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Transcript of Democratic Leadership Press Conference Following Meeting with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough

Washington, D.C. – Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, and House Democratic Vice Chairman Joe Crowley held a press conference following a Democratic Caucus meeting with White House Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough. Below is a transcript of the press conference:

Chairman Becerra.  Welcome back to D.C.  We had an opportunity to welcome back a full house of Members of the Democratic Caucus back to Washington D.C.  We were fortunate to have with us this morning in the Democratic Caucus the White House Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough.  By the way, my name is Xavier Becerra.  I’m the Chairman of the Democratic Caucus.  I am joined by our leadership team.  We are hoping that Mr. Clyburn would show up.

We had a great conversation with the White House Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough.  But we didn’t just talk about what you all are here to hear: about Syria.  We talked about a number of different things.  Democrats continue to emphasize that this is going to be a failed Congress if we don’t deal with jobs, if we don’t deal with our agenda of “Make It In America,” if we don’t move forward to help all Americans have health security with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, then we have not done our work.  And so we know that we have a lot to do.  But we want to do what’s right for our country and for our people.  Not just in terms of national security, but in terms of the economy and ensuring future prosperity for all Americans. 

Over the past 10 days here in Congress, we have held five classified briefings.  We have held one unclassified conference call with our Democratic colleagues who were scattered throughout the country in their districts doing work.  And today, we had a standing-room only Caucus meeting with the White House Chief of Staff.  Tomorrow, we will have another classified briefing for our Members.  And we are doing everything we can to make sure they have the information they need to do what’s right for America and join with the President. 

I want to also mention what our colleagues have been doing during this August district work period.  Of the more than 100 Democrats who have reported back into us on their activities over August, we had over 2,700 events that were participated in, sponsored, hosted by our colleagues.  Most of them, 764, had to do with jobs and our “Make It In America” agenda.  Over 300 events took place to deal with the implementation of our health security law, the Affordable Care Act.  And over 125 or so events took place on helping Congress move towards a common sense comprehensive reform of our broken immigration system. 

This Caucus is focused on the priorities of the American people: creating jobs, growing the economy, and strengthening the middle class.  And that’s what we intend to do.  On Syria, I will make only one point and turn it over to the Leader.  I took a look at what happened in 2003 with the legislation that was put before the Congress, HR 1828, with regard to Syria and holding Syria accountable.  There is a provision in that 2003 law that says, “Syria’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles threaten the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States.”  I mention that that is what that law says, that it’s in the books today passed in 2003, because there are currently 173 Members of Congress in this House of Representatives who were here in 2003, who voted on that Accountability and Security Act.  Of those 173 Members of Congress who are here today, who voted back in 2003, 166 of them voted for the Syria Accountability Act, which said that “Syria’s acquisition of Weapons of Mass Destruction constituted a security threat to the national security interests of the United States of America.”  Seventy eight Republicans, 88 Democrats voted in support of that Syria Accountability Act in 2003.

And so, when the President says that we must act because it is our interest to protect our American citizens and to protect our national security, there are at least 166 current Members of the House of Representatives who must’ve believed the same thing.  What we know is that the President is doing everything possible to make sure that what we do is what is right for our country when it comes to the issue of the use of chemical weapons.  And so many of us are very anxious to hear the President address the American people, to give us once again a sense of why America will fulfill its destiny of being a leader for the world.  And with that, let me yield now to the Leader, Ms. Nancy Pelosi.

Leader Pelosi.  Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.  Thank you for calling attention to all the activities, or some.  That is just 100 Members.  Many more to report yet over the August recess district work period. 

It’s fairly pretty exciting when you think of the issues we did work on, whether it was the creation of jobs, Mr. Hoyer’s initiative “Make It In America,” Congresswoman DeLauro’s initiative, “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds,” an economic agenda for women which drew hundreds and hundreds of women from all over the country to meetings.  About immigration, we are so proud of the activities surrounding comprehensive immigration reform.  It was for, even some meetings, about background checks in terms reducing gun violence. 

And all of those issues, towards the end of the month of August, the issue of Syria loomed large and center stage right now.  But that doesn’t mean that first day back, yesterday, we had a big meeting among House Democrats about how we can work in a bipartisan way to have comprehensive immigration reform.  And this morning, we already took up the issue in our Steering and Policy Committee meeting about the budget issues that loom ahead, the continuing resolution, [and] how we go forward in a way that meets the needs and gets the job done for the American people.

Mr. Chairman Becerra has taken us to the subject of this morning with the President’s Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, on the subject of Syria.  But he, too, started by talking about all the economic issues and the jobs issues that are really important to the American people.

Chairman Becerra talked about the Syria Accountability Act of 2003, led by our Ranking Member on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel.  He was the author of that legislation.  I am so proud of Senator Barbara Boxer, the senior Member, Democratic or Republican, most senior of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, [who] spoke about that during the hearing and the markup of the authorization legislation last week in the United States Senate.

It all takes us to a place as our President has made a decision to enforce the Syria Accountability Act.  For a long time now, stopping the use of weapons of mass destruction has been a pillar of the national security of the United States.  The Syria Accountability Act is clear that it is a threat to that.  The purpose of taking any military action, a limited, focused, [and] tailored strike of limited duration time-wise, is something that is in keeping with that.  It says that you cannot use weapons of mass destruction, in this case chemical weapons, with impunity, whoever you may be, in this case, clearly at the doorstep of President Assad.

I reminded Members this morning though about earlier in the ‘90s when President Clinton asked Congress for authorization on going into the Balkans – and Mr. Hoyer worked very hard on this subject because he’s always been a champion in promoting our values internationally – that when we took the vote, it was 213 to 213 while our planes were in the air while the bombing was taking place.  It failed for lack of a majority.  The President continued the action that he had the authority to do.  Congress did not give him further authority.  It is not necessary Congress to give the President this authority.  We are grateful that he has asked for it.  But if he sees an opportunity, we don’t want the Russians to think that his leverage is diminished because of a vote we may or may not succeed with in the Congress.  I am more optimistic than some on that subject.   But the fact is, the Russians bringing to the table a proposal that has been discussed by the President and others over time but now has muscle because of the prospect of a threat is something that I think the President deserves a great deal of credit for.  I hope that it works. 

What we were told this morning – and the Administration will speak for itself publicly – our Members were assured by the President’s Chief of Staff that this, if it is serious, if it is credible, [and] if it is real, we’ll be giving a brief consideration.  And that is good news, I think.  So hopefully it is real and it is serious because it does answer the challenge that we have: how do you stop Assad from using weapons of mass destruction again?  And how do we act upon the use that they have already executed?

So, we’re at a place where it’s about our values.  Of course, we are concerned about the loss of life.  It is about our national security.  And my role, as I have said to the Members, my heart beats to the tune of Member impact, Member impact, [and] Member impact.  Members have to make the vote that they think is the right vote.  But I don’t want anybody to think that in case they don’t think that this is the right vote for them, that there is any weakening of the resolve in Congress for the President to have all the leverage in the world to negotiate about taking those weapons of mass destruction, those chemical weapons out of the hands of Assad and under international control. 

Again, I don’t think there is support for the proposal the President made in his words, but something closer to what the Senate did, absent the McCain language – with what the President has talked about in honoring that but not in exactly the same words that he sent over.  So let’s, I think the state of play for where we are – Mr. Clyburn has been involved in many meetings and he was with us all morning.  He can’t be with us right now, but perhaps he’ll join us.  But I’m very pleased that the number two in the leadership for the House Democrats, Mr. Hoyer is with us and has been present in all of these debates for a very long time. 

Whip Hoyer.  Thank you very much, Leader [Pelosi].  I join the Leader in supporting the President’s posture.  I believe that the President is right to suggest the use of military force in order to prevent, constrain, [and] prohibit the use of chemical weapons which for over 100 years has been perceived by the international community at large as unacceptable to be used in any form of warfare. 

I am for and I have given the President the authority and we will vote to do so, on an appropriate resolution.  Mr. McDonough’s briefing today, I thought, was excellent as both the classified briefings and the unclassified briefing.  There is no doubt in my mind that the Assad regime did in fact decide to use chemical weapons, has used chemical weapons on a regular basis, a more limited basis than were used on August 21.  But nevertheless has used chemical weapons before as one of the tools in their toolbox of the weapons to use to murder their own people.  As a result, I think the President’s suggested actions are correct.  It is also, once the Congress is seized of an issue, understandable and the legislative process we consider the form of that resolution, which is now in process. 

I think there has been a recent response to what has been a long-standing request of the Administration.  For over two years, the Administration has been suggesting international control of the chemical weapons held by the Assad regime.  The Russians had not been responsive nor has the Assad regime been responsive to that.  As a direct result, in my opinion, of the President’s statement that the military can and will be used, we have seen a response just recently from Mr. Lavrov, the Foreign Minister from Russia.  And the Administration has said that they are going to test that offer.  They are not going to have the opportunity to delay action, to dissemble, to “rope-a-dope” if you will without having an effect, actually constraining and controlling those chemical weapons.  The Administration’s purpose is to stop their use and proliferation.  I think they are absolutely correct in that effort.  Hopefully, we won’t be able to pursue this in the very near term.  And when I say “very near term” [I mean] days, not weeks.  I think the Administration is right in asserting that that’s its intentions.  So, I look forward to the Administration’s response.  I look forward to the President’s speech tonight.  And I am hopeful that we will act in a responsible, effective way that will maintain the position of the United States as a credible international participant in meeting crisis and stabilizing, like no other country in the world can do, international tensions.

Lastly let me say that there are two other issues that confront the Congress of the United States that I am hopeful we will responsibly act upon.  And that is the funding of government at levels necessary to meet the obligations of our country, to grow our economy, and to invest in our future.  And thirdly, it is absolutely incumbent upon the Congress of the United States, [President] Ronald Reagan said this when he was President, every President has said that since: “To ensure that America remains faithful to its debtors, to its creditors, and pays its debt.”  It is absolutely essential that we increase the debt limit.  For that which we have already done, for that which we have already incurred obligations for, the most credit-worthy nation on Earth must do that.  Every Republican leader, every Democratic leader has said that’s what we ought to do.  And we ought not to hold hostage the credit worthiness of the United States.

So, those three issues, hopefully we will do responsibly and effectively and maintain America’s credibility around the world and with our own people.  And I now yield to the Vice Chair of the Democratic Caucus, the gentleman from New York, Mr. Crowley.

Vice Chairman Crowley.  Thank you, Mr. Hoyer.  Welcome back.  I’m joined with my Chair welcoming you all back.  Maybe you should welcome us all back.

Leader Pelosi.  Have you voted?

Mr. Crowley.  Have I voted?  I did vote yesterday, I hope to maybe vote again today if that’s permissible – in Queens County where it be.

[Laughter]

But in all sincerity, I think it is good to be back.  I think the American people need Congress back here working.  And although we are heading into the fall months, we hope this is an opportunity for us to spring forward and spring in new with the energy we need to have to solve our nation’s problems.  I am very pleased that the Administration has continued a dialogue with our Caucus and with the Congress on all the issues that we’re going to be confronting and continue to confront here in Congress. 

From ensuring that our government continues to operate, to seeing that we meet our debts and responsibilities as a nation, to see that we tackle the issue of comprehensive immigration reform, and that we see the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and in all sincerity given the issue of chemical warfare that has arisen since August 21st of last month, to have that dialogue, that open dialogue, that deep discussion that our Caucus is having on this very critical and enormous issue.  Not only for us here in the United States, but for people all over the world.  I thank the Administration for that dialogue.  I hope that our colleagues in the Republican conference are having deep, deliberative discussions with [as much clarity as] the Democratic Caucus.  And I salute our Chairman for those opportunities, for the discussions that we’re having.  I find them fruitful.  I think our Caucus Members do as well. 

Once again, welcome back.

Mr. Becerra.  We’ll take a few questions. 

***

Q:  Madam Leader, you mentioned the proposals from the Russians.  Senator Reid held back on moving forward on a resolution in the Senate.  Senator McCain and Senator Schumer are working on an amendment to add language that would give that proposal a time limited test.  Do you support adding that kind of language to the resolution?   And do you think that this proposal from the Russians has essentially taken the air out of the argument from the Administration that it’s important to take a military strike?

Leader Pelosi.  Well, I think that the initiative from the Russians have done has given the President a victory because it has recognized that for two and a half years, the President has used and attempted diplomacy to try to have a political solution to what is happening in Syria.  The Secretary of State and now this Secretary – Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry had talked about going to Geneva.  They had Geneva one and Geneva two about how to have a transition to a post-Assad Syria in a political and peaceful way. 

So, what the Russians are suggesting, if it is real, if it is serious, it says that the dynamic has changed.  The President has been trying for this.  He’s been striving to get the Syrian [chemical] weapons under international control and now the Russians are suggesting it.  So, I think this is a victory for President Obama if this is real.  We’ll hear more from the Administration about that evaluation.  I’m sure the President is speaking to his counterparts throughout the world on that subject.  But coming back, it doesn’t take the wind out, it validates what the President is doing.  The Russian proposal validates what the President is doing.

The Members – it’s interesting, even before the Russian proposal – [Congressman] Chris Van Hollen, and the initiative that he’s put forth about limitation of time and focus and the rest, had over the weekend worked on something that said if, he is advising that the changing dynamic could take place if the weapons were placed under international control.  This is before the Russians spoke up, but not before the Americans had spoken up.  So, we are already talking about predicating something to put forth, predicating something on the fact this may be possible if it works.  If it doesn’t work, then the language would be about a very limited, in terms of scope and duration, targeted, tailored as the President described.  But with more clarity than what his original initiative put forth.  But I think this is called progress.  We’ll find out, we’ll find out if the Russians are serious about this.

Q:  Could this be a trap?  Do you trust the Russians to implement this proposal?  Do you feel that other countries or the U.N. is to be part of implementing, taking control of these chemical weapons from Syria?

Leader Pelosi.  I think that we have said to our Members that we will exhaust every remedy before using force.   Everything that we are about, whether it is our military, we are trained for the use of force as a last resort.  But if there is a reasonable, serious prospect that this could work, I think that we should give it a chance.  And then we’ll see how serious the Russians are about it because in our Caucus there is really a strong interest among Members to take this to the UN.  We tried to point out the futility of it because the Russians are never going to vote with us, so we think.  But the Members are saying, “We’ll let the world see that they don’t want to.”  So is that a good use of time?  That is a debate that we are having, but there is a strong belief in our Caucus that we should try everything first.  Congresswoman Barbara Lee, I don’t know if she has spoken publically about her position, but on could probably predict that she will not be supporting the language of the President, but is asking for an alternative that is about a diplomatic initiative.  So, I don’t think we could make any more diplomatic initiatives.  And this is a diplomatic initiative.  So, we’ll find out if it’s real. 

You’re asking could it be a trap?  Well, [Congressman] Steny [Hoyer] said we can’t have a “rope-a-dope.”  This is just to prolong for reasons other than achieving the purpose of not having impunity for a government that uses weapons of mass destruction, we’ll soon find out.  So this can’t be endless.  But I don’t think it can be ignored. 

Q:  [Members of the Press Talk Over Each Other].

Mr. Becerra.  One last question.  I saw Ginger with her hand up.

Leader Pelosi.  I gave him the impression when I went there that they would be there, so maybe two.

Q:  Britain’s, actually, Foreign Secretary warned today in getting drawn in to an endless process, how much time do you think we give the Russians and Syrians to prove that they are serious in this? 

Leader Pelosi.  Well, that would be up to the President of the United States and the State Department and the Defense Department and the rest.  I think that they can demonstrate their seriousness very clearly.  And the Syrian government should make a response fairly soon about it because this isn’t new.  Since 2003, the Congress of the United States voted and President Bush signed the Syria Accountability Act.  So, this is not a new subject that requires a great deal of study on the part.  And so we would hope that it would be soon.

And by the way, just to be clear, I would think that if it isn’t real and the military sees an opportunity that is ideal, the least collateral damage, the most focused on accomplishing what it means to accomplish on the chemical weapons of that, I would recommend to the President what President Clinton did: go forward.  We’ll have time to discuss all the rest of it, but go forward because I don’t believe that he needs the authorization. 

Mr. Becerra.  Madam Leader, Ginger raised her hand.  So I want to recognize someone who raised her hand. 

Leader Pelosi.  Ginger, thank you for raising your hand.

[Laughter]

Q:  So, we even knew there were some concern with the Members, that there was an overwhelming opposition coming from Democrats on allowing it to go to the floor – would have the President painted, you know, in a weak position going forward with the fiscal negotiations that are going to happen.  Does this Russian proposal save him from the possibility?  And how is your position, in your opinion, going forward on the [continuing resolution], on the debt ceiling now that this has become a bit of a protracted fight in Congress?

Leader Pelosi.  I’m pleased to answer the questions, but I want my colleagues to have something to say on the subject.

Mr. Crowley.   I would maybe go back to the first question as many of us are deliberating what position we’ll take.  We look forward to the President’s delivery of the speech tonight.  I think we’ll all be listening intently on every word that he uses.  But I think you can also make the argument that his hand is strengthened in coming to Congress and asking for, having the ability to have all the tools in the shed available for the purposes of bringing about a diplomatic solution.  As one of our colleagues and the Leader herself has said: make no mistake, the reason why this proposal by the Russians is being proffered and the Syrians apparently accepting is because of their fear of what steps the free world would take to secure of these chemical weapons.

Mr. Becerra.  Only what I will say is this: it is not a coincidence that Russia put forward this proposal.

Leader Pelosi.  Let me just respond by complimenting, once again, my colleagues, the leadership of Mr. Becerra and Mr. Crowley, the leadership of the House Democratic Caucus.  I am more optimistic than others about where Democrats may come down on this.  But there are a couple of things that we have to see.  Tonight, we want to see the President – and I have every confidence that he will project the values of America, his responsibility to defend and protect our country, which we all take an oath to do, and put this in perspective. 

I believe the American people want to see as much evidence as we can give in terms of the intelligence that this happened and the Assad regime is responsible for, that every diplomatic remedy has been exhausted.  And now, we have a new one and so that is worthy of respect and attention, I believe.  Until we have reason not to believe, but let’s be hopeful and positive about it – that it will be, as he has said, focused and tailored and of limited duration.  And that its purpose is simple, and that is to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction, in this case, chemical weapons which is the pillar of our national security.  And that there are no boots on the ground and that there is no escalation beyond what the President’s purpose is in doing this.

I feel very confident in the briefings that we have had, jointly, separately, electronically, any classified, in every way that the President is prepared to make that case.  We’ll see how the American people will respond.  On the other hand, the American people are weary of war, and we all are.  I consider the use of force a last resort and this would be if we went forward.  There were some misrepresentations about the Iraq War that weren’t true.  The American people feel burned and yet that shouldn’t be a deterrent, on to doing on the basis of real intelligence this time what is necessary to do.  I remind you that at the time of the Iraq War, as a senior intelligence person for the Democrats, I saw all of the intelligence and I said to some of you who were here then, “Intelligence does not support the threat.”  This intelligence supports the threat.   

So, I think that the President is acting from strength, I said: “This is a tough hombre.”  He is going out there doing what he believes is right for our country as President and Commander-in-Chief.  So I believe it will all work out.  I hope it will be around the Russian initiative.  But I do think that more than the courtesy, the respect that the President afforded to Congress by saying, “act upon this,” is something that will hold him in good depth as we go forward on the domestic agenda which is so important to us.

But I want to thank our Caucus because really they have come forward.  Even some who were reluctant to be supportive about the President, held their powder until the President will speak tonight, until they avail themselves of classified briefings which some couldn’t, just because of geographic reasons, until they heard each other’s views on the subject.  And how many of them came forward, you might’ve suspected that it would an automatic no with proposals that were more, shall we say, “streamline feeding.”  Congressman Van Hollen and Congressman Connolly with their proposal, Congressman Steve Israel with his [suggestions], [Congressman] John Larson with his proposal, [Congressman] Engel emphasizing the Syria Accountability [Act].  I mean it’s really been impressive to see how deliberative, how thoughtful Members have been in their proposals they have put forward.  Let us pray that the Russian proposal is one that will avoid the use of force.

Mr. Becerra.  We are going to close, and following the Leader’s lead, and in spirit of Hispanic Heritage month, and the Leader’s lead in being bilingual in the presentation – what did you say, “tough hombre?”  We will just say, “No más; we are done.  Muchas gracias.”

Leader Pelosi.  Thank you.