THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY DEE DEE MYERS
The Briefing Room
2:20 P.M. EDT
MS. MYERS: We will have a brief moment of silence for Chad Griffin's last day here at the White House. He'll be leaving for Arkansas this afternoon for a week of vacation, and coming back to go to Georgetown University. So if you see Chad today, wish him well.
Q What is the President's response to Lawton Chiles's request for further federal help, and why the disconnect between what Chiles seems to be saying about the statement --
Q Bye, Chad. (Laughter.)
Q He's used to it by now -- about the state of emergency down there and what Janet Reno is saying?
MS. MYERS: Well, I'm not sure there is a disconnect on that. Certainly --
Q WEll, he came out and said there is a crisis, and she came out and said, let's not be melodramatic.
MS. MYERS: I think clearly we've been able to handle the surge in Cuban migrants in an orderly fashion, and will continue to do that. In the meantime, we're evaluating the situation and we'll continue to respond as appropriate. We're increasing resources in Miami, INS agents and others down there to deal with the influx of refugees. Certainly, we've been in touch with state and local officials, including Governor Chiles. There are individuals down there from the Department of Justice and other agencies today meeting with the state to make sure that we can handle the increasing -- or the increased influx of refugees. And we'll continue to evaluate our options in that regard.
Q Have you talked to Chiles today, or has Chiles talked to anyone in senior staff here or the President?
MS. MYERS: I think there certainly will be contacts. I don't know whether anyone's talked to him today. He's been in touch with people here at the White House, as well as the Department of Justice. And, again, there are representatives from DOJ down there today meeting with representatives of the state, including the Governor. Certainly we'll evaluate his request and do what we can to provide assistance to Florida. At the same time, we've been able to handle the influx in an orderly way, and we expect to be able to continue to do that.
Q He specifically asked for more money and increased naval presence. What is the status of those two requests? Do you think either one will be granted, and if not, why not?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think we'll continue to evaluate the request, which we're doing now. As for naval ships, we have, as I've said and others have said, contingency plans in place to deal with a number of situations should they arise. We are in a position to handle the current influx. We expect we'll be in a position to handle anything that happens. And I'm not going to discuss what exactly our options are.
Q Are there any changes possible in in-country processing?
MS. MYERS: At this point, the in-country processing system is not going to change, there are no plans to change it. There is an in-country processing system there that deals with refugees in Havana. It's one of four countries around the world that has in-country processing, and that's pursuant to an agreement with Cuba that we've been sort of in an on-going dialogue with them for the past decade.
Q But did the foreign policy advisors come up with any recommendations for the President?
MS. MYERS: They met today, the principals met today to discuss Cuba. Certainly they'll be sharing their conclusions -- I wouldn't say any decisions came out of that, but they'll certainly be sharing information with the President. The President has spent quite a bit of time on this in the past week. I expect he'll continue to do that to make sure that this goes smoothly.
Certainly, the President's foreign policy advisors are keeping a close watch on this. They did discuss options today in making sure that we're prepared to deal with whatever happens.
Q Who attended the meeting?
Q What is he trying to discuss? What are they discussing?
MS. MYERS: They're basically discussing the situation in Cuba, monitoring what is happening --
Q how to handle the refugees who come here?
MS. MYERS: Correct. Correct. I shouldn't say the situation in Cuba, the situation of Cuban refugees in the Straits of Florida and in Florida.
Q So that would imply a possible change in policy.
MS. MYERS: Well, certainly they've discussed what their options are, and I'm not going to put forward any information until they've had a chance to continue that discussion.
Q Governor Chiles seems to have such a different view of what's happening down there than you do here in Washington.
MS. MYERS: Well, I don't think we have a different view. I'm sure the Governor is very concerned about this, as are we. And, again, the President spent a good deal of time on this in the past week, as have the President's national security advisers. Certainly we're taking the Governor's requests seriously. And again,there are officials from the Department of Justice on the scene, we've increased the number of INS officials there and other federal officials to help with the situation. We've handled it to date in an orderly fashion and we expect to be able to continue whatever migrant situation arises in an orderly fashion. We have contingency plans in place for doing that. We're continuing to watch the situation closely. The principals met today to discuss options and we're going to continue to have those discussions.
Q Does the U.S. regard this as an emergency situation?
MS. MYERS: We haven't -- I think we're handling it in an orderly fashion. We haven't declared any particular status.
Q How can it be in an orderly fashion when the numbers have increased so dramatically in the last couple of months?
MS. MYERS: I don't think those two are mutually exclusive. Certainly the numbers have increased. But we've been able to handle that increase. The Coast Guard has been able to pick up refugees in need of help in the Straits of Florida. There has been an increase in INS officers there to handle and process the refugees. They're being placed. The vast majority of them are being placed with relatives, both in Florida, in New York and New Jersey and other places around the country. Those who don't have relatives are being placed outside of Florida in other states. And that is all going along in an orderly fashion.
That's not to say that there isn't an increase; there certainly has been -- and that we're not concerned about; we are and we're watching it very closely. But to date we've been able to manage the situation, and we expect we'll continue to manage it.
Q Dee Dee, the Governor said that he hoped by the end of the day we would have an increased naval presence in the Florida Straits. And by your answer, we're not going to have that. Is that right?
MS. MYERS: First of all, the force down there handling it is the Coast Guard . The Navy is not involved in the refugee situation in the Straits of Florida at this point, and I'm certainly not going to talk from here about what other options we might consider. But I would just point out, the Coast Guard is there, they're on the scene, they're handling the situation, and they're doing a good job.
Q any sense that the Cuban government is either encouraging or looking the other way as all of this is going on?
MS. MYERS: Well, certainly, the Cuban government is doing nothing to stop this exodus. They're allowing their citizens to go forward, to put themselves in danger, and they're using this as a smokescreen, I think, to hide the situation in Cuba, which is that people are being denied democracy and their democratic rights. The only way to solve this problem in the long-term is to move toward democratic and economic reform in Cuba.
Q On the emergency request, the Governor has asked for an emergency declaration. Is the President taking that under advisement? Are you saying that it is not under consideration for now? What is --
MS. MYERS: I'm saying simply that we're reviewing the Governor's request, and at the same time, we're sending down additional federal officials to help with the situation.
Q Who is reviewing it?
MS. MYERS: I think this is the Department of Justice.
Q How does the United States justify the fact that when we pick up people at sea and they happen to be Cubans, they're brought to this country if we pick up people at sea and they happen to be Haitians and brought to Guantanamo?
MS. MYERS: I think certainly -- the Congress passed an act in, I believe, 1966, the Cuban Adjustment Act, which set certain standards for Cuban refugees.
Q But not in that case.
MS. MYERS: Absolutely in that case.
Q No, it's only if they're --
MS. MYERS: No, if they're picked up at sea by the Coast Guard, or if they come to the United States, there is a law in place passed by Congress that sets a certain standard for handling them. At the same time, we have a different agreement with the Haitian government that allows us to return refugees picked up at sea to Haiti. Now, we've stopped doing that. There was a change in U.S. policy regarding Haitian refugees on May 8th. We now take refugees who are picked up at sea to Guantanamo where they're kept, and no Haitians are being returned forcibly to Haiti.
Q Would there be any possibility of doing the same thing with Cubans that are picked up at sea?
MS. MYERS: Again, there was a meeting today. The President's advisors are reviewing options, and I'm just not going to comment on what may or may not be under review. I'm not going to comment about what may or may not be under review.
Q Dee Dee, who attended the meeting today with the principals?
MS. MYERS: I believe Secretary Christopher, Secretary Perry.
Q Christopher is not here. He is in Brussels for the memorial --
MS. MYERS: When did he leave? Somebody from the State Department, Secretary Perry, the Attorney General, Tony Lake and other staff.
Q Was that the only subject, or did the question of the nuclear smuggling come up?
MS. MYERS: I believe this was a meeting dedicated entirely to Cuba.
Q What's the timetable about briefing the President? Are they going to bring any of their thoughts to him?
MS. MYERS: I think they'll certainly keep him updated on their thinking. I don't think it's appropriate for me to discuss when they might meet with the President. They talk with him on a regular basis about this, and have been for the past week.
Q Do you expect the U.S. government to have more to say about this today?
MS. MYERS: I wouldn't look for any announcements today, no. I think the Attorney General may comment, but much in the same vein that she did earlier today. I don't think she'll have a formal statement or anything.
Q Where would she do that?
MS. MYERS: I just think she's probably taking calls. I don't think she's going to have a formal statement.
Q I'm a little confused by --
Q Taking calls? Should we all run out and call her?
MS. MYERS: Sure. I'm sure she'll appreciate me just saying that. (Laughter.)
Q Dee Dee told us to call.
MS. MYERS: The number is -- (laughter.)
Q I'm a little confused by what appears to be a relaxed attitude here when the indications from Florida officials are they expect a totally different attitude on your part. And especially considering Bill Clinton's record with Cuban refugees in the past, one would think he would be a little more --
MS. MYERS: I certainly wouldn't characterize our attitude as relaxed. I think we have been able to handle the increase in refugees in an orderly fashion. We have contingency plans in place that, A, allowed us to handle the situation as it's increased so far, and, b, will allow us to handle whatever situation may arise in the future. At the same time, as I said, the President spent a good deal of time on it this week. The principals met on it today, they're discussing options. We've sent federal officials down to Florida, both to help with processing and to meet with state officials and local officials and the Cuban community, quite frankly, to make sure that people understand what our policy is.
The Attorney General had a press conference last Thursday night where she said that U.S. laws would be enforced, and that boats going down -- boats that might be thought to be going down in Cuba could be boarded and possibly seized. A boat has been seized, and the crew, I think, is in custody at this point. I don't think our attitude is relaxed at all, although I think it is very systematic. We have a process in place and we're following it.
Q Did you pick up any crime bill votes today?
MS. MYERS: Nothing to announce. Certainly the President and staff continue to work on that.
Q Does the President support --
Q How many meetings has he had on this? He met with --
MS. MYERS: He had one meeting today, which you know about. He may make some additional -- he's had no other meetings.
Q Any Republicans on their way down here?
MS. MYERS: Not that I know of, but certainly I think that could -- as the situation goes on, I think we'll schedule meetings as we think it's necessary. Leon Panetta has made a number of calls --
Q Did he go up to the Hill?
MS. MYERS: He did not go up to the Hill, but he's certainly been on the phone most of the day working on this. Pat Griffin and George Stephanopoulos did go up to the Hill --
Q It seems very tough-going. Are you really going to get the votes?
MS. MYERS: Well, it is tough going. It is tough going. I think the President's optimistic that he will get the votes. But this is tough.
Q How many calls has he made today on crime?
MS. MYERS: I don't know. I don't think we've given out figures. I think -- he expects to spend some more time on it this afternoon. I don't think he's spent the bulk of his time today on it so far. But I expect he'll spend more time later today.
Q When Congressman Volkmer was here earlier, he said that he and the White House were negotiating -- his words -- and his main concern was over the assault weapons ban. Is there in fact some negotiation going on about a softening of any kind on the assault weapons ban, such as whether ATF would be allowed to -- that Congress be allowed to review and possibly vote down ATF additions to the list?
MS. MYERS: There's been no change in the President's general position. He will not accept, he will not get rid of the assault weapons ban, and beyond that, I'm not going to talk about what may or may not be discussed. I'm not going to negotiate from this podium unless you guys can produce the votes. This is four days running, and you haven't produced a single vote. I'm a little disappointed.
Q You have three -- ever since you started talking to us, you have three. (Laughter.) I didn't have anything to do with those 11 Republicans; neither did anybody else here.
Q On health care, realistically at this point, how long does the President want or expect the Senate to stay in session to deal with this?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think the President hopes the Senate will stay in session until they get the job done. And it's up to Senator Mitchell to sort of deal with the scheduling. But the President also indicated that he will stay here as long as the House or Senate are working on health care or crime. And we'll just have to wait and see how the schedule unfolds. But the President would like to see them stay in and take action on the health care bill.
Q Does he in any way think that a break in the next few days would be helpful?
MS. MYERS: I think he'd like to see them stay in and continue to work. Again, I think Senator Mitchell will make the ultimate decision on scheduling, but the President has made it clear that he'd like to see the Senate and the House continue their work on the health care bill until they get it done.
Q How about the crime bill? When do you think there will be a vote? Or do you have any kind of reading?
MS. MYERS: I don't know. I think they were hopeful it could happen as early as Saturday, but I don't know if the Speaker has changed his assessment today or not.
Q Mr. Volkmer also said that Congressman Gephardt has circulated some sort of compromise that includes some changes in the crime bill. He didn't specify but indicated that this was something that he was considering. Has the White House seen Gephardt's proposal? And do you have any reaction to what it is?
MS. MYERS: Again, there are a number of conversations going on, and we're certainly working with the leadership in the House. And I'm just not going to comment on any specific proposals or options that might be out there. I'm just not going to comment on it. I mean, the conversations are going on. The President and others are working very hard on this. If we have something to announce, we'll announce it. Until that time --
Q Does the President believe that the Adjustment Act should be changed? Or does he believe that the Castro regime is one that is worthy of your fleeing from?
MS. MYERS: Well, he certainly believes that circumstances in Cuba have contributed in very large measure, and maybe entirely to the outflow of refugees at this point. Certainly economic circumstances there are -- and political repression there are driving people out. And Castro's doing nothing to protect the lives of his own citizens to discourage them from taking to the sea in very dangerous waters. And at this point, I'm not going to comment beyond that on what options the President may consider.
Q Does the President -- back to the crime bill for a minute -- does the President actively support this move to improve language that would require law enforcement agencies to notify neighborhoods when violent sexual offenders move in?
MS. MYERS: The President -- the Justice Department sent a letter back outlining the administration's position on sexual predators basically supporting it. There were some changes made through conference and other processes in the development of the crime bill. The President would support including tougher language on sexual predators, and we're working with both Republicans and Democrats to get that included.
Q Is the President concerned that if the House goes home between now and Labor Day and comes back to work on health care that they'll lose some momentum, that they might hear from people at home to go slow and some important momentum will be lost?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think the President has encouraged the House to continue work on health care. As you know, they're waiting for CBO to finish its work, and they're in somewhat of limbo until CBO does that. I think that Congressman Gephardt has indicated that as soon as CBO reports back, the House will be prepared to start work on the different bills. And so the President has encouraged them to do that. I think they'll just have to scheduled in a way that they see fit around CBO and other things.
Q Dee Dee, back to Cuba. The Security Council of the United Nations passed several resolutions in order to restore democracy in Haiti. Do you intend to work through the United Nations to get the same result?
MS. MYERS: Well, we'll continue to work through the United Nations and with the international community to restore democracy. Certainly the United States --
Q I'm talking about Cuba.
MS. MYERS: Oh, I'm sorry.
Q Do you intend to go through the United Nations to get the same results regarding Cuba?
MS. MYERS: At this point -- right -- at this point, we're dealing with the refugee situation in Cuba. We have no scheduled introduction of a resolution or anything like that in the U.N.
Q Do you intend to do it?
MS. MYERS: At this point we don't have any plans to. I don't know whether that will change.
Q This is kind of in line with Julia's question earlier. In spite of differing legal arrangements regarding Cuban refugees and Haitian refugees, is the President having angst over this?
MS. MYERS: Well, the President certainly will work with in the laws that have been passed by the United States Congress on issues like immigration. Again, I think he specifically changed the policy toward Haiti back in May to make sure that we weren't returning Haitians to bad circumstances. And at this point, no Haitians are being returned to Haiti if they fear political persecution or anything else. They're being given safe haven until such time as democracy is restored.
Q But, Dee Dee, they aren't being allowed here, either, where many of their families are, where they want to come. They set out from Haiti, apparently, not for Guantanamo Bay, but for Florida. And they don't get in here. And the Cubans do. I wonder if the President is uncomfortable, regardless of what the legal arrangement are --
MS. MYERS: Well, the President is going to do what he can to protect the human rights of all those who are fleeing repressive circumstances. There are different laws in this country, and the President's going to operate within those laws. He's making sure that nobody is getting returned to those countries against their will, and we are evaluating our options on Cuba. And beyond that, I have nothing to add.
Q The President didn't spend the bulk of his time dealing with the crime bill and he didn't attend the principals meeting; what is he doing?
MS. MYERS: He has all kinds of important things that he does. He has a number of --
Q go through his morning schedule?
MS. MYERS: He has a series of his usual security and intelligence briefings.
Q Intelligence briefings?
Q And do you want to do last Thursday's --
Q You have no idea, do you? (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: No, I do. I really had to hold my tongue there, and I'm proud that I was able to.
Q What would you have said?
MS. MYERS: I was just going to make a joke that no one would have thought was funny except for about three people in this room. (Laughter.)
Q Maybe they could tell us.
MS. MYERS: No, and he had some other meetings, but he's continuing to work on economic issues, which he does on a daily basis, security and intelligence issues. And he's taken care of other business.
Q Is the President aware that there is a fairly new law on the books called The Cuban Democracy Act in which we would move toward seeing whether there was any possibility of negotiating with Castro, and that Castro in the last few days has offered some sort of negotiation? And do we seek any kind of possible meetings with him in any way?
MS. MYERS: Well, we have a continuing dialogue with Havana through our interest section in Havana. We've had an ongoing dialogue with Cuba regarding immigration issues, I think since 1983, and those discussions will continue, and we expect those to continue. I don't think we have any plans to meet with Castro, but I'm not familiar with the specific element of the Cuban Democracy Act that you're referring to. And if you want, we can talk about it later and I'll see what I can find out.
Q Was the President's meeting with Harold Volkmer intended to win over some of the Democrats who voted against the rule, or is he trying to find some kind of comfort level with the assault ban opponents?
MS. MYERS: I think all of the President's activities, meetings and phone calls on the crime bill are intended to find enough votes to get the rule, and ultimately the bill passed. I think he's talking with different members about different things addressing their concerns, letting them know what his bottom line is. I don't want to say specifically what conclusions he might have reached with Congressman Volkmer.
Q Was Volkmer invited, or did he ask to come?
MS. MYERS: I don't know -- I'm sure he was invited. I don't know what the specific genesis of the meeting was, but everybody who comes down to meet with the President is, in one way or another, invited. (Laughter.)
MS. MYERS: Except you guys. You just barge in. (Laughter.)
Q On trade with Japan, although the -- thanks to the World Cup, the overall trade deficit is down, we've seen the numbers go up -- 26 percent on the trade deficit with Japan, the dollar is down, and trade talks are deadlocked. What level of concern does the President have about this? And should we be expecting some kind of new initiative or moves on the negotiations?
MS. MYERS: Well, I think we're continuing to -- obviously, the President is concerned about trade imbalances around the world. He's working very hard to bring down barriers to free trade, including with Japan, which is why we've engaged in the framework talks for the last year or so.
Clearly, we've made better progress in some areas of that than in others. We're continuing to talk with Japan and continuing to work through the framework. But I think the President will continue to work on bringing down barriers to trade not just with Japan, but around the world, which is why we did NAFTA and GATT and will continue in our efforts with Japan.
And as you know, we listed them under, I guess, Section 7, and discussions are continuing until such a time as they're either resolved or we would take action.
Q Dee Dee, could you clarify something for me? Am I hearing you correctly that the White House position is that the assault weapons ban language in the crime bill as it stands now is nonnegotiable?
MS. MYERS: No, that's not what I said. I said the President's position on this has not changed; that he will not drop the assault weapons ban from the crime bill. And I have said I'm not going to talk about any details that might be discussed.
Q Yes, but Leon Panetta said it was nonnegotiable.
MS. MYERS: Keeping the assault weapons ban in the crime bill is nonnegotiable. He said, Leon -- and I would refer you back to yesterday's Post where Leon is quoted as saying we might accept minor changes, we might not.
I just think I'm not going to negotiate from here. But I think the President has been clear -- he expects a strong assault weapons ban in the crime bill. And beyond that, I don't think it's appropriate for me to talk about the details of the negotiations.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:40 P.M. EDT