THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:11 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Let me start. Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the White House. My name is Mike McCurry. I'm here to brief. (Laughter.) I want to call attention to several things to start with first.
Secretary Riley, today at noon, has delivered his second annual State of American Education address, where, among other things, he's citing rising test scores in reading, math and science, and a declining dropout rate; and notes, among other things, that we now seem to be turning the corner, we're moving from being a nation at risk to a nation with a hopeful future -- a resonant phrase since he was introduced by his predecessor, former Secretary Terrell Bell.
And among -- just one thing I would point out, and as some of you may have seen Jane Bryant Quinn's column in Newsweek on direct student loan lending, and he addressed that question directly and talked about some of the changes the department has been making to provide for direct lending to college students. That's something that the President heard a lot about from college presidents when he met with them last week. It's a very successful program and one that college and university presidents are applauding because, among other things, it's saving enormous amounts of money for them and for the taxpayers. We estimate that overall it will save the taxpayers about $4.3 billion, and students themselves in reduced costs for administration of loan programs and reduced payments or lower repayments will save approximately $2 billion total by 1998. So it's a good deal, and I wanted to put a focus on that.
I told some of you earlier -- no, I didn't tell you, it was a senior administration official told you -- that the Italian Prime Minister Lamberto Dini would be here in Washington. And the White House in announcing officially that at President Clinton's invitation, the Italian Prime Minister will be having lunch with the President and members of the administration and Congress on Friday, February 3rd. The lunch will provide an opportunity for the President and the Prime Minister to exchange views on issues of mutual interest, including bilateral -- multilateral economic issues, European security issues, and to deepen the very close ties that already exist between the United States and the Republic of Italy.
Q A perfect opportunity for a news conference.
MR. MCCURRY: A news conference --
Q Will there be like a little joint news conference?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. We're working on the arrangements yet. We'll find out more as we understand -- as that senior administration official indicated earlier, the Prime Minister is actually on his way to a prep meeting for the G-7 Summit in his capacity as Finance Minister, as well as Prime Minister. So I'm not sure what his schedule will be on Friday.
Q Did you say members of Congress will be there, too?
MR. MCCURRY: He will be meeting with members of Congress while he is here in town, right.
Q Are you afraid that the Italian Prime Minister may be too busy to hold a news conference? Is that the concern? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: The demanding schedules we have around here. There is an interesting in -- you guys don't want to talk to me, you want to talk to my boss. Surprise. All right, I'll think about that. I promise I will.
Lastly, before we get to your questions, President Clinton called President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, this morning to express his support and appreciation for President Mubarak 's initiative in calling together the very impressive summit that will occur tomorrow in Cairo. I think some of you know, Prime Minister Rabin, King Hussein of Jordan, and Chairman Arafat will all gather in Cairo at the initiative of President Mubarak to discuss the Middle East peace process and to take, in what will be I think, a very unprecedented stand in favor of peace, and against those who are enemies of peace.
The President has been in contact with President Mubarak in recent day regarding ways to advance the Middle East peace process. The President believes that the Cairo meeting of supporters of the peace process sends an important signal that those who are working for dialogue and reconciliation will not be silenced by extremist terror and violence. And the President hopes that this meeting will help create renewed momentum toward the goal of comprehensive and lasting peace for all the people of the Middle East.
Q Is there a U.S. role in that summit?
MR. MCCURRY: There is not a U.S. role in the proceedings tomorrow between the four who will gather in summit. Suffice to say, we have followed the preparation for this summit closely and will follow the results of the summit enormously closely.
Q Did President Mubarak invite President Clinton to the summit? And if he did, why didn't President Clinton decide that he should attend?
MR. MCCURRY: No, that was not -- the idea was to gather those who are currently engaged in the process, the two parties that are discussing implementation of the declaration, and then to use the momentum that exists as a result of the treaty between Israel and Jordan to deepen the process that is now literally transforming the Middle East.
Importantly, I think, we would point to the enormously important role that President Mubarak and the Egyptians have played throughout the peace process. At various points in this process at their initiative, they have made very significant contributions that have helped the parties come closer together, bridge differences that exist in their positions. And the President and the administration will follow very closely the conversations that occur tomorrow.
Q Does the President believe it's possible he might have made a mistake in decoupling MFN, human rights in China, given the State Department's human rights report released today on China's lack of change in that area?
MR. MCCURRY: No, they were -- well, first, to back up a bit, for those who I think probably realize that the State Department will be releasing annual human rights reports -- and at this hour, Under Secretary Worth and Assistant Secretary for Human Rights John Shattuck are addressing many of these questions. So it refers mostly to the discussion they're having.
The President believes that the decision to decouple most favored nation status and human rights questions has led to a deepening and broader engagement with China over the last years. Remember that this bilateral relationship is not solely defined by the work we do with them on human rights; that we have an enormous economic and security interest that are also engaged. We, frankly, have had some difficulties in those areas and some positive results in those areas.
On the question of missile proliferation within the last year, the Chinese have made a very important pledge regarding their own exports. There have been other positive developments in that relationship. But as we move towards a broad and more thorough engagement with China, it is quite clear that the unresolved concerns that United States has on human rights issues must be addressed for the full benefit of that bilateral relationship to take place.
Q So other words, we've given them a pass this year.
MR. MCCURRY: That's not -- that's not correct, as you will see very clearly when you read the human rights report issued by the Department today.
Q Isn't there an impasse now on Saturday on the intellectual property?
MR. MCCURRY: There will be -- well, Ambassador Kantor can address that question more directly. There will be negotiations presumably up until Saturday. And Saturday if there is a need to impose measures that Ambassador Kantor recommends, there would then be a waiting period following that before certain things would be implemented. We'll have to see how that unfolds in the coming weeks.
Q As long as we're doing foreign policy --
MR. MCCURRY: I got enough of that. I'm out of that ball game now.
Q Is the United States rejecting out of hand the French call for a new -- conference on Bosnia?
MR. MCCURRY: No, the administration is not rejecting out of hand. That is a subject that we will explore carefully with the French. The French are a participant, as is the United States, in the Contact Group. We have long felt when this idea has surfaced before -- and remember that before Mr. Kozyrev was calling for a similar type of conference -- our belief is that international conferences of that nature must be very carefully structured and rehearsed in order to produce an outcome that warrants that level of participation.
In the case of the French proposal, we will work with them as we already are within the context of the Contact Group to more clearly define what possibilities might come from such a conference.
Q Are you working with them to do that structuring? Or are you working with them to decide whether or not there is a need or desire?
MR. MCCURRY: We are working with them to determine whether the outcome of any proposed conference would be a furtherance of the effort to bring the conflict in Bosnia to a conclusion. There are already discussions underway through the Contact Group that have -- are designed to reach that same goal. And all of those things have to be monitored very carefully. Foreign Minister Juppe met, as some of you may know, with Secretary Christopher last week, and they explored a range of questions related to Bosnia, a range of approaches that might be useful as we attempt to reinvigorate the diplomacy that would bring that conflict to a conclusion.
Q Mike, do you have any comment on the possible interest rate increase with the Fed meeting today?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I can't comment on -- it would be too speculative at this point. If the action is later on today, we'll probably have some type of statement that we would make at that point.
Q Mike, could I just follow up on that for one second? Has the President abandoned his campaign commitment to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he has not abandoned his pledge to reduce the deficit and to move toward the goal of a balanced budget, how we will accomplish that and what steps we can take. As you all know, the subject that we will address next week, as the federal budget is formally presented to the Congress.
Q But the CBO says that with the interest rates going up, the deficit projections are going up as well, which makes it unlikely that he'll be able to meet the goal that he has set for himself.
MR. MCCURRY: That is accurate to suggest that rising interest rates do have an enormous impact on federal budget deficit question because the size of the interest payments that accrue on the federal debt. That is true.
Q Does your answer to that imply that that promise -- you don't mean to say that promise is still on, do you? He broke that one during the transition, didn't he?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm suggesting that what steps the President -- remember, the President has already done more in terms of deficit reduction than any recent administration.
Q Thank you --
MR. MCCURRY: Of course, I am.
Q We all know it, too.
Q Is the answer yes or no?
Q Just say yes or no.
Q I thought that promise was already off the boards some time ago, and that had been recognized --
MR. MCCURRY: We have addressed our goals of deficit reduction as moving toward the goal of a balanced budget. Achieving that level is one that the President has said prior to all of you, has to be done consistent with our overall pledge to reinvigorate the American economy, and to provide job opportunities for Americans, which is what we are doing.
Q What's more important, deficit reduction or a middle class tax cut? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: The most important thing for the President is fighting for working families and making sure they've had a decent shake in this economy. And the President has done an awfully good job at that, providing more than six million new jobs in this economy, having sustained growth at low rates of inflation, and that is something the President feels strongly about. That recovery and protecting it is one thing he's identified among many that he will draw a line in the sand on and fight for.
Q Mike, can I draw you to Mexico on second?
MR. MCCURRY: Sure.
Q What are the latest contacts between the White House and Mexican authorities, and what more needs to be done to finalize whatever loose ends are there?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the program of action that the President directed yesterday is now underway. The Treasury Department has been following up, I believe, with the Mexican Finance Ministry on just technical aspects of moving forward on some aspects of this, and they can give you more detail on specific things they will do in the days ahead to make good on some of the facilities now available as a result of the decision that the President took yesterday. But it is moving well. Clearly, the response of the markets has been something that the President finds gratifying. It is another indication that his decisive step yesterday was necessary in order to stem what was clearly a very real crisis with the peso.
Q In regards to the budget, have you made plans yet on how you're going to go about release of it on Monday and what kind of briefing schedule you're going to have?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, there have been some -- we're actually having some more discussions on that later on today, and I think we'll try to present you some clearer indications on how we will do the roll-out tomorrow.
Q Also on the budget, if I could just -- do you have any concerns with the Republican-controlled Congress that the President's budget isn't really going to matter very much in the debate over spending up there?
MR. MCCURRY: No. Well, the -- there's a large debate about the budget underway. And it is defined both by what the President will submit in terms of his FY '96 budget proposal, but it's also defined by the debate on the Hill over a constitutional amendment to balance the budget and by the insistence of many Democrats and by the President that there be a very clear indication from the Republican majority how they would go about achieving that goal. We have to put our cards on the table when we submit the budget proposal to the Congress. Congress can choose to do with that what it will. The only thing in fairness that I think the American people deserve is a similar forthcoming attitude by those who would say constitutionally-mandated should be the goal of the balanced budget.
Q Doesn't the Congress, before the year is out, have to do exactly the same thing? And in fact, doesn't their budget, since it's the one that's ultimately acted on, count more? And doesn't it have all the same five-year projections and all that stuff that the United States budget will have?
MR. MCCURRY: The President proposes and the Congress disposes, that is correct.
Q Mike, why doesn't the President just come out and say the balanced budget amendment is a gimmick?
MR. MCCURRY: Why doesn't he -- well, he's said a lot of things about the constitutional balanced budget amendment. I don't think he's said that, but I think we've made it pretty clear.
Q You took the question the other day about what he thinks of it constitutionally.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, I did take that question, and we didn't get an answer on that.
Q He talks a lot about the right to know part --
MR. MCCURRY: That was a separate question, Brit. That was more of a --
Q but doesn't talk about what he feels about the amendment, whether it's a good idea.
MR. MCCURRY: I think this administration has made very clear, for a variety of reasons, that amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget is not a good idea, especially in a context of no details on how that goal would be achieved when you're putting so much of the federal budget deficit off limits.
Q Mike, can you tell us a little bit about what the President said and what he learned at the Pentagon this morning in the meeting with the Joint Chiefs and the commanders.
MR. MCCURRY: It was a good meeting. I've had -- I've talked a little bit to some folks over at the Pentagon, and I'd encourage you to check with correspondents over there as well. But it was very successful. I believe there were almost a dozen top commanders and theater commanders participating in the session. Each of them were able to address questions pertaining to their own theater of force posture questions related to some of the challenges that they face.
The President came away from that session very certain that America's military are prepared in a variety of ways to meet the challenges that exist in the post-Cold War era. He felt that in a variety of places around the world where we confront challenges that the Defense Department and his top military commanders are clearly prepared to respond. They had specific discussions about quality of life issues in the military, about preparedness generally. And the President, again, is satisfied that the department has the resources and the commitment at the highest level to be -- to maintain a very high state of readiness as we face the security challenges that we do face in this post-Cold War era.
Q Mike, does the administration plan any involvement or intervention in the ongoing DC budget crisis?
MR. MCCURRY: My understanding from the Treasury Department is there has been no request from the District government for intervention or involvement of that kind.
Q Mike, a related question -- the Speaker said today that he thought the best solution would be to give the commercial and residential neighborhoods of Washington to the state of Maryland, which signaled a few years ago that they would happy to take them. Does the President still think that statehood is the best solution for the District of Columbia's problems?
MR. MCCURRY: I have to confess that I am not certain what the President has said in the past. I think it's very -- I think he clearly has favored statehood as has the platform of the Democratic Party this President ran on. But I'd have to check and see what conversations he's had directly about that before and get too deeply into it. I'm not aware that he knows about any remarks that the Speaker made today or has any particular reaction at this point.
Q Mike, the GAO has been somewhat critical about the underlying strategy that the administration adopted in the bottoms-up review. Can you react to the GAO criticism of the strategy that you've adopted? And, secondly, is there any plan to go beyond the two percent increase in defense spending over the next six years, as the President outlined after the election?
MR. MCCURRY: I want to hold the budget question because of the impending release of the budget; I think that it would be more proper to address it in that context. And, of course, the Pentagon will brief on its budget early next week.
On the GAO, I'm still checking on the GAO study. We put out a couple of queries on that, and maybe we can come back to that tomorrow, because I want to know more about their specific study before I respond.
Q General Michael Rose is supposed to come to this country and to lobby against the lifting of the arms embargo. Is the President going to see him?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any plans for him to see General Rose, the former Commander of UNPROFOR, coming here. I'm not aware of any plans for him to see General Rose. Interestingly, as you know, Prime Minister Silajdzic was here just recently, lobbying in favor of lifting the arms embargo in some sense; did meet with the Vice President and with Secretary Christopher. There are contending points of view on that general question, but I'm not sure what General Rose's itinerary will be when he's here.
Q Why did Rubin and Christopher cancel out on the Hill today? And what are your plans for briefing Congress and their calls for hearings examining this Mexico deal?
MR. MCCURRY: Why did they cancel today? I wasn't aware that they had cancelled. Does anyone know? There were a series, I know -- I'm not sure about Secretary Rubin , I know in Secretary Christopher's case, that there were a variety of -- he's been before Congress I think at least four or five times in recent days. And it may have to do with structuring testimony about the Mexico package, but I'll have to check with the Department of State, I just don't know the answer.
Q February 28th is the deadline for the Senate to confirm the President's nominees for the Base Closing Commission, but they haven't gotten any names from the White House yet. There's some feeling up there that this is a little bit of a conspiracy that if you don't get any of the names up there, they're scare base closings, and your base spared base closings, heading into a presidential election year. Why the delay and are you going to send any up?
MR. MCCURRY: We will send the names up. I believe that they are currently pending and there's checks occurring on some of those pending nominations at the Council's office. And when they can appropriately be sent forward to Congress, they will be.
Q Is there time to confirm them?
Q Is there a conspiracy?
MR. MCCURRY: Is there a conspiracy?
Q Is there a conspiracy?
MR. MCCURRY: What would happen if I actually confirmed that there was a conspiracy. (Laughter.)
Q Filing break. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: There would be a huge filing break. Obviously, we are acting in the best interest of America's security and also cognizant of the requirement that the taxpayers have that we spend money efficiently and wisely, has been the posture throughout the review of the base closing question.
Q Mike, without going into specific figures, is it fair to assume that the President's '96 budget will show a further decline in the deficit, both in absolute numbers and percent of GDP?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's hard -- I don't want to get in front of where we are in the budget process. It will be clear because of the, both the economic environment that we are in and the projections that exist already available on federal spending that we are in a very difficult environment when it comes to further reducing the deficit.
The steps that we have taken so far have helped. There have been enormous reductions in the federal budget deficit, but to continue on that path becomes very, very difficult at time when much of the federal budget deficit is off the table when it comes to looking at cuts.
Q So the answer is no?
MR. MCCURRY: The answer was a lot of gobbledy-gook that wound around in different directions. (Laughter.)
Q The President said in Boston yesterday that he expected the deficit will continue to go down. The question is whether his statement really applies to '96.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to get that specific at this point. There are going to be -- we're going to have ample opportunity to brief you in great detail about the federal budget and deficits therefor in coming days.
One more in the back. I'm sorry, you had you hand up.
Q To put a little finer point on it, the estimate for the deficit for the next three years show it's increasing. It turns around some time at the end of this fiscal year and starts to go up. For it to even stay the same would be a big, big turnaround. So can you be a little bit more definitive?
MR. MCCURRY: No. Explaining that, as you correctly suggest, would require every ounce of creativity that the President and his spokespeople will be able so summon in the coming days.
MR. MCCURRY: Matter of days.
END 1:35 P.M. EST