President Obama defends health care delay, vows tough moves on Iran sanctions

McClatchy Washington BureauFebruary 11, 2014 

President Barack Obama defended the administration's latest delay in the Affordable Care Act as a way of "smoothing out" the enactment of the law for a number of companies trying to comply.

"The goal is to make sure that folks are healthy and have decent health care," Obama said Tuesday at a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande, calling the move an example of the administration "making sure that we're smoothing out this transition, giving people the opportunities to get right with the law, but recognizing that there are going to be circumstances in which people are trying to do the right thing and it may take a little bit of time."

The administration announced Monday that employers with 50 to 99 workers will have yet another year, until 2016, to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s requirement to provide health coverage for full-time employees.

Republican critics, who have called for a delay in the law’s “individual mandate” that requires most Americans to have health coverage in 2014 or face a fine, pounced on the new employer grace periods as corporate favoritism.

But Obama said the process of complying for some of the midsize companies "may take them some time, even if they're operating in good faith."

"Our goal here is not to punish folks," Obama said. "Our goal is to make sure that we've got people who can count on the financial security that health insurance provides. And where we've got companies that want to do the right thing and are trying to work with us, we want to make sure that we're working with them, as well."

In the hour-long press conference in the ornate East Room, Obama also expressed frustration with the ongoing conflict in Syria and vowed to enforce sanctions against Iran.

"We still have a horrendous situation on the ground in Syria," Obama said, despite two rounds of talks in Geneva. "I don't think anybody disputes that. And what is absolutely clear is that, with each passing day, more people inside of Syria are suffering. The state of Syria itself is crumbling. That is bad for Syria. It is bad for the region. It is bad for global national security."

He said there was "enormous frustration" with the situation and said the US would continue to press the Syrian regime - and Russia and Iran -- to cede power.

He said that he didn't see a military solution to the crisis, but added, "the situation is fluid, and we are continuing to explore every possible avenue to solve this problem, because it's not just heartbreaking to see what's happening with the Syrian people, it's very dangerous for the region as a whole, including friends and allies and partners like Lebanon or Jordan that are being adversely impacted by it."

A French trade delegation was recently in Tehran to explore business opportunities with the regime, but Obama warned the U.S. will continue to enforce certain sanctions against the country as it negotiates to end its nuclear weapons ambitions.

"Businesses may be exploring, are there some possibilities to get in sooner rather than later if and when there is an actual agreement to be had, but I can tell you that they do so at their own peril right now," Obama said. "We will come down on them like a ton of bricks with respect to the sanctions that we control, and we expect full compliance with respect to the P5-plus-1 during this interim."

Hollande noted the president of the republic "is not the president of the employees union" and that French companies "make their decisions when it comes to travel."

But, he said, he "certainly let them know that sanctions were in force, and would remain in force, and if contacts were to be made, with a view to a new situation in Iran, a situation where Iran would have renounced the nuclear weapon, fully and comprehensively, well unless such a new situation would prevail, no commercial agreement could be signed.That's what I told French businessmen, and they are very much aware of this situation."

Obama also rejected a French reporter's suggestion that the US had a "no spy" agreement with Great Britain.

"There's no country where we have a no-spy agreement," Obama said, adding the U.S. has a "range of partnerships with all kinds of countries" and has been in talks with the French government to "deepen those commitments."

And, Obama said the U.S. is committed to making sure its protecting the privacy rights of not just Americans, "but of people around the world."

"We do remain concerned, as France is, and as most of the E.U. is, with very specific potential terrorist networks that could attack us and kill innocent people," Obama said. "And we're going to have to continue to be robust in pursuit of those specific leads and concerns. But we have to do it in a way that is compatible with the privacy rights that people in France rightly expect, just like they do here in the United States."

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