Washington D.C. - Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was joined by Congressman Chris Van Hollen, Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, at her weekly press conference today in the Capitol Visitor Center. Below is a transcript of the press conference.
Leader Pelosi. Good afternoon. Here we are at our regularly scheduled Thursday--a little later in the morning--meeting, coming together.
As you know, I like temporal markers. Here we are, 170 days into the Republican majority in the Congress, and still not a jobs bill in sight. Creating jobs, of course, is a responsibility we have to the American people. It is their top priority, which we must address.
Democrats have put forth our 'Make It In America' agenda under the leadership of our whip, Steny Hoyer. Within that, we have specifically put forth legislation, which we are calling for a discharge petition to bring to the floor, to address China's manipulation of currency, which could be costing us between 1 million and 1.5 million jobs in our own country.
The other issue that is of concern to us, of course, is Medicare, which is repealed in the Republican budget. Medicaid and Medicare--very important to the American people. While Republicans are asking seniors to pay more to get less, they still insist on giving tax subsidies to Big Oil, to companies that ship jobs overseas, and to the wealthiest people in our country.
News of the day, the SPRO. I congratulate the President for releasing 30 billion [million] barrels, which is part of the 60 [million] billion barrel release of oil, which I believe will immediately bring down the price at the pump, which is of concern to America's working families. This has been part of our energy bill that is part of our 'Make It In America' proposal. So we are very pleased that the President has taken this action.
Other news of the day: Mr. Van Hollen and I--and I am very honored to be here with Chris Van Hollen, the Ranking Member of the Budget Committee and one of our two representatives, along with Leader Jim Clyburn, at the talks on the budget. We were just at the White House for a meeting this morning with the President to discuss how we can all work together to have a balanced, bipartisan reduction of the deficit, an initiative that will do just that.
The President, as always, was very concerned that deficit reduction be a priority for all of us, that he knows that serious reduction can only take place in a bipartisan and balanced way.
We left the meeting to find that Leader Cantor had walked out of the meetings--has said he has walked out of the meetings because Democrats want to raise taxes. Yes, we do want to remove tax subsidies for Big Oil. We want to remove tax breaks for corporations that send jobs overseas. That list goes on. I don't know that that's a reason to walk away from the table when we are trying to find a balanced approach.
I've been encouraged in the past weeks by the reports of Mr. Van Hollen and Mr. Clyburn that the talks were proceeding under the leadership of the Vice President in a very, in a spirit of goodwill and in a constructive way and had come to some paths that could take us to agreement.
Let me yield to our distinguished representative in those talks, the ranking member on the Budget Committee, Mr. Van Hollen.
Congressman Van Hollen. Thank you.
And let me start by joining Leader Pelosi in commending the President on his decision to release some oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in concert with some of our allies.
As you know, as a result of the events in the Middle East, there was a supply disruption that then fed a speculative bubble. And there is it a lot of speculation going on in the oil markets by people making a lot of money simply by making bets that the price of oil will go up. We have to pop that bubble, bring down the price of gas at the pump, put more money back in people's pockets, and help get the economy moving again.
I think it was a very good decision, and we commended the President on that decision.
With respect to the budget talks, the Vice President and all of us on the Democratic side laid out two principles that would govern our participation in the talks from the beginning. One is, do no harm to the economy. Don't do anything that will threaten to throw more people out of work at a very difficult time for working Americans around the country. And the second principle was, you need to take a balanced approach. Every bipartisan group that has looked at the challenge of reducing the deficit has said, 'You have to do this in a balanced approach.'
So the question is not whether we need to come up with a plan to reduce the deficit in a steady, predictable, and real way. We absolutely have to do that. The question is, how do you do that?
And, as I said, the framework that had been put out by different bipartisan groups says that you need to ask for shared sacrifice. And that was our second principle.
I'm disappointed that Leader Cantor has chosen to leave the talks. They had been proceeding well, although there is no doubt that there were some very difficult issues that needed to be decided. The Speaker of the House said it was time for an adult moment. Adult moments mean it's time for making tough decisions.
And the reality here is that, until our Republican colleagues are more concerned about the need to reduce the deficit than they're worried about what Grover Norquist will say, we are going to have a really difficult time reducing the deficit.
As Leader Pelosi said, we believe that oil and gas companies that are getting big taxpayer subsidies should contribute toward reducing the deficit. We thought there were some positive signs in the Senate the other day, when they eliminated some of the ethanol special tax breaks for the purpose of deficit reduction.
That's what we've been saying. Whether it's tax breaks for oil and gas companies, whether it's tax breaks for corporate jets, whether it's tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas, instead of shipping products, shipping jobs overseas, those are things that we should deal with here and now. There is no justification for that if you are serious about reducing the deficit.
So we'll have to see what the next steps are. But the President is absolutely committed to making sure, number one, that the economy gets fully charged again and, number two, that we tackle this deficit in a meaningful and responsible way.
Q: Mr. Van Hollen, you drew a distinction between tax subsidies, what Democrats call tax expenditures. The Leader drew the same distinction in terms of revenue. But Republicans say that all tax increases are off the table. It makes me wonder, in the meetings that you have been in, to what extent have other types of tax increases been mentioned, brought up, put on the table by Democrats? Capital gains, estate tax, marginal rates, income tax, any of those other things that we all think of as tax increases, not necessarily subsidies, breaks that Grover Norquist does.
Congressman Van Hollen. Sure. Well, even now, I'm not going to get into the details of the talks. But…
Q: Have you proffered those? Have you tried to…
Congressman Van Hollen. Let me just say, we have proposed a menu of eliminating different kinds of special interest tax breaks and dealing with tax exemptions for the very wealthy in this country.
There have been a number of proposals, ideas, some have been put forth by Republican economists, that recommend that you can raise revenue without changing the rate by eliminating some of the deductions and tax preferences.
There was actually, very recently, a report by the IRS indicating the number of people with lots of income. And I'm talking about individuals, not corporations now--we've heard a lot of stories about corporations with lots of income who aren't paying taxes--but individuals who are high income using very creative deductions to pay no income tax.
And so, yes, we have put proposals on the table to say, for folks at the very high end, that we believe that there's a responsible way to phase out some of those deductions, along the lines recommended, by the way, by the Simpson Bowles Commission and others. And that's a bipartisan approach to dealing with that issue.
Q: Madam Leader and Mr. Van Hollen, could you tell us what the President's reaction was about Mr. Cantor, and Senator Kyl apparently, walking away from the talks? And was there discussion about kicking the can, as it were, up to the Presidential level and him becoming more involved in the talks?
Congressman Van Hollen. Well, we actually--I'm not going to go into details of what went on in our discussion with the President, but on this particular fact, you know, we learned of this just as we were leaving the White House. So this did not actually break--the news didn't break within the room.
Q: Does that, therefore, change the contour of what was discussed at the White House and what you will have to go back and reassess without having these two key players at the table? You said it needs to be done in a bipartisan fashion. Obviously you guys had, you know, very intense discussions with the President. This would change, you know, where we go forward.
Congressman Van Hollen. I don't think that the principles that we've laid out will change. And I'm confident the President shares the principles that need to be met as part of any responsible deficit plan.
Q: But you're not going to meet this afternoon?
Congressman Van Hollen. Well, to the best of my knowledge, no. I mean, look, I just learned this at the same time you learned it. And…
Leader Pelosi. After.
Congressman Van Hollen. Or, after you learned it. And, in fact, we were walking out--the meeting was breaking up when the Vice President got the news, and that's when I learned it.
Q: Madam Leader, on Libya, do you think the House GOP has a constitutional argument in terms of trying to withdraw the funding for Libya? Or do you think they are playing politics with these resolutions they are putting forward tomorrow?
Leader Pelosi. I don't think they're playing politics. I think they are expressing what they believe.
Whether they think it's constitutional or not is a curious question, because the Speaker, himself, in the past has said that the War Powers Act is not constitutional. So you will have to be the judge of that.
But I think there are legitimate concerns in both parties in the House of Representatives as to the War Powers Act and the rest. I, myself, believe the President has the latitude to do what he is doing as long as there are no boots on the ground. I also always say that consultation strengthens the resolve of our country, and the more consultation, the better in that regard, whether or not it triggers the War Powers Act.
Let me just say, on a subject I said earlier, I, slip of the tongue, said 'billions' when I meant to say 'millions.' It is 30 million barrels, 30 million barrels, from the U.S. SPRO, and then 30 million barrels from an international entity, which, by the way, has about 1 billion barrels in reserve.
So it's 30 million barrels. In Washington, millions turn into billions pretty fast, but not in terms of release from the SPRO.
Q: We heard the news that Secretary Clinton came to speak with House Democrats today, and I am wondering what she talked about with…
Leader Pelosi. As far as I'm concerned, she was still testifying before one of the congressional committees. And by the time we came here, I don't believe that her briefing took place. At least I hope not, because I'm hoping to make it. So perhaps we will just have a couple more questions.
Q: Back on the debt for a minute, I know that you all had talked about setting an internal deadline of about July 2nd of a tentative deal so that you could then introduce the deal to your Members and have time to get comments on it. What does today's developments do to that plan? And do you think you can still come up with something by August 2nd?
Leader Pelosi. Well, we simply are going to have to. It is really important to our economy, to the confidence that the markets have, the confidence in the markets, and by, for, and in the markets, that we come up with it. So we are going to have to engineer back from there and say, what is the path which gets us to that place?
It shouldn't have to be that these are tied together. But somehow or other, in some amoeba-like fashion on a lens, these two entities merged to each other. That is the only way I can think of it, the idea that we would have a deficit reduction package and it would be thought of in the same breath as the need to not,I don't even want to stay 'raise the debt limit'--not default on the debt, largely incurred by President George Bush.
Did you want to say something?
Congressman Van Hollen. Sure.
One thing that would take a fragile economy and break it would be for the United States to default on its obligations. So nobody should be playing a game of political chicken with this issue.
We've heard some hair-brained schemes that would suggest that we are going to proceed--in fact, legislation introduced by Republicans in both the House and the Senate that says, don't worry, we will just pay the government of China, we will just pay bondholders of U.S. debt, but we won't pay our troops, and we won't pay Social Security.
Well, that's, first of all, totally misplaced priorities. And, number two, if the United States begins to default on any of its financial obligations to our troops, on Social Security, whatever it may be, that also sends a terrible signal to the credit market, risks higher interest rates, which hurts the economy.
So, you know, these people are playing with fire and really putting the very fragile economy at greater threat by playing the games that we have been seeing.
Q: Mr. Van Hollen, if you have these Republicans taking a hard tack, a hard line on tax increases, does that make it easier for Democrats at the table to take a hard line when it comes to protecting Medicare and Medicaid and other entitlements from potential cuts?
Congressman Van Hollen. Well, let me say one thing, and Leader Pelosi mentioned this at the beginning. I mean, the House Republican budget was a nonstarter. It ended the Medicare guarantee, and, at the same time, it protected tax breaks for special interests and, by the way, gave the folks at the very top, millionaires, a 30 percent cut in the top tax rate, income tax rate, that they pay. So that was absolutely a nonstarter.
What we have said is that the right way to approach the health care issue is to build on the successes from the Affordable Care Act, in terms of providing greater incentives that reward doctors and hospitals for the value and the quality of care they provide rather than the volume of care, rather than the number of tests. There are additional things you can do.
We have also made it clear that, when it comes to the prescription drug industry, that we can, number one, give Medicare program the same right that the Veterans Administration has with respect to negotiating prices to bring it down for everybody. And you can go back to the same payment rates and system that was in effect prior to 2005 when people who were on Medicaid, and now Medicaid and Medicare, got a higher rebate, that the program got a higher rebate.
So there are a number of things that we made very clear that you can do, but we've also made it clear, we are not going to transfer--we are not going to force seniors into the private insurance market, where the CBO, which all of you know is an independent entity, has said they will face higher costs and get less support from the Medicare program, which would, in the end, give seniors a raw deal.
And I want to make this final point, because it keeps coming up, I mean, even though it has been debunked by a lot of these independent fact checkers. The proposal that they are giving for seniors is not the same as Members of Congress. They are giving themselves, Members of Congress, a much better deal than they are now proposing for seniors on Medicare.
Q: Mr. Van Hollen and Leader Pelosi, can you give me some examples of the kinds of things that Democrats, that you all are willing to do but that are really hard for Democrats, that show a willingness that the Republicans, in your view, aren't showing by walking away from the negotiations?
Leader Pelosi. Mr. Van Hollen is in the room, but the fact is, if we are going to have a balanced approach, we are all going to have to make some very difficult decisions, because we simply must take down that deficit. We are not willing to pass President Bush's debt on to our children and our grandchildren. But we also have to get on a path where we don't increase the debt, as well, as we go forward.
The theme that comes out of the meetings--and I only get a report of it (they are very, shall we say, discreet about the proceedings in the room)--is that nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. I think that has been a public acknowledgment, right? Well, at least it is now.
And I want to go to Mr. Van Hollen to see if he wants to reveal any of the…
Q: Just, kinds of things, I mean, some real examples.
Congressman Van Hollen. The President, when he gave his speech at George Washington University, laid out a framework. It's there. And it calls for significant cuts in discretionary spending. I mean, it is a cut not just in, you know, nominal terms but in real terms. And it will impose pain. I mean, the appropriators would have to decide exactly how to allocate those decisions, that pain, but it does require that.
Which is why, you know, he and we and others have made the point, you know, if you're asking for significant changes in that area, why shouldn't we be asking the oil and gas companies to get rid of their taxpayer subsidies? I mean, it's a very straightforward question, and we really haven't gotten a good answer to that.
Q: Can you give me some general policy places where we are talking about those cuts? I mean, some real as specific as you can get examples of where you're willing to make the hard choice?
Congressman Van Hollen. Well, look, I'll give you an example that is a hard choice for many people. It has been a regional issue, and I mention it because it has been reported publicly. But agriculture subsidies, in terms of ratcheting those down, would be one example.
And there are many other examples, but that's one that would require a change in policy with respect to direct payments. Right now, agricultural interests get paid a certain amount whether the commodity prices are high, like they are now, or low. That doesn't make sense. But that's one example among others.
Leader Pelosi. And suffice it to say that they are significant in the amount of money that it would reduce the deficit. And that is very important. And that's all the more reason why you would expect that...you know you cannot cut our country out of debt. We are going to have to have cuts, we are going to have to have revenue, and we're going to have to have growth in order to bring the money in to help reduce the deficit, as well.
So, with the willingness that has been demonstrated to make serious cuts, it is hopeful that the Republicans will recognize that there has to be some revenue change.
I just want to close with this. Last night, the President made an announcement about Afghanistan. The good news on that is the President is bringing the war in Afghanistan to an end, similar to the path he took in Iraq.
Many of us would like to see this go faster than the path that was laid out. However, it may. And with the proper progress, whether it's on the civilian side, on the governance side, on the anticorruption side, it may well be that we can have a quicker drawdown and a sooner resolution of the situation in Afghanistan, as it is in the interest of our national security.
And so, the President for his reasons has the timetable he has. I respect that. I think it also accommodates quicker progress that we all have to work for.
I was there in the spring in Afghanistan, and for the first time I saw real progress in terms of some of these issues governance, the civilian initiatives, the anticorruption initiatives, the training of both the police and the national security forces in Afghanistan.
For seven years, we had no progress, we had no plan. President Obama came in, instituted a plan. I think it's going in a positive direction. I hope that the momentum that it now has will bring our troops home sooner.
But I commend the President for announcing and reinforcing his previous message, that the war in Afghanistan will be over in a reasonable, in a finite period of time.
Thank you all very much.