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White House Briefing

Aired January 27, 2009 - 16:00   ET


ROBERT GIBBS, PRESS SECRETARY: You know, the clock's not at zero, guys. This a process that continues.

You know, I think the president went up there in a true spirit of bipartisanship to seek input. You know, I will leave it aside that some members of the leadership invited the president to come up and announce their position on the bill before he got there. But he was anxious to talk to members from across the country about what they see in their distance and what they are hearing from their constituents. And I think it's a process that we are happy to be part of, and I think one that will result in a bill that's in the best interest of the American people.

QUESTION: Are you hearing from members that they are willing to discuss this, to make concessions?

GIBBS: Well, I think the president talked about some ideas today, and he will have the team evaluate them. And we will go through the process.

QUESTION: Robert, the president talked today on the Hill about his concerns, again, about banks' troubled assets and about a multi- legged stool. When will he decide what to do about those assets? Will he ask Congress for more money?

And he also said credit needs to get flowing again. What else does he believe of does the White House believe needs to be done for that?

GIBBS: Well, it's a good question, Jeff (ph), because the president said, and I think both members on the -- Republican members on the House and the Senate side talked about and understand, that the stimulus or the economic recovery plan is just one part of a series of things that have to happen, a financial stability package, some regulation of the financial industry to ensure that this type of thing never happens again. And it was remarkable listening to that.

There is consensus that one thing alone is certainly not going to do it. And if we don't begin to do these things in concert with each other, meaning the proposals, that we are not going to enjoy an economic recovery.

The president met with as part of his economic daily briefing -- you know, with Secretary Geithner and Dr. Summers for about 50 minutes today in the Oval Office. They talked about economic news, they talked about the recovery. And I believe the economic team continues to be in the process of putting together some ideas. I know that Secretary Geithner released some guidelines about the TARP and how lobbying relates to that.

This is a process that the economic team is working through. Like I said, it took up -- I think the meeting was on the schedule for 15 minutes, and the meeting went 50. So I know there are active discussions because, again, everybody understands that it's not just going to be one thing that fixes this economy or one thing that gets the economy growing and moving again. It's a series of things.

QUESTION: Are we assuming he's asking for more money?

GIBBS: Well, again, I think it would be unhelpful to assume, based on the fact that the decisions haven't been made by the president. Again, I will restate what I've said a number of times from here.

The president will do what is necessary to ensure, first and foremost, that there is not an economic collapse. But I think everybody understands that we're going to have to do a lot to get the economy moving again. I know the president, and particularly on the Senate side, there was a lot of talk about financial stability, and understanding that we are in a unique moment whereby it's not just one problem that confronts the economy, but it's a series of very complex, but also interwoven problems that are going to all have to be dealt with in order to get the economy moving again.

QUESTION: You said that the president asked members to evaluate his plan of proposal. Where is that specific plan? We haven't actually seen a document that lays all of this out. It seems like it's sort of a provision...


QUESTION: They are going to vote on it tomorrow. You talked about posting it on the Internet so the American people can evaluate...

GIBBS: Well, we talked on the campaign about once a bill had come through the process before the president signed it, that the bill would be put on the Internet in order for the American people to be able to evaluate it. I think -- I'm unfamiliar with how the House does this, but I know the -- I think the bill goes through the Rules Committee tomorrow, and there should be copies of that legislation there.

The president -- let me give you an example, going back to some of your earlier questions about cooperation with the Republicans on the bill. One of the very first things that then-President-elect Obama did when he went to Capitol Hill, I think the 4th or 5th of January, was sit down with the bipartisan leadership in the House and Senate and talk about ideas.

And one of the very first ideas that was given to him by the whip in the House, Eric Cantor, was, let's put everything on the Internet so the people can see where this money is going for and how we do on these projects. And that's going to happen. So I think the notion that somehow there is one party only, one party involved, or people aren't working together to get this done, I don't think matches what is actually happening in this process. That's why we're happy to do it.

QUESTION: The Congressional Budget Office has announced in the last 24 hours, saying that about 66 percent of the current plan, this current form that's still a moving target, would stimulate the economy within 18 months. You've said and vowed that it would be 75 percent.

GIBBS: Right.

QUESTION: How do you square that circle?

And secondly, CBO is saying that the real cost of this is not $825 billion, it's $1.1 trillion to $1.2 trillion, they're telling Congressman Boehner, because of interest costs. So what's the real price tag?

GIBBS: Well, the real price tag is how much the plan costs right now. I think the plan is $825 billion.

QUESTION: CBO thought it's really $1.1 trillion to $1.3 trillion.

GIBBS: Well, I'm not an economist. And, I mean, when you bought your house, how much did you -- when the little piece of paper said your house was however much it was, I don't think they factored in the 30-year cost of your loan, but I will leave that for mortgage brokers throughout the country to discuss.


GIBBS: Yes, I was going to say, if he wants to declare foreclosure, we can deal with it just around the corner.

QUESTION: Cumulative, 66 percent. And you say 75 percent.

GIBBS: Well, first of all, let's mark some progress since the first time this question was asked a few days ago, and I said that, one, if the CBO would take a wider scope of the bill, you would find a much larger and much faster pay out of that money. And that has now become evident and obvious.

As you said in your question, and I don't remember the exact phraseology, but again, they are evaluating this particular piece of legislation. I think the spend out rate will be evaluated, and the Senate bill will be even faster. The president is committed to at least 75 percent of that money being spent out over 18 months so that the money that is -- the taxpayer money that is spent gets quickly into this economy to create and save millions of jobs and get this place going again.

I think that's the test that will be met. I'm happy and we are happy that CBO, as I said, has widened its lens to look at not just one narrow aspect of a piece of legislation from a few days ago, or at the beginning of the process, but again, that wider lens and where it is now. And I think we are making progress on that.

QUESTION: At the meeting today, Congressman Pence, among others, expressed concern that they had been shut out of the process when it comes to negotiation on Capitol Hill. Does the president think that Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Obey have been bipartisan the way he likes to hold out bipartisanship as a...


GIBBS: Well, you know, Jake (ph), I have not been in meetings about the stimulus bill. I can only talk most substantively about the viewpoint of the president and his involvement in this. And I think on any number of occasions, whether it's going up there when he was president-elect, whether it's bringing a group down here last week, whether it was going back up there today, that the president believes honestly that we can put something together with input from both parties that will most benefit the American people.

QUESTION: But is he, for want of a better word, leaning on Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Obey and others to be more bipartisan? You're probably not going to get more than a dozen Republican votes tomorrow.

GIBBS: Well, look -- well, you know, I think we have all seen votes in this town where a few Republicans sometimes are hard to come by, or a few Democrats are hard to come by. We'll take what we can get tomorrow.

I think the most important thing about tomorrow is keeping this process going because, again, the American people deserve a process that understands the severity of the crisis that they are involved in. Not to get involved in some "Animal House" type food fight on Capitol Hill about what's going to happen up there.

I think what's important is that we move this process along. The president was willing to go up there today and do what he can to help move the process along and get something quickly for the American people.


QUESTION: Robert, to the president's way of thinking, do the rhetoric and actions of Democrats and Republicans so far meet his idea of change, or would you like to say additional change?

GIBBS: Well, I think -- you know, I think he was heartened by a couple of particular things that happened in the meetings today. I don't remember the exact House member, but several said that they were appreciative of the tone that he brought to Washington.

Actually, one of them was Peter Roskam, a colleague of his from Springfield who is now a member of Congress from Illinois. And others who mentioned that they were appreciative of, as I said, the tone that he brought to Washington, the willingness to seek their opinions and to listen to what they had to say. You know, and Congressman Pence was -- ended the meeting by saying the door to the Republican Conference was always open if the president ever wanted to come talk to them again. I think that's something that he will continue to do. Again, this may be the first time in our illustrious seven-day presidency that we've traveled...

You know, you need a sign, because I've now messed that up on three different days, that we will go back up there and seek their advice.


QUESTION: How does the president feel?

GIBBS: The president feels like we are making progress. The president feels like we are on track to meet what he hopes is a Presidents Day deadline to get something moving.

The president also feels, again, that yesterday's members make the job of members of Congress, of members of this administration and of him to act quickly, that we can't delay, that we need to get stimulus into this economy quickly. The more we delay, the more people are going to lose jobs, the less impact that this is going to have quickly.

He believes we're on track do that. He's happy that the tone that has been set is the right one. I think he looks forward to continuing to work with members of both parties and looks forward to having everybody down here to sign an economic recovery plan when it happens.

Chuck (ph)?

QUESTION: Robert, can you explain why the president made the decision to call Chairman Waxman because of the contraception thing yanked out of the stimulus?

GIBBS: The president called Chairman Waxman yesterday and said that, while he believed that the policy of increased funding for family planning was the right one, that he didn't believe that this bill was the vehicle to make that happen.

QUESTION: Going back, is the president concerned that he is being used as a political wedge? Because it make a parade of House Republican that came out and said he is -- Speaker Pelosi is not listening to us, he is listening to us. Is he concerned he is being used as a political wedge?

GIBBS: You know, if the president becomes a walk comment box that gets an economic recovery plan faster into the American economic bloodstream, then my guess is they'll have to fill up the cars and we will drive up there a lot more often.

Mark (ph)?

QUESTION: A new subject. GIBBS: Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Karl Rove's attorney wants to know what the White House counsel thinks about whether Rove is still covered by executive privilege in the subpoena that he received yesterday from the House Judiciary Committee.

GIBBS: Some of my staff has talked to the White House counsel. And the Office of White House Counsel is studying those issues and will advise us when they have a recommendation. I don't have anything at this point more than that.


QUESTION: Robert, as you said, on the Senate side, there was curiosity and dialogue with the president about a financial stability package. As you said, there will be many legs to the stool.

I know it seems a bit tedious, but some of the senators came away with the impression there is going to be a second request separate from TARP for the financial industry. Are they mistaken in that impression? Is there any economic data that the economic team has brought to the president in the last week that would suggest there isn't a need for some kind of...


GIBBS: Yes. Good try. You've been asking me the same question for three days, but in a different way to prove the other side.

The discussion and the dialogue with the Senate Republicans, again, I think centered around sort of two basic principles as it related to financial stability. I don't remember a lot of specific discussion about exact funding levels, but two discussions that were had, one was, again, the need to -- primarily to make sure that this happened quickly. That -- look, I think everybody in that room -- ideas on how to use the next money differently than the previous money. I think everybody in that room feels like what was brought to them last September and executed neither lived up to what the Treasury Department said they were going to try to do, and certainly didn't execute in any way progress that we have seen that has moved credit and lending along.

There was also discussion again of, you have a little bit of a circular problem here. If you don't -- and the reason I think that they talked about this is you have to deal with both parts of these problems. Both parts of this problem. And that is, if somebody doesn't have a job, they are not going to be borrowing money; right?

So, the lending that we have to have happen to get the economy moving again is hard to do if somebody doesn't have a job. It's hard to make the decision to borrow $25,000 to send somebody to college if you don't have any hopes of ever paying that off.

So, again, this was discussed as it relates to ensuring that we have both a new way of spending the money that has been appropriated by the Senate. And I think everyone is eager to see that that changes. And secondly, to ensure that it works in concert with the reinvestment and recovery plan to get the economy moving.

QUESTION: Following up on the stimulus, clearly with the contraceptive decision, the president is open to revising some component parts of the stimulus?

GIBBS: I think that's accurate.

QUESTION: And to pick up on the phrase you used before, look at the whole package and the lens (ph) of what is economically productive. Does the president believe some other spending has been criticized -- $200 million for the National Mall, $44 million to spruce up the exterior of the Agriculture Department?

GIBBS: Well, let's talk about the Mall for a second.


GIBBS: Let's talk about the Mall for a second.

QUESTION: Are those things also economically...

GIBBS: Let's talk about the Mall for a second.

When we met on the first day of our presidency, we were on the Mall; right? 1.8 million people stood on the Mall, which happens to be the most visited national park that we have; right?

I think that you can make a very credible case, and the economic team has, that reconditioning the National Mall will create jobs, probably through spending in small businesses. I saw editorials over the weekend, you know, "How is hiring cops stimulative?" Well, if you're about to fire cops, then hiring cops is stimulative. It's putting people back to work.

I think that forgetting for a second that you can look at two one-hundredths of 1 percent of a piece of legislation and come up with some critique, leaving aside the other -- I can't even do the math that quickly -- 99-plus percent, the president believes that we have a package that is balanced, that puts money into people's pockets and creates jobs.

There is no doubt that in today's meetings, there were members that simply don't want to spend any federal money. None. Right?

But I think you have a hard economic argument to make that paving a road or fixing a bridge or building a wind turbine or laying a power grid doesn't create jobs. I think you have a hard time arguing that. When we speed down the interstate and it says, "Slow, workers ahead," those are jobs.

I think the spending in this bill will create jobs. It will put people back to work. It will get this economy moving again.

Some people might not want to do that. The president believes we face an economic crisis that doesn't allow us the option to turn our back on that happening.


QUESTION: Robert, the president today urged the Republicans on the Hill to put aside politics, and you repeated something like that earlier today, which I guess means potentially to support the program despite the fact that it might have political implications that are bad for them or their party.

Is there anything in the bill -- in the proposal that is bad for the Democratic Party or bad for President Obama politically that he will take a dose of his own medicine, in a sense?

GIBBS: Look, I think the way the president evaluates the bill is whether or not it's going to get this economy moving. Look, we're all involved in what we hope is a process and what we believe is a process that will get the economy moving again. We probably don't have many more shots at this.

You know, I think -- my hunch is you can find members of Congress that were not happy with the president's decision to call Congressman Waxman yesterday and asked that that money, albeit good policy, not be in this bill. I don't doubt that there are things on each side of this that people might not all together like, but again, instead of focusing on two one-hundredths of 1 percent of a piece of legislation, let's look at the 98 100ths of the 99 percent of the legislation and understand that it's going to get this economy moving.

And I think the president believes that, you know, we will all be in political trouble if we don't get people back to work. You know?

We are all in a big boat, and we are all having to row. And if we don't get the boat safely to shore, we're all going to be in trouble. That's, I think, the evaluation that he hopes members of Congress make in looking at this, again, not through a political lens, not through a philosophical lens, but instead through a lens at what will work and what will get this economy moving again.

QUESTION: Robert, I'm wondering if the president came away with a different feeling from Senate Republicans than he came away with from House Republicans today. Does he feel that Senate Republicans are any more sympathetic to his point of view? And when you talk about moving the ball forward, is what you are really saying, let's get this bill into the Senate, where there may be a little bit different dynamic?

GIBBS: No. When I referred to that, I just mean let's move this along in the legislative process.

Again, I don't -- when it passes the House and when it passes the Senate, it's not likely to be identical. So that's -- even those two acts aren't going to in and of itself be the end of the process.

You know, I think in terms of the mood, I didn't talk to him specifically. I don't believe he came away with markedly different impressions from the group. Again, I think the Senate discussion probably spent more time on different legs of that three-legged stool than just the recovery. But I don't think he got any overall different vibe from what was going on.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Can you tell us about tomorrow's session at the Pentagon, whether this is for the Chiefs to brief the president or for the president to sort of chart the way ahead in terms of Iraq and Afghanistan?

GIBBS: Yes. And I will get some details when we go through the week ahead. But as I've said before, the president began on the 21st of January a process of a new mission in Iraq. And the secretary of defense and others laid out a process by which he would hear from all of those that were involved.

In fact, the secretary was very clear on this in the meeting, that his goal was to put him in front of all of the people that are involved in these decisions and all of the people who are involved in committing the lives of men and women in our uniform so the president can get all this advice in an unvarnished way. That process that started at the beginning of this administration continues tomorrow at the Pentagon. I think they will talk about a number of issues, and obviously one of them will be Iraq and Afghanistan.

He will also, again, at some point have a meeting similar to the one we had on the 21st with -- that will involve General McKiernan to talk specifically about Afghanistan. But throughout this process, the president has laid down the test of ensuring that he hears specifically from both those on the ground and in the region before he makes decisions on our force posture going forward.


QUESTION: The way you describe it, it sounds like he's expecting a fair amount of skepticism from all of them.

GIBBS: Oh, I don't think that's true. I think he looks forward to hearing their opinions.

I think he -- he's laid out that there will be a new mission in Iraq. He said it throughout the campaign, and he said it on the 21st of January in The Situation Room here.

We are now going to go through a process to make a decision to responsibly remove those combat troops, to protect the soldiers that we have there, to provide more -- to give the opportunity for more responsibility for the Iraqi government, and to listen to all those involved as we do it. I think he looks forward to going over there and to listening to what they have to say.

Yes, sir?

QUESTION: Robert, thank you.

Last night, the president talked in his interview with Al-Arabiya about the Israelis and the Palestinians having to make hard choices. Can you elaborate on what some of those hard choices are for each side? And the president's part -- I know you went over this a day or so ago -- is he going to have to really deal with the reality on the ground that either he, or through Senator Mitchell, is actually going to have to talk to Hamas?

GIBBS: Well, let me not get too far ahead of where Senator Mitchell is on his trip.

I think the president, during the campaign and throughout the transition, has talked about what is required of everybody involved. Obviously, I think many of us know without enumerating the individual choices what issues lay before us. But let me -- I want to talk for a second -- step back a little bit and talk about the interview itself.

I think the president believed that this was an opportunity to show the world that he would be personally involved and engaged in seeking long-lasting peace in the Middle East. I think he used the opportunity to discuss with a broad section of the world, the Muslim world, that the United States is not its enemy, that the aspirations that we all have for our children are likely the same aspirations that they have for their children in seeking opportunity and a better way of life.

And I think it was an important message that the world receive as Senator Mitchell was embarking on his first trip and what we assume will be one of many in a very, very long process. But it was important for the president, as he said, during the transition to become involved and engaged in this from the very first day of his presidency, as he did in making calls to foreign leaders in the region. And he will be actively involved as we go forward.

QUESTION: By way of follow-up, does that mean he's going to be talking to other media like Al-Jazeera and other -- I mean, it's self- serving, perhaps...

GIBBS: Perhaps.

QUESTION: ... because that's where I'm from. But I want to know.


GIBBS: Let me do this -- let me make sure that what remains of my briefing doesn't turn into an individual interview request, because I can only imagine I'm going to need someone to get a spreadsheet and we'll go from there.

So I think what people can take from that interview is that you have a president that is willing to reach out and talk to the Muslim world to ensure that they know that the aspirations that he has for them are what they have for themselves and what they have for their children. I think that's important.

Steve? QUESTION: Robert, in addition asking the Democrats in Congress to drop the family planning money, is the president or the White House going to drop anything else from this proposal as it moves past the House?

GIBBS: I don't know of any other calls that the president has made about that today, no.

Mara (ph)?

QUESTION: Several House Republicans said that in the meeting, President Obama said he was not inclined to compromise any further on the tax cuts. Is that correct?

GIBBS: Well, give me the second one and I'll...

QUESTION: Yes. The second one is also -- did he hear any ideas from any, either of the meetings that was something that he would want to incorporate or change about the package?

And then the third is just what Republicans are coming up to see Rahm tonight?

GIBBS: I can get a list of that. I know he has got some guys coming over to talk.

Let me see, I've got to keep making sure I can remember all three parts.

QUESTION: About compromising on the tax cuts.

GIBBS: Yes. That's not what the president said. The president listened to a number of ideas. The president asked Larry and others to evaluate some of those ideas.

I think the member or members that said that were mistaken about -- again, they renewed a debate that was being had, that was had here at the White House, about the make-work pay provisions that the president campaigned on that provide a refundability for those that pay the payroll tax. And the president said again that people that pay payroll tax are taxpayers.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) same conversation about the same specific tax cut? It wasn't about the tax cuts in general?

GIBBS: Yes. Yes. He also talked about -- I think this is an illuminating example, because he said to the members, he asked how many members probably in their office had a picture of Ronald Reagan? You could see hands go up; you could see heads nod.

And he just mentioned that the notion that refundability of tax credits for those that don't make a lot of money was a principle that not only he holds, but one that Ronald Reagan held in -- with the Earned Income Tax Credit in the '80s.

Again, the president said, if there are ideas, if there are tax cuts that stimulate the economy, he's happy to listen. But the notion that somehow -- it would be fairly counterproductive to have gone all the way up there and said, "I appreciate all the cameras as I went in, and the smell of the food as I went out, but we're not going to compromise." That's not the way the president went up there, and that's not the mission that was involved.


QUESTION: ... he did hear ideas that he thought were good...


GIBBS: Well, he -- he heard ideas that he's asked Larry and others to look into, that he -- you know, that he -- like I said, he took envelopes from members that -- that brought specific suggestions, some of whom during the Q&A audibilized their suggestions and others who simply wanted to -- to hand them off.

QUESTION: On the tax cuts, it's been argued, though, that the making-pay-work tax cut is less stimulative than actually reducing the tax rate for the lower two brackets. And, also, Grassley has also said that if you were to attach these minimum -- alternative minimum tax, that would reach more of your lower-end taxpayers. So are either of those...


GIBBS: Well, I think the largest -- the largest part of the AMT patch is for middle- and upper-middle-class taxpayers. Obviously, it's a proposal that the president has supported in the past and is going to wind its way through Congress.

The president believes that, particularly those that have seen their -- their pay and their wages either flat-line or decrease over the past few years, and that have the least buffer in what they make and what their bills are, those are exactly the type of people that we should be giving tax cuts to, because those are the very people that are likely to turn around and spend that money.

He used himself as an example. You know, you give a tax break to Barack Obama, he's got a pretty -- he's got pretty good digs, right? He's probably not going to spend his tax cut.

But if you give it to somebody who's, you know, making $25,000 or $30,000 a year with a couple of children, that's a person that doesn't have a lot of buffer between, again, what they make and what their obligations are. And that's money that's likely to be spent.


GIBBS: Hold on one second.

QUESTION: You're not arguing the AMT shouldn't be patched, but...

(CROSSTALK) GIBBS: No, no, no, no, I -- I think I said very specifically that this was a -- this is a proposal that in the past the president has -- has supported and voted for.

I'm not going to -- I'm not a member of the Senate Finance Committee, for many obvious and probably good reasons. You know, I will let a lot of that wind its way through Congress, and -- and we'll go through a process that gets us a bill.

QUESTION: Just to back up a moment, you talked a little bit about the Senate and their -- the meeting with the senators, talked about the three-legged-stool approach. Is that to say that the House meeting was -- the questions were sharper, they were more pointed?

GIBBS: No...

QUESTION: And could you draw distinctions between how the...


GIBBS: No, no, no, no, I meant -- I guess which is always the danger of reading out said conversations. No, no, I don't want to -- again, the House was where, you know, members stood up and said -- and thanked him for the tone that he used, members, again, that he'd worked with in Springfield and now -- and served with in Washington, and now work with as president and Republican members of Congress.

The questions -- the tone was -- was very cordial. The tone was very polite. I mean, again, maybe it's news that nobody threw anything at anyone and, like I said, there weren't any -- nobody yelled, "Food fight."

But there was a discussion about ideas of how we can move this process forward. And, again, the process doesn't end today. It won't end tomorrow. It -- it continues. And -- and we look forward to ways that we can improve that legislation.

QUESTION: Speaking of readouts, apparently a House member and an aide were e-mailing reports on the meeting while it was going on to a television network. What's your reaction to that?

GIBBS: An excellent way to replace the pool.


No follow-ups to that. No, no, no -- we're -- no, I'm kidding.



GIBBS: Yes, no, I -- can we excise that from the -- no, I -- look, there wasn't anything said in that meeting that -- you know, again, going back to my non-food-fight analogy, I mean, there wasn't anything said in that meeting I don't think that you've heard the president say or that you've heard Republican members of Congress say. And any...


GIBBS: I knew that was coming. And we won't -- in a way of not going through the pool question, we won't open that up for greater debate.

But, you know, again, it was cordial. It was -- maybe it's rare, but I think it was helpful in the process. I think it's something the president likes to do. And, again, nothing that -- you wouldn't have heard anything that was altogether surprising.

Again, and, you know, he said, look, you can -- I understand that some of you aren't going to vote for this, and some of you are going to go on television, and some of you are going to tell everybody why you didn't vote for it. That's fine.

But what he wanted -- he wants people to do is have an exchange of those ideas. As he said during the campaign, we can disagree without finding ourselves being disagreeable. We can get a piece of legislation that works best for -- not for one political party and not the wisdom of each idea shouldn't just be that of one political party, but instead something that works for the American people and, most importantly, something that puts the American people back to work.

QUESTION: On the question of tone, after we had this wonderful love-fest and the Republicans came out and said how much they're appreciative of the president's listening skills, Eric Cantor came out and released a statement about the bill going through the House.

And he said, "This bill will do very little for small businesses and is unlikely to help working families struggling today," and he called it a partisan bill. Now, would you and the president say that that was helpful or not so helpful as you move ahead?

GIBBS: I think the president would say that that is an opinion of one of 535 members of Congress who's decided, for whatever reason, not to support the bill.

I think -- I -- I don't know when the statement went out, the report that we read before we left was that Congressman Boehner and Congressman Cantor had delivered their remarks about supporting the bill prior to the president coming to Capitol Hill at a meeting they invited him to, to listen to what they were doing on the bill.

The president strongly believes, as I have said repeatedly today, that we have a balanced approach that puts money into the pockets of small businesses and struggling families, exactly what Congressman Cantor was talking about, that will help grow the economy, that will put people back to work, and that if we do this in a way that's respectful, that we can get something quickly for the American people, and get the economy moving again.

QUESTION: But this is the type of statement that the Republican leadership is putting out, is there any way at the end of the day to avoid just a partisan battle to get them to pass it? GIBBS: Sure. I -- I think, at the end of the day, we'll have a bill that a lot of people support and a lot of people are proud of. We understand that this is a long process. It doesn't dampen or diminish the president's willingness to seek those opinions and to go out and talk to different people. I think that's what he'll continue to do.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) Secretary Clinton emphasized the need to use the six-party talks to engage in negotiations with North Korea. Does the president feel any sense of urgency in restarting those right now?

GIBBS: I -- I was involved in these meetings and didn't see in particular what she said.

I do -- I do believe that the president, regardless of what country, what group we're talking about, believes that urgency in dealing with the very important issues of nuclear proliferation are -- are important and must be done quickly, must be done with the diplomacy of -- of other countries, and, when it's necessary, through direct diplomacy of the United States.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) week ahead?

GIBBS: Let's go through the week ahead. Where did I put that week ahead?


GIBBS: I promise tomorrow I will get you. How about that?

Tomorrow at 10:30, the president will meet -- in the Roosevelt Room, meet with some CEOs on the economic recovery and reinvestment plan. At 11:15, open to the...

QUESTION: Coverage?

GIBBS: Pool spray in the Roosevelt Room. At 11:15, the president will make remarks to the full assembled press corps in the East Room. At 3:30, the president will travel to the Pentagon and meet with Secretary Gates and service chiefs, and that will be a pool spray, as well.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, they are getting into the logistics right now of tomorrow and the rest of the week -- the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, saying he does expect, he fully expects there will be Republican support for the president's $825 billion economic stimulus package, although he refuses to say how many Republicans in either the Senate or the House will support -- will support -- this legislation.

President Obama today on the Hill meeting separately with Republicans in the House, and later in the Senate, and, while he was up on the Hill, this is what President Obama had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The main message I have is that the statistics every day underscore the urgency of the economic situation. The American people expect action. They want us to put together a recovery package that puts people back to work, that creates investments that assure our long-term energy independence, an effective health care system, an education system that works. They want our infrastructure rebuilt. And they want it done wisely so that we're not wasting taxpayer money.

As I explained to the Republican House Caucus and I will explain to my former Senate colleagues, the recovery package that we've proposed and is moving its way through Congress is just one leg in a multi-legged stool. We're still going to have to have much better financial regulation. We've got to get credit flowing again. We're going to have to deal with the troubled assets that many banks are still carrying and that make the -- that have locked up the credit system. We're going to have to coordinate with other countries because we now have a global problem.

I am absolutely confident that we can deal with these issues, but the key right now is to make sure that we keep politics to a minimum. There are some legitimate philosophical differences with parts of my plan that the Republicans have and I respect that. In some cases they may just not be as familiar with what's in the package as I would like.

I don't expect 100 percent agreement from my Republican colleagues, but I do hope that we can all put politics aside and do the American people's business right now.


BLITZER: The president up on the Hill earlier today.

Gloria Borger is our senior political analyst.

It's pretty remarkable that, within a week, he is already going up to the Hill, on the Hill, not bringing them to the White House, meeting with the Republican rank-and-file in the House, then the Senate, even before he meets with his fellow Democratic rank-and-file.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I -- I think the White House would be the first to tell you that what they are trying to do here is not only convince Republicans to vote for this stimulus package -- they may succeed to a certain degree -- but also to change the tone in Washington.

You know, there are lots of Republicans who are kind of joking and saying they have already seen Barack Obama more than they saw George W. Bush when he was president.


BORGER: So, this notion that he is reaching out to them for philosophical discussions, even if they end up disagreeing, is something that I think that they appreciate. BLITZER: Stand by for a moment.

Ali Velshi is our senior business correspondent.

Ali, there's another important development happening right now, the president of the United States agreeing with his predecessor, George Bush, to go ahead and start bailing out some of these -- these banks that potentially could be in trouble. And, for the first time, he did what just a little while ago?

ALI VELSHI, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Treasury has announced that it is distributing yet another tranche of money.

This is all part of the first $350 billion of TARP. But it is continuing to go to bank, and, in some of these cases, some very small banks. In fact, of the list of money that was distributed, the largest to a single bank was about $101 million to a bank in Indiana.

But Treasury is emphasizing in this case that these investments in these banks, unlike the ones that they got the bad reputation for giving money to that weren't lending them out, Treasury is emphasizing here that these investments in these banks are designed so that the banks will lend money to small businesses and to -- and individuals.

And they are actually stipulating that -- that -- that that happen. So, there is an announcement from the Treasury, for instance, about a bank that is receiving an amount of money. And this bank has announced that it's going to open up branches and it's going to use money to lend to more people.

So, the idea is that that money from TARP, the bailout program, the $700 billion program, is continuing to go out to banks under this administration, and the Treasury is trying to emphasize that, hopefully, people will start to see the effect of this, Wolf, because these banks will start lending money to individuals.

Again, this is not the nine big banks that got most of the money. These are a lot of smaller banks, many of which we will never have heard of prior to this.

BLITZER: And these are banks in 14 different states, Ali, and the Treasury insisting these are healthy banks...

VELSHI: Correct.

BLITZER: ... but they are just trying to help them, encourage them to actually lend money to folks out there.

VELSHI: More the idea of what most Americans thought the bailout program was supposed to be, banks that are healthy that can use money from the government to -- to -- to use that money to -- to actually lend it to people. That's the point that the government is making, that, under this first announcement, under the Obama administration, 14 states -- banks in 14 states are getting money that they hope will be used to lend to people and -- and small businesses -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ali, stand by.

Gloria, stand by as well, because we have a lot going on. It's a very busy news day, and, amidst all of this, there's some startling evidence against the Illinois governor and some breaking news in his impeachment trial in Illinois.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where are you right now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm at the track.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you come see me?




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I will be there probably in about 45 minutes.


BLITZER: We are now hearing those infamous wiretaps of the governor, Rod Blagojevich, as the state Senate weighs allegations of corruption.

Also, President Obama reaches out to the Muslim and Arab world in a new interview. He talks at length about his push for Middle East peace and why Arabs and Israelis are both very frustrated. You will see this interview right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Stand by.

And she is back -- the move Sarah Palin is making today that ensures she will stay in the public eye.

We have got a lot of news right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We are standing by for President Obama's first sit-down interview since taking office. We're going to have it for you, extensive comments coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

But let's stay up on Capitol Hill right now.

The defense secretary, Robert Gates, went there to try to set the stage for a major troop buildup in Afghanistan. It was the Bush administration holdover's first such session with lawmakers since joining team Obama.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is here. And he's got details.

We learned a lot today, Chris.


And what's clear, Wolf, is that Secretary Gates says the U.S. military priorities are shifting.


LAWRENCE (voice-over): Defense Secretary Robert Gates left no doubt: The American military has shifted its focus.

His team is outlining several options for President Obama to get out of Iraq. The fastest is 16 months, but their priorities are elsewhere.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: There is little doubt that our greatest military challenge right now is Afghanistan.

LAWRENCE: That means, if President Obama gives the OK, plans are in place to deploy at least 15,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

GATES: We could have two of those brigades there probably by late spring, and potentially a third by midsummer.

LAWRENCE: The general in charge of Afghanistan says, big picture, he needs about 30,000 more troops. And, for the first time, Secretary Gates indicated, that is about the limit to what he would support.

GATES: I would be very skeptical of any additional force levels, American force levels, beyond what General McKiernan has already asked for.

LAWRENCE: Secretary Gates asked for more surveillance and reconnaissance equipment in Afghanistan, but admitted, overall, the military will have to make do with less money.

GATES: The spigot of defense spending that opened on 9/11 is closing.

LAWRENCE: But the hunt for al Qaeda continues. In a rare move, Secretary Gates not only admitted U.S. missile strikes into neighboring Pakistan; he said they won't stop.

GATES: Both President Bush and President Obama have made clear that we will go after al Qaeda wherever al Qaeda is. And we will continue to pursuit that.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D-MI), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Has that decision been transmitted to the Pakistan government?

GATES: Yes, sir.


LAWRENCE: And, by next year, the Pentagon expects to give troops two years at home for every one year deployed. But they are still going to shoulder the burden in Afghanistan. Additional U.S. troops going to Afghanistan would add to the NATO coalition troops already there. Three nations contribute the most, the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Germany. But there are 39 nations contributing to the NATO troop coalition. A majority, 26 countries, are contributing under 500 troops.

Wolf, I know most high schools have more students than that.

BLITZER: Yes. So, that's largely symbolic on -- on the part of those NATO allies.

Chris Lawrence, thanks very much.

Let's check in with Zain Verjee. She is monitoring some other important stories incoming to THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What is going, Zain?


A man considered one of the greatest Americans writers, John Updike, died today. The author had more than 60 novels, short stories and poems published during his lifetime. Some of Updike's most famous work is his "Rabbit" series, which earned the 76-year-old two Pulitzer Prizes.

Updike had been battling lung cancer.

And, after pressure from the White House, Citigroup is reversing course, saying it's backing out of a deal to purchase a corporate jet. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says, President Obama doesn't think private jets are -- quote -- "the best use of money at this point." Citi has received $45 billion in recent months from the government as part of a bailout plan -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain, stand by. Thank you.

The Arab world now getting a new and direct message from President Obama -- the journalist behind a new interview, his first since taking office with the president, takes us behind the scenes.

Even the Obama White House is not immune to having its e-mail system crash -- why a high-tech administration is having some high- tech challenges.

Lots going on -- right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: Let's get right to our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, two CNN contributors, Donna Brazile, the Democratic strategist, and Bay Buchanan, the Republican strategist.

I assume you are happy that Arlen Specter, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has now announced he will vote to confirm Eric Holder as the next attorney general of the United States.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This should clear the way for Mr. Holder to be confirmed tomorrow and to get to the Justice Department right away.

Eric Holder is not just a smart man, but he is the right person for the job at this time. There is so much at stake, national security, of course, respecting the rule of law. Eric is ready to lead.

BLITZER: There were some questions about the pardons that President Clinton issued in his last days in office and Eric Holder's role in specifically Marc Rich. But it looks like he's going to be confirmed.

BAY BUCHANAN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I agree. He is going to be confirmed. I think those were legitimate issues. They should have been raised. And I think he has a lot to answer for, even now.

But it's a Democratic Senate, and he will be confirmed.

BLITZER: We just heard Robert Gibbs predict that there will be Republicans who support the president's $825 billion economic recovery plan. Can this president charm those Republicans, as he is apparently trying to do on the Hill today, with separate meetings with the Republicans and Democrats in the House?

BUCHANAN: I -- I -- he has his hands full.

Wolf, there's no question this is smart politics, and it also shows the kind of man that -- that the president is. He is classy. He goes right down there to the Hill. He talks to the opposition. They -- they are very respectful of him. They said he is very much engaging and wants to listen to what they have to say.

But the bottom line is, Republicans do not believe that this is a stimulus package, that it will create jobs, but, rather, that it's big government. And, so, if you don't believe that this is going to work, you cannot support it, no matter how pleasant your president might be.

BLITZER: He has the votes in the House and Senate, but he would love to get some Republican -- some significant Republican support to show, you know, he is a post-partisan president.

BRAZILE: Well, more importantly, he is trying to save jobs -- 200,000 jobs have been announced this month that's been cut. That's on top of the 2.6 million last year.

You know, Mark Zandi, who was the chief economist and adviser to John McCain, said that, for every dollar in the situation, it will create $1.32 amount of GDP. I don't know anything about the economy, but I know...


BLITZER: What is the risk to Republicans politically, if they vote against him on this, and it works, and they -- they look like what?

BUCHANAN: No, I don't think that's the problem.

If it works, everybody is going to be thrilled, and nobody is going to remember who was against it or for it. But, obviously, if you're the president of the United States, and you turn something like this around, you are going to stay in power, no question about that.

But, if it doesn't work, the Republicans should be the ones that are out there explaining why they don't think it would -- they shouldn't vote against it just because they're Republicans. They should only vote against it if they think it will fail.

And history is on their side, Wolf. We never spent our way out of a recession. And Japan tried it in the '90s and found themselves in a terrible mess after eight stimulus packages. So, that is what the problem is here. It's all hopeful thinking, but we could get ourselves into real serious debt. And that could be a worse problem...


BLITZER: Politically, how risky is this for the new president?

BRAZILE: I think he is doing the right thing in extending an olive branch to the Republicans to help him govern.

But if they decide that they just want to be the loyal -- loyal opposition, and not work with this new president, they will pay again at -- at the polls.

BLITZER: Guys, we have got to leave it right there. Thanks very much.

And, to our viewers, you are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now: As the economy slides further downhill, President Obama goes up to Capitol Hill, trying to sell congressional Republicans on his rescue plan.

The president's first formal TV interview goes to an Arabic- language channel in the Middle East, as he reaches out to the Muslim and Arab world. We are going to get the behind-the-scenes details from the interviewer and hear from the interviewee.

And the Obama campaign used cutting-edge communications, but is the White House technology so out of date right now that the staff can hardly even send e-mail?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.