THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
2:23 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: First, I want to start, just in a point of personal privilege, I know all of you heard the President praise Mark Gearan to the hilt, but as a colleague here, I don't think anyone has personally been more helpful to me and has worked more closely with the Press Office staff here. So it was a sheer delight to see him get his "Get Out of Jail Free" card today. (Laughter.)
And I also -- I wanted to, just in seeing his praise, is call attention to Senator Kennedy's comment, because a couple of us when we saw this last night got pretty close to misty-eyed on it. But the Senator said the Peace Corps -- Peace Corps has a special place in the hearts of the Kennedy family; I'm proud of Mark and I know that President Kennedy would be proud of him, too. And I think no statement that I've seen today more aptly reflects the way a lot of people on the White House staff feel about Mark.
Q -- win confirmation?
MR. MCCURRY: I am confident -- absolutely. There's not --
Q How does he feel about --
MR. MCCURRY: It's hard to be confident about much that the Congress will do, but on that point, I think we are all extremely confident that he will have a very swift confirmation.
The second is at the event today with the presidential scholars, since there is a lot going on at the White House today, I want to call some attention to the detailed list of funding items that we put out on investment and education. The debate on the balanced budget issue is -- has now moved into a new phase. We are beyond the question of who's for and who's against a balanced budget. The President is clearly for, the Congress is clearly for. And the question is how do you get there.
And the President has made a commitment to put investments in education in -- right in the center of a long-term economic strategy that leads to a balanced budget. And the reason for that is because declining incomes in the American work force is the single most important problem that he sees in this country. And the way to address that, he is absolutely certain, is by increasing levels of investment in education.
So, today by putting out more detail than we have to date on a specific area of his balanced budget proposal, he really is pushing that argument forward and challenging the Congress to think seriously about the role that investments in education will play in long-term economic growth. It's enormously important, I think, for all of you to go through and compare those items program by program and see the differences that exist between the Republican strategy on the budget and the proposal that the President has put forward, and I believe will put forward today in a more formal sense by sending it to the Hill.
One of the groups that was out on the South Lawn with the President, the Committee for Education Funding, which is a coalition that's been put together to work on this issue, has a statement that we have available. I won't take the time to go through it now, but if you look at that list, that roster, it is virtually every major group that works on educational issues in this country. And the fact that that impressive a coalition has come forward in support of the President's balanced budget plan is something I think and I hope that you will pay some attention to.
Lastly, we've got a letter -- have we released the letter of Senator Byrd? -- so you've seen the President has written to Senator Byrd commending him on his amendment today, the national highway system designation act, which calls for zero tolerance. This is an issue that the President spoke to in a radio address on a recent Saturday, as you know, and he very strongly feels that if it's against the law for kids under the age of 21 to drink, it ought to be absolutely clear to those who enforce driving laws that we have to have zero tolerance when it comes to drinking and driving.
So, there's a strong letter to the Senator in support of the Senator's amendment. Our understanding is that that will be considered shortly by the Senate and the President, in addition to commending Senator Byrd is urging the Senate to pass that amendment.
All right. That's my list. What's your list?
Q Mike, what is the President, and what is the White House going to do over the next 24 hours? And is there anything you can do to change the Foster vote?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, on Dr. Foster's nomination, as the President indicated, we are encouraged that 57 senators voted for cloture. And the President is available and will be available if anyone on staff recommends to him that he should work a individual senator more directly. The Vice President has been making numerous calls to members of the Senate today and will continue today. And I suspect there's a good chance the President might as well. I believe as all of you know, the senator -- or the President had a good meeting with five Republican senators early today. And we'll continue to press to see if we can change those three votes necessary to achieve cloture. As the President said, and Dr Foster, as a matter of fairness, deserves an up or down vote on his confirmation.
Q -- better -- or you said you were encouraged by the 57. Was that better or worse or about what you expected?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe it's fair to say that that is slightly better than most of the forecasts here at the White House had the count. There were conflicting counts on -- from the Whips on the Senate, up in the Senate and here. But we were encouraged that we got to 57.
Q -- follow up. Saying that the President is available if anyone recommends he talk to somebody, sounds a little bit milder than what he was saying in the Rose Garden about not giving up and --
MR. MCCURRY: No, he has -- no, he is -- will do anything necessary. He will be on the phone in an instant, but we're going to use him to intervene when we have some evidence to suggest that we can change a mind. It's not entirely clear that we're going to be able to change any minds on the Hill now, but if it's possible we will certainly try, and the President will try.
Q To follow up on that exact point, the five senators he met with this morning were all already supporting Dr. Foster. Has he -- in advance of that vote, has he talked to any senators who are undecided or --
MR. MCCURRY: The question was not support or nonsupport of Dr. Foster, it was cloture.
Q I understand that. He was preaching to the choir in there -- has he spoken to any senators who might be --
MR. MCCURRY: Preaching to choir -- preaching to the choir sometimes includes getting additional members of the chorus. And I think there is some of that at work in the President's meeting today. We -- these are senators that all have got personal relationships with colleagues. And there was some good reasons to include the group that we included today. But we will be working -- anyone that we think is in a position to seriously consider changing their views overnight, the President will work them. And the President -- and the President certainly hopes that members of this Senate on a good night's reflection will look into their conscience and give Dr. Foster a vote that he deserves to have up or down on the merits of his nomination.
Q Mike, when the President met privately with Dr. Foster before they came out, did the President have any words of encouragement, or can you give us a sense of what he --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think that we were -- Dr. Foster and the President both felt pretty good about getting to the number 57. And they are both realistic about the prospects for the vote tomorrow. But we believe if they think -- if members of the Senate think seriously about this nomination overnight, we ought to have reason to be hopeful. We'll just have to see how that goes.
Q Just to follow up -- follow up -- will he -- has he thought about -- has the President thought about what he will do in terms of another appointee in the likely event that this doesn't go forward?
MR. MCCURRY: No. There's no -- no other candidate waiting in the wings.
Q And will he appoint Foster to any other position in the administration if Foster is not confirmed?
MR. MCCURRY: That assumes an outcome that we don't want to assume right now.
Q Just for the record, do you consider if cloture fails tomorrow, it stays on the calendar, but unlikely to be called up -- but do you consider it dead then?
MR. MCCURRY: My guess is that you'll have various Republican presidential candidates gleefully proclaiming that the nomination is dead.
Q But from the White House point of view, is it -- would you then consider it dead and begin the search for a replacement?
MR. MCCURRY: We'll see what the result of the vote is tomorrow and consult on the Hill and make that assessment then.
Q Mike, speaking of Republican presidential candidates, to what extent was today's cloture vote a reflection of Republican presidential politics?
MR. MCCURRY: It couldn't be clearer from the statements of some of those candidates and their aides how they treated this. This is a Republican primary for all intents and purposes and it's being treated that way by some of the Republican presidential candidates.
Q Mike, do you have a timing problem with regard to getting cloture? Normally when you have a fight on confirmation, the White House has a little bit more time, not only for the President to contact senators but for the White House to generate grass roots support on its side. Are you doing anything of the sort, or is the clock really running against you in terms of mobilizing grass roots --
MR. MCCURRY: We were, by working closely with the Minority Leader's staff, we had a good sense of what the timing of the vote would be, and I would think it's safe to say that those who support Dr. Foster's nomination were fully mobilized and had been quite vigorous today in making the case to their individual senators that they need to stop and think about the importance of this nomination.
So, we don't detect -- we didn't have any lack of notice in our effort to mobilize those who support Dr. Foster.
Q But usually the White House calls for mass mailings or telephone calls or something.
MR. MCCURRY: There's been -- you can check around with various organizations in support of the nomination, and you'll learn quickly that much of that has happened, and there's a great deal of activity that's been going on in the last 48 hours.
Q Mike, could you explain -- do you think the meeting today with the five senators had any effect on the vote? I was unclear of your answer to Ann's question --
MR. MCCURRY: It's not -- it's not --
Q They were already -- four of them were already --
MR. MCCURRY: It's not clear. I mean, the individual senators will have some things to think about. They will also have some things to convey to their colleagues. This is the way the Senate works. For those of you who have covered it, you know the cloakroom is an important place. And I think some of the views that were conveyed to these members will be made known to colleagues, and we hope maybe that will make some difference.
Q So, you're saying the four of them at least, even though they already were voting for Foster, will now go back with some kind of invigorated motivation to convince --
MR. MCCURRY: We'll see. I mean, you can ask them that.
Q Does the administration think that Senator Dole has acted fairly with -- this? He did allow a closure vote, although he's not done anything to help -- help it pass.
MR. MCCURRY: He allowed a vote after first indicating that he would likely block a vote. He relented and backed down and said that he would grant the President's desire to have a vote. And he then, I think, has in fairness, given us a schedule and given us a time agreement on the floor that allows the administration to make his case. And I think he's bent over backwards to assist the President.
MR. MCCURRY: Given his views -- given his views on the nomination, he's clearly in opposition to the nomination. I think he's bent over backwards to be fair so we can have a vote.
Q But he was for a filibuster, which is --
Q Fair is an up or down vote.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he allowed -- after indicating that he would use his own authority as Majority Leader to block consideration on the floor of the nomination, he backed down and that was significant. And we said so.
Q Is it too early to start thinking if the President is going to delay his departure for New Jersey tomorrow because of the possible vote?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. I'll -- check in on that later.
Q Has the President already cut some deals to get the other three?
MR. MCCURRY: No.
Q Mike, there's no question that abortion played a major role in this debate, and it's probably smart to claim that the 43 are in the clutches of the anti-abortion --. Don't you share in some of the blame also -- the White House -- in its initial handling of this, raising -- allowing the Republicans to --
MR. MCCURRY: No. Look, that -- that issue -- that issue died a long time ago as Dr. Foster made a very impressive case for his own nomination as he went through the confirmation hearings. And that is not at all an issue on this floor fight. And anyone that claims otherwise is being disingenuous.
Q -- editorial page of The New York Times?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q So it leads it to --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q -- abortion as the issue --
MR. MCCURRY: It's -- the President -- the President just indicated and I think that it's fair to say that this issue is about choice, and it always has been and it's no secret that that's what underlies various work that's being done by Republican Senators, some of whom are seeking the presidency. There is -- from day one that this nomination has been public, members of the Senate have looked beyond the qualifications of this nominee, looked beyond his impressive record in trying to combat teenage pregnancy, and have turned this into a litmus test on the issue of choice. And that's what this nomination fight has been about, and it's what it's always been about.
Q Mike, you were not very optimistic this morning earlier that you could pick us these additional votes. Has anything happened to make you or the President more optimistic that maybe something could happen overnight?
MR. MCCURRY: I said earlier today, I don't think optimism or pessimism is a realistic reflection of our views. We're hoping that senators will sleep on it, look into their conscience and if they do, we're hopeful.
Q Did the President -- you talked about people he met with at the picnic last night. Did he speak to anyone other than Hatfield, who was opposed to the nomination?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he spoke to everybody who was there by the end of the evening.
Q About the --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think in many cases -- I think in many cases with individual senators, they had some --
Q I mean, I'm just trying to get beyond the "preaching to the choir" thing. Has he talked to people who were opposed in an effort to convince them?
MR. MCCURRY: He's talked to senators who are opposed; he's talked to Senators who were opposed from the beginning and who were not -- clearly are not going to change their points of view. So he's had some conversations.
Q Mike, on rescissions, my understanding is you guys have been given some new timber language. Are you close to getting a deal this week on rescissions?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's not only -- the timber issue is very important to the President, and we've been working very hard to get legislative language that incorporate the standards and the administrative practices of the administration's forest management plan, which we're proud of and which is very important. That has been a central issue in the discussions, but it's by no means the only issue. There are also some questions about numbers and the negotiations continue.
Q How does it look now --
MR. MCCURRY: The negotiations continue. There's been some progress but it's too early to render any judgment about where we'll end up.
Q How does it look for the negotiations with Japan on a car deal?
MR. MCCURRY: They're getting close to having the real talks, so I think the pre-game festivities ought to come to a close. I mean, you just heard Dr. Tyson on that subject, and I think there's nothing more to add.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MR. MCCURRY: Wait a minute, a couple more.
Q Lech Walesa -- did you find anything else about -- MR. MCCURRY: They're still looking at that.
Apparently, he's had some new things to say on the subject of controversy in Warsaw, most recently, and that may or may not have an effect on the President's schedule. He's -- there had been some tentative explorations with the government of Poland of a possible bilateral meeting. And I don't believe one has been firmly set at this point.
Q Mike, yesterday you said in answer to a question that Leo asked that you were going to go back and check the transcript in Halifax to clear up this confusion about what the President wants the rapid reaction force to do. And he was pretty clear saying that he wants it to open -- to carry out the U.N. mission to open Sarajevo.
MR. MCCURRY: No, he said -- he said -- I checked and he said the best hope that we have for keeping Sarejevo open is the rapid reaction force. We want the rapid reaction force, through the discussions they're having at the U.N., to be in a position to respond to emergency actions, responses to assist isolated or threatened U.N. units. We want it to be in a position to help the redeployment of elements of UNPROFOR, and we want it to facilitate freedom of movement where necessary. And each of those things could contribute in the case of Sarejevo to lifting the siege of Sarejevo.
The question will be how do we -- there's a lot going on in Bosnia right now with the movement of UNPROFOR personnel and the most recent issue that we've got before us is the Bosnian government detaining some UNPROFOR personnel.
Q But he also -- he said the rapid reaction force, which would permit the U.N. to fulfill its mandate, which includes opening Sarejevo. I mean, so -- my question is, yesterday you said that his view of the rapid reaction force is consistent with what the commanders on the ground have articulated publicly.
MR. MCCURRY: Right.
Q The commanders on the ground said they're not going to try to move humanitarian relief anywhere the Serbs don't want them to.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, you're taking liberties with what the commanders have said. The commanders have said what I just indicated. They're going to, through their deployment, be in a position to help the U.N. defend itself better, to enhance UNPROFOR's overall credibility and effectiveness. And, surely, if that happens, assisting the citizens of Sarejevo, one of the protected, safe areas in Bosnia would be a result.
Q Mike, how does the White House see the vote of no confidence of the Yeltsin government by the lower house of Parliament?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe they were talking about that at the State Department. I think they just -- they had that question earlier, so I'll refer you over there.
Q We didn't get an invitation list ahead of time of the Pac Rim conference?
MR. MCCURRY: Just find out. I don't know the answer to that.
Q California is also in the Pacific Rim and has a lot more electoral votes, so why Portland for the conference?
MR. MCCURRY: I think some of you will recall being in California from time to time with President Clinton. Spread the wealth.
Q Gephardt on the wires said he doesn't want lobbying to come under the bipartisan commission. Could you comment -- give us some White House reaction on that?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe -- check the letter that we sent to the Speaker. I believe we suggested to the Speaker the thing to do -- I mean, lobby reform is a key element of political reform broadly. I think we suggested to the Speaker, if I remember the letter correctly, that we ought to say to the commission, look at wherever lobby reform is in Congress at that point. If you deem that there's sufficient progress on the issue at the time that you convene and start your work, you can take that off the table because the issue would have been advanced.
But the President is determined to say, one way or another, lobby reform ought to move ahead as part of the package of political reforms that the country needs. And if the Congress is making sufficient progress already on that, it wouldn't be necessary for a blue ribbon commission to address that subject. If they're already doing it, why have a commission, you know, muck up the progress.
Q -- or disagreement with Gephardt?
MR. MCCURRY: We're in agreement with Gephardt that if they're making progress towards that end, it should not necessarily be part of this commission's mandate. And I believe, if I'm -- if someone could get me a copy of the letter -- I think we suggested that in the letter that the President sent to the Speaker.
No disagreement there. Good. Bye.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:43 P.M. EDT