THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:09 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: It's nice to see you all here today.
Q Are you going to answer some questions? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Don't I every day?
Q After that morning brush-off. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Let me start with two things I'd like to put in play -- two things I'd like to put in play. First, the Secretary of Transportation, Secretary Pena, as you know, today has awarded 17 new air routes from 12 American cities to Canada. That's pretty fast action following up on the Open Sky Civil Aviation Agreement signed by Canada and the United States just on Friday. So quick action to put implementation of that agreement into effect.
And then, secondly, some of you are aware from your colleagues covering the Treasury Department about Secretary of Treasury Rubin's speech today -- certainly important discussion of some of the administration's approach to financial market modernization. But also in there are some interesting items on U.S. savings bonds and what type of market interest rates they will attract in the future. And the White House certainly hopes that attention is called to those important provisions today.
Those are my two commercial announcements for the administration. And now, Helen, I'm happy to answer any question you might have.
Q What involvement does the President have in the Somalia mission, and has he made a decision on Croatia and Bosnia, if they are withdrawn -- the troops, peacekeepers are withdrawn?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President of the United States is the Commander in Chief, and those units that are there supporting the withdrawal of UNISOM are always under the command of the Commander in Chief. That's his direct role in that. He's very clearly watching how the extraction goes for UNISOM as the U.N. mission there withdraws and proceeds.
On the question of the status of UNPROFOR in Croatia, it remains the United States' view that we hope President Tudjman would consider his publicly announced decision that UNPROFOR would no longer be welcome in Croatia. And we're concentrating a lot of diplomatic effort at the moment on encouraging President Tudjman to allow UNPROFOR to remain in Croatia because we feel, on balance, UNPROFOR's presence in Croatia, as within the rest of the former Yugoslavia, has had an effect to limit some of the conflict that might otherwise arise between the various competing parties and various parts of the former Yugoslavia.
Q Is there any give?
MR. MCCURRY: Any give on the part of President Tudjman? I would suggest that the government of Croatia is in a better position to respond to that. Certainly all members of the Contact Group have been making a very strong and, we hope, persuasive argument about the importance of the UNPROFOR mission in Croatia itself.
Q France and Russia seem to be leading an initiative at the U.N. Security Council to get the trade sanctions against Iraq lifted when the issue comes up next month. What is the U.S. position on that? What is the U.S. doing to counter that, and is this affecting the U.S. relationship with France and with Russia?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the United States has had ongoing conversations with both the Russian Federation and France on the status of the Iraqi sanctions enforcement effort. Ambassador Albright, as you know, now has been on a trip most recently discussing exactly this with governments. She's been in London, Kuwait, Prague and, I think maybe one or two other places, but she has found there, as you've seen reported already, substantial support for the U.S. view that now is not the time to change any of the sanctions enforcement program that's currently on the government of Iraq.
We've seen in just recent months the provocative threat of Saddam Hussein to -- along the Kuwaiti border. We've seen the continued refusal on the part of Iraq to comply fully with U.N. Security Council resolutions. And any modification of the sanctions regime that ameliorates the pressure that Saddam Hussein must feel is not at this time warranted. That view is being communicated by the Ambassador. She's been persuasive, judging by some of the comments coming from other foreign governments. But, of course, we'll have to see later in the month of March when the U.N. reviews this how the Security Council views the continuation of the sanctions enforcement regime. We believe that it will be a favorable view and that the sanctions program will continue.
Q But if the U.S. fails to get a majority of the 15 members, would the President order the U.S. to veto any easing or lifting of the sanctions?
MR. MCCURRY: Ambassador Albright has indicated on her current trip that she would cast a veto on behalf of the United States at the Security Council if there was an effort to weaken or relax that sanctions regime prior to the compliance we expect from the Iraqi regime to relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Q Mike, if I can move to domestic matters -- what right now is the White House doing on the balanced budget amendment, or do you think you're made all the phone calls you can make, and is there anything the President can still do?
MR. MCCURRY: As the President indicated earlier today, he's had a number of phone calls with senators who are still thinking about the implications of the constitutional balanced budget amendment. Our own legislative staff here at the White House continues to work closely with allies on Capitol Hill, and specifically in the Senate in advance of the vote tomorrow. We stand prepared to do additional things that are recommended if additional things are warranted. But the President feels that he has made, in the most persuasive case he can to individual members of the Senate, and certainly he has publicly as well, speaking out on the dangers of monkeying with the Constitution in a way that might monkey with the strong performance of the U.S. economy.
Q Do you feel that he has made enough of an argument to the general public on this? Because a lot of people still don't seem to sort of heard what the President is saying, at least from what our polls are showing.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I don't know. You know better what your own polls show.
Q Mike, who is he talking to exactly? Senator Conrad said this morning he hadn't heard from the President. He's one of the key undecided Democrats.
MR. MCCURRY: I -- he's made a number of calls, as the President indicated earlier today. I'm not going to try to detail each and every call he's had.
Q Is he trying to talk to each of the undecided?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's not -- it's up to individual members of the Senate to indicate when they're not decided or undecided. But he is talking to people who, I think, are trying to make a good judgment about which way to go on the vote.
Q Senator Nunn is talking about some kind of compromise he'd like to work out to satisfy his concerns about the constitutional amendment aspects of it and going into the courts. If that all works out would the President change his attitude on it?
MR. MCCURRY: It would depend entirely on what kind of compromise was reached and what it said.
Q I thought he was against the idea of using the Constitution for this purpose.
MR. MCCURRY: He's against the idea in principle, of forcing a mandated constitutional balanced budget in a way that limits the ability of policymakers to deal with not only macroeconomic changes in the economy, but also to offset the effects of recession and to protect the fundamental social contract in America that provides benefits to the most needy in our society. That's what's under assault and under threat as a result of the action underway. The specific reference to a compromise has to deal with -- has to do with Senator Nunn's concerns about judicial review of some aspects of the amendment. Whether or not that can -- in answer to your question -- whether or not that makes the language less onerous is really the issue I think from our view.
Q When the President signed the executive order this morning about child support enforcement, we were told that there were roughly 75,000 military personnel. The Pentagon says their figures show less than 20,000 and that already taking many of the these actions that the White House is asking them to take.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, my understanding from the Pentagon is it's a question of reserve versus non-reserve figures. My understanding is that the Pentagon will be meeting with HHS to work through those numbers.
Q Is it -- if the Pentagon is right, though, is this necessary?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think it doesn't change the President's view that an executive order such as he signed this morning will make it easier for the federal government to live up to its own responsibilities in child support enforcement. The number is not so important as the principle of going after those who are in a position to live up to the legal obligations they have as determined by individual states. And we can follow through based on the President's executive order today, with those who are living up to their obligations.
Q What's the status of the other executive order --
MR. MCCURRY: It is under -- my understanding is that it's being reviewed by those legal folks both here and at the Labor Department and, I believe, other relevant federal agencies, with the expectation that an executive order will be prepared for signature sometime very shortly.
Q This week?
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't rule it out, but I don't have a date at this point.
Q Is there something on paper already? Have they found a way to do it without violating --
MR. MCCURRY: It has been looked at very, very carefully and we've got a lot of legal people who have looked at it. But there was -- even prior to the Vice President's appearance down in Florida at the AFL-CIO Executive Council, there was a good, firm belief that it was within the legal parameters -- the President's executive authority to issue an executive order. How exactly it was structured is one of the questions they are looking at.
Q Dr. Foster defended himself -- struggled yesterday over the latest round of attacks. What is the status of the White House with him? What are you all doing?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he's -- you're correct, he had a very persuasive and effective appearance yesterday. And the White House is continuing to assist his efforts to reach out to individual members of the Senate and to prepare for his confirmation. My understanding is that he will likely be on the Hill later in the week, perhaps making some additional courtesy calls on members of the Senate. And we believe each and every one of those, both public and private encounters that Dr. Foster has with the American public and with individual senators has been effective because many people come away enormously impressed with the nominee and the nominee's credentials.
Q When do you expect the hearings to take place?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that a date has been set for the hearings yet. But we'll continue to work closely with the Senate committee.
Q Have you sent the nomination up?
MR. MCCURRY: We expect to send the nomination up very, very shortly, if not sometime this week.
Q This week?
Q When did you first become aware --
Q Has the FBI finished its work on Dr. Foster?
MR. MCCURRY: My understanding is that it has, yes.
Q When did you first become aware of the charges that were made at the end of last week that he might have known about the Tuskegee study?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to hazard a guess on that. I'll have to check on that. We've known about those -- that aspect of his work on that advisory board for some time and, of course, the incident itself -- or the study itself has been well-publicized since 1972. But I'd have to check and see exactly when we did all of the work on Dr. Foster's role on the ethical advisory committee.
Q Are you saying that you've looked into the question of whether he would have known of this in 1968 or not until 1972 prior to --
MR. MCCURRY: We have looked -- prior to this past weekend, yes. We were aware of it and had looked into it prior to this past weekend.
Q On this banking scandal, is there anything you can say to reassure the American public? Are you concerned about repercussions here?
MR. MCCURRY: On the Barings' collapse?
MR. MCCURRY: We are. The Treasury Department, though, is a better source. They are the ones who will monitor that and will know more about it.
Q But do you have any comments to make to reassure the American public --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we are going to watch this failure, this bankruptcy proceeding carefully to see what implications, if any, might arise for the American people. So far, it's had an effect on currency markets, on securities markets, as you know, that has indirect impact, if not a direct impact on some Americans, and it is a source of concern to us, and we will monitor it as the Treasury Department properly is doing so at the moment.
Q Ecuador's President is asking for more U.S. involvement in easing the crisis with Peru. Is the U.S. planning and responding?
MR. MCCURRY: We have been a participant as one of the Rio Guarantor countries that have participated in the mediation that resulted in the cease-fire and the agreement that was signed two weeks ago, we continue to monitor this implementation. We know that there has been continued fighting, which is a source of concern.
I'll have to take the question of whether we've got a mediator working directly with the other Rio countries, but that would be consistent with the role we've played so far to participate in both mediation of the conflict, and then also the negotiation for some type of settlement between Ecuador and Peru.
Q Mike, if the balanced budget amendment should pass tomorrow -- should fail, excuse me -- should fail tomorrow, will the President speak out against it in hopes that the states would turn it down?
MR. MCCURRY: We'll have to see what the vote is tomorrow night, and we will do more.
Q Pass it --
MR. MCCURRY: What he's saying is, he's trying to ask me will the President become directly involved in the ratification fight, state by state, should it pass and be submitted to the states for ratification. It's too early to say at this point; we'll wait and see. (Laughter.)
Q Mike, we've seen the President go to the mat on priorities before -- GATT, NAFTA -- brought in former presidents and so on on behalf of his position. Here, he seems to be dealing with this balanced budget fight with a little bit more distance. Can you tell us why he's elected that strategy?
MR. MCCURRY: Because the President has gone to the mat for deficit reduction. During his first two years, he's compiled a very impressive record at deficit reduction. He knows how difficult it is. And I think what he's suggesting to those in the Senate that would now constitutionally mandate a balanced budget by the year 2002 is, I would first prefer to see exactly how you propose to do that because I have enormous concerns. Being someone who's been successful in the fight to cut deficits, I would first prefer to see how you're going to go about accomplishing that task.
His priority is to do what we can do to bring federal government spending down, to revitalize and reinvent government so it's more effective, and to get on with the business of structuring an approach to our federal budget that pays for the programs that we need, gets rid of the programs that we don't need and protects the economic recovery which keeps jobs and livelihoods going for the American people. That's first and foremost his commitment, and he will go to the mat for those priorities at any point necessary.
Q We're talking about a lack of passion and an air of resignation in the President's --
MR. MCCURRY: Am I showing a lack of passion? Oh, the President --
Q in the President's responses on the balanced budget. He seems to have accepted defeat.
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President is well aware that this is a tough vote and it is likely to be a close vote. And I think he understands that there is a possibility that it may not be possible to defeat the amendment in the Senate. On the other hand, we're not throwing in the towel by any means, and the President has been making the calls and contacting members that we believe might find a call from the President a factor in making a final judgment prior to the vote.
Q Mike, isn't it possible that the proponents of the balanced budget amendment just have legitimate opposite view to the President without the White House engaging in calling them -- monkeying around with the Constitution?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry? That they might --
Q You accused them of monkeying around with the Constitution. Isn't it possible they just have -- that you can recognize their views as just legitimately opposite to what the President thinks on the position?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, yes. I mean, they can legitimately take the view that it's okay to monkey around with the Constitution. (Laughter.)
Q What kind of contacts does the White House have with the Pentagon on --
MR. MCCURRY: The only contacts that have occurred prior to some news accounts I've seen have been exactly the legitimate and precise reviews of the process to be used by Secretary Perry that you would expect the President and his Chief of Staff to have with the Secretary of Defense prior to what is a very important process. They have been directed at process, not to any specific basis that might be under consideration, and the contacts have been designed to ensure that the process is fair and results in the best possible decisions that protect the interests of all American taxpayers. There have been no other purpose for the contacts that have occurred.
Q Back to the surgeon general. Regardless of whether or not Foster meant to say "white" yesterday, Jesse Jackson and at least two black members of Congress have said that the Republicans are injecting race into this debate. What's the White House view?
MR. MCCURRY: Into the debate broadly about the future of our society? I have seen comments from Republican members indicating that they do believe that -- anonymous, I should say -- anonymous comments from Republican spin meisters and even some Republican elected officials indicating that they think that the race card is a powerful political weapon for them.
But those comments, I think, speak for themselves, and you as journalists know who's making those types of comments. But it seems clear that in some parts of the Republican majority they do believe that this is a potent political weapon and they are saying so.
Q And that Foster works on that -- with that angle?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know whether the Republicans take the view that that is part of their race-based strategy, or not.
Q Well, what would be the White House reaction to that?
MR. MCCURRY: We don't believe this nomination has anything to do with race.
Q You really are making that kind of a charge against the Republicans?
MR. MCCURRY: They have seen -- I can go get you a whole bunch of clips in which you can over and over again see Republican "strategists" -- I don't think there are many that are so brazen as to attach their name to it, but there are plenty of instances in which Republican strategists and some Republican-elected members indicate that they believe race could be a potent political weapon for them. I've even heard Senator Dole talk very directly about the fact that they've won a disproportionate share of the white male vote in this country. And there's certainly some indication that they believe that using race as a political issue has some benefit.
Q accusing them of using race in connection with the Foster nomination?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I'm not. No. I'm not aware that they are doing that. Apparently, there are some that are suggesting that, but I'm not -- I haven't seen any evidence of that.
Q For the record, Foster wasn't trying to inject race by using the word "white"? I mean if --
MR. MCCURRY: No, absolutely not. It's very clear from his prepared text that he intended to say right-wing extremists. It's in his prepared text, and he has indicated that himself, I believe.
Q Mike, the White House has -- calling The New York Times about that the U.S. government is looking for easy diplomatic way to drop the candidacy of Carlo Salinas --
MR. MCCURRY: By restating our support for President Salinas as our candidate for that position.
Q Are you not looking to withdraw that support?
MR. MCCURRY: We're looking to find some way to break the impasse so we can get someone to be the Secretary General of the WTO.
Q But that doesn't mean dropping Salinas?
MR. MCCURRY: We hope it won't because we think he is a good candidate for the position.
Q Under the White House affirmative action review, have you ruled out redefining protected groups under the broader label?
MR. MCCURRY: It's not at a point where I can just --it's not at a point that I can discuss any specific element of the review.
Q But as you know, there is one issue being looked at outside of the White House of redefining it as broadly and -- redefining it under economically disadvantaged or socially disadvantaged as a protected group rather than categorizing it --
MR. MCCURRY: I am just not going to get into specific aspects of the review like that.
Q Can we expect that since it's being billed as an important foreign policy speech that we'll see an advanced text of the President's speech on Wednesday?
MR. MCCURRY: You can assume that given the hour that the speech is given by arrangement with the organization sponsoring it that we will make every effort to make sure you understand the major elements of it, if not some of the specific language in it earlier in the day on Wednesday within the time of the delivery of the speech.
Q Perhaps you could tell the President's aides that it's being delivered at 4:00 p.m. You could tell them that it's being delivered at 4:00 p.m. and then -- (laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I think that in a wise business for the spokesman to the President to get involved in misleading anyone under any circumstances.
Q I just wondered --
MR. MCCURRY: How soon? As soon as possible, but I don't want to put --
Q Did the President say bring it back as soon as possible, or did he say I want it by --
MR. MCCURRY: Look, the reality is, this is -- you all can know that this is -- by the number of reviews and the interest that members of Congress are showing this, and by emerging policy questions that we will face, this is something that we're addressing with a fair amount of urgency. So it's --
Q Right, but other places, like, set deadlines and say, okay, we're going to do something by such and such a date.
MR. MCCURRY: No, we're not -- an arbitrary deadline is less of interest to us than making sure we get a good, substantive review, good solid answers that can lead to a rationale, coherent national conversation on the subject as opposed to poisonous, wedgebased political -- (laughter) --
Q Are you talking about affirmative action, Mike? Was affirmative action that last --
MR. MCCURRY: Indeed.
Q I like wedge-based --
Q Will there be affirmative action policy, Mike, out of this, or would this be a conversation that would result --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, conversation can go in many directions and can resolve itself in many ways.
Q What does -- what's the White House position -- or the U.S. position on the Mediterranean blockade of Lebanon -- Israeli blockade?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll take that question to see if there's been any guidance developed on that today. I've seen press accounts relating to that. I don't know that we've had any discussions with the government of Israel, the nature of these news accounts. Let's check and see or see -- I'll bet you it comes up at the State Department today.
Q Upcoming travel?
MR. MCCURRY: We'll do schedule later.
Q Given the history of violence in Somalia, does the President have a view on issuing nonlethal weaponry to some Marines?
MR. MCCURRY: My understanding is that the Defense Department, they are addressing a range of questions relating to that type of nonlethal weaponry, and I'd prefer to wait until we see how the Pentagon comes out on some of those questions.
Thank you, everybody. We've got -- you guys have any schedule stuff? I'm not aware of any travel coming up.
MS. TERZANO: No travel until the end of March. Not announced.
MR. MCCURRY: Nothing announced. I'm not aware of any schedule coming up in the next week or two.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:32 P.M. EST