THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY DEE DEE MYERS
The Briefing Room
2:30 P.M. EDT
MS. MYERS: We'll keep this brief, in anticipation of the main event tonight at 8:00 p.m. The President, as you know, will open with a statement focused largely on health care. But he'll also touch on the economy, on the success of the economic plan over the course of the last 18 months. And I will remind you again, there were many who said that that plan would never pass, and if it did, it would destroy the economy, expand the recession, destroy jobs. None of that came to pass. He'll touch briefly on the crime bill, which, as you know, we're expecting a vote on sometime perhaps as early as this week -- and I think, again, focus largely on health care; talk about the state of play and the historic opportunity which is now before Congress. Then he will take questions from all of you.
Q The Democrats have just, again, postponed indefinitely now the vote on the rule because they don't have the votes on the crime bill. Do you have any reaction to that?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think we're going to continue to work very hard on this. As you know, the crime bill passed both Houses of Congress. The conference produced a conference report; we're working very hard to get the votes we need to pass the rule. Once it gets to the floor we're confident that we'll have plenty of votes in both the House and the Senate to pass.
The President has worked very hard on this from the beginning. It was never an easy bill. I think there were many predictions that it would go down. That has not happened. And I think, when all is said and done, we will get the votes we need to pass the rule and to pass the crime bill.
And I would just emphasize that this bill has broad bipartisan support in both Houses, that it puts 100,000 police officers on the streets. It includes tougher enforcements on crime, including three strikes and you're out; bans assault weapons. It does many other things that I think the American people support. And it's the law enforcement community and the American people out there on the front lines who want this bill passed. And the President is going to continue to fight to get it passed.
Q What is your view of the President's right to use American military forces, given that the Senate has now voted unanimously to demand he get congressional approval before committing any troops to Haiti?
MS. MYERS: Well, certainly, the President is going to continue to consult with Congress on this, as we have throughout. And those discussions on Haiti and a number of other issues are ongoing. The President has made it clear that he intends to act consistent with the War Powers Act and to consult very closely with Congress on this. But we do not believe that it requires congressional approval, although we will work very closely with Congress on this.
Q Does the recent violence in Haiti up the ante a little bit?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think the recent violence in Haiti is very troubling. It is certainly part of a broader pattern of human rights abuses and violence, things that we've been talking about now for many weeks. I think it does, certainly, underscore our point that the de facto military regime, the de facto government there must go. And we'll continue to pursue our current policy, which is enforced sanctions, tighter sanctions, with the caveat that the President has not ruled out any options.
But our preferred course at this point is a diplomatic course, which is to pursue our sanctions policy. We do think that that's having an effect. As I said yesterday and as you all know, the last commercial flight left Haiti on Saturday. I think there's an increasing sense of isolation there. And we'll continue to work with Dominican government and others to make sure enforcement of sanctions is as tight as possible.
Q? Dee Dee, has the President ruled out going to Congress for approval as a way of focusing public attention on it and demonstrating to the Haitian military public support for military action of they don't leave? Has he addressed that issue, ruled it in or out?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think that's a little bit premature. I don't think he's ruled it in or out.
Q It's premature -- he hasn't decided?
MS. MYERS: Correct.
Q Dee Dee, what is the President doing to prepare for this --
Q You indicated yesterday that that idea was something he was not going to do.
MS. MYERS: No, I --
Q That he was not going to seek a congressional resolution.
MS. MYERS: At this point, there's no plan to do that. We have not asked Congress. And I think there was another question -- there were several questions yesterday --
Q I'm sorry, unless I misunderstood, which is entirely possible, that he did not intend to do that. It was up to Congress, as I recall.
MS. MYERS: Well, there was a couple of different questions. I think the one that I remember responding to you about was, somebody asked, what was our view if the Congress took action to basically do what the U.N. did? And we have no plans to ask them to do that, although we certainly welcome their support; we always welcome congressional support of this. There is no plan at this time to go to Congress for a Haiti decision of any kind. But I don't want to rule that out indefinitely. That's been done in the past, as you know.
Q What is the President doing to prepare for tonight's news conference? And is he having regular practice sessions, staffers posing as earnest reporters and the like? (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: Generally, the President's prep sessions are a bit more informal than that. He has spent some time working on an opening statement, which will be about five minutes in length, and he has spent some time reviewing issues, current issues, making sure he's up to speed, sitting down with his advisors just to go through a variety of foreign and domestic policy issues. And then I think he'll spend a little time probably later today talking through what some of the likely questions are, which we do in advance of the press conferences, generally.
Q Is this an effort to begin to try to turn the public perception of the President around? Do you feel he's not getting the credit he deserves?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think we're always trying to focus attention on the President's accomplishments; but more importantly, to focus attention on what it is the President's trying to achieve. I think this is an opportunity for the President to talk to the American people about the historic opportunity that's in front of us. For the first time in 60 years, both houses of Congress have very realistic bills that reform health care, that meet the President's bottom line, and that have a chance of passing. I think the President's going to just continue to remind people what's at stake here, that this is a tremendous opportunity and that the American people and the Congress ought not to let it pass.
I think that's the primary objective, but certainly I think it's also an opportunity for him to take questions from all of you. And we haven't done it in a while, and I think there's a number of questions on issues, both foreign and domestic, that you all have not had a chance to ask him in a while.
But I think the -- the opening statement will focus not entirely, but largely on health care. And I think this is an opportunity to talk about that, and a number of other things.
Q Last week on health care, one of the basic messages was that incremental reform without mandates at the same time would be counterproductive, would not work. And you cited several states where that had occurred, and it, in fact, didn't work in terms of getting more people covered. Why is Mitchell's program not exactly what you said wouldn't work -- that is, incremental reforms that don't have a mandate at a separate time, rather than a mandate, a sort of unknown mandate far at the end of the process?
MS. MYERS: Well, the Mitchell bill includes in insurance policies that there are a number of market reforms and other things in the Mitchell bill. If those reforms do not achieve 95 percent or above by a date-certain, which is January 1st, 2,000. Then the Congress must take action to reach universal. So there is a built-in insurance policy that says if the number of insured continues to decline, or doesn't increase rapidly enough, there is additional action that will be taken. I think the Senator has used 95 percent sort of as a weigh station in that. But, certainly, there is a remedy at the end to make sure that that doesn't happen, that the number of insured Americans doesn't decline, and that the problem doesn't get worse.
Q Does the administration think that in signaling his support in advance for the Mitchell kind of approach that the President makes it harder for Gephardt to get his more stringent bill past the House?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think we'll have to let the legislative process work itself out and work itself through over the course of the next couple of weeks here. I think what the President has said is that he would support any bill that meets his bottom line. And that is, universal coverage, cost containment and preservation of choice and quality. It is the President's view that both the Mitchell plan and the Gephardt plan, although they take very different methods, get to that bottom line, and that's the most important thing.
Q But isn't it kind of like the BTU tax all over again, when it's going to be hard to get House members to go for a more -- a stronger bill, a more universal coverage bill, when they know that the President might abandon that down the road?
MS. MYERS: I think the President has said a couple of things, but -- that nobody has shown him a better way, that a bill has to get to universal; nobody has shown him a better way than shared responsibility. But I think, again, this is something that the Houses will have to work out among themselves. And I think -- I don't want to speak for the Majority Leader, but I think there will be some action in the Senate that will hopefully make this clearer to members of the House between now and the time the House has to vote on this.
Q Back on the crime bill -- I know the President supports the prevention spending in the crime bill. Is he willing to defend -- is the administration willing to defend every dollar of spending in the bill, or would you be open to going back to a new conference to try to take some of that spending people are objecting to out?
MS. MYERS: I think that the crime bill -- the spending on prevention in the crime bill is an excellent program, that it is defended by the people who are out there on the front lines. It is something that the law enforcement community, the attorneys general, the DAs, prosecutors, people out there on the front lines have said is an important part of the bill. It's not us who have said how important it is, it's them. And if you listen to what the police chiefs and others have said about the prevention money in this program, that is something that they strongly, strongly support.
I think at this point, we're pushing forward with the bill that we have, with the conference that we have, and we'll see where it goes. I think we're hopeful that we can get the votes to get this thing through.
Q? Back to health care. Does the President's endorsement of the Mitchell bill, or does sanctioning of it essentially mean that the definition of universal is now 95 percent?
MS. MYERS: The Mitchell bill goes beyond 95 percent. If it doesn't get to 95 percent, as you know, and Congress doesn't take action, then an employer mandate kicks in. If you get beyond 95 percent, but not to universal, there's other remedies.
Again, Senator Mitchell said 95 percent is not 100 percent. The President has said the same thing. This bill uses 95 percent as a weigh station on the road to universal.
Q? Dee Dee, how does Roger Altman overcome his credibility problem with Democrats as well as Republicans on Capitol Hill and continue to function in his present job?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think he spent 10 hours in front of the Senate Banking Committee yesterday trying to answer their questions and to make clear the events of the last year. I think he did a good job at that. I think that he had a chance to answer a lot of their questions. The President and Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary Bentsen, said earlier today, "I think that Roger's done an outstanding job as Deputy Secretary, and expect that he will continue in that capacity."
I think that --
Q How long?
MS. MYERS: He will continue in that capacity. He's done a terrific job, and I think continues to enjoy broad support here in the White House and throughout this administration. And I think the bottom line is that if you look at -- in order to maintain the confidence of Congress in a broader sense, I think we need to look at the overall reviews of these incidents. Both Mr. Fiske, the Independent Office of Government Ethics, and the White House Counsel have reviewed this and found no ethical violations and no laws were broken. And I think that's the important thing.
Q Several members of the committee think he was trimming up there and have all said so on both sides. Is this something that -- can you afford to have a man who is so regarded by a banking committee as your Deputy Treasury Secretary?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think he's admitted that he made some errors in judgment in February and the way that he amended his testimony then. I think that he went back yesterday and tried very earnestly to correct that. And I think he also said that if he unintentionally misled anybody, he was sorry for that. And I hope that he's able to convince members that he's operating in good faith. Certainly, people here, again, have great respect for him, think he's done an excellent job and expect that he'll continue.
Q Dee Dee, the Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, a Democrat, this morning after hearing his 10 hours of testimony, said that he didn't have credibility; said, in effect, that he didn't believe some large measure, or some portions of what he was saying. The question is not what you think of him right now, or the White House thinks of him, but whether or not he can operate in Congress, since that's the committee that handles a good portion of what he would have to testify on.
MS. MYERS: Right, I understand that. I can't speak for the members of Congress. I can only speak for the White House and the President in saying that --
Q It's your judgment as to whether or not you want him to keep trying and whether or not you think he can.
MS. MYERS: And it is our judgment that we want him -- and I think I've answered that. The President has confidence in him, thinks he's done an excellent job, expects that he'll continue in his capacity of Deputy Secretary of the Treasury.
Q But Dee Dee, if he's blotted his copy book badly in the eyes of that committee, as it appears he may have done, does it serve the President well to permit him to continue in that capacity, regardless of the President's opinion of the issue?
MS. MYERS: Well, the President thinks he can continue to serve, and serve well. I think that certainly there will have to be further discussions with congress, maybe privately. That's something that Roger will have to work out. But at this point, the President believes that he's served ably and well to this point, and that he can continue to do so. And the President expects that he will continue to do so.
That's not to say that there won't be a period where he'll have to, I think, maybe answer additional questions by some of the members of Congress. But I think it's the President's belief that he can do that.
Q Did the President call him either after his testimony last night or before his --
MS. MYERS: I don't think so.
Q Did the President watch the testimony?
MS. MYERS: Not that I know of; I don't think so.
Q Did you?
MS. MYERS: Did I? Only intermittently.
Q How do you know he did so well?
MS. MYERS: I've gotten full reports on it. I understand he had a little trouble reading my handwriting, though. Senator Hatch had a little trouble reading my handwriting.
Q Why did it take the White House so many days to correct the record? Why wasn't that an immediate thing?
MS. MYERS: I think that's something that they are -- it's not a question I think is appropriate for me to answer. That is a question that's being answered through the course of testimony on the Hill.
Q You mean by Sloan and --
MS. MYERS: Well, yes, there's a whole panel of White House lawyers who are going to testify. And I think the Banking Committee will have a chance to pose those questions directly to the people involved.
Q Because they were there that day when he testified, and they came back, they talked to --
MS. MYERS: Right, and again, I think --
Q But it took them days to come up with a formulation.
MS. MYERS: I think it would be inappropriate for me to answer. And I think, again, there's a panel of White House lawyers in front of the Banking Committee today, and I'm sure that the Senate will pose those questions.
Q But if something like that were to happen now, how quickly do you think the record would be -- are there mechanisms in place to respond more quickly to problems such as that?
MS. MYERS: I think there are. Certainly, I think there's a heightened sensitivity. I think people like Leon Panetta have improved management procedures. I think certainly Mr. Cutler has helped clarify rules regarding contacts and things like that that are important. And I think that we've tried very hard to make improvements in areas that we have acknowledged could have been handled better in the past.
I think that's an ongoing process, but I'm certainly hopeful that -- well, first of all, I don't expect anything like this will ever happen again. But if it were to happen, I think, hopefully, we would handle it more sensitively.
Not a word.
Q Back to Haiti for a moment. You won't let anyone who leaves the island apply for asylum into the United States, but what's the point of applying for asylum in Haiti if you can't leave the island? Aren't you condemning anyone who fears political persecution to be picked up, or harassed by the regime down there?
MS. MYERS: Well, obviously we're concerned -- very concerned -- about violence at the processing centers. But we have made arrangements for a charter flight to pick up those who have already qualified for refugee status in the United States. We're working with the de facto regime who have yet to approve that charter flight. We're going to continue to press them to do that. We've made it very clear to them that we expect them to do that.
We're also looking at other ways of moving those refugees, those who have already been processed, either by land or by sea. But we do expect that the de facto government will grant the charter flight, and if they don't we're looking at other methods.
Q Have you given any warning to the government down there that since these people have been granted admission to the United States that you expect their safety to be guaranteed?
MS. MYERS: We've made it very clear that we do expect that they allow this charter flight to come in. We've also made it clear that we're monitoring the situation around the processing centers, and we expect those people to be allowed to apply. But there are continuing human rights violations there. I don't think anybody can guarantee that that process is risk-free. I think it is still our contention that it is less risky than taking to sea in a flimsy boat. Certainly, that's why we adjusted the policy, to encourage the people to go to the in-country processing centers.
Q But you're not guaranteeing their safety at all, or treating it as a provocation if any of those people are harmed?
MS. MYERS: I don't think we can guarantee that applying at an in-country processing center is without risk. No, I don't think you can guarantee that. At the same time, I think we're making it clear that we expect the refugees to be allowed to leave the country.
Q if the flight is not allowed to land, the Marines will pick these people up and bring them in?
MS. MYERS: No, that's not what I'm saying. I said we're looking at other ways of getting them out by land or by sea.
Q How would you do it by sea?
MS. MYERS: I'm not going to -- we're looking at other ways to do that.
Q A note from Roger Altman. (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: It's mail for you, Ann. It's mail call. I feel like I'm at summer camp -- "Ann Devroy." I'm not kidding.
Q Why don't you just read it to us?
MS. MYERS: Come on. Come on up. (Laughter.) Is this a first where somebody passes a note to the teacher to pass to somebody else in the class? I don't think I've seen that before.
Q What about the policy on the third countries that are --
MS. MYERS: By land or by sea. I think those are fairly self-explanatory. I'm not going to go into any details. We haven't worked it out yet.
Q Are you having discussions with the Dominican Republic to help with the moving of people who are applying for political asylum?
MS. MYERS: I can take that question. I'm not sure what all -- I would imagine that that's the only other country that you could move somebody by land, so I would expect that they're involved. But I'll take the question and see if we can get a little more detail on it.
Q Do you think you can nail down whether there's a policy change on third-country safe havens?
MS. MYERS: There is not a policy change on safe havens. We continue to have a safe haven policy, we signed a MOU yesterday with St. Lucia, I believe. Is that right? Oh, Surinam -- that's right. Surinam. So now we have memorandas of understanding with Surinam, Dominica and St. Lucia. We have agreements in principle with Grenada and -- what's the other one? Antigua. Our safe haven policy is continuing, although none of them have been opened yet. But, certainly, we expect to be prepared to deal with the refugee problem as circumstances dictate.
Q Then you'll go ahead with a deal with Panama as well?
MS. MYERS: I think that's still under consideration. A new government comes in on September 1st and they've indicated some willingness -- or have indicated a willingness to allow us to establish a safe haven there. So I think all of that is still ongoing.
Q Dee Dee, the President wound up doing a health care event after all today. Why was that changed? And have any more been added for later this week?
MS. MYERS: Nothing else has been added. I think originally there were some other things on his schedule. He decided to free up some time because he wanted to participate in the event. So he did. The rest of this week with the press conference tonight -- let me pull out the schedule --
Q Does he have a rally on the Hill tomorrow?
MS. MYERS: That's Mrs. Clinton, or the Vice President. The Vice President. Thursday is a Cabinet meeting. This is an old schedule. Friday is the economic event that I talked about earlier, sort of the day before the one-year anniversary of the passage of the President's budget. So I think it's a chance for us to look at the accomplishments or at the progress that we've made in the wake of that budget bill.
Q What exactly will that event be, the Friday --
MS. MYERS: We're still working on the details. I'll probably have more for you tomorrow.
You guys love that. And then on Saturday the only public event is he's going to Detroit. He will greet supporters at the airport which will be open to the press. And the remarks will be open to the pool at the fundraiser. But that's it, and we will not take a press plane, just the pool.
Q Do the remarks at the airport constitute a public event that will lower the cost to the political entity?
MS. MYERS: That's a good question. Are they picking up the entire cost?
MS. TERZANO: I'll find out. They were.
MS. MYERS: Yes, I think they are -- even though he's greeting supporters at the airport.
Q It will be a pretty slim public event --
MS. MYERS: Yes, I don't think that that's an intention to shift the cost at all. I think that they're picking up the cost for this trip. And it's a coordinated campaign event.
Q When was the decision made to lay this event on today and how did that come about?
MS. MYERS: The health care event? Well, it was something that was always on. The First Lady was always going to -- or it's been scheduled for quite a while. The President, again, decided that he wanted to participate yesterday.
Q He decided -- his idea?
MS. MYERS: Yes.
Q And they were always going to roll these buses up here, and the First Lady was going to have a little rally with him, was that the idea?
MS. MYERS: Yes, at one point, I mean, I think it was under discussion whether or not the President would participate for a while. But he decided that he did want to, and he did.
Q Dee Dee, when is Stephen Breyer's swearing-in ceremony?
MS. MYERS: It's a week from Thursday. It's a week from tomorrow. Okay, I think we'll see you again at 8:00 p.m.
END 3:00 P.M. EDT