THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
5:30 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Look, I don't have a whole lot that I can add to the readout of the President's two-hour long meeting that you got from the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader. I think they did a very credible job in giving you an account of the meeting that the President described as being a cordial one. I think that most that participated -- of those from the administration that participated, including Leon, the Vice President, the President, they all felt like both the leaders of the Republican majority in Congress now understand the President's thinking better. And the President and others here certainly understand some of the thinking of the Republican congressional leadership better.
Q Is that all they accomplished?
MR. MCCURRY: That's -- there were no other agreements to report, as you heard.
Q Can you give us a little more on what that means, because it wouldn't seem that there was a whole lot of question about what each side believed going into this meeting.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it was more -- the questions at hand were more questions about what would happen under certain circumstances. I think you heard the leadership, all four leaders, indicate the President feels very strongly that the importance of the debt ceiling and the issue of default of the federal government is something that ought to be separated from the budget issues that are in dispute.
You heard several of them suggest that we need to let the process go forward at this point. The Republicans need to work out their differences and proceed with their conference. And you heard they heard the President restate something that he has said publicly, which is he has acknowledged that the principles that the Republican majority have worked for in this debate, some of those principles he embraces -- a balanced budget, middle income tax relief, and preserving the solvency of the Medicare Trust Fund. He acknowledges those are important principles, important for the country, and has indicated his willingness to work with the Republican majority to make those things happen.
But at the same time, the President, in I think a very candid and very dramatic way, said that he has principles, too, and they need to be acknowledged because he's very concerned about some of the things that the Republican majority are attempting to do in their budget that takes away from the federal government responsibilities the President feels are very important for the federal government to have. And I think in a fairly candid way he told them that if they were going to try to accomplish those objectives there would have to be someone else sitting at the desk that he -- appointed to.
Q Mike, there's obviously no agreement on substance. Was there some sort of agreement on rhetoric? I mean, are we going to see a little bit of scaling back, a cease-fire in the next couple of weeks?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'm being a lot more careful these days, if you hadn't noticed. (Laughter.)
Q Did you make peace with the Speaker?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't have a discussion with the Speaker.
Q Were you in the room?
MR. MCCURRY: The only staffers there present were Mr. Panetta -- I believe Pat Griffith was there for both sessions, and of course, Tony Lake was there for the Bosnia discussion and Secretary Rubin was there for the debt ceiling discussion.
Q The Republicans suggested that they're willing -- they seemed to signal that it's no longer November 29th, but now early December. Is that something the administration welcomes?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we set forward our thinking about mid-January and why we felt that was a better choice of dates. We discussed some of the problems that exist with November 29th, I believe. As the leadership indicated, they need to revisit that issue in coming days.
Q What was the problem with November 29th?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe Senator Dole told you it may not be a good date because there's something happening on December 1st.
Q Social Security.
MR. MCCURRY: Clearly, none of you draw Social Security benefits, or else you'd know.
Q Mike, when the President said that somebody else would have to be sitting there at the desk, was that part of a discussion about maybe a continuing resolution for a year and let's take this to the country?
MR. MCCURRY: No, it was more a philosophical discussion about -- the President said, look, I feel strongly about some things that I came here to Washington to do, and he talked, my understanding is, in a fairly dramatic way about those things that he believes deeply. And he indicated to them that if they wanted to accomplish some of the things that he believes may be a part of their long-term agenda they were going to have to elect a Republican president, put a Republican president behind -- in the chair.
Q Did he say that in the context of an offer to operate on a continuing resolution for a year? Did that come up?
MR. MCCURRY: No, it was not -- it have very little to do with the technical aspects of budget, as you might gather.
Q Yesterday, Trent Lott said he hoped that they could vote on this by the 9th. Today the Speaker said that he hoped to get together or he thought they could get together with the President in the next few days. When would your hope or expectation be that Congress might vote on an extension?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe, based on this meeting, you can make an accurate assessment of when they might complete action. They clearly have a ways to go and they understand better now the strong feelings the President has about both process and then the fundamental policy differences that underline some of these discussions.
Q They came out sounding like temporary debt ceiling was definitely doable, it's just a -- maybe the date is going to get changed a little bit; they have to go back up the Hill and talk. What's your understanding of the process? I mean, what are the steps that have to be gone through before they actually put something on the floor?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think they were candid in saying they need to visit with some of their members on the Hill and there will have to be some additional meetings in coming days. That's our understanding as well.
Q Was there talk about conditions -- like what they need to get before they can actually pass a temporary debt ceiling?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware. I think there was a broad discussion of the problems that exist with passing a debt ceiling extension from both sides, and then from the President's point of view the necessity of doing so to avoid default and the necessity of doing so separate from the budget issues, which are likely to remain unresolved for some time.
Q But what did they say were the problems with passing a temporary debt ceiling?
MR. MCCURRY: I would prefer that you ask them that, because they had to do with their own issues and their own caucus, so they should more properly address that.
Q Let me try one more time. Each side laid out its positions in some detail, apparently, and they all said it was a wonderful meeting. What was actually accomplished, and what's going to happen?
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't suggest to you that much of a definitive newsworthy purpose was achieved. The primary purpose of this meeting was for both the Republican leadership and the President to get a much better measure of where they are respectively as they go into what is going to be a very difficult series of discussions about how you resolve this impasse. Clearly, there was no resolution of that impasse that was available, but I think it's accurate to say that both sides understand each other much better now than they did three hours ago.
Q Is it safe to say there was no agreement either on Bosnia, that they still -- the two sides remain just as far apart?
MR. MCCURRY: The discussion on Bosnia was much different. It was a different tone, and it had to do more with the challenge, as I think, to quote, probably, the Speaker, the challenge the President faces in building a public case, the challenge that we acknowledge is there, that we are going to have to work at, and we are certainly committed to additional consultations to continue to build that case publicly so the American people understand the extraordinary responsibilities we have related to Bosnia and the importance of that to the American people.
Q Was there talk about specifically the Republican -- it seems like the Republicans have a key demand for a seven-year balanced budget; several on the Hill are saying seven years or else they won't vote for any debt ceiling increase, temporary or otherwise; and the Democrats are demanding dealing with the other budget issues that have to be resolved. Was there any specific discussion about whether the President would eventually agree to a seven-year plan, even a different plan from the Republicans, but any seven-year proposal? Did that come up?
MR. MCCURRY: I did not gather that the conversation pointed to that type of end-game result. It was more a discussion of where they are now, whether the general principles that are in disagreement as they go into these conversations.
Q Did Gingrich indicate at all whether he had votes among House Republicans, or Dole, for that matter, to de-link these issues? Did you get down to that specific level of discussion?
MR. MCCURRY: I think they discussed in general the proposition of linkage versus nonlinkage, as both the Speaker and the Majority Leader indicated.
Q One of the problems recently has been a credibility question of Treasury Secretary Rubin. Was he able to make his case today, and do you feel that that credibility issue is now no longer an issue?
MR. MCCURRY: It's my understanding he did, and I'm not aware that there were any questions about his credibility raised.
Q The way people are talking, it's kind of hard to see on what side of the line we're falling, though, in terms of whether or not there is agreement on both sides, however they get there, to actually pass a temporary debt extension. Coming out of this, I mean, you said there was nothing newsworthy, but are we at that point?
MR. MCCURRY: They discussed some of the difficulties that are still apparent as they attempt to address the issue of extending the debt ceiling, and they clearly couldn't resolve that issue tonight.
Q But is it now that there is going to be, at some point in the near future, an extension -- everybody's essentially agreed we just have to figure out how we're going to get there?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't hear any of the leaders pronounce that news at the conclusion of the meeting.
Q Is the administration still objecting to the idea of a temporary extension of the debt ceiling? Or has that now become more acceptable?
MR. MCCURRY: We had not objected to it, we had suggested a period that would run until mid-January. And that's still our view that that's preferable, but that we certainly understand the legislative calendar as it was described by the Republican leadership and the need to search for some date.
The President stressed the importance of extensions so that the government does not default. The period of time is clearly something that will be subject to further discussion.
Q There's a real difference in the tone of the Speaker from this morning, about an hour before he went into this meeting, and his tone when he came out. Is this the beginning of the negotiation phase on budget?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't comment on the Speaker's tone; I'll leave that for those of you who cover the Congress more directly.
Q Do you think that negotiations have started on a budget?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I don't think that's accurate to say.
Q Well, what do you think about the fact that they were all in the room? I mean, is there something significant about the fact they were at least talking and agreed to do so in the next couple of days?
Q Ice has been broken here, Mike, obviously.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, I think it's important -- it's important that they have discussion today. It was a very candid meeting and probably one of the best discussions of budget-related issues that the President's had. But I think it's -- we would hope that it's accurate to say that the Republican leadership now understands much better the President's point of view and his determination to hold fast to the principles that he outlined for them in this meeting.
Q Mike, in this two-hour meeting, a little over two hours, how much time was spent on Bosnia and how much on the --
MR. MCCURRY: Roughly half and half. They broke just after 3:30 p.m., around 3:40 p.m., and brought Secretary Rubin in for the debt ceiling discussions. So it was about an hour on each subject.
Q Did Rubin give a new date when the debt ceiling would be reached?
MR. MCCURRY: Not to my knowledge.
Q What is the administration's current date, projection for when the ceiling would be reached?
MR. MCCURRY: I know that the Secretary of the Treasury has been addressing that publicly, so whatever he said earlier today stands.
Q Gingrich cited Democrats as saying that there's less support for Bosnia than there was a month ago. Is that the President's assessment of the level of support?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the point he was making, if I understand him correctly, is that we have done some briefings and now based on those briefings, members have more information than they had before, so they now have more questions than they had before. Those are questions that we will have to answer appropriately as we finalize plans for an implementation force should there be an agreement and date.
We acknowledge that, and we acknowledge that as members of Congress get deeper into the subject, as the American people become more aware of the challenge that we are going to face in Bosnia that there will be serious questions that have to be answered. And the President and on through the administration understands the importance of dealing with that in a very straightforward and open way. But, again, the President put the stress on the fact that today in Dayton we began peace talks which may or may not lead to a peace settlement, which would then be enforced by NATO. And that is sequentially what we have to keep a focus on.
Q Did the President's veto of the reconciliation bill come up during this meeting?
MR. MCCURRY: It did, and I think it was made pretty clear on behalf of the President and the administration that the conference needs to take its course and the process that the Republican leadership is currently following needs to proceed the way its proceeding.
Q You mentioned the legislative calendar came up and the Republicans gave you a clear idea. Can you tell us what that is as far as when they intend to have a bill to the President?
MR. MCCURRY: That's their responsibility to discuss.
Q Senator Dole came out and said "we agreed to continue" -- does that mean they're just going to have one more meeting to hammer out a debt extension, or did they all agree to have a continuing avenue or vehicle for negotiations, with Dole and Panetta or Gingrich and Panetta? You don't have to call them negotiations if you don't want, but --
MR. MCCURRY: Let's separate the questions, because, of course, we view them as separate questions. We have the urgent matter at hand, which is the extension of the debt ceiling. If that does not occur, the United States government cannot function, cannot meet its obligations globally. So that is the first order of business. There, then, are the larger budget issues that arise and they come very quickly, too, because the continuing resolution soon expires. But the discussion was more about how you proceed on both of those scores.
Q What did they mean when they said "we agreed to continue to talk"? Did that just mean --
MR. MCCURRY: They understand that -- I mean, it was another way of saying they did not resolve any of these issues tonight and there will obviously have to be continuing discussions in order to resolve those matters.
Q Are they scheduled -- is there another session scheduled?
MR. MCCURRY: No. There are some suggestions about how they will proceed, but nothing formally firmed up as of right now.
Q -- the only people that he would speak with was the President directly and not Secretary Rubin. Were they able to open a channel of communication?
MR. MCCURRY: My understanding is that Secretary Rubin felt very comfortable with the dialogue.
Q On Bosnia, did they at all or the President at all discuss the type of resolution or the type of congressional support he'd like to see? And did Gingrich raise this plan apparently hatched in the conference today about another vote next week restricting funds for Bosnia?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know whether he specifically raised that point. They did not get specific about the form in which such an expression of support would take. There have been various suggestions, from resolutions to other ways in which that might occur, and I don't know that they specified how that would happen. I think the President was much more interested and keen on telling them here's how things look as we open the peace talks in Dayton, here's how the NATO planning is going, what the requirements are, here's what we understand we have to do in order to persuade your members that this is the right thing to do and right for the United States of America, and that -- it's fair to say the President pledged to make that case and to take it before both the Congress and the American people.
Q Did you get the feeling at all that the Republicans are too focused on the money and the troops and not what's going on in Dayton?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that has been a concern of ours. The degree to which that specific point was addressed in this meeting, but that has been a concern of the administration. I think a lot of people are rushing to put the cart before the horse, that we've got to get a peace agreement, and that the parties are willing to honor and abide by before we can begin to finalize the plans for the implementation force, and we certainly are not there yet, and there are many obstacles that exist to achieving that.
Q Did you have any chance, Mike, to talk with the President further about the substance or meaning of his conversations with Ben Wattenberg, particularly --
MR. MCCURRY: I did --
Q -- whether he feels that his thoughts were reflected accurately in that column Mr. Wattenberg is publishing?
MR. MCCURRY: He had some specific concerns, and I had a chance to show it to him at the end, and there are just some things that he does not -- his recollection of the parts of the conversation are different from those as reported by Mr. Wattenberg. And specifically, he said that there's one direct quotation attributed to him about changing philosophically, and he does not recall that. He recalls on issues like both welfare reform and Goals 2000, there were very nuanced discussions of policy in which the President was making a much larger set of arguments and they've been truncated here, as you can imagine. It was apparently about an hour-long conversation which had been boiled down to one column, and they reflect Ben's point of view and what Ben has been arguing for 15 years within the Democratic Party, and I think extracted from a long conversation there some specific points there.
But the President, for example, on Goals 2000, specifically said that was a discussion more about the introduction of Secretary Riley's initial bill, which focused much more on outputs as they would be measured. The President said, certainly that bill was stronger as it initially was introduced, but what came out was a very good bill and was well worth fighting for and is well worth continuing to fight for. So I think they just have a somewhat different recollection.
Q Do you know where the President was when he placed this call or at what time of day or anything like that?
MR. MCCURRY: No, no.
Q You assume he was here in the White House, though?
MR. MCCURRY: I assume so. I think it was on Saturday; that's all I know.
Q Last Thursday it was supposed to be.
MR. MCCURRY: Say again?
Q It was supposed to -- Mr. Wattenberg last Thursday.
MR. MCCURRY: Someone had told me Saturday. Thursday -- okay.
Q That's what Wattenberg says. Did the President say anything about the comments that he was more like a prime minister than a president?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he said -- I think he's -- I've heard him say that in some public sessions before. He feels like in the first two years here, working with a Democratic Congress, he spent an inordinate amount of time working through the dynamic of a legislative record that he is very proud of. But that, of necessity, required him to spend a lot more time dealing in the nitty-gritty of legislation and far less time making the broader case about where this country needs to be in and where we need to go int he 21st century.
And I think it's incorrect to say that his view of where that American future lies has changed in any sense, but the way in which you go about framing the case and leading the American people to that destination has changed somewhat for this President. He's now spending, for obvious reasons, because of November 1994, far less time dealing in the nitty-gritty of legislation and more time framing an argument about where we need to go as a country so that the American people see what the choice is. And the choice is pretty clear, as it's measured against what the Republican majority in Congress wants to do. That was a central element of the conversation he had with the visitors today.
Q Is the President saying he doesn't recall saying that he changed philosophically, or he didn't say it?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he's disputing that quotation. He does not believe that he said that. And I haven't been able to reach Mr. Wattenberg to go into it with any detail.
Q Can I try one more on the debt ceiling?
MR. MCCURRY: Say again.
Q Could I try one more on the debt ceiling?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q If Treasury and Secretary Rubin wants a mid-January extension, and Gingrich doesn't want anything beyond early December, why isn't there any attempt to try to split the difference and at least extend it through Christmas to give you enough time for serious budget discussions?
MR. MCCURRY: I mean, the point -- the point to go through Christmas -- I mean, one of the reasons why we propose mid-January was to take it beyond the Christmas holidays and into -- beyond the congressional recess. We thought that would give Congress enough time and give the administration enough time to work through these budget issues.
Q Was there any discussion -- did the Republican leaders say what they were willing to do or not willing to do with regard to a continuing resolution, which you have less than two weeks to --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't -- based on the information I've been given about the meeting, nothing that indicates that. But I don't have the detailed readout that indicates whether they may or may not have gotten into that point.
Q On welfare reform, the Wattenberg column, did the President agree with Wattenberg that his welfare package was too soft -- his initial welfare package?
MR. MCCURRY: Again, he said -- his recollection on the conversation it was a lot different as it related to the way in which they framed the work. The point that he made -- he recalls making to Mr. Wattenberg is with more -- his principal concern as they drafted the '94 bill was how much could you specify and tighten up the transition that has to occur between welfare and work. One barrier to doing that is the amount of money available for child care, given the economic situation that we were in in 1994, there was not enough money available for subsidized day care; therefore you had to be a little bit less stringent than you would otherwise be in making the requirement that you move away from welfare and into work transitions as part of a general welfare reform bill. And that -- we've got several examples of that argumentation being used by people within the administration during the course of developing the bill in 1994. That's consistent with what the administration said all along.
So that's -- the point is, we have now, as we work in a different environment now on welfare reform, we are still seeking the same conclusion. How can you toughen up the requirements on work and do so in a way that doesn't leave children exposed because they don't have access to proper care?
Q So was he misquoted on that issue as well?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it was just -- I think -- there's no quote related to that point, Brit, in the column. It is just is a --
Q He didn't like it either.
MR. MCCURRY: No. He said --
Q Quote, "I wasn't pleased with it either." Is that his quote, or not?
MR. MCCURRY: I just described to you the context in --
Q You heard all that, but what about "I wasn't pleased with it either"?
MR. MCCURRY: I just described for you, Brit, the context in which they discussed welfare reform, and they clearly have --
Q Did he say "I wasn't pleased with it either," or not?
MR. MCCURRY: They clear have a different view of how it went. On that particular point, I didn't ask the President about that particular point.
Q Two other points. Mr. Wattenberg says that in apparently some earlier conversation with you, you told him it was the President's view that the President expected to be quoted when he talked to Mr. Wattenberg -- expected Mr. Wattenberg somehow to use this in his column.
MR. MCCURRY: No, no. I told him that the President expected that he would write about this.
Q And do you know any -- I mean, the President made this call presumably just on his own; it wasn't like a staffed-out call in which somebody said you ought to call Ben Wattenberg and talk about these issues?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he read the guy's book and wanted to talk to him about the book he had read. Is that unusual?
Q For this President, no. That's -- I just wanted to make sure that was indeed the case.
Q Did he tell anybody in advance he was calling Wattenberg, or did he just pick up the phone --
MR. MCCURRY: He may have told someone on the staff.
Q Did anybody try to talk him out of it?
Q -- general reaction --
MR. MCCURRY: Why would anyone talk him out of an opportunity to exchange views with the author of a book that the President found interesting? Why would anyone want to do that?
Q Well, because of this column that was just written.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, look, the column -- I mean, people -- it's fair to say here people know Mr. Wattenberg and they know his point of view. They know the argument he's been making over and over within the Democratic Party for years. And this column very much reflects his point of view, as he's been stating it for 15 years. And he would tell you that, too. He also points out in here that he clearly has some disagreements with Bill Clinton on other subjects. I don't think he chose to write about that because that's not the argument that he was making, putting forward. He's also got a book out. It's a good book. He probably wants to sell the book.
Q Mike, what is the President's general reaction, though? Is he sore that he was misquoted, or is he --
MR. MCCURRY: No, he read this and he said, look, there's some stuff in here -- he said, look, Ben's characterized about half of this conversation. I would suggest in an hour-long conversation in one column, you probably don't even get to characterize half, probably less than half.
Q But there are two things he didn't say, right?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's one thing specifically, the President said, no, that's just not right; call him and find out -- he goes, I did not say that, that's not the argument that I made.
Q Which quote is that?
MR. MCCURRY: Changed philosophically.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 6:00 P.M. EST