Aboard Air Force One
En Route Burlington, Vermont
10:36 A.M. EDT
MR. EARNEST: Good morning, as we fly on Air Force One toward a beautiful neck of the woods in the country. We've got a couple of campaign events each, both in Vermont as well as in Maine.
I have one quick announcement before I take your questions. Before departing the White House this morning, the President signed the 90-day extension of the Surface Transportation Act. The President was pleased that Congress acted to prevent construction workers from having to go off the job because of a lapse in funding. So he was pleased to sign the 90-day extension today. However, we encourage Congress to act in a bipartisan fashion on a longer-term extension.
Q Will you have a readout of that coming — since this isn't getting piped back, are you going to have a readout of that, signing the 90-day extension?
MR. EARNEST: There will be the regular pro forma notice that will be distributed.
Q When will that be?
MR. EARNEST: I don't think they've sent it yet. They're waiting for me to gaggle before doing that. So you're the first to know.
Q Josh, do you have any update on the President's determination that he has to make today on the Iranian oil sanctions?
MR. EARNEST: Yesterday Jay made reference to the fact that we were aware that this deadline was coming and signaled our intention to meet it. I don't have any announcements to make on that determination this morning. However, there will be — we'll have more on this for you later today, including a conference call that will be convened by some senior administration officials who can answer any questions you may have about that determination.
Q The President said opening — I mean — I'm sorry — Jay said opening the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is an option that's on the table. Will the Iranian declaration play into that decision?
MR. EARNEST: Well, we've said for a number of weeks now that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is one of many options that remains on the table. But there are no specific proposals — as we've said before, there are no specific proposals that have been floated at this point.
As it relates to the presidential determination related to the Iran sanctions, I would refer that question to this conference call that I referenced that will take place this afternoon.
Q Is the President talking to officials about this during the day between campaign stops, or has the determination already been made?
MR. EARNEST: I don't have any calls at this point to read out to you.
Q Can you comment on Congressman Ryan endorsing Mitt Romney today?
MR. EARNEST: As you know, this process — the process of the Republican Party choosing their nominee has been going on for some time. We have, generally speaking, shown respect for that process by allowing the Republican candidates and other Republican officials and certainly Republican voters to make the decision about who they're going to support to be the Republican nominee. So I don't have a specific reaction to that.
Q — Republicans are coalescing, though, around Romney now — Bush and Rubio and now Ryan — as the eventual nominee. It seems like that's moving in that direction, right?
MR. EARNEST: There is no — there is a primary election scheduled in Wisconsin on Tuesday and I don't want to get ahead of Republican voters, members of the Republican Party making their own decisions about who they believe their nominee should be.
Q On the Vice President's remarks yesterday that an event in the Gulf could possibly cause the President to lose reelection — was he referring to the Persian Gulf? And does the White House see Iran as a political problem, not just a geopolitical threat?
MR. EARNEST: I wasn’t at the fundraiser last night so I haven't seen the full context of the Vice President's remarks, so I'm not sure I could refer to them specifically. However, I have heard many other senior administration officials and other campaign officials note that it is not uncommon for significant outside events to influence elections. They certainly have in the past. And so my guess is, is what the Vice President was referring to is any series of outside events that could have an impact to some degree or another on the election. And so my sense is that he made that reference in the context of other kinds of things like this — certainly the ongoing financial turmoil in Europe and other things.
So my sense is that he was referring to some of the turmoil in the Middle East and referring to that frankly being a news-making event, but not drawing any other conclusions.
Q Does the President plan to say anything at any of his events today about the Supreme Court's health care arguments?
MR. EARNEST: Well, you've certainly heard the President at previous events like this, where he's talking about his reelection campaign, make the case for the success that he's enjoyed in his first three years of fighting on behalf of middle-class families in Washington, D.C. And the health care has been an important — health care reform, the Affordable Care Act was an important part of that achievement.
We're already seeing that there's significant benefits that the American people are enjoying because of passage of the Affordable Care Act. So there are 5 million seniors who have gotten some assistance in paying for their prescription medicine that saved them more than $3 billion –
Q I'm referring specifically to how the argument went this week.
MR. EARNEST: As I pointed out, it’s not uncommon for the President to talk about how proud he is of the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the important benefits that the American people are already enjoying as a result of that passage. I wouldn’t anticipate, however, that he would comment specifically on the hearings necessarily today.
Q Josh, gay marriage is on the ballot in Maine in November. Is the President going to weigh in on that ballot initiative or discuss his evolving position today?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t anticipate that the President would make news on either of those things today.
Q Back on the Supreme Court, Jay said yesterday that the President thought Solicitor General Verrilli had done a good job in the arguments. Did he listen to those himself, the audio of that?
MR. EARNEST: Has the President heard the audio?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure if the President himself has heard the audio. As I pointed out on Wednesday, the President has been following the news coverage and received briefings from our staff at the White House about the arguments and how they've proceeded. I don’t know specifically whether or not the President has heard the audio of those — of the arguments.
Q As a constitutional law professor, is he not sort of interested in that on two fronts?
MR. EARNEST: There are many reasons why the President is interested in it. As I pointed out earlier, the Affordable Care Act is certainly one of the significant achievements of the first term of this administration and so the President is both personally and professionally invested in the arguments that are taking place.
The President has been following them in the news reports and has gotten specific briefings from our legal staff at the White House. And I feel confident in saying that the President shares the opinion of our White House staff that Mr. Verrilli did a terrific job in representing the interests of the government for the Supreme Court, but also representing the interests of the 2.5 million young adults who have health insurance coverage through their parent’s plan because of the Affordable Care Act. And Mr. Verrilli effectively was an advocate for the 50 million Americans who have access to free preventative coverage — or free preventative services through their private insurance coverage because of the Affordable Care Act. That’s essentially the role that Mr. Verrilli was charged with and everyone at the White House was pleased with his performance.
Q Are you still saying there are no contingency plans, though, if it does get voted down? There’s got to be something that you guys are doing as a backup.
MR. EARNEST: There’s a lot that we’re doing and it’s related to the implementation of this law to ensure that we can maximize benefits of the Affordable Care Act for the American people. And I can say that when the Supreme Court rules that we'll be prepared to deal with it.
Q Do you have any comment on the RNC web ad that apparently altered the audio from the hearing of Donald Verrilli, making him sound more halting than he was?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any specific reaction to that. I’d refer you to my colleagues at the DNC about that.
Q Can you do a week ahead and talk about the North American Leaders Summit on Monday?
MR. EARNEST: There’s a lot here, so write fast.
On Monday, the President will host Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada and President Felipe Calderon of Mexico for the North American Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. The meeting will build on wide-ranging and ongoing cooperation among the United States, Canada and Mexico, with a particular focus on economic growth and competitiveness, citizen security, energy and climate change.
The leaders will also discuss North America’s role in the Americas in anticipation of the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia later next month, as well as other global, economic, political and security issues.
On Tuesday, the President will attend meetings at the White House. And then on Wednesday the President will host an Easter prayer breakfast at the White House.
Q What kind of breakfast?
MR. EARNEST: An Easter prayer breakfast at the White House as he has done in previous years. Christian leaders from across the country will join the President at the breakfast for a time of prayer, reflection, and the celebration of Easter.
Also on Wednesday, the President will sign the STOCK Act, which makes clear that members of Congress are subject to the same insider trading laws that apply to everyone else. You will recall that this is legislation that the President called on Congress to pass in his 2012 State of the Union address.
On Thursday, the President will sign the Jobs Act. You will recall this is bipartisan legislation that was passed by the Congress a week or two ago and it includes key initiatives that the President proposed last fall in his American Jobs Act to help small businesses and startups grow and create jobs.
And then on Friday, the President will deliver remarks at the White House Forum on Women in the Economy. And later that day, the President and First Lady will mark the beginning of Passover with a seder at the White House with friends and staff.
Q — we should be waiting for today, Josh, from the President?
MR. PRESIDENT: I don’t think so. I don’t — I would anticipate that today’s events will be typical of the other campaign political events that the President has spoke at and participated in.
One other noteworthy thing about our trip is the illustrious Dr. Joynt Kumar informed me this morning that this is actually the first trip of a sitting President to the state of Vermont since July of 1995 — a little noteworthy color for the morning.
Q The first trip of a sitting President to Vermont since July of ’95?
MR. EARNEST: President Bush never — President Clinton did not travel to Vermont in his second term and President Bush did not visit Vermont as President.
Q Can I ask one question on NALS?
MR. EARNEST: Yes.
Q Why are they doing that now and not just waiting to Cartagena and doing it on the margins there? Is there some kind of thing that they’re teeing up, some kind of joint deliverable for the summit?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t have any sense of — a preview of whether or not there might be anything that will come out of that meeting. I know that they had originally planned to do this on the margins of APEC and Hawaii.
Q And Calderon had to leave.
MR. EARNEST: Right, because of the tragic helicopter crash. So this was an effort to reschedule that. I’m not sure why they’re doing it — they aren’t doing it on the margins of the Summit of the Americas. I don’t know if it’s a time constraint that they had in Colombia or if there’s something else that may have contributed to this.
But it certainly is — the President does view this as an important opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Harper and President Calderon. He meets with them frequently and their staffs are obviously in close coordination. This will be another important opportunity for them to get together and talk.
Q Thank you.
MR. EARNEST: All right. We have a long day, but I’ll be in touch over BlackBerry and I’ll try to come find you when we’re on the ground.
10:48 A.M. EDT