning. Obviously, our response to the earthquake in Haiti was and has been befitting a disaster of that magnitude and our response has been at the forefront of all the international responses on this.
Q So you’re not aware of Senator Leahy’s comment?
MR. GIBBS: I have not seen it.
Q Finally — I did have three. (Laughter.) Do you have a reaction to the Bill Sammon, FOX News memo that was — I had to throw in —
MR. GIBBS: I feel like I’m — no, I don’t.
Q You don’t have a comment on a FOX News memo? Come on.
MR. GIBBS: No, I don’t. Thanks, guys. (Laughter.)
2:36 P.M. EST