WASHINGTON – Congressman John B. Larson (CT-01) was joined by Congressman Xavier Becerra (CA) for a press avail after the Democratic Caucus meeting this morning on the need for Congress to focus on what they agree on by passing the middle class tax cuts. You can watch the video here. Below is the transcript:
Rep. Larson: Good morning. Is everybody set?
Well I thank you, and we had yet another Caucus, where we were fortunate that Gene Sperling from the White House today, continuing to talk about the importance of making sure we put this nation back to work because we know and continue to underscore that job creation equals deficit reduction. And that clearly Democrats and Republicans both agree that we need to put the country back to work.
Democrats would like to underscore the need for infrastructure. In the Northeast we are still reeling from the effects of Sandy and know that pleas of Governors like Malloy, Cuomo, and Christie all are calling for us to focus on infrastructure that’s not only needed in a devastated northeast, but clearly across this nation. One only has to read about the situation of roads and bridges to understand the importance of infrastructure investment. And clearly people need to go back to work. That’s something positive that we all agree on that can be done and should be done, but as we noted today, there are no votes in the United States Congress the House of Representatives today.
We also agree and emphasize this again, as did Gene Sperling. Everyone and we mean everyone should get $250,000 in tax breaks. Everyone. And so that means that even billionaires get that first $250,000 and everybody is in agreement on that. The Republicans don’t want to see the middle class go without this tax cut. So where we disagree, let us push that off. Where we agree let us embrace.
And further we discussed again, the long term effects of our deficit. Which are directly tied to healthcare. But the work that has been done in the Congress as it relates to constructing an exchange, that will take place in 2014 and go into effect and the tools that we provided initially. On a concept that by its very nature was one designed by Republicans, that there is ample room for us to tackle the unbelievable rise in cost of healthcare to 17% of our gross domestic product. By focusing on dropping those costs.
Most recently, Mark Bertolini of the AETNA came out and said very clearly, not only if we drop those costs would make healthcare more affordable we would also deal with balancing our national debt. So these are all very constructive areas that we all should agree to and that the American public wants us to pursue.
We remain optimistic because of the way that the President has gone out there and is selling this concept not in only in White House meetings but out to the general public. I commend Leader Boehner, Speaker Boehner, for setting the appropriate tone within the Conference and yes, we know that there are differences in both the Caucus and the Conference, but it’s the common thread that should unite us and allow us to move forward in a way that will both, put the country back to work, provide for deficit reduction and deal long term with the concept of debt reduction, while allowing Americans to be fully insured and covered under their healthcare. That is why we are optimistic we would like to see more work effort here, but, we are remain optimistic as we go forward.
Now, tomorrow we will have another Caucus meeting and an election and it will be my high honor at that point to turn the gavel over to Xavier Becerra, who will be the next Chairman of the Democratic Caucus.
Rep. Becerra: Mr. Chairman thank you very much. And it will be a pleasure tomorrow if I am successful to succeed all the work and doing all the work that you have done over the last four years as our Chairman and I very much look forward to trying to come close to the success that you’ve had in being the Chairman of our great Democratic Caucus.
I want to reiterate what our Chairman just said. We had a great, it was a great meeting. Folks are back after Thanksgiving and we wish everyone in America a great Thanksgiving. It was tough for some folks from Hurricane Sandy, but we hope that every single American in this country found a way to celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends and loved ones.
But we had a group of members, including some of our new members, who were very excited and very optimistic. I believe, Mr. Chairman as you said, that we leave the room truly believing that we can get this work done before December 31st. In fact, I think we leave the room today in the morning, believing there is no reason why we can’t get our work done.
So, just a couple of points. Before I make those two points. A bit of context. Four years ago where were we? If check the records you will find that four years ago in the month of November 2008, America bled 797,000 jobs, 797,000 Americans lost their jobs four years ago. Last month’s jobs report 184,000 new jobs created in this country. Not as many as we want, but we are not losing jobs and we are certainly not hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of jobs the way we were four years ago. We’re on the move, we’re making progress and as the President keeps saying, but we got to do more.
And so this is not the time to put your foot on the break of economic recovery and we would hope that our Republican colleagues would join with us and do exactly as our chairman just said. And that is where we have agreement, let’s move forward and there is clear agreement among Democrats and Republicans that we have near unanimous if not unanimous support for trying to move forward on making sure that the middle class is not impacted by the December 31st deadline. And we can then deal with those, the 2% wealthiest Americans and how we deal with them in terms of the tax rates, but first, first, let’s take our foot off the economic break and let this economy continue to build.
It seems a little disorienting and a little disconcerting, to hear that there may be some people in this Congress who put their pledge to a special interest ahead of their pledge of allegiance to this country. And while we are beginning to see some cracks in that cement block that is the special interest group that has gotten these Republican members to sign these no tax pledges. There aren’t that many. We hear a high ranking Republican in House talking about telling his colleagues to join with President Obama to move forward in preserving the tax rates for the middle class. In fact, actually, as the Chairman said, for everyone including Warren Buffet, Ross Perot. They would get the tax relief for the first $250,000 of their income as well. We agree with that. We hear some Republicans now calling this pledge handcuffs, that keep them from moving forward and so we would hope that in that in this short period we have before December 31st, we would not let a pledge to a special interest supersede a pledge to the United States of America a pledge of allegiance we’ve made to our country.
And finally, I think it goes without saying. Once again the American people are way ahead of the politicians. The American people by two thirds agree with President Obama that we must have a balanced approach to solving our deficit issues and moving towards economic growth and job creation. Two thirds. And if there were a vote by the American public there would be a landslide in favor of providing for the two percent wealthiest Americans to pay a little bit more in taxes to help us get to that point of a balanced approach. A landslide victory. Including Republicans in America who agree with that and so there is no reason to delay. We think we can move forward. The reason there is optimism coming out of this Democratic Caucus is that we can get this done is because the reality is it’s not rocket science we can get it done.
So Mr. Chairman, I think whether it’s our current Chairman John Larson or our future Chairman of the Democratic Caucus, whoever gets to lead this Caucus knows that we’ve got an enthusiastic group of committed Representatives in this country ready to get the job done.
Rep. Larson: Thank you. Questions?
Q: Congressman, if the Republicans are willing to step up and raise revenue will House Democrats provide votes to cut benefits to programs like Medicare and Medicaid?
Rep. Larson: Well, let me say that, clearly, as Gene Sperling was saying today, the President is willing to look at what they are going to put forward in terms of revenues, but that hasn’t been forthcoming, shall we say.
But where the President has been very clear in terms of the impact on beneficiaries and beneficiaries are the people who are recipients Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. We believe and I think most would agree that Social Security is not responsible for the deficit and clearly shouldn’t be on the table for discussion.
With regard to the so called entitlements. Look I come from Hartford, Connecticut. This is a matter of insurance and it’s a matter of actuarial assumptions and I think when you look at things in terms of insurance and not entitlements, people where I come from say what a minute; I paid for this that is my insurance that I paid for.
Now, there are though, actuarial assumptions that you can make, life span, various of elements, etc, wellness, exercise, preventative care, etc. A number of the core things that were build into the affordable care act that will allow us to reduce costs significantly. I’ll give you a perfect example, two. Reuters said in 2009, there is more than $750 billion annually in inefficiencies, in lack of coordination, in waste and fraud. For the first time in the nation’s history, Medicare crime superseded drug and prostitution crime. Report by Reuters. Chairman of the AETNA came out and said if there is $750 billion annually in terms of savings that can be achieved with the appropriate tools that we’ve put forward. That does two things. Both lowers the cost of healthcare and lowers the national debt because that is the driving force and so those are the parameters where there can be great agreement.
I do not believe that Republicans want to see their beneficiaries; their recipients stand there in their community, lose these benefits or be denied these benefits in this time. So I think that there is a common ground for us to work under that is both actuarially sound and focuses on insurance, as opposed to an entitlement.
Rep. Becerra: Could I just add, let me just—and I say this having served on the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission that was appointed to deal with this deficit and debt crisis. I was fortunate—or unfortunate—to serve on the so-called Super Committee in the Congress to deal with this as well. And each time I got to serve on those I said what I'm about to say now: everything should be on the table, period. Everything should be on the table. And if we're smart and sensible, we'll leave on the table to help us reduce our deficit the things that drove us into these deficits. As the Chairman just said, Social Security has never contributed to one penny to these deficits and this debt. Why we should cut the benefits of seniors on Social Security to pay for the misspending and the bad ideas of previous Congresses, I don't understand. And so that's why we're so adamant about Social Security. Strengthen it, yes. But use it to buy down a debt created by other things? No.
On Medicare, if you all just take a close look at the record, in fact a lot of Democrats lost their seats because of Republicans politicizing this issue. Democrats have come to the table with over $700 billion of savings in Medicare already. We've reformed Medicare through the Affordable Care Act and much of it is still going to play out. $700 billion—that's a lot. I have not seen one Republican come forward with any kind of proposal that saves you $700 billion. We did that without having to cut any benefits for Medicare beneficiaries who earned those benefits. That was the beauty of the reform we passed, is that we found ways to extract savings, principally from waste and fraud, the Medicare mills that we know are out there—we're going after them. And the Chairman said there's a lot of money out there that we can save. So we saved over $700 billion.
In the sequester—Medicare is in the sequester and there will be savings from Medicare in the sequester. But once again: at the insistence of Democrats, the savings won't come at the expense of seniors and other beneficiaries who are on Medicare. So, is Medicare—has it been on the table? Absolutely it has been on the table, but we've been smart, at least on the Democratic side, in how we go about it. We don't go after benefits, for those who earned them. We try to make sure that we get rid of the waste and the overspending by those who are profiting from Medicare. And you can do that. And so the only thing Democrats have said is this: we're willing to talk and put everything on the table for discussion, at least this Democrat is. But the moment you want to privatize Social Security or voucherize Medicare or block-grant Medicaid, that's where you lose us, because we want to strengthen those programs, not let them die on the vine. And so there's a clear difference between Republicans who are willing to cut benefits for seniors in Medicare and Democrats who say we can find savings in Medicare, but you don't have to cut the benefits that seniors earned when they paid for the Medicare that they're now receiving.
Q: Did Mr. Sperling make any commitments not to raise the eligibility age for Medicare?
Rep. Larson: We did not get into specifics. And one of the things that Gene prefaced the whole comment with, and you know our Caucus is always prone to ask very direct and specific questions, as is the press, he said, "Listen, I'm not going to—because of the open nature of this discussion and what's going on and the sensitivity, no lines are being drawn in the sand." And, much as the Chairman said, that everything was on the table for discussion within the context and parameters as with eloquently outlined by our Vice Chair, Xavier Becerra.
Q: One of the Caucus Members tweeted that he went into a discussion about why some of the Republican proposals on bringing in tax revenues don't add up, the math doesn't work. Can you explain what he talked about in that sense?
Rep. Becerra: I think—Mr. Chairman, if I can—I think that was more a discussion about how the Republicans keep talking about doing something other than asking the wealthiest two percent to contribute a little bit more. It's very similar to what Mitt Romney kept saying, where we've never seen a proposal that adds up to anything. And so the question, I think, was posed to Mr. Sperling, "Have you seen anything that adds up? What are the numbers? How much do Republicans get in it?" We don't know, and it should be one of those things where we ask them to show us how they add up to real savings, how they would do that, because we all know that the moment they start talking about going after some of these tax programs like the mortgage interest deduction, charitable contributions, state and local tax deductions, you're hitting middle class Americans. And we're all still waiting for Republicans to indicate how they would find that level of savings that the President has called for by asking the wealthiest two percent of Americans to contribute a little bit more.
Q: What specifically and concretely would you guys cut?
Rep. Becerra: Are you asking for savings or cuts? Because you're trying to save.
Q: I guess cuts. Are you guys willing to cut any entitlement programs, put any of that on the table?
Rep. Becerra: Those have been on the table through the sequester.
Q: Is there anything specifically, though, that you guys, I guess, agreed to?
Rep. Larson: Yeah, no, no. I think when you say is there anything on the table that you're willing to cut, the answer is yes. And, you know, very specifically, not us, but starting with Reuters, said, "Look, there's $750 billion out there that needs to be extracted." And here's—what accounts for the rising cost in our deficit? What's the one area that we need to focus on? Healthcare. Why is it so? It's so because it's at 17 percent of gross domestic product. The rest of the industrialized world who has universal healthcare is between seven and eight percent. Switzerland is at 10 percent. Switzerland has a private sector system not unlike ours, excepting the fact that they have universal coverage, and they do that at 10 percent of GDP. So yes, here's where the cuts need to be made and here's where they need to come from. If you're at 17 percent of gross domestic product because of the cost of medical devices, pharma, insurance, hospitals, doctors and the trial bar, that's the area that you need to take a look at and reduce those costs through cuts or through changes in legislation that will both lower those costs—that's what Bertolini was talking about, that's what Reuters is talking about—and that does two things: both makes healthcare more affordable and accessible and also lowers the national debt. The question is for us, as for Democrats, is this is insurance that beneficiaries have paid into. This is something that they live on. You know that an average female adult on Social Security earns between $12,000 and $14,000 a year. You know, barely able to live on that. Clearly in a state like mine, very difficult to live in on that kind of money.
And then also the services that are provided for people who receive Medicare and Medicaid. I just lost my mother. I saw what not only she went through and goes through, but also what my neighbors and friends and families in that similar healthcare facility were experiencing. And so I know the importance in that value of insurance. And so when people say, "Well, you're cutting"—it's couched as though it's an entitlement. Don't tell them that it's an entitlement and it wasn't something they saw deducted out of their paycheck every single week. And then add to that that my father's pension, who never lived long enough to collect it, and everything he paid in all went to go to pay for this, to pay for my mother's final days here on earth. And thank God that we have a social safety net like that. And we do because of our experience in the last century, first with Social Security during the depression, and then with so many seniors bankrupt because of lack of healthcare, Medicare and Medicaid. And now with Obamacare, we have all the tools here. So let us work, let us work.
And here's our message: Obamacare is really Romneycare, adopted on the model of Massachusetts. It's going to open up an exchange that's going to allow for competition and allow for us to take the strengths of the system—what's the very best in government programs, what's the very best in the private sector, and what's the very best from entrepreneurialism and innovation in our academic sectors to drive down the cost, provide greater access, focus on wellness and individual responsibility and, my God, we've got something that if we work together, becomes the greatest system in the world. This is within our reach. It's all right before us and it takes a collection of the best thinking and the best ideas from not only both parties, but from all sectors of our economy and of our country in terms of the input. So that's where we need to focus on it, but when you're staring at $750 billion annually, that clearly is the place where you're going to look to cut instead of on the backs of beneficiaries who have paid into an insurance program.
Q: At the beginning of this press conference you talked about how optimistic you are heading out of that meeting, but I personally have not heard any new information that made me optimistic about the chances of a deal. Did Gene Sperling convey to you any particular piece of information that was the cause for that optimism?
Rep. Larson: Well, yes, I think that—if you go back, and I think Xavier was right to say let's look at context, go back to July of 2011, and as the sessions that were taking place in the White House with respect to the fiscal cliffs and then subsequent meetings that took place in the select committee. I think there's far greater optimism because there's a true crisis on hand and everything has been compressed into time and is awaiting before us. And as Xavier pointed out, Tom Cole's comments today I thought were very encouraging. The President remains very focused on this and is taking that message out. And so I think it will take a matter of making sure that, you know, the business community weighs in, that the academic communities, the labor communities, the public in general knows everything that's at stake here. And I do believe that Congress will respond in a positive way. We all have our concerns, and you've heard them outlined today by the Vice Chair and myself, and I'm sure the Republicans have their concerns as well, but I do think and remain optimistic that there is a great opportunity here for us to succeed, not by moving away from the core values that we stand for, but by embracing what we all know we agree on.
Rep. Becerra: Can I just add real quickly: you had to be in the room, first. Because one, you have to see the enthusiasm that's in the room. A lot of that is driven by these new Members who have this get-it-done attitude. I don't think they look at this as a place that can't work. And while over the last two years many of us have experienced this morass where we couldn't—we would watch and wait for the Republicans to lead and they couldn't get there, they always needed Democratic votes to pass the big bills, I think this new crop of elected Representatives believes that we're going to get something done. One. Two: I think Gene Sperling did a great job of setting in a pretty clear way the landscape that we face in the next five weeks. Not that he gave the actual roadmap, but I think the landscape is very clear, and the great thing is because it's arithmetic and it's not rocket science, you can see the road on how you get there. And perhaps the reason I at least feel very optimistic is I think the President has really gelled on what he wants to do. And because of that, and because he campaigned on this, and because he won an election, I think he has the force of the American people behind him, as all the polls keep showing. Two-thirds support his balanced approach versus the Republicans my-way-or-the-highway approach, and more than 60 percent support asking the wealthiest two percent to pay a little bit more in taxes. So the road is pretty clear. And having been on these various committees to come up with the solutions, there are only so many maps that you can come up with that really work. And so the smart, sensible, balanced approach, it's in front of us and now that we're starting to see the—I guess we used to call Republican trickle-down economics, maybe we can call this Republican trickle-down politics, where all of the sudden you see a few trickles here and there, Republicans who are starting to break away from that special interest pledge to Grover Norquist. Maybe now you're going to see the beginnings of some real participation on the part of Republicans to participate in a balanced plan that gets us where we need to go.
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