For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
July 24, 2008
Press Briefing by Dana Perino
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:43 P.M. EDT
MS. PERINO: A special welcome to the Frattos. A couple of announcements, so bear with me here.
In his speech on the freedom agenda earlier this morning you heard the President discuss PEPFAR, which is the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. He noted the importance of continuing our commitment to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases in the poorest countries. He emphasized that "nations afflicted with debilitating public health crises cannot build strong and prosperous societies for their citizens." And today the House is set to vote on final passage for the legislation to reauthorize PEPFAR and other diseases, the treatment for them. The President looks forward to passage of one of his highest priorities, and commends the many members from both sides of the aisle who worked to get it done. The bill will ensure that we are able to keep our commitments to replace disease and despair with healing and hope.
Also, it's come to light that Congressional Democrats plan a maneuver today to turn off what's called the "Medicare trigger." It was passed in 2003 and created a warning system whenever Medicare spending began to take a larger percentage of federal spending. Basically it required that when Medicare spending from general revenue exceeds 45 percent in two consecutive trustees' reports, the President would be required to propose a plan to Congress to reduce spending. Congress -- the Democratic leaders in Congress have decided not to take action, and would have the responsibility for acting on the proposals under expedited procedures.
Because they haven't acted and they ignored the warning, they have not fulfilled their obligations. Well, today, apparently Speaker Pelosi intends to do away with the trigger altogether for the remainder of the Congress, not only abandoning any responsibility to deal with runaway entitlement spending now, but to even get rid of the warning system altogether. This is the legislative equivalent of pulling out the fuse lights in your car, or the fuse in your car, when the "check engine" light is flashing.
The growth in entitlement spending, as you have heard the President say, is coming decades to -- in the coming decades will pose a tremendous risk to the United States economy. He has proposed ways in his budgets to deal with it, both on Medicare and also on Social Security. And we know that the Congress is reluctant to act on that as well.
There's another troubling aspect to all of this, and that is that actions by Democratic leaders to change the rules of the game when it gets to be uncomfortable, and we saw this with the Colombia free trade agreement. So instead of playing by their own rules, they just decided to change the rules altogether. And we're quite disappointed by this, and we'll be watching for further action.
That's it. Go ahead.
Q I wanted to ask about the housing bill. You all obviously decided to support it. I'm curious, though, what the White House estimates are of how much this will help, especially given the magnitude of the problem. We're talking about possibly getting new mortgages -- new, more attractive mortgages for about 400,000 people when some estimates put the number of foreclosures coming at about 6 million. How has the White House calculated that this will help? Is it because it would have a broader domino effect, or is 400,000 enough people to get help to? What's the calculation there?
MS. PERINO: There's several different aspects of the bill. You've mentioned a couple of them, but one of the things that we thought was most important, and the reason that the President decided that it was too important to have a prolonged veto fight -- that we were sure we would win and we proved that we would win yesterday -- is because Secretary Paulson has said that we need to have the GSE reform for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in order for us to be able to help stabilize the markets and provide confidence to the markets, which would not only help homeowners, but would help the overall economy. So that was the largest part of the bill.
Certainly, there are going to be some people that we are not going to be able to help that are going to have foreclosures. But we have been able, through HOPE NOW and through FHA Secure, two programs where we worked with the private sector and with HUD, to try to make sure that people could rework their loans. That will help, and this bill will provide some more help.
One of the things that we did not like about that $4 billion that the Democrats wanted to include in the bill is that it's an incentive for lenders to foreclose. Without that money -- if they think -- if the lenders think that they're going to get bailed out by the federal government, they're more incentivized then to foreclose on a property. What we would prefer is to not have that type of a bailout and to have the lenders be incentivized to try to work with the current homeowner to rework the loan in a way that the lender -- or that the homeowner can pay. So that -- those are the broad parameters of the bill.
Q Dana, is the President concerned about the new unemployment numbers that came out today -- 406,000, the worst since September of 2005 after Katrina?
MS. PERINO: Well, we've had certainly a slowdown in our economy, and we want everybody in America who wants to have a job to be able to find a job -- and we've been working to do that. We've said for a while that it was going to take some time for the stimulus package that we passed in February, for it to have an effect on job numbers. We also realize that the headwinds that were caused by rising gas prices and also the housing crisis that we just talked about are all having an impact. But we do think that towards the end of the year we'll be able to see some better growth, and that means jobs, too.
I would say that our unemployment rate in this country remains low by historic standards, but that doesn't mean that for the individual who is out there who is looking for a job or is concerned that they might lose their job, that the anxiety that comes with that makes for a less happy and productive life. And so that's why we want to try to get ourselves back on a path to job growth.
Q Dana, following on what Jennifer was asking about -- so the figures about sales for existing homes come out and it shows a downward trend, and the same share prices for Freddie and Fannie that were boosted yesterday as soon as the President said he wouldn't veto go back down. And it seems to suggest a real sort of brittleness to the situation that may be beyond any kind of housing bill or government -- any kind of legislative approach. Do you fear or worry that the tremors, especially in the housing market, are beyond something that the government can fix right now?
MS. PERINO: Well, we have said for a while that the housing crisis is something that we needed to deal with. In fact, it was last August 31st when President Bush saw the -- listened to his advisors, who recognized that the housing crisis was coming, and asked Congress to act. We're 11 months now from that time frame and we think that if we could have acted sooner, we could have helped do a couple of things, such as on this GSE reform getting a strong regulator in place to make sure that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are focusing on their core missions, which is to help homeowners, and in particular, help low-income homeowners. We think that's what they should be focused on because that is their mandate in the statute.
But we also recognize that the GSE reforms would help stabilize the market, and that's one of the things that without this housing bill -- even though the housing bill -- even though the President said yesterday he wouldn't veto it, it still hasn't passed.
So -- I'm not a market analyst. Things go up and down in a market all the time. I think it's wrong for me from this podium to try to judge why that's happening. There's lots of financial experts and I'm sure you can talk to them. But I think let's take a look and see if we can get this bill signed and into law once the Congress passes it and up to the President, and then take it from there. But we do think it will have an impact on the overall health of the market in terms of stability and confidence in the financial markets.
Q Dana, the provincial elections in Iraq have been seen as necessary for reconciliation between the different groups there. They're on indefinite hold right now over objections from the Kurds. And Ambassador Crocker, in an AP story today, says he thinks it might take decades for the country to settle its economic and social problems. Does that have any implications for how long the U.S. would be in that country?
MS. PERINO: No, I don't think -- what Ambassador Crocker was talking about was long-term political gains and long-term democratic institutions that could solidify. I think that we've already said that we think that we'll be able to start bringing -- keep bringing troops home based on success, given that we've been able to have a lot of the surge implementation take place over the past year, and it's taking hold in many places. But as we've said, the gains aren't irreversible.
I don't think that Ambassador Crocker was suggesting in any way about troops, especially combat troops, being there for decades. I think he was just talking about the reality of when you take a country that was broken by a dictator and you try to rebuild it. Iraq is certainly going to be a lot farther along than Afghanistan, just given from -- where they started from.
Q So that wouldn't require U.S. military or diplomatic participation to resolve those problems?
MS. PERINO: I don't know what future troop posture would be, but I certainly don't think anybody is forecasting that. Now, we do have presence in countries where we -- countries that we used to be at war with, such as Japan and Germany, Korea. But those are different configurations altogether. So I think that what we'd like to do is get them stabilized and able to take on more of their own responsibility for their security. But they've also improved a lot on the diplomatic side of things.
But there's deep-rooted tensions, and some hatred, even, inside Iraq and then outside within the region. But they've made great strides. We now have an ambassador coming to Iraq from Kuwait, which is the first time since -- for a couple of decades. You have the UAE, who has just agreed to forgive their debt. You have Turkey playing a more helpful role. You have Jordan playing a more helpful role; Saudi Arabia has suggested that they would send an ambassador.
So it is going to take some time, but it's moving in the right direction.
Q And is the administration still hopeful that those elections could happen this year?
MS. PERINO: We are hopeful that they are, but I think that, as Ambassador Crocker said and the Iraqis have said, that the hope for an October time frame is unrealistic at this point because the election law was vetoed by both of the -- I think the President and the Prime Minister. So it goes back to the legislature, and hopefully now that they can work out their differences.
But one of the big issues is the Kirkuk region, and it's going to be something they have to work through. But they will do that. Just remember that the Iraqis now are trying to solve their problems in the parliament; they're not trying to solve them in the streets with violence. And that's remarkable in itself, given where we were a year ago.
Q On -- earlier today the President talked to Prime Minister Singh and they discussed the trade talks. India's negotiator in Geneva has said that they have nothing new to offer. Did the Prime Minister express that to the President? What was his reaction? And do you all still believe you can get the deal by the end of the year?
MS. PERINO: We're working to get a deal by the end of the year. I don't know specifically what the Prime Minister and the President talked about; we'll keep that confidential. Regardless, even though I don't -- I wasn't there; I don't have the exact conversation in front of me, either -- we do think that it's important to get a deal. We've been working hard towards it. We just made concessions ourselves on Tuesday of this week, and we would like other countries to do so as well. It's going to take them moving forward as well as us. So we have to take steps together at the same time. It's one of the reasons the President has continued to work and call individuals. And let's just see how it plays out. We'll try to reach out to USTR and see if they have an update later.
Q And the SPR bill that's moving through Congress, do you all have an opinion on that yet, a veto threat, or --
MS. PERINO: I think there's a SAP that we will have, a statement of administration position, that will be coming out soon. The House Republicans, the only thing that they're asking for, when it comes to adding -- I'm sorry, I shouldn't say just -- House and Senate Republicans, what they are both asking for when it comes to increasing supply in our country is the ability for them to vote on the issue. And so -- and that's on the overall issues.
When it comes to the SPR, we have made our points clear about this before. The SPR, when it first came into being, was set up for national emergencies. It's the nation's energy insurance policy. And we don't think it should be raided for purposes that were -- to try to manipulate price. It's been tried in the past -- it hasn't worked -- and because of action taken by Congress recently, we even stopping filling the SPR. That did not have an impact on price.
And so I think that instead of wasting time talking about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, that they should look to what the House and Senate Republicans are asking for -- and many Democrats -- which is a chance to vote on looking for more resources here in our own country. Don't think the SPR is the right place to get it done.
I think in some cases the Democrats believe that a problem delayed is a problem half-solved, and we've seen over the decades that that is not the case, given that prices continually rise. We used to see this every spring and then they'd slightly go down in the fall. But right now when you look at the issues of supply and demand in the emerging countries like India and China, the demand doesn't seem to be tapering off at all.
So you're going to have to do something on the supply side, and tapping into 700 million barrels of the SPR, which is our national insurance policy, doesn't seem like the best idea, when in fact we could send a signal to the market that we would be willing to look for domestic resources in our own country. For example, the Outer Continental Shelf, they estimate it has 18 billion barrels of oil; up in ANWR, 10.4 billion barrels; and oil shale, 800 billion barrels. Compare that to 700 million barrels in the SPR and I think you can see why the math doesn't add up.
Q So the SAP will be a veto threat?
MS. PERINO: I believe -- we'll have to say that senior advisors will recommend a veto, yes.
Q The price of oil is down $23 a barrel in the last two weeks. Why does the President think that is? Is it just supply and demand? Is it anything about American policy that has caused that pressure to go down on price?
MS. PERINO: Again, I'm not a market analyst and I couldn't tell you why it's gone down in price --
Q I know, but what does the President --
MS. PERINO: And the President -- he puts himself in the same category, as not somebody who predicts the markets or can explain all the different pieces. But we have seen that Americans are starting to drive less, slightly less, which can help reduce demand. But in addition to that, possibly the markets are looking at the fact that there are more people being more serious about looking for resources in our own country, which would send a signal that we would finally start to bring on more supply.
Q Can I ask one on Iraq as well? The Iraqi Olympic athletes have been told they have to stay home. And the problem is that Prime Minister Maliki fired the members of the Olympic committee, and the IOC says you can't do that, and he did it anyway. Did the United States ever offer Iraq any advice on how these international operations work?
MS. PERINO: I'm not sure if we offered any advice. I would refer you to Ambassador Crocker's office because -- obviously that's not really been their focus so much. And I'm sure that they got advice from others, and I don't know the particular details as to why Prime Minister Maliki decided to take that action. But I'm sure that the Iraqi athletes who have trained so hard and were finally going to represent a country that is free and sovereign and working to establish its democracy, they have to be terribly disappointed, and I'm disappointed for the athletes as well.
Q Two quick questions. One, Dana, President has any comments on Senator Barack Obama's global foreign policy --
MS. PERINO: No.
Q And second, Dana, as far as his comments, or both candidates have been saying, especially Senator Obama, as far as immigration is concerned will play a major role. But do you think President is going to push this immigration bill, or going to ask Congress again before the elections?
MS. PERINO: No, we -- Congress is about to take yet another recess and they don't seem to be the mood to pass much of anything.
Go ahead, Savannah.
Q Back on oil supply for a second.
MS. PERINO: Okay.
Q There are reports that a proposed rule from the administration this week would allow about 100 new oil and gas leases on Colorado's national forest. Can you confirm that?
MS. PERINO: It sounds like something that the Department of Interior might be doing in terms of leasing that would be underway. But that's not something we would detail out of here at the White House.
Q Okay. In general, do you know of an effort -- I mean, I know oil shale, for example, is one of the areas --
MS. PERINO: In general, I know just from my own history that there are people who are trying to develop the technology that would allow to be able to develop resources in the West. I don't know if that's particularly oil shale or not. There are other types of resources out there -- geothermal, et cetera. So I'd have to refer you to Interior Department.
Q Thank you, Dana. Two questions. On Bloomberg Television, Washington State's Democrat U.S. Senator Cantwell said that Democrats don't want to increase oil supplies because they want to wean Americans off petroleum and into "things like wind and solar that can help us with our high cost of natural gas." And my question: Does the White House believe this is at all helpful to our present rising costs of more than $4 a gallon?
MS. PERINO: We have said that we believe there needs to be a transition period between the traditional oil and gas use that we have today to when we would able to run on alternatives and renewables, and it's going to take a little while of time. That's why we think that we need to open up more of our own resources here at home so we can add more supply to the market.
Q Thank you.
Q What -- does the White House --
MS. PERINO: Hurry up.
Q No, he had one more.
MS. PERINO: I know. That's why hurry up.
Q Does the White House believe that our nation's media should strive for neutrality in covering the presidential race? And do you believe that most of them are neutral, or that most of them are biased in support of one candidate?
MS. PERINO: I'll answer the first, but not the second. Yes, I think that everyone should try to cover candidates equally. But it will be up to everybody else to analyze.
Q Why won't you answer the second? (Laughter.)
Q Thank you.
END 1:00 P.M. EDT