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Transcript of Pelosi, House Democratic Leadership Press Conference

Cambridge, MD – Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Joe Crowley, Congressman Chris Van Hollen and Congressman Steve Israel held a press conference on the first day of the Democratic Issues Conference in Cambridge, MD.  Below are the Leader’s opening remarks, followed by the question and answer session:

Leader Pelosi.  Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.  To you and Mr. Crowley, thank you for providing the auspices for which we can come together to work for an economy that works for all Americans.  We heard from some experts on – some economists today, we are in a lively exchange of ideas.  And one of the ideas that emerges in all that we hear is that “when women succeed, America succeeds.”  The reinforcement of the – of that principle is one that, again, the President reinforced by raising to – guaranteeing a minimum wage to all people who work for contractors with the federal government.  But in our agenda of “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds” – and men do too – it's about pay equity and raising the minimum wage; it's about paid sick leave; it's about children learning, parents earning with quality affordable child care.  Really important.

And also, we come a day after the House of Representatives passed – lifted the debt ceiling.  Can you imagine?  Let me read from the Constitution: “The 14th Amendment declares that the validity of the public debt of the United States of America authorized by law shall not be questioned.”  The action that we took yesterday reinforces that, honors that statement in the Constitution.  It's really stunning that 199 Republicans voted to default on the full faith and credit of the United States of America.  That is not in furtherance of an economy that works for all Americans.  In fact, it doesn't work for America at all, whether it's our global standing, or whether it is what is happening at kitchen tables across the country.

As Mr. Becerra said, what interest people will pay on their car loans, mortgage payments, college loans, small business loans – should they be small business people – what it means to people's 401k's, the impact of a default on the full faith and credit of the United States of America.  So putting all of this, it was a oneness, with a oneness of confidence – confidence in our economy that, it wants to share prosperity for all Americans; confidence in the economy, again, that works for all Americans.

We're very excited about the enthusiasm of our Members.  We're hopeful that with the cooperation between Democrats and Republicans yesterday on the floor – grateful to the Speaker for bringing up the legislation; he knows the consequence of a default.  But yet 199 of his colleagues did not share that concern.  Stunning.  And I think no Republican Senator voted to lift the debt ceiling.  Every one of them voted to default on the full faith and credit of the United States of America.  

It's really important that the public understand what is at stake in these debates.  Today is President Lincoln's birthday – February 2nd is when we used to always celebrate it, now it's a whole weekend and a week and the rest – February 12.  President Lincoln said: “Public sentiment is everything.”  The public has to know how they are affected by public policy in Washington, D.C.  They want America to have a raise.  America deserves a raise.  The work ethic is alive and well in our country.  We're hearing from economists how the creativity thrives across America and that is what creates jobs for an economy that works for all Americans.

So we're very excited that a year of action, working with the President, hopefully working in a bipartisan way.  And in that spirit, I’m pleased to yield to the distinguished Democratic Whip of the House, the gentleman from Maryland, Mr. Hoyer.

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Q:  Your office issued a statement today with a summary of your remarks to labor that shows that you're opposed to President Obama's latest trade initiative.  What do you oppose and what do you expect to hear from him on Friday?

Leader Pelosi.  Well I don't know –  I think the characterization that you're saying of the statement –  we weren't talking about President Obama's trade initiative.  We were talking about Camp-Baucus, and I said then that Camp-Baucus, in its present form, is unacceptable to me.  I have worked with many of our colleagues to try to find some common ground, but in its present form, it is unacceptable.  That is not, as you suggested, a rejection of the President's trade agenda.  It's a rejection of the current form of the Camp-Baucus.

But the trade issue is a very important one, because we're the party of John F. Kennedy, we're the party of free trade, fair trade, and we believe that the global economy is here to stay, and we're part of it.  But as Mr. Van Hollen said, we want to export products overseas, not transport jobs overseas.  We have a tax code right now that rewards businesses that send jobs overseas that has to be reversed, to reward businesses that create jobs in the United States.  It's all very much a part of an economy that works for all Americans. 

I just want to add to something that my colleagues were saying: when Mr. Israel was talking about the difference between Democrats and Republicans, we see – and what the President said in his speech, he talked about an opportunity agenda.  We have long seen an opportunity gap in our country.  We have to do what we can to close that gap.  And the difference, one of the differences in our approach is that we understand that the American people are not fully participating in the prosperity that some are enjoying in our country.  Not any part of it.  We understand the Republicans are indifferent – indifferent to those who need a raise in the minimum wage; indifferent to those who need an extension of the unemployment benefits, and the list goes on.

Would any of my colleagues like to say anything about trade?

Q:  You've been known to give us a likelihood or prediction of things happening in elections.  What do you think the likelihood of Democrats taking back the House is?

Leader Pelosi.  That's not what we're here to do.  We're here this weekend to talk policy.   What we're here to do is to hopefully find common ground to focus on the economy, to create good-paying jobs, to do so in as bipartisan a way as possible.  If the Republicans would support an increase in the minimum wage, we'd be thrilled.  We'd rather have that legislative success than an issue in the campaign.  So that's not what we're about today.  Thank you.

Q:  The Obamacare signups – HHS announced today that 3.3 million people have signed up.  It's not quite where it's been projected yet, but it's accelerating clearly.  What's your reaction to this?  What do you think will happen in March?  March will clearly be the pivotal month.

Leader Pelosi.  I'm going to yield to the gentleman from Maryland, Mr. Hoyer, but are you referencing the Affordable Care Act?

[Laughter]

Whip Hoyer.  The Affordable Care Act – we worked very hard to enact, and as I've talked to a lot of you who said:  “What do you think about the Affordable Care Act,” I said: “It's going to get better every month.”  By the time we get to the summer, people are going to say: “Boy, this is really helping me, my family, my brother, my sister, my neighbors.” 

I think we have evidence of that in the figures.  You mentioned the 3.3 million people, 1.1 million in January alone.  Young people – this is something that all of you have talked about, we know is very important – young people enrolled at an increased rate: ages 18 to 34 rose 65 percent over last month.  So we think that what is happening is what we thought would happen.  The American people are seeing the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, of a marketplace where there's competition, where they get good benefits and lower prices and better access.  That was the purpose of the Affordable Care Act.  We think that is happening.  We think it's going to be a great benefit to the American people, and they will see that in the coming months.

Chairman Becerra.  Steny, you may want to emphasize that that’s 3.4 million out of over 12.5 million

Whip Hoyer.  Yes.

Leader Pelosi.  That’s just the exchange.

Whip Hoyer.  Exchange, yes.

Q:  Leader Pelosi, it’s safe to say that most of the issues that you're talking about here – the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and all of these things – there's about zero appetite for those things to come up under the Republican-controlled House.  So, you have said in the past that you want to put pressure, pressure, and pressure, in the mold of the VAWA bill.  But is there a specific strategy for doing that?  Do you want Obama to do more to pressure them?  How are you going to do it?  Because polls are on your side, but Boehner has…

Leader Pelosi.  …the American people, as you indicate, the polls are on our side.  Everything that we're talking about is in the 70 percent.  Over 70 percent of the people think we should have an increase in the minimum wage.  Over 70 percent of the people think we should have comprehensive immigration reform.  The list goes on.  You used the VAWA example, we said the “too hot to handle” approach.  The American people – Lincoln – February 12: “Public sentiment is everything.”  The more the American people know about what can be done here, I think the better off we'll be. 

However, yesterday, we said over and over again: “We're not going to support an increase in the debt ceiling unless it is clean.  We are not negotiating the full faith and credit of the United States of America.”  It took months, but yesterday they finally conceded that – at least the Speaker recognized the harm that would happen to our economy if we didn't proceed and we got a clean bill. 

So we're not going away on these issues.  We passed a minimum wage in the first 100 hours when we had the majority in 2007, January.  President Bush signed the bill.  So this is not a partisan issue.  Extending unemployment benefits has been a bipartisan initiative all along.  So what we are suggesting are not partisan issues.  They're areas where we have had bipartisanship in the past.  And again, we believe that the fair thing to do for the American people is understanding their challenges.  The minimum wage is not just for minimum wage earners.  It lifts the floor for everyone.  So that's why people – those making much more than the minimum wage – understand that it's good for them.  Not only does it lift the floor, it injects demand into the economy and then creates jobs in that way as well.  So it's a stimulus.  My colleagues, anyone want to add anything?

Vice Chair Crowley.  I want to add: surely we're not done.  It's the middle of February.

[Laughter]

Leader Pelosi.  We have been in session five weeks, and we're done?

Vice Chair Crowley.  The notion or idea that, because the debt ceiling was lifted, all work is done for the rest of the year – I don't think the American people buy that.  They can't.  There's too much that needs to be done.  There are too many Americans are suffering right now.  I just mentioned 1.8 million who are looking for work and can't find it.  They need help and relief.

We talked about people who are earning not enough to – even a fast food chain store – to really take care of their families.  They're looking for an increase in the minimum wage.  The President addressed that to some degree, but the Congress needs to do more.  The President asked us today, he asked the Republicans and the Democrats to pass a minimum wage increase for the American worker.

So there are things we do need to do.  There's an agenda and a vision that we have to help move the country forward.  We want to work with our Republican colleagues to make that happen.  But they have to meet us a little bit more than halfway to make that happen here in the House of Representatives.

Chairman Becerra.  Let me also add if I may, I don't think anything that we've discussed here doesn't have a majority in the House of Representatives.  We're not talking about putting up bills that don't have a chance in heaven to get passed.  We're talking about measures, that not only have the vast majority of Americans supporting these policies, the majority of Members in the House of Representatives would vote for these.  So what we're simply asking for is a chance to have a vote on these measures. 

And I think most Americans probably would be astonished to know that it's not that Congress can't get its work done, it's that there is a concerted effort on the part of the majority, our Republican colleagues, to prevent us from putting up obstacles from letting us vote on these measures.  We're not insisting that our Republican colleagues join us in doing what Americans want to us: in increasing the minimum wage, in providing unemployment insurance for Americans who lost their job through no fault of their own, or in providing equal pay for equal work for women in this country.  We're saying to our Republican colleagues:  “Let us vote on it.”  If the majority exists, excellent.  But don't blockade progress in the House of Representatives.  The House of Representatives is the people's house, where we get things done.  It should not be the graveyard for good ideas. 

Congressman Van Hollen.  Just to emphasize this because we're not having a theoretical conversation in our Caucus meeting.  We're talking about very specific actions that Congress can take now.  So I think we want to emphasize two things. 

Number one, these are ideas and pieces of legislation that are ready to go.  They could be acted on today, as Xavier said if we had a vote and could start changing people's lives for the better tomorrow.  Right?  We have a minimum wage bill, it's been introduced to increase the wage to $10.10.  We have a bipartisan senate immigration bill.  We have legislation introduced to make sure that women get equal pay for equal work.  We have legislation introduced to make sure that you can earn sick leave so you can take care of family who is in trouble, family members in trouble, and not have to lose your pay. 

These are concrete actions that could be taken immediately if the Speaker of the House would let us have a vote.  That's our preference.  He doesn't let us have a vote, we’re going to make it clear that within a hundred hours of a new Congress – where we had a majority – we will do these specific things.  It will have immediate impact in people's lives.  And I think that's important that the public recognize that these are concrete, practical steps that can be taken.  Not just some theoretical, partisan dispute. 

Q:  Mr. Hoyer, yesterday you said you shared some concerns expressed by the Congressional Black Caucus on the lack of diversity of judicial appointments coming from the White House.  I was wondering if you could expand on that and let us know what kind of appointments you'd like to see moving forward. 

Whip Hoyer.  What I said was that I had – that I was in agreement with the Congressional Black Caucus who said we need diversity on our bench and that the problem in the United States Senate was with defering to each Senator in each state if they did not support diversity, we wouldn't get diversity and they wanted that addressed.  I said I agreed with them on that issue. 

I had an opportunity to talk briefly with Mr. Krone, Senator Reid's Chief of Staff, who asked me about my sentiment and I said that.  Let me defer, however, to Jim Clyburn of the Congressional Black Caucus who is Assistant Leader because he's been involved in those discussions and have him comment. 

Assistant Leader Jim Clyburn.  I have been involved in those discussions.  I think that what our concerns are, if you were to look at the list of possible judges, who have not been acted on, about 13 of them are African-American.  And we believe that these are people who come with sterling credentials, but because of this blue slip process that we have, too many Senators that are from various states are refusing to return the blue slip and therefore these people are just hanging out in limbo. 

And so we have asked that these Senators take into account the fact that these people, some of them have been out there for two years, waiting on some action and because they will not allow their names to move forward, we cannot get them voted on.  They would get, as you said, by legislation, these people would be approved if they were allowed to have a vote.  We think it’s just blatantly unfair for us to have a process that will not allow the full Senate to vote on these nominations. 

And I thank everybody who expressed concerns about this because this is something we think is very, very important to go overall the structure of America. 

Q:  Is there a list of Senators who have not…can you share?

Assistant Leader Jim Clyburn.  I can…but I won’t.

Leader Pelosi.  If I may just say that there are a lot of people out in the cold, literally and figuratively, because of the unemployment insurance and raising the minimum wage.  We don't want the Republicans to be indifferent to them.  So far that looks the way they are.  Let's hope they prove us wrong. 

But I want to thank all of you for coming out in the cold to be with us here.  And we hope we can stay in close touch in the next 48 hours or so so you can see how excited we are about our coming our together.  Thank you again, Mr. Chairman.  Thank you all; thank you for coming.