THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
INTERVIEW OF THE PRESIDENT WITH RADIO REPORTERS The Roosevelt Room
3:40 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I want to thank all of you for coming today and for offering all of us this opportunity to have a conversation with the radio listeners around the country and beyond.
I thought I would open just by saying that I have sent a letter this afternoon to Senator Mitchell in the Senate about some potential amendments to the defense appropriation bill and one actual amendment dealing with Bosnia, Haiti and the whole command and control apparatus of our military as it relates to cooperation with other countries in peacekeeping and other endeavors. That amendment has actually been introduced.
The letter essentially says that I oppose the amendment that affects the way our military people do their business, working with NATO and other military allies. I think it unduly gets into the details of the command and control operations of the military, which I think is an error, and that I would oppose any amendments with regard to Haiti and Bosnia that were of questionable constitutionality and unduly restricted the ability of the President to make foreign policy, and outlines some of my concerns.
In Haiti, my concerns are that there should be no restrictions that would undermine the ability of the President to protect the Americans on Haiti, that would aggravate the likelihood of another mass exodus of Haitians, or that would send a green light to the people who think they've got the best of both worlds -- they got the sanctions lifted and then they broke their word on the Governors Island Agreement.
With regard to Bosnia, the amendment simply points out that the United States has very strong NATO allies and that there were strict conditions that I have put on any kind of cooperation on Bosnia with NATO to enforce a peace agreement, and that I think most members of Congress agree with those conditions, but I don't think we should have an amendment which would tie the President's hands and make us unable to fulfill our NATO commitments, thus raising all kinds of questions about the long-term relationship of the United States to Europe.
So that's what the letter says. There is only one amendment so far that has been offered, and we are discussing with various members of Congress other proposed amendments. We'll just have to see what happens. But I thought I ought to say clearly today that I would strenuously oppose such attempts to encroach on the President's foreign policy powers.
Now we can go to the questions. Mark.
Q Thank you, Mr. President. Your opening statement raises the question of whether the United States would be willing to use military force for the purpose of removing the military leadership from Haiti and reinstalling President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in power.
THE PRESIDENT: Let me tell you what I have done today on Haiti, first of all. I just signed the executive order freezing the assets of any people who are supporting the military and police leaders who have continued to fight the resumption of democracy and who are responsible for the bad things that have happened down there in the last few days. I have also, with the authorization of the Haitian government, directed our ships in the area to move closer to the shore so they will be in plain sight. And that has been done today.
I think we should continue to work with President Aristide and with Prime Minister Malval. They want to go back to the sanctions. The sanctions, after all -- remember, once the sanctions were tough and they included oil, they produced the Governors Island Agreement. And what happens is that people who have an economic stranglehold on Haiti got what they wanted with Aristide's request -- that is, lifting the sanctions. They got the amnesty that Aristide promised, they thought he would never give. And then, when time came for them to deliver what they agreed to do, they didn't do it.
So I think the appropriate position for us to take at this time is to go back to those sanctions and make them as tough as possible and enforce them as completely as possible, and that is what the Prime Minister wants us to do and what President Aristide has asked us to do. I think it would be an error for me to discuss what further steps might or might not be taken. After all, we do have -- I'll say again, we have 1,000 Americans there, and we have another 9,000 people with dual citizenship, and we'd have no way of knowing what will or won't happen.
But what the Haitians want is for the conditions of legitimacy to be maintained and restored. That is, the Haitian people have expressed their desires -- two-thirds of them voted for President Aristide, and in terms of the questions that have been raised again in recent days about whether he could or could not govern the country, that's why he worked so hard with our support to get Mr. Malval, who plainly can run the government, as one of the ablest people in the nation to be the Prime Minister so they'd have the kind of partnership that would work.
So I feel comfortable that if we could -- that they are capable of working with their friends and allies in the area to bring about a more democratic and a more prosperous Haiti prosperous Haiti if given the chance.
Q Mr. President, economists are expressing some concern of late about your health care reform plan and about whether it might grow considerably larger than you envision. What assurances can you give the American public that it either will not grow out of control, or that the need for universal health care is worth it ballooning to the size of say Medicare and Medicaid, which are 10 times as large as originally predicted?
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, let me say that it's not a government program. The government will only insure the unemployed, the uninsured. Two-thirds of the funding for this program will come from employers and the employees who don't presently contribute anything to the American health care system.
Secondly, where have these economists been for the last 15 years? I mean, the American health care system is already 40 percent more expensive than any other one in the world and the only advanced health care system in the world that can't seem to figure out how to provide coverage to everybody while spending 40 percent more than anybody else spends.
The budget we just passed in this government has Medicare and Medicaid going up at three times the rate of inflation. We proposed to reduce that in our bill. We have also ceilings on how much health care expenditures can increase in any given year if the competition doesn't cut the costs.
Now, if you look around the country at places who have tried serious efforts at managed competition, including bringing the Medicaid program into a competitive arena, there's every indication that the rate of increase will slow down and that it will work. But the Congress, they seem to want it all ways. They criticize me on the one hand for having a ceiling on how much costs could increase in any given year, and then say we don't have any guarantees if you take it off they won't increase more. And it is difficult to imagine how we can design a system that would have costs more out of control than the one we have. I mean, the reason we have so much support here from employers in heavy industry, for example, who already cover their employees is that they're being killed by the cost increases.
The system we have is irresponsible and out of control financially, and doesn't provide health care security to Americans. So we think there are plenty of protections built in to slow the rate of increase in costs. In fact, if anything, I think we've been too -- we've been certainly realistic and then some in estimating how fast we can slow costs down. That is, even under our plan, it is estimated that the percent of our income going to health care will go from about 14.5 to about 18 by the end of the decade. And if we just stay with the system we've got, which is the alternative -- in all these things, you've got to ask, what's the alternative -- we'll go from 14.5 to 19 to 20 by the end of the decade. So we don't -- we have still -- we have allowed and budgeted for significant increased expenses in health care.
Q Mr. President, in the past week or so you and your foreign policy team have come in for some pretty blistering criticism, especially from a group of prominent Republicans --Richard Lugar, Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle, James Baker and Robert Dole have all been very, very critical of your foreign policy. And some members of your administration have suggested that's politically motivated, these people might be running for president. What do you make of them, and how do you react to those criticisms?
THE PRESIDENT: I think you can monitor their travel schedules and statements as well as I can. I don't have anything to say about that. I'm going to do my job as best I can. I'm going to try to support a bipartisan approach to foreign policy. I'm going to try to involve Republicans and Democrats in the process of consultation and getting as good advice as I can all the way along. And I think that you have to expect that when things go very well, as they did with Russia and the Middle East, people will say you're doing, and if difficulties arise, then some will say that you didn't do fine. So I just don't want to get into the politics of it.
If you want to talk about any specific policy in any specific country, I'll do my best to answer that. But I think it serves no useful purpose for me to engage any of them in this sort of debate. Whatever the political motivations are, I have a contract that runs for a specific limit -- amount of time. I'm going to do the very best I can during that time, and then when the time is up the American people can make their own judgments. I just don't have any -- I haven't even been President a year. I don't have any interest in starting a political debate now.
Q Even though it's been less than a year, Mr. President, it's been a very ambitious presidency, with a lot of projects you've taken on yourself -- health care reform, reinventing government, national service -- things you inherited, like Somalia, Haiti in a way, NAFTA. Is there ever coming a point -- is there now a point that you just have to say, enough is enough for now, the plate is too full, we have to resolve some of these things before we get on with other things?
THE PRESIDENT: Oh, sure. And we have taken that position. I mean, first of all, if you go back to the budget, we kept the budget front and center until that was resolved. And it plainly has worked rather well. We now have -- long-term interest rates are still below six percent, the budget did some remarkable things. It dramatically broadened the availability of college loans to students, and it has the most significant piece of tax reform for working families in 20 years by increasing the earned income tax credit, so that all working families on modest incomes with children will know they'll be lifted above the federal poverty lines. That's a lot to accomplish in a year right there.
The National Service bill passed, and very well, and of course, a number of pieces of legislation have. And now, what we're going to focus on between now and the end of the year is making as much headway as we can on the first round of reinventing government cuts on the crime bill, on the political reform initiative that some of which have passed the Senate already, the campaign finance reform and lobby reform bill, and on getting the health care bill heard and setting schedules there so we'll know that it will be reviewed, along with all other ideas in a prompt and timely fashion, and we'll be able to see as we wind up here a process which unfolds next year and brings us to a date-certain vote.
But we do have a lot going. We probably had more done this year than in any given first year in a long time, and there's still a lot more to do. For example, we started our welfare reform tax force hearings around the country, but I don't intend to offer any legislation on that until next year. And there will be a lot of other things that will come up as we go along next year. We want, for example, to change the whole unemployment system, as you know, to a reemployment system. We don't think that will be offered until next year, to give the American people a system of lifetime education and training.
I do hope that we can pass as many bills as possible this year. I was heartened by the fact that the House passed our education reform bill -- the Goals 2000 bill with such a big bipartisan majority last week, which made me think we could probably pass that bill completely before the Congress goes home the end of the year.
Q Mr. President, it's coming up on two years since the end of the Soviet Union and the declaration by the remaining states to call themselves democracies or create democracies.
Secretary Christopher is headed over there. Can you tell us what the objective of his trip is? Will he be looking to set up a summit meeting?
THE PRESIDENT: There is a possibility, of course, that President Yeltsin and I will meet again early next year; I have to go to Europe to the NATO summit. But primarily, what he wants to do is to convey the continuing support of the United States for democracy and reform in Russia, to urge the Yeltsin administration on in their efforts to complete the timetable, to get a new constitution and to have legislative elections, and to restore completely the conditions of democracy in Russia, and to review the progress on the Russian aid package, both the ones -- the two passed by the United States Congress here with strong bipartisan support, and the international package that came out of the G-7 summit. And so he'll be doing all those things. And I'm sure they'll review some of the difficulties in that part of the world, too. President Yeltsin also has his share of foreign policy problems that he can't fully solve. But we'll talk about that.
We're interested very much in some of those things, especially we'd like to see the last Russian troops withdrawn from Latvia and Estonia, as they have been from Lithuania.
Q Mr. President, if we could return to the Haiti issue for just a moment. Senator Dole said he didn't think it was worth any American lives to restore President Aristide. And you indicated you didn't want to go too far into options. But are there conditions beyond, say, a direct physical threat to the U.S. Embassy compound in Port au Prince under which you would consider committing U.S. troops to Haiti? For example, attacks or carryings of foreigners, a flow of refugees or maybe just threats against foreigners? Are there any conditions for sending U.S. troops?
THE PRESIDENT: I just think at this time it's better for me not to rule in or out options. Keep in mind, the Haitian government, as we speak, has not asked for that and does not want that. And keep in mind that the sanctions did work once before, to get this agreement, which was not honored perhaps because we raised the sanctions, we lifted the sanctions.
But let me remind you that the circumstances of this need to be focused on. Haiti is very much in our back yard. The people wanted democracy. There is the continuing issue of whether there would be another exodus of Haitians trying to come to the United States, something which I think is not in their interest or ours, but is something that the present conditions could make more likely. And we do have those Americans there.
So I don't want to -- what I want to do today is to encourage Prime Minister Malval and the brave people who are in his government and the good people of Haiti who plainly want democracy and are being around by the only guys in town with guns, which I regret very much. But we are trying to preserve the legitimacy of democracy there.
Now, the truth is, as you know, there are people in this country, in the press and in the Congress and elsewhere, who, notwithstanding the vote of the Haitian people, basically have never felt very strongly about returning Aristide anyway and have questioned his fitness to be President. You can do that with the winner of any election.
But all I can tell you is that I would just like to observe just a couple of things. Number one is unlike his adversaries, President Aristide has done everything he said he would do under the Governors Island Agreement, including giving them amnesty. And secondly, recognizing his lack of experience in politics and business, he reached out to a man like Malval, who's plainly one of the ablest people in the country and clearly a very stable and reassuring figure, asking him to run the government. So I feel that we should support the democratic movement in Haiti. And I think that the steps we're taking now are the appropriate ones.
Q Mr. President, have you decided on a nominee for the position of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't want to give you an evasive answer, but let me tell you what happened. We had, weeks ago, a nominee who declined the position for personal reasons. And the Justice Department was asked -- the Attorney General, specifically, was asked to make another recommendation. I believe that she has a recommendation for me which I have not yet formally received. But I am not positive of that, but I believe so.
Q Mr. President, I'd like to ask you about a subject that you've brought up in a number of your remarks lately. You've been discussing the issue of gun control, firearms violence, the extremely high cost of health care related to firearm injuries. Senator Chafee of Rhode Island has once again introduced legislation which is pending in the Judiciary Committee now which would ban the sale, manufacture, possession, importation or exportation of all handguns with exceptions for law enforcement, military and licensed target clubs. You've talked about your support for the Brady bill and for a ban on assault weapons. How would you feel about Senator Chafee's bill, which I understand Dr. Sullivan, former HHS Secretary, is testifying on tomorrow?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I have to read it, but I think it might go a little far if it bans all handguns, just because I think that there is a lot of evidence that Americans have used handguns responsibly for sporting purposes, that they're not all used as weapons for committing crimes or killing people. I do believe, however,-- and let me say first -- secondly, as a practical matter, I have not yet been able to get Congress to vote on the crime bill, including the Brady bill and the vote to ban a comprehensive list of assault weapons.
I also know that I heard that Senator Kohl has an amendment, which I would encourage, which would make national the ban on ownership or possession of handguns by minors unless with their parents or another supervising adult in an appropriate setting, which might be the way to go on the issue that Senator Chafee is concerned about. Nonetheless, I would -- I hold him in the highest regard. He's one of the -- I think, an extremely responsible person and I'll be -- I welcome the hearings on his legislation. But I would have a little problem with a total ban on handguns. I would have a problem with that based on what my understanding of the situation is.
And I think we ought to focus -- again, we ought to focus on the Brady bill, the assault weapons ban and banning possession by minors right now. One of the things that -- since I have been working on this in the last several months, one of the multitude of statistics that's made the biggest impression on me is the one that we were told a couple of weeks ago that now someone shot in a criminal encounter is three times more likely to die from a gunshot wound because they're likely to have nearly three bullets in them, as opposed to only 15 years ago. That is a huge statistical change. And, of course, as I pointed out, these wounds and the homicides put an enormous financial burden on this country -- on the medical system, on the criminal justice system.
But mostly, it's an incredible human problem. We've got 90,000 people in the last four years murdered in America, most of them by gunshots. That's more in any single year than were ever lost in a single year than the war in Vietnam. I think the time has come to do something about this. And I'm hopeful that both Houses of Congress will act on the crime bill and on the assault weapons bill before the end of the year. We don't have -- I hate to keep coming back to this, but, right now, I don't know that we have the votes to pass the assault weapons ban in the Congress. And I hope we can get the votes to do that, and to pass the limitation on minors and possession or ownership of handguns. I think if we push those now in the Brady bill, then the Congress could really make a dent on the exposure of Americans to lethal violence.
Q Mr. President, could I go back to your comments about the use of American military force and your discussions with Congress? Would you oppose, would you veto legislation which contained an amendment requiring you to ask and get the consent of Congress before you use troops in Haiti or Bosnia? And how far do you think the congressional role in the war powers area goes?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me say, my letter says that I want to resist and that I urge the Senate not to vote for things which unduly infringe on the President's power, and certainly not things that are of questionable constitutionality. Before I express an opinion about a veto, I need to see a specific piece of legislation. And there are still discussions going on about the questions of Haiti and Bosnia. So I would want to see -- this is -- the whole issue of the war powers resolution and the role of Congress and the role of the president obviously has been the subject of virtually nonstop debate in America for the last several years for all kinds of obvious reasons. Sometimes, Congress has acted or attempted to act, restrict the President's authority under Presidents Reagan and Bush, and sometimes they have.
All I can tell you is that I think I have a big responsibility to try to appropriately consult with members of Congress in both parties and a wide -- whenever we are in the process of making a decision which might lead to the use of force, I believe that. But I think that, clearly, the Constitution leaves the President, for good and sufficient reasons, the ultimate decisionmaking authority. And I think to cut off that authority in advance of it being made without all the circumstances and facts there before us is an error, and could really lead to weakening our relationships with a lot of our allies and encouraging the very kind of conduct we want to discourage in the world.
I understand what's going on here, and it's all perfectly predictable, given any reading of American history and perfectly understandable, given the aversion that Americans have always had, seeing any of our young people die when the existence of our country was not immediately at stake. And the President should be very circumspect and very careful in committing the welfare and the lives of even our all-volunteer army. We need to have a clear American interest there and there needs to be clearly defined conditions of involvement, and the burden is on the President to provide those. But still the President must make the ultimate decision and I think it's a mistake to cut those decisions off in advance.
Q Final question. Thank you, Mr. President. In the past week or so, President Bush himself, and as we've already discussed here today, some members of his foreign policy team have criticized your foreign policy team. I'm curious about the promise that has been reported that President Bush made to you. And it's also been reported or in at least one commentary, that there was an implied promise from your side to go easy on any revelations about the so-called "Iraqgate" scandal. What can you tell us about your discussions with Mr. Bush on this?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, with regard to the Iraq-gate issue, there was no promise expressed or implied. There was no discussion about that between me and President Bush. He said -- I believe he said publicly that he would not have anything negative to say about the administration for a year at least, that he thought we were entitled to that.
And again, I just don't want to get into this. This is a free country, people have free speech, they can say whatever they want to say. But there were -- I think you will agree, and maybe I've been wrong to do it, but I have been pretty careful about focusing on the problems we have in the future and not trying to spend a lot of time establishing partisan blame for the past. I said that in my State of the Union speech. I said it in the health care speech. I said it repeatedly. What's past is past. I'm doing the best I can with the issues that I faced when I came here. If the time comes in the future when I have to engage in a debate with any of those folks about who did what when, I'll do my best to have that kind of a debate. But I just don't think -- it doesn't get us very far. And I would hope that if they have a constructive suggestion to make about what America should do, I would be more than happy to take it. I'm not ashamed to ask for advice from anybody, Republicans or Democrats. I've called every living former President, I've called former Secretaries of State, I've called those that agreed and disagreed.
As you know, Secretary Shultz thought that the previous administration should have done more in Bosnia, thought that we should. I mean, there are people who have -- Secretary Kissinger thought just the reverse. I mean, this is a new and difficult and uncertain time. But if they have anything to say about what they think we ought to do, I'll be glad to listen, and I'd just ask that it be constructive when they do it.
Q I'm told by your aides that we're out of time. On behalf of the radio networks, we thank you, and we hope we can make this a regular thing.
THE PRESIDENT: I would like to do it on a regular basis. I'm a big radio listener, you know. Except if we did it enough, we could even have Top 10 countdowns in the middle and stuff. (Laughter.)
Q We accept the challenge. (Laughter.)
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you.
END4:11 P.M. EDT