THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:55 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: We've got -- Calvin has just produced a piece of paper on some -- the inauguration of the U.S.-South African Binational Commission. So we've got a piece of paper on that. Anything else --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. When he -- he comes later in the month. I believe towards the end of the month.
Not much that I can add to that lucid presentation.
Q Mike, when was the President briefed on these French allegations of espionage against France by allegedly CIA officials?
MR. MCCURRY: The President is regularly informed about developments in foreign policy that affect the United States. And you can trust that he was well advised about this matter as well.
Q How long has this been brewing?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to -- I don't want to answer that, because that goes into the discussions that are underway between the French government and the United States.
Q Are they still --
MR. MCCURRY: There have been and will be discussions with the French government on this matter. The French government is -- the Chief of Staff has just indicated -- has now publicly said some things about the matter. I suspect the U.S. government will have something to say later today as well.
Q Are there any French officials being expelled from this country?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to get into anything beyond what the State Department will suggest in its remarks later today.
Q Were you surprised that the French government leaked all of this to Le Monde this morning instead of --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, you're making suppositions about sources, and I don't think it's fair to journalists to make suppositions about sources. (Laughter.)
Q Could I follow up a little bit on the -- going back -- a serious question, though. The House Appropriations Committee is meeting this evening to discuss major cuts in the public broadcasting, all but a small portion. Where does the White House stand on major cuts to public broadcasting?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to check in our statement of administration policy to see if we've addressed that specifically. To my knowledge, we haven't, but we'll -- can I take that and see if we've got anything particular on it.
Q Has no one in the administration said anything? I mean, the issue's been kicking around now for months --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I just don't know. Brit, I'm being honest and saying I'm not sure whether we've said anything specific on it or not.
Q What is the President doing today besides the Hill --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he's met -- had a rousing meeting with the House Democratic Caucus that went very, very well. Spoke for about 20 minutes. Took questions from eight or nine members -- very positive reception, as I'm sure some of your colleagues on the Hill have been around to talk to members of the House Democratic Caucus. But it's clear both the members of the caucus and the President himself got a big lift out of what was a very good and enthusiastic meeting.
Q Mike, in the days when the Democrats controlled the chamber, my understanding is they let Republican presidents go up there and caucus with their caucuses on the House floor. Apparently the President was sent to the basement today. Do you know if there was anything --
MR. MCCURRY: I am not aware of that. I'll have to check on that.
MS. TERZANO: It was a room in the lower level, which is the caucus room --
MR. MCCURRY: It was a caucus room that is used by the House Democratic Caucus for their regular weekly meetings. And that is the place. But you are correct that the majority on the House side now has control over the facilities and scheduling of certain meeting rooms and of the House floor.
Q In addition to this nutrition issue and the star wars point that the President made when he was up on the Hill, did he and the Democrats agree on any common areas where they thought that they really needed to get together, and a list of specifics where they needed to block the Contract or at least to put in unified opposing positions to Republican positions?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I don't want to get too detailed into the type of strategy they discussed, but the President did caution the members that not every element of the Republican approach on certain issues deserves or should receive a veto threat. He said that he would use that threat sparingly, use it on specific cases where he felt that he had to make absolutely clear his intent. But he also suggested to his Democratic friends in the House that it would be important to lay out some of the areas of contrast so that we could encourage either the Senate or perhaps the House as it revisits issues later in the year, to amend and modify change legislation so that it's more to the liking of both the President and the minority in the Congress.
Q The question was really what were those areas that he laid out?
MR. MCCURRY: He's discussed some specific areas, but I just decline to get into any specific discussions of tactics or strategy that he had up there.
Q I'm not talking about strategy and tactics, I'm talking about substance. What are the dividing line issues?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the dividing line issues, I think the President has made abundantly clear. And they talked about those during this session. They talked about the crime bill. They talked about 100,000 cops. They talked about the school lunch program in specific. They talked about welfare reform, education, the direct college loan program. They talked about the importance of protecting Social Security benefits. And they talked about the importance of not using cuts in Medicare to pay for capital gains tax cuts that might go disproportionately to the wealthy. So the discussion was largely along the lines of what the President has been telling all of you publicly. There's a good opportunity to reinforce that discussion and to make it very clear that the next 50 days of the first 100 days of this 104th Congress will continue to be a period in which the President lays out differences with the Congress, tries to get them to modify and amend their approach, hopefully find some areas of cooperation where we can make progress together in a bipartisan fashion, but will also be a time in which there are very sharp differences that emerge as the Republic majority veers off to an extreme direction in some of its approaches on this legislation.
Q Mike, Leon Panetta and the others who were here today have phrases like, mean-spirited, shortsighted, cruel, an attack on children, for a proposal that would leave, by most estimates, about 80 percent of the funding for these programs intact. What language would you use if it cut it back to 50 percent? I mean, do you have vocabulary for that? What would you do, set yourselves on fire? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: You could imagine that you would go from the incendiary to the thermonuclear in that case. (Laughter.)
Q Can we get a little preview here, a little sample of what -- of the hysteria that we might be able to witness?
MR. MCCURRY: Look, I -- you are -- you just witnessed Democrats feeling passionately about programs that have done enormous good and programs that has, as was correctly pointed out, have enjoyed bipartisan support. And I think that the fact that Democrats feel a little exorcised from time to time, and standing up for what we believe is good for the American people to see, because they see what sharp differences there are as we contrast alternative visions of what this country is about as we look ahead.
Q Mike, were there any areas in which the President suggested to the Caucus that they should, or even must, set aside what you might call some traditional Democratic approaches to work with Republicans? Did he say, I know there are going to be some things that you may not want to do that I think would be good for you, going for our party, good for our effort?
MR. MCCURRY: He suggested not -- I'm going to say specific areas, but he said there are going to be some times where we have to recognize that we've got to pull together and we've got to forge a common direction; that we can't keep everybody in this Caucus happy. And I think it's correct to say that some of those remarks were directed to those who might be to the left side of the political spectrum within the Caucus. But that was more of a generic discussion. I don't recall that that was a very specific discussion about any particular substantive --
Q Why did he say he found so much unity, when they haven't been voting -- they've been voting with the Republicans?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, in the last week, they have held together pretty well on things like the star wars vote and on making clear in pass -- in looking at some of the crime issues that they've got a substantial cohesive group there that can make good on the President's pledge on 100,000 cops. On the National Security Act, they very clearly were together in standing up for the Constitutional prerogatives of the President and some of the concerns the administration has about -- the approach on peacekeeping, NATO expansion, some of the other issues embedded in that National Security Act.
So I think, among other things, the President wanted to compliment them on the unity they have shown, particularly in the last week to 10 days.
Q Does the President have a position on tort reform, which Gingrich says is going to be the toughest thing that they do in the next 50 days?
MR. MCCURRY: That is an issue that the White House has been looking at very carefully. I don't have anything I can share with you publicly right now on it, but as soon as we do have something on that, I will.
Q Mike, the other day you mentioned the President's basic premise with regard to affirmative action -- that he feels that there's still lingering discrimination and that we're not there yet in terms of a color-blind society. Speaker Gingrich was asked about this topic today, and particularly the impact of centuries of systematic discrimination. And his answer was, well, that's true of all Americans -- Anglo-Saxons were discriminated against by Normans. Do you feel that that disposes of the President's --
MR. MCCURRY: He, as a historian, has, sometimes, a unique view of history. So I will let the Speaker's comments speak for themselves. But he also -- if I understand correctly, something he said talked about the genetic basis for evaluating instances of discrimination. And I think that it is important to point out, that discrimination in our society has, in fact, sometimes been geneticbased; it's been racially based. And I think most Americans understand that and know that. I don't think they need a history lesson to remind themselves of that truth.
Q Following up on that, what Gingrich was really talking about is, he's sent out a memo to talk about the next second 100 days. And that second 100 days is going to have a theme that they'll do other things, such as look at affirmative rules dealing with affirmative action with the --
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, boy, we're going to be in for fun. The next 100 days.
Q What is your reaction?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, specifically on affirmative action, as we communicated earlier, the President has said often that he believes that where there is discrimination, there should be affirmative remedies; and I think he's made that clear. He also believes that we need an honest and a civil national conversation about what could be a potentially divisive issue.
What concerns the President is attempts that we have seen, frankly, all too often in the past to use race as a wedge issue within our political culture, as an issue that divides Americans. And I think the President starts from the premise that on these issues, a national conversation ought to be designed to generate unity and a sense of common purpose as we deal with the vestiges of discrimination. So among other things, I think he feels we need a real analysis of the actual effect of specific affirmative action policies. He wants to ensure that we oppose all attempts to use race as a weapon to, as I say, divide people. And that ultimately we arrive at policies and decisions that bring people together in our society.
Q Since that kind of debate is unlikely to happen, what position are you going to take on --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, why -- why? Why do you suggest that?
Q Well, because it doesn't -- it just sounds like it would be --
MR. MCCURRY: So you're assuming the motive of the Republicans who want to raise this are to be divisive?
Q I'm just saying, this is a very hot issue, and it's by nature divisive. And what I'm asking you is--
MR. MCCURRY: It is, but I mean --
Q Dole has a list of 160 or so affirmative action rules and regulations --
MR. MCCURRY: But you're suggesting that he has developed that list specifically because they --
Q No, no -- I want to know what you're going to do --
MR. MCCURRY: -- want to use that issue politically to divide Americans from one another?
MR. MCCURRY: That's a very damning comment on the motives of the Majority Leader. You should ask the Majority Leader more about his specific view.
Q All I want to know is what are you going to -- what position are you going to take on this whole long list of rules as they get examined one by one --
MR. MCCURRY: I just -- as I just indicated, I think that we think there should be a real analysis of the specific effect of affirmative action policies that allow for a rational civil national conversation on these issues.
You're suggesting to me that that's not likely to happen because you're suggesting that the Republicans will use these issues as they have in the past -- correctly, I think it's fair to say -- to divide Americans. And I'm just suggesting that that's a fairly dispiriting view of what this debate is going to be about. Hopefully it will not be about that.
Q Mike from the sublime to something less, was it the same -- was the ketchup bottle that was brandished here today at this platform the same one that Gephardt was waving around on the Hill? And if so, or if not, where did it come from?
MR. MCCURRY: It is a -- that was a bottle of Heinz ketchup that was procured locally for the Chief of Staff because, my understanding is, that a bottle of Heinz ketchup is not available from the White House staff mess.
Q I see, now had the label been --
MR. MCCURRY: They prefer, I am told, small little packets of ketchup.
Q Had label been -- had the main label been removed to avoid a commercial endorsement, or a seeming commercial endorsement?
MR. MCCURRY: No, the Chief of Staff is wise enough to hold the bottle in such a fashion, Mr. Hume, that the --
Q But it was still there.
MR. MCCURRY: -- maker of that particular brand of ketchup was not identified. It was not a generic brand.
Q You're not trying to avoid offense to a particular politically prominent family or anything like that.
MR. MCCURRY: Not providing any commercial value.
Q So this is a different bottle than the one Gephardt was waving around? As far as you know.
MS. TERZANO: Mr. Gephardt kept his bottle.
MR. MCCURRY: As far as we know. As far as we know this is a -- this was a 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue bottle of ketchup.
Q Separation of ketchup being --
MR. MCCURRY: Separation of ketchup being something that you're into.
Q Did Mr. Panetta decide to use --
MR. MCCURRY: The French, by the way, as you recall, don't consider ketchup a vegetable either. (Laughter.)
Q Is that why we spy on them?
Q Did Mr. Panetta decide to introduce --
MR. MCCURRY: We're not looking for menus, as far as I know.
Q Did Mr. Panetta decide to introduce his bottle of ketchup after Mr. Gephardt apparently had some difficulty with his bottle?
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, he -- I'm not aware that Mr. -- the Minority Leader did have some difficulty.
Q He sort of stepped on his line --
Q He kind of messed up the line -- very sad.
MR. MCCURRY: I noticed that there was seemed to be competitive pressures here with the bottle of ketchup today, and who might most effectively hold it at just the right angle.
Q The competition is --
MR. MCCURRY: But it does make -- you know, look --we're joking around a little bit -- this does, for most Americans remind them of something -- a debate from the 1980s. They remember previous attempts to pull this same kind of stunt, and I think in fairness, from our point of view, reminding them that there is a history here that goes with the assault on these programs is a, you know, from our point of view, warranted piece of argumentation.
Q Is the White House encouraged by the declaration of principles that were announced in London and Dublin today? Do you have any word you want to share with us on --
MR. MCCURRY: We were very encouraged. I do believe we're going to have a statement from the President later on that will say essentially, express congratulations to both the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Prime Minister of Ireland for the work they've done on the framework document. The framework document will open the way to all parties now to have a dialogue, an inclusive dialogue, on the future of Northern Ireland, ultimately leaving it to the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own future. I think that that is an achievement that the President personally will welcome and congratulate his counterparts and indicate that he also will continue to do everything possible to nurture and encourage the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Q Aside from the development conference in May, what will the U.S. role be in --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the role -- as you know, we put out a statement yesterday. The National Security Adviser was meeting with some parliamentarians yesterday. We continue to work with the parties to provide a, in a sense, a third-party perspective when we can to lend them encouragement. And you pointed out correctly that we can do some things by way of supporting economic development in Northern Ireland. They'll be very, very central, as they have determined the question of their own future. So it's that type of assistance which sometimes in this world the United States uniquely provides that we will continue to provide.
Q I want to ask about the striker replacement executive order. If it's -- if a legal practice should not be considered in who the government administration hires to be surgeon general, why should it be a consideration in who the federal government hires to do other jobs?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not sure I understand the thrust of that question.
Q Well, if it's legal to hire permanent replacements, why does the President feel that those companies should not be allowed to do business with the government if he doesn't think the legality of abortion should be a question in hiring for a surgeon general?
MR. MCCURRY: For years and years, as a matter of law, the United States has specified certain conditions for the provision of federal contracts. The feeling is that reflecting the feelings of the American people, the United States government ought properly to attach certain conditions to the types of business transactions the government entertains to procure goods and services. In this specific area, in the Davis-Bacon area, we have -- Congress has enacted laws, and has long been the view of the United States government that prevailing wage rates ought to be paid; and then there's nothing that requires that of the private sector, but there are standards that then apply as the federal government as a customer in the marketplace goes on, and, as I say, procures goods and services. And I think properly that it ought to reflect the sentiments of the Congress as enacted into law and the sentiments of the American people.
Q Well, this is not law -- the sentiments of the President of the United States.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it is the -- the President, as have presidents in the past in issuing executive orders that govern federal contracts that are let by the U.S. government, can attach conditions. We were talking earlier about programs related to executive orders issued by President Lyndon Johnson. I mean, these have been part of the life of the presidency and the way that the United States government does business. And this President feels it's proper to make it clear that the use of striker replacements is antithetical to rational and effective labor dispute resolution.
Q Mike, an another affirmative action point, is the President apt to sign the Viacom bill? The House passed it overwhelmingly yesterday.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to speculate that until we see how it goes in the Senate.
Q that Dole put out yesterday. In the same way that the administration yesterday put out regulations that they plan to revisit over the next several months, is there not some legitimacy in also reexamining affirmative action rules to make sure none of them are obsolete?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, you know, they can do -- I mean, Congress can indicate what future direction it's going to take on legislative review. And just as we have indicated what we're going to do with regulatory review, I don't think anyone's suggesting it's illegitimate for the Majority to indicate to his members what areas they might examine in the future. That's partly what the Majority Leader does. If their concern more is what is the purpose of that review and whether it will lead to the type of national conversation that the President has suggested is needed in this instance.
Q Mike, has the President spoken to President Zedillo now that the agreement has been signed?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to check. I do not believe so, to my knowledge, but I'll check and see if that's true. Zedillo -- I'm not aware if he's -- he has not had a discussion since the signing yesterday with President Zedillo that I'm aware of.
Q Do you know what the subject is of his speech to Parliament tomorrow?
MR. MCCURRY: I've just been starting to review notes on that now. I understand there was a backgrounder yesterday that might have covered some of that, so you might check with the folks here. They've got some access to that. Helen, I can check and give you a little bit more on that.
Q One more on Ireland -- financial assistance. Where does that stand? Do you know?
MR. MCCURRY: Connie, I'd have to check. There was a conference coming up in May, I believe -- is that right --
MR. MITCHELL: It's May.
MR. MCCURRY: It is May, and maybe you can check with the NSC staff here. They might have a little more on that.
Q Mike, anything on that story that President Aristide is making changes inside the Haitian armed forces, and the U.S. doesn't seem to be too happy with that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have been consulting very closely with the Haitian government. We've had representatives -- high-level representatives that have been there fairly recently, and we know of the plans that they've got underway to create an interim police force. We've been assisting them, or at least reviewing the plans they have for vetting different types of participants in the Haitian police force, and then also working with the U.N. and the U.S. military presence there as we prepare for the handoff from the multinational force to UNMI in March. But I think there has not been any type of disagreement between senior levels of the U.S. government or the Haitian government about how to develop these plans and programs.
Q Can you confirm for me that the -- (inaudible) -- proposal on the budget was, indeed, abandoned? And if so, sort of elaborate on the how, when and why?
MR. MCCURRY: We got a letter from Dr. Rivlin that we'll cover that in some greater detail. I can tell you that what we have done is looking at the best way of advancing the proposal itself. We have decided that what we'll do, since the purpose of this is to help local residents in the United States who sometimes experience delays of two or three hours at border-crossing points, to sort of find some way to alleviate that pressure by improving facilities along the border.
We believe, in fact, as our budget document points out, we could cut the waiting time for a lot of citizens crossing down to as little as 20 minutes or so, even in high peak periods, by instituting this fee and then using the fee to make certain improvements in facilities -- specifically, additional INS inspectors, additional customs inspectors, additional lanes for traffic going back and forth across the border, even things like license plate readers, things that will speed the process.
So our view was, you institute this fee; you generate some revenue -- I think it was net $100 million in '96 -- FY '96 -- and moving up to about $325 million once it's fully implemented. That would then be a pot of money that would be available to help states serve their citizens better, and help the federal government serve those who are crossing by improving facilities along the border.
Now, there was obviously a lot of squawking on this from members of Congress, from governors, from local communities. So we said, all right, fine, since the idea is to help you serve your people better, if you want to opt out and sort of say to your folks, it's okay to wait two or three hours at the border; if you don't want improved facilities, we'll give them a local option. So there will be that option available as we now finalize the development of the legislation as it moves through Congress. So that's where the matter stands. And you can get a copy of the letter from Rivlin.
Q Mike, did this have -- I mean, why the change now, just before going to Canada, because there was some concern -- (inaudible). Is it just coincidence that he decided to change his mind now on the eve of the visit?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I don't think it's coincidence. I mean, we put out a budget proposal. The budget proposal, as budget proposals frequently are, are discussed, dissected, analyzed. It produces a commentary by members of Congress, by local officials. And you know, and you make adjustments accordingly as you finalize the legislative approach that implements those things that are outlined in the budget.
Q Well, what, if anything, did he share with the Prime Minister in their talk last night about --
MR. MCCURRY: When he -- I don't --
Q His talk with the Prime Minister.
MR. MCCURRY: Did he talk to -- I thought he talked to Prime Minister Chretien --
MR. MITCHELL: Last night, but they didn't talk about --
MR. MCCURRY: -- last night or the day before yesterday.
Q About what?
MR. MCCURRY: They did not -- my understanding is that they did not get into the border fee. They were covering -- more previewing some of the issues that are going to be at the center of their summit dialogue tomorrow. We're absolutely certain that they didn't get into border fee issues.
MR. MITCHELL: Absolutely certain.
MR. MCCURRY: We are absolutely certain of that.
Q Those issues would be --
MR. MCCURRY: We've got a copy. We did a back -- same ones that were addressed in the backgrounder.
Q Why is that flexible approach not appropriate for the 100,000 cops but is on border fees?
MR. MCCURRY: I answered that one last week, I think, and I explained some of the differences. You just like to watch me wiggle on that, huh?
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:25 P.M. EST