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Dem Caucus Leaders: It's Time to Act on Guns and Fiscal Cliff

Press Conference

Location: Washington, DC

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (CT) was joined by incoming Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (CA), incoming Caucus Vice Chairman Joe Crowley (NY), and Rep. Mike Thompson (CA) for a press avail after the weekly Democratic Caucus meeting today.

Chairman Larson: Good morning and we just completed our Democratic Caucus. Extraordinarily proud of our members and the unity expressed and the solidarity with the citizens of Newtown, Connecticut and for those children and adults, who lost their lives last Friday. There was a lot of discussion and we've seen far too much violence and loss of life and it seems to have intensified.

The feeling of this Caucus, as I believe is the feeling all around the country, enough is enough. We heard from Chris Murphy, Senator-elect and the current Representative from Newtown, talking about the community and how it is responded. This quintessential New England small town, as the President of the United States said, has been inspirational in terms how, in terms of how they have dealt with this tragedy from everything from the first responders arriving on the scene, to the teachers and administrators, in the way that they executed the plan that saved children's lives and those very valiant, who put themselves in the way of the assassin to save the lives of children. We are resolved in our Caucus, that the time to act is now. And that we know taking no action is to be complicit to a future event.

We announced today, that we will have a task force that will serve to coordinate all of our efforts. We know that this is a comprehensive issue. We know that it is not just restrictions, that regulations that need to be placed on guns, but also the issues of mental illness, the culture of violence and youth violence specifically. And members of our Caucus from Carolyn McCarthy, to Grace Napolitano, to Bobby Scott and countless others who have been working on these issues for years, we are going to address this in a comprehensive way.

Mike Thompson stood up today in front of our Caucus and we have tapped him to lead this effort in coordination. A hunter, a Vietnam veteran -- a wounded Vietnam veteran, who spoke both from his heart and also with the common sense practical measures, that he has become noted for in service in Congress on the Ways and Means Committee and the large respect that the members of the Caucus have for him.

Before I call on both the Vice Chair and the Vice Chair-elect to speak, we are going to have Mike address this issues and I don't think we could have a more dedicated and focused person to coordinate this effort with our leadership. Mike.

Rep. Thompson: Thank you Mr. Chairman. Thank you all for being here, understanding the seriousness and the importance of this issue. And as Chairman Larson said, what happened in Connecticut, similar to what, what' s happened every place there has been gun violence, it's just rotten to the core and it's got to stop. We've got to work in a comprehensive way to make sure that we address all the issues that play into something as tragic, as horrific and as rotten to the core as what happened in Connecticut.

As the Chairman said, I'm a gun owner, I'm a hunter, I've been one for as long as I can remember. The only experience I've had with assault weapons was the one the one that I was trained with when I was in the Army and the one that was given was sent to Vietnam. And I carried that M-16 rifle until I was wounded and came home and when I came home I continued to be a gun owner and a hunter and I have been to, to this day and I don't see that changing.

And I know a couple of things. I know that this is not a war on guns. Gun owners and hunters across this country have every right to own legitimate guns for legitimate purposes and our Democratic Caucus is not declaring war on guns and we're not going to try and take law abiding citizens' guns away from them and nor has anyone even suggested that. But we also know and I also know that our communities and our neighborhoods and our society receive no benefit from military type assault weapons on the street, or assault clips in the hands of anyone. And it is our effort to make sure that we bring about sensible gun laws and this is not new, there are already restrictions on the ownership of firearms in this country. You can't own fully automatic weapons, you can't own sawed-off shotguns, you can't own ballistic missiles, there are restrictions and we need to revisit those to make sure that they are current and that they are constructed in a way that insures that we can make certain that our children, and our community is as safe as we can possibly make it.

And I'm honored to have been asked to coordinate this effort.

Chairman Larson: Thank you Mike and I can say that the unanimity in our Caucus and everybody who spoke, who's experienced, whether it be Columbine, or Aurora, or whether it be in Portland, or whether it be in Connecticut, our Caucus remains united in this effort and for those of us in Connecticut it was especially heartening to hear the response and see the reaction and more importantly the commitment.

Our Caucus also as, as we plan to have another Caucus this afternoon, as we learn about the details of what the President's reaction will be. We remain united behind our President and, and his efforts. Both on the front of ending the culture of violence that has permeated this country and the necessity for a long discussion and deep dialogue over protecting our children and also his efforts to bring fiscal sanity to this, this process and prevent us from reaching, or going over this fiscal cliff. We stand united behind our President and we will be meeting later this afternoon.

At this time I'd like to have the Vice Chair and Chair -- elect of the Caucus, Xavier Becerra.

Vice Chair Becerra: Mr. Chairman, thank you very much. I concur with your words and I applaud you for all the work you've done in your State of Connecticut to try to address the needs of all the victims and their families and the people of Connecticut. I certainly share in the comments of my colleague and friend from California, Mr. Thompson, on what he has said and he is going to be a great leader on this issue. We look forward to working with him on all the efforts because as much as the words and there have been plenty of them over these last several days, have been important, but we hope that they have been somewhat soothing. As a father of three daughters, I tell you that you can't express anything to, to satisfy, not just yourself, but certainly not the families of the victims and so I think it's been important that we try to communicate to all of the families that are victims today and all the people in Connecticut who are trying to help these families, let them understand that we all stand with them and our words should be very clear about that.

But very quickly, those words must be followed by deeds. We must act. And we're very much looking forward to working under the leadership of Mike Thompson, to make sure that we have our words followed by our deeds. And so, we have a lot to do, we are thankful that the President has said that something must be done. We believe under his leadership, and with the work of good members, like Congressman Thompson, we will have our words followed by deeds.

With that let me yield to the Vice Chair -- elect, gentleman from New York, Mr. Crowley.

Rep. Crowley: Thank you, Xavier. Many of my colleagues have come to know my family in a personal way. All three of my children were born while I've been a Member of Congress. I have a little guy, by the name of Liam, he's seven years old. And yesterday, I learned of a little boy named, Ben Wheeler, who loved to ride the seven line. The seven train that goes from Times Square all the way out to what was once Shea Stadium, now Citi Field. I love the seven line as well and so do my kids, they love to ride the train. And I saw in that face my own little boy and I think that for many of us, whether they be Democrat or Republican, that needs, that has to strike home. It certainly did for me and my family. And I think that's what's made this particular event, if you can it's unique, it's unique in that the innocence that was lost on Friday was like no other. Not to, to even compare innocence of what happened in Aurora to Connecticut, but when little children are just taken in that way, I think it brings all of us to this table.

As John Larson has said, inaction would be neglect, inaction would be complicit with, with what potentially could happen in the future. I don't think we can afford to wait, we need to act, as country, as a Congress to protect whomever we can. We can't - you know, we, we can't protect everyone from all the evil, but there are steps that we can take, reasonably and as Mike Thompson, I want to applaud Mike for his leadership here.

My in-laws are from Montana. I understand people enjoy the ability to hunt and to -- my, my son, my thirteen year old son, has actually enjoyed that opportunity, I've never done it myself, but I understand that right of passage, I understand the meaning of that for my in-laws and I think for so many people in this country, but I think they also understand that reasonable steps can be taken to ensure that the safety of our children in particular, can be safe guarded.

And so, I thank Mike and all those within our Caucus and our Republican colleagues, those who will stand with us as well. I appreciate them taking the action that I think we all have to take as a country to ensure the safety of all the innocents in our country.

Chairman Larson: I want to commend our colleague Chris Murphy, who addressed the Caucus today. And lead our resolution on the floor of the House last evening and who has been on the scene throughout these last several days.

I want to commend Senator Blumenthal and Lieberman as well and Representative-elect Elizabeth Esty who has also been there at the firehouse and meeting with the families. It's been an incredible effort. The state police of the state of Connecticut and their response and their job and the police officers in Newtown and that small, little village of Sandy Hook, how this community has pulled together and, as the President said, has provided inspiration to all of us. The governor of the state of Connecticut has been incredible. And Sunday evening he said, "With winter approaching, he will forever think of these children when gentle snows begin to fall, as these beautiful little, individual snowflakes that fall in the depths of winter." But went on to talk about the spring and how Newtown and Sandy Hook and the state of Connecticut will recover and the flower will come up and we'll think of these children again.

But they will always be in our memory and we have a special responsibility as elected Members of the United States Congress. The great muse of history, Clio, sits over the old House chambers and sits there with pen and pad, writing what you do during your moment of service in the United States Congress. It is time for the Congress to act. I am proud of Mike taking on this responsibility and the coordination that will be required and the short-term and long-term efforts. But I assure you this: we will act.

And with that, we'll take questions.

Q: Congressman Larson, Speaker Boehner today unveiled a plan to keep taxes at the same level for those earning under $1 million a year. It doesn't address tax extenders, it doesn't address cuts from the sequester. Can that type of plan gain any support from House Democrats?

Chairman Larson: Which plan is this one? I think Speaker Boehner, as I've said before, has a difficult task. We don't know the deep details of plan A, plan B, or whatever plan C might be. But we remain united behind our president and what we hope will be a process that yields success, but we have very little details and an awful lot of suggestions but our understanding is that the Speaker's plans have been rejected by his own Conference.

We will be meeting later. We will wait to hear what our president continues to say, unifying us and unifying the country, and we will meet later as a Caucus to discuss it. But not knowing any of the details, it's hard to comment.

Q: Congressman, can you talk about the President's offer right now, his position?

Chairman Larson: Well, we think the President has been operating in good faith and we think the President has always laid out a plan and required that it be fair and that it be balanced. We understand that that's what he continues to do. We just had Rob Nabors in our caucus and he said he is on his way back to the White House because they need to discuss, apparently, what has transpired with the Speaker and the Republican Conference, to which we don't know all the details either.

Q: One of the last proposals from the President included a change in the CPI. Are you--is your Caucus willing to support that?

Chairman Larson: We didn't get into that kind of discussion. Again, and the reason is, there isn't a concrete plan or details before the Caucus. You know, all of you can generally surmise what people in the Caucus have had to say about that, but until there's any kind of concrete proposal that's something that people will actually vote on, you know, it seems like a moving target so not really much we can comment on there.

Q: In the abstract, a change in the CPI?

Chairman Larson: Well, the abstract-- [laughter]. It's more than the abstract but we're not going to comment on that.

Listen: the nation is in a very difficult spot and this is where we expect our leaders to step up. What we've seen happen so far is that the President continues to step up. But we see resistance. We have said from the outset here that we understand the difficult John Boehner has with the more recalcitrant Members of his caucus who perhaps are not for any proposal. We continue to stand with the President in fair and balanced proposal that has to accomplish the goals that he has outlined. Thus far we have not seen that kind of response emanating from the side.

I don't know if any of my other colleagues want to comment?

Q: Mr. Becerra, you've been very strong saying there shouldn't be any changes to Social Security.

Vice Chair Becerra: Yes, that's right.


Q: So do you see resistance from yourself or others in the Caucus to possible changes in CPI?

Vice Chair Becerra: I think the Chairman said it best: the President has, all the way through this, tried to make it clear he's going to try to come up with a plan that in the eyes of the American people would be balanced and would address our deficits and still let us move forward with creating jobs. And I think many of us still have faith that the President will ultimately, if he strikes a deal with the Republicans, give us a plan that we can vote on that provides that fairness and the balance. What the actual elements will be, it's unclear. Many of us continue to say that there are certain things that would be very difficult for us.

Social Security, as I've said and I'll repeat it again, has never contributed a single penny to the deficits and the debt that we face. And so to ask Americans who have paid taxes into the Social Security system for those benefits, to ask them to now take a cut in their benefits to cover the cost of deficits caused by Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for or to pay for two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, doesn't make sense to me. And so we hope that the Republicans will cease their push to try to cut benefits through a change in the eligibility age for Medicare beneficiaries, for the change that they're requesting on Social Security, whether it's CPI, the consumer price index change on the COLA, or any other kind of cut in benefits under Social Security and Medicare. We would like this to be a fair and balanced approach and so we'll see if the Republicans can come up with something but my understanding, as the Chairman just said, the Republicans in the House have rejected their own Speaker's proposal at this stage so--at this stage it seems like the real negotiation and fight is among Republicans.

Chairman Larson: Let me just add--I would just say this too, and we've said this every week that we've been here since we've returned: we have a bill in front of us that we can pass, that's been passed by the United States Senate. There is precious little time and the middle class of America should not have to endure a tax hike when we have a bill that's ready to go, that's passed the Senate bipartisanly, that has the unanimous support of Democrats and I believe Republicans in the House who will join with us on this issue because it's the right thing to do on behalf of the middle class.

Listen, these events that transpire in Connecticut and here demonstrated again that there is a responsibility on us to act. We have jobs bills that are in front of us that would put the country back to work. These are things we all agree on. Democrats and Republicans share an interest in putting the nation back to work. Democrats and Republicans share an interest in making sure the entire middle class and even millionaires get a $250,000 tax break. Those are the things that we agree on. Let's take our differences into the next session of Congress, but let's resolve these for the people of this country and the middle class and put the nation back to work and therefore deal with these issues in a way where we know we can agree and come together.

Rep. Crowley: John, one point, and that is we and the President have shared values. We understand the President is at the negotiating table and we appreciate the fact that they are talking. We also know that these can be difficult and that not everything we want will be in the bill and not everything they want will be in the bill. That's the nature of negotiations. But we do support the President in his effort to have those discussions. More importantly, we support getting something done before we leave. And I think that the charades--you know, during the holiday season we'll all get together with our families, some of those folks we'll sit around the table we'll agree with, some of them we don't. We have some spirited discussions. It's often said you shouldn't talk about politics or religion at the dinner table and that's exactly what we do talk about during the holiday season. But after we've had our fill and we've discussed it we'll also sometimes play charades. But this is not a time for charades and games on the floor. I think Speaker Beohner and his conference need to come to terms with the fact that their failure to act will have detrimental consequences for the United States. And that's why they need to move from playing games to getting serious about getting something done before we leave here.

Chairman Larson: Yes.

Q: Do you consider the President's plan to be fair and balanced and could you vote for it if it were offered up today?

Chairman Larson: Well, as soon as we--let me say again we're going to be hearing later this afternoon. Once we get the full fleshing-out of those details we will have a caucus on that as well and discuss the issues. As I said, also, it seems as though, and I think this has been said by both the Vice Chair and the Vice Chair-elect, it seems as though the Republicans are in a discussion with themselves on what they can potentially even agree to. And we'll wait and see but we remain united behind our President in this process.


Q: I don't know the full details but my colleagues were at the GOP presser and Speaker Boehner told reporters that he plans to move a bill later this week that extends the tax cuts for income below $1 million. Is that something that Democrats as a bill would object to? I mean, you've been calling on them just now to act and they haven't acted on the bill that you would prefer, the Senate-passed bill, that would extend the cuts for under $250,000.

Chairman Larson: Let me say that Democrats would be unified behind our President in this, et cetera. We would reject that notion. That simply doesn't get it done, period. And I think even the Speaker knows that.

Rep. Crowley: Those are the charades we were talking about.

Vice Chair Becerra: And can I just add one thing as well? It's really interesting that you would ask the minority Members where they would be. I think you need to find out if the majority Members would even support what the Speaker has proposed to his own Conference and I think you'll find that the majority, once again, probably can't pass its own legislation.

Q: Would he bring it to the floor if he couldn't pass it?

Vice Chair Becerra: I mean, that's a question for the Speaker.

Chairman Larson: Thank you very much.

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