The White House refused to say on Monday whether the president would sign or veto legislation that included a tax hike on businesses that provide health care for their employees. And in the process of trying to skirt the question, things got a bit testy between spokesman Robert Gibbs and the press corps.
After starting the daily briefing with a question about the president's response to Michael Jackson's death, the questions for Gibbs quickly shifted to what is becoming one of the most hotly contested sub-debates in the health care reform process. Would the president consider a bill that eliminated the tax benefits for employer-sponsored health coverage? Obama had argued vehemently against such a proposal during the heat of the presidential campaign. But the administration's line on the matter lately, has been more vague, than absolute.
Is Obama prepared to hold true to that campaign pledge?
"I think in many ways what marks the difference between this health care effort and other health care efforts in the past, is exactly what the president described: The very large table of people sitting at it trying to solve a problem that we have been working on for forty years," replied Gibbs. "The good news is we are making significant progress and all those people are still sitting at the table. We haven't drawn a lot of fault lines. We understand that there is some flexibility on part of Congress to work through some of these policy issues."
Fine and good, but the point of the question was, is Obama prepared to walk away from his pledge not to increase taxes on people making under $250,000?
"Again, I think in some ways your question is hypothetical because there are any number of different bills, different proposals," said Gibbs. "I think the president has outlined what he believes is the very best way to pay for health care."
It's not a hypothetical, replied CNN's Ed Henry, who asked the initial question. "He made a pledge. Is that pledge still operative?"
"We are going to let the process work its way through," replied Gibbs.
Fox News' Major Garrett, was unwilling to let it go, asking for the reason for reversing one of the president's most conspicuous campaign promises.
"I appreciate the indulgence to get these hypothetical questions months before we are likely to do that," said Gibbs. "You have asked me if the president is going to sign the bill that is not at his desk.... We are letting congress work many of these issues through and we are making progress."
And the press corp persisted, asking why the White House doesn't simply tell Congress that the tax provision is a deal breaker?
"I think the president in his principles and in the $948 billion to finance health care reform has laid out pretty clearly what his financing mechanism will be..." was Gibbs' final say on the subject.