THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:50 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I apologize for my tardy start today, but --
Q Why were you tardy?
MR. MCCURRY: I was tardy because the President, the Vice President and Mr. Panetta invited the White House staff and especially the interns to the South Lawn a short while ago just to thank everybody who endured the government shutdown over the last week. The President, obviously, thanked those who did a heroic job, especially the interns in the absence of full-time White House staff, but he also thanked those who weren't here. He made the point that even those who weren't here are absolutely essential to the functioning of the White House and essential to him as President of the United States. And he said that what we've been through in the last week is an experience that we don't care to repeat anytime soon.
He also told the staff that it was about something important. The fact that they missed a week of work, were not here to serve the President and serve the American people was because the President was consciously fighting with the Congress about priorities that are important to the American people. And he asked them to understand that and to put this last week in which they bore some of the burden of a shutdown in our government, put that in the context of a larger fight about priorities and programs which now continue.
Q It would have been nice to be able to cover that.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it was a private occasion, Helen, for the President and his staff.
Q Did that include the White House contract painters who don't get paid for the days they missed and work out of the White House all year?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know anything about that.
Q How many interns were involved in the White House who worked through that?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't have a count. I think they filled in places where -- they did everything from helping staff phone calls, help -- get messages back and forth to people and really helped do a lot of duties that normally are left to full-time staffers.
Q Mike, I have this nice rapid response from the House Republican Conference in which they tell me that the White House blinked on this deal. And I wonder whether, in fact, your perception is the White House did blink.
MR. MCCURRY: One of the things the President stressed today is we shouldn't gloat over the agreement that was reached right now. It was the first time that the Republican leadership in Congress did acknowledge the President's priorities. And the President also instructed the staff not to make too much of the polls that show us doing very well. (Laughter.) Those things can go up -- they can go up, they can go down.
So I would imagine if the House Republican Conference is engaged in spin now, you'll see that, significantly, to my knowledge, the Republicans who spoke that night -- the Speaker, the Majority Leader and Chairman Kasich -- chose to put the focus on what lies ahead for the American people. That's what the President put his focus on and that's what matters most. We'll leave it to the political people on the Hill to conduct the spin wars.
Q Mike, Congressman Armey is upset because Mr. Panetta said today that we could balance the budget in seven years or eight years. They think that he's straying from the seven year -- commitment to seven years. Is it seven years, or is it eight years or is it indefinite?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the language that's in the document, as I've heard Republican leaders say, is very clear, and the commitment the President made in that language is clear -- they are going to balance the budget in seven years subject to the estimates of the Congressional Budget Office. But -- but -- the President and the Congress also have to agree that the balanced budget that is there upon derived protects those priorities the President has consistently stated.
Their key points went to process: numbers of years, who were going to make technical assessment. The Presidents top concerns went to the substance of a balanced budget: how we're going to balance the budget, what are we going to do for the nation elderly, for the veterans, for students, to protect the environment, what are we going to do about tax policies for working people. And the President's main concerns in the discussions over the last 48 hours went to the substance of a balanced budget.
Now the President has pledged a good-faith effort to see if we can match those policies and priorities to the process that the Congress seems to be concerned about. And we'll have to see. That's going to be the subject, as you know, in the agreement of consultations between the Congressional Budget Office and the White House Office of Management and Budget, and we'll see where we end up there.
Q Can you do that? Can you do it in seven years, maintain the President's principles and have a $245-billion tax cut like the Republicans want?
MR. MCCURRY: It's very clear that you cannot -- the Congress and the President agreed to a very important series of tests last night about policies that matter to the American people: protecting Medicare and protecting our nation's environment, making investments in technology and in education so the economy will grow in the 21st century. The budget that has been passed by the Republican Congress does not do that. It will need to be substantially rewritten in order to meet the test that the congressional leadership and the President agreed to last night.
Q Do you believe you'll be able to achieve that?
MR. MCCURRY: You can be hopeful. It's a season for hope.
Q Specifically, as Armey seems to charge, are you reneging on the agreement?
MR. MCCURRY: No, absolutely not, and I don't know why the Congressman would suggest that.
Q Are the estimates of the CBO inviolate in your opinion, or do you reserve the right to reject them?
MR. MCCURRY: No, we reserve the right to alter them, subject to the consultations required in this agreement between the Congressional Budget Office, the Office of Management and Budget and outside experts.
As you all know, the agreement -- and this is important -- pledges that the Congressional Budget Office will base their estimates on the most recent, current economic and technical assumptions. Now, that means the CBO needs to go back and look at some of the assumptions in consultation with the OMB and with outside experts.
And I remind you that in the private sector now they are using growth forecasts that are considerably more optimistic than both the Congressional Budget Office estimates and the Office of Management and Budget estimates. So they have made a pledge in this agreement to visit that question, to consult and to come up with the best numbers so the policymakers, those in the Congress and those here at the White House who have to negotiate this balanced budget will have the best information available when they do so.
Q -- come up with the same numbers they have right now.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, in light of the commitment to use most recent current economic and technical assumptions, that's not likely.
Q Has the President talked either last night or today with either of the Republican leaders on the Hill personally, and does he have any plans to?
MR. MCCURRY: He did not, and he does not, to my knowledge. And I believe that they'll be preparing, as will the President, for a Thanksgiving holiday.
Q Has he talked to Walesa?
MR. MCCURRY: He has not. We, obviously, just in the last hour or so, saw the statement by President Walesa that concedes the election. Obviously, we congratulate Alexander Kwasniewski on his victory. We note that this has not only been what appears to be a free and fair election, but importantly, in Poland which has now made a transition from totalitarianism to democracy, it is the second national presidential election. Both of these candidates, both President Walesa and Alexander Kwasniewski ran on a program of democratic market reforms, pledging to maintain Poland's commitment to integration with the West. And that is important. Those are promises that have been made to the Polish people, and they will be the basis of further discussions between Poland and European entities, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Q We're not concerned then about his heavy communist past?
MR. MCCURRY: It's not the background or the personal experience of the candidates, it is the policies that they will pursue in the future. And on that point, President-elect Kwasniewski has been very clear on the policies they will pursue, and they, in the case of foreign policy, represent an element of consistency in the approach they'll take to some of the key questions related to European integration.
Q Before we get too far off the budget, can you just tell us when the President plans to veto the overall budget bill that was sent down to him?
MR. MCCURRY: No way of knowing, and it has not been sent down.
Q And also, what can you tell us about --
MR. MCCURRY: It hasn't been finally acted upon yet. As you know, it hasn't been finally passed yet.
Q And the next step in terms of the negotiations on the new budget -- they're supposed to go in on Monday. And is the White House going to help with Congress and pick a couple of people to negotiate? What can you tell us about it?
MR. MCCURRY: We've had discussions here at the White House this morning about how we will constitute the President's negotiating team. It will be led, as you would gather, by Chief of Staff Panetta. There will be others participating, and we look at what will clearly be a lengthy period of very difficult, serious negotiations. We've been meeting here this morning to formalize our own approach to the dialogue that's about to occur. I think it's correct, Rita, that we expect that no formal negotiations will begin prior to Monday when Congress returns from its recess. But how they will occur and what issues they will start upon remain in the air at this point.
We would hope that they would begin by going through the issues that Congress and the President have now identified as being absolutely critical. How we're going to protect future generations, how we're going to ensure Medicare solvency, how we're going to reform welfare, how we're going to provide adequate funding for Medicaid, for education, for veterans, for agriculture, for national defense and for environmental protection -- those are the priorities the President has repeatedly laid out, and that is a good basis and a good starting point for the discussion that has to occur.
Q Republicans in the House, though, seem to be saying that they think it should be members only doing the negotiations, opposed to people from the White House directly negotiating.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we don't have members of Congress here at the White House who serve on our staff, so unless they want to just solely negotiate with themselves, which I don't think would be a very fruitful approach, they'll have to involve White House staff.
Q They could negotiate with House Democrats who some of us think may or may not be in line with the President's thinking.
MR. MCCURRY: The agreement they reached last night requires that the President and the Congress agree on these elements of a balanced budget. Now, there may be -- it may be useful for members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to have conversations, but sooner or later they need to have negotiations with the White House.
Q Same issue. Would the President take part in some opening session on Monday before he leaves for Europe? Will he adjust his Europe schedule? And would he plan any address to the nation on what he would like to see in a balanced budget?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President has addressed the nation often on what he'd like to see in a balanced budget. I suspect we might, sometime between now and his departure for Europe Monday night, have some further opportunities to make his case. But we will have to see next Monday how the discussions begin to occur. And it's not clear at this point what the format will be.
Q In the list of things that you were talking about that have to be agreed upon you mentioned welfare reform. Is that now, as far as the White House is concerned, tied specifically to the budget? Because there was talk of separating that out.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's not clear at this point how that will be -- whether or not it will be incorporated in the reconciliation, as you know. But it was identified by the President and Congress last night as being a high priority and it does have substantial impact. We continue to hope that there will be some way for a conference committee on the House to produce welfare reform that is to the President's liking. Unfortunately, as you know, it's been, if anything, moving in the wrong direction.
Q Mike, the Serbian delegation in Dayton is saying flatly there will be a deal. Does that reflect what's going on out there? Will the President travel out there? And what is the state of play of a speech to the nation about committing troops?
MR. MCCURRY: The spokesman for all of the delegations participating in the talks in Dayton is the State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns. I talked to him just a short while ago. He indicated to me he has indicated to your colleagues that there's nothing new to report at this point. They are still where they have been. There are several issues that are, not surprisingly, the toughest issues for the parties to deal with as they get very close to the finish line. And they are not resolved, and thus, there's no guarantee of a successful conclusion to these discussions.
They are, as Nick put it to me, now in extra innings, having at one point set 10:00 a.m. today as sort of the concluding point. But the mediators and those participating agree that they should continue their discussions. So we're watching it very carefully. The President has been getting regular updates from Secretary Christopher and from Ambassador Holbrooke as relayed by National Security Advisor Tony Lake, and we'll just have to see what the outcome is.
Q If there is an agreement will the President got out for an initialing ceremony?
MR. MCCURRY: That's not at all clear at this point.
Q Also getting back to Ann's earlier question, what impact will the resumption of the budget talks, the overall budget, on Monday have on the President's travel plans next week?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I just indicated the President plans to make the trip to the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom as it has originally been conceived and as has been discussed with some of you. We don't have a formal schedule we can announce at this point because plans do call for a departure Monday evening and return on the following Sunday at the conclusion of the European U.N.-U.S. summit meeting in Madrid.
Q For those of us who have -- of tick-tocks about how the agreement fell into place on Sunday, as of Friday night everything seems to have collapsed. Could you briefly take us through what the President and other key players in the White House did Saturday and yesterday to help put this thing together?
MR. MCCURRY: I forget where we were on Saturday. I can do yesterday, but my memory is a little clogged and hazy at this point.
Yesterday, as you know, there was a back-and-forth on the subject of how you address the question of the President's priorities, how you address the question that the Republican leaders in Congress were insistent upon -- seven years and CBO estimates. Various attempts during the day on Saturday to break through the barriers that existed on that language. I'd have to go back and look at notes to really understand better what happened on Saturday.
I can tell you yesterday Mr. Panetta and our negotiators went to Capitol Hill in the early afternoon. They met with Democratic leaders just to review what Mr. Panetta intended to put forward to the Republican negotiators -- principally, Mr. Kasich and Mr. Domenici -- and got support across the board on the Democratic side for two options. One was -- I think a lot of this you've seen recounted already -- but one was the sense of the Congress resolution. The other was a statement clearly in the negotiated language that would protect the President's priorities.
After an initial -- I'd say an initial negative reaction to the second option, which was language that would incorporate some of the President's priorities into this agreement, it's clear the Republican leadership reconsidered, and during the course of late in the afternoon prepared a response to Mr. Panetta's offer which is very similar to the final language as it was adopted. That language came here at approximately 4:00 p.m.-4:15 p.m. yesterday afternoon. The initial response from Mr. Panetta and those here at the White House was very encouraging. We all looked at the counter-offer that had come from the Republican leadership and said, well, this is a serious offer and it is something we might be able to work with.
Mr. Panetta departed after meeting here to get the consensus of everyone here on the language -- he departed to go to the Hill. He met with the Democratic leaders that he had been working with -- Senator Daschle, Minority Leader Gephardt -- but also with a cross-section of members of the House -- Congressman Stenholm, Condit, Miller, Obey, DeLauro, Senators Reid and Exon. He also had an opportunity, I believe, by telephone to talk and touch base with others. And it was clear on the Democratic side of the aisle there was a great deal of enthusiasm for this language because it gave Democrats and the President something we had been looking for, an acknowledgement by this Republican Congress for the first time that those priorities the President keeps laying before them are, indeed, important and will have to be reflected in a balanced budget agreement.
Having recognized that and having been shown a willingness to put that into some formal language, everyone agreed that Mr. Panetta ought to accept the offer. He met a short while later with his Republican counterparts -- specifically, Senator Domenici, Congressman Kasich, and I believe there were other Republicans present as well. They met in Senator Dole's office. Our understanding is Senator Dole was nearby. And they suggested one or two modifications to the language which were quickly embraced. And then at approximately 7:00 p.m., I guess, the Majority Leader went to the Senate floor and announced the agreement.
Q The President thanked Senator Dole and Senator Domenici and Congressman Kasich. Was he slighting Newt Gingrich again?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he wasn't. The Speaker clearly played a role.
Q Here we go again.
Q The Speaker played a role?
Q Does the administration plan to publish its way of getting to a balanced budget in seven years, or are you just going to go up there and work off the Republican budget and try to whittle it down to more acceptable terms?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we're not going to repeat the exercise that we attempted earlier this year where we came forward with a budget proposal that was not taken seriously or dismissed. So we have to do -- really, this negotiation has gone on quite some time now. It seems to be much more useful to start at the starting point of the language that was adopted in this agreement last night to really go seriously into the issues of how do we address Medicare solvency, how do we make sure there's adequate funding for Medicaid, how do we make sure that we've got proper funding for education, for environmental protection. Working through those issues will very quickly get you to answers on spending that then define other aspects of the budget. And quite obviously, we think, it's going to say something very quickly about the size of any tax relief that can be provided in the final budget.
Q So what was the answer to that question?
Q So you're not going to publish those -- you're not going to say $90 billion for cuts for Medicare?
MR. MCCURRY: Look, we are now, beginning Monday, going to be in a serious negotiation. And as you can well imagine, we're not going to be negotiating publicly. We'll be doing it in the meetings face-to-face with the Republican leaders.
Q Pretend that you didn't have anybody to negotiate with, you could just impose something yourself. How vivid a picture is there in the administration's mind of what a seven-year budget would look like if they could do it on their own?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we've got a pretty good idea based on the work we did for our own budget proposal in June of what it would look like and how you would adjust it. But that's pointless to do that type of hypothetical exercise now. We're into a real negotiation with the Republican leaders who are working on budget issues and, ultimately, with the Speaker and the Majority Leader, and I'd rather deal in reality than hypothetics.
Q Mike, you say you're working on the spending threat first before you determine the size of the tax cut?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I did not say that. I suggested that that would be, in our view, the right way to start, to go through those issues that were identified in the agreement last night and begin to pin down specifically how we're going to address those things that are sketched out in the agreement last night, because once you answer those questions, once you know how you're going to protect future generations and how you're going to make sure Medicare remains solvent for however many years once you decide how you're going to have adequate funding for Medicaid, you begin to define a lot of the issues that are central in this debate. And I think our view is you also, as I say, get a pretty good sense of what the revenue side is going to look like.
Q You must have some bottom-line notions of what you want, and I'm wondering, for instance, in the EITC, whether no cuts in the EITC except for the fraud parts of that, that's one of your bottom line, not moving kind of --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, you will have to understand that in the period of the next several weeks, we're not going to -- quote, unquote -- "give our bottom line" here through me. That would not be a very smart way to negotiate. We will do our best to accomplish those objectives the President has laid out. But he's made it very clear he doesn't want to see taxes increased on the working poor, and the proposed cutbacks and the trimbacks in the EITC clearly are in that category.
Q When are you going to get to talking again on the debt ceiling, and how confident is Secretary Rubin that he can keep going indefinitely, shuffling accounts --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Treasury Secretary raised that point this morning -- in order to get the agreement on the continuing resolution that keeps the government open, we do not have any less or any less important concerns about the approaching debt ceiling issues. The Treasury Secretary has taken some steps, he's told you how long that can maintain the integrity and full faith and credit of the United States government. But it's clear that as we get into December, we face all the same issues and they need to come back and deal with those issues.
Q It's been about a year since the Summit of the Americas. Is President Clinton considering in the immediate future a trip to the South American countries? They are so critical in the growth of the economic markets, and yet, so forgotten, apparently.
MR. MCCURRY: He has not -- by no means, are they forgotten. We've had extensive diplomatic contacts throughout the region. On the President's staff, Counselor Mack McLarty has been in very close contact with governments in the region as they follow up on the summit action document. We maintain a very vigorous diplomatic approach to fulfilling the diplomatic objectives and recommendations outlined in the action plan adopted a year ago.
We also, as you know, have had a series of high-level visits with a number of countries in the region, and those will continue. They also, I think in many cases, will be carrying messages directly from the President reflecting his own concern about relationships in the region.
Q Mike, there's been a lot of talk about the President going to Dayton for an initialing ceremony, if it were to get to that. Is there any possibility that he would have to go to help seal the deal. Is his presence -- is that a possibility or is it Holbrooke --
MR. MCCURRY: It's just not at all clear at this point.
Q You said that you don't want to see any tax increases on the working poor. Does that mean the administration might be willing to tolerate some reduction in the EITC as long as they're offset by --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to negotiate in public here now.
Q Mike, now that you've got protection of the environment as one of the guiding principles for a budget agreement, does that strengthen the hand of the President in keeping ANWR close to oil --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, in the opinion of the White House, it certainly does. That is a very key concern of those who are worried about the protection of our environment, and it is hard to see how reopening the ANWR to drilling and exploration would be consistent to this agreement now reached by Congress and the President.
Q This morning you said you might have some figures by now on the government shutdown, the cost.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't. John Koskinen, who has been the OMB's point person in dealing with the agencies, has now put a formal request out to the agencies they want to develop for the President at his request a report on the consequences of the shutdown and the cost to the American people of this shutdown. They are assembling that data and it will come back here, we hope, in a matter of days. But as soon as it's available I'll make it available to you. I will say that we believe it will make a very powerful case that we should never do this type of shutdown again.
Q What's the status of appropriations still on the President's desk? Is Defense still on there, and is that a veto coming down?
MR. MCCURRY: Defense is here. It is being held while we examine the bill. It is the only pending appropriations bill on the President's desk that I'm aware of.
Q That leads to this other question. Warner said yesterday that there would be no money for troops in Bosnia if he vetoes this DOD bill. Do you have a response to that? He just said flat out, no --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, Senator Warner alone does not make that determination.
Q How much did your need to refocus on Bosnia play a role in wanting to strike a deal on the budget?
MR. MCCURRY: None to my knowledge.
Q Just another question about the tick-tock. When Leon Panetta sent up the offer with the list of priorities, was Veterans and Agriculture in that list?
MR. MCCURRY: They were not. They were specifically added, I believe, at the suggestion of Congressman Stenholm, Congressman Condit and others who represent the views of the coalition. There were others who suggested that, too. I shouldn't say they were solely suggested by those members, but I think there was some concern across the Democratic ranks that they make those two additions.
Q Is the President going to sign or veto the highway bill that lifts the speed limit?
MR. MCCURRY: It has not been received yet. When it comes we'll study it carefully.
Q On Bosnia and a follow-up. I'm not clear, now that you're in extra innings, is there still a deadline to finish these talks --
MR. MCCURRY: That's a question that you really have to pose to Nick Burns out in Dayton.
Q Last week, regarding the defense appropriations bill, you said the $7 billion that Congress added would probably not be acceptable to the President. Is the President now thinking maybe he should accept the difference?
MR. MCCURRY: Those remain the President's views, as reflected in our statement of administration policy.
Q How influential to the White House's readiness to sign the agreement were two factors: one, the increasing defection of Democrats, especially in the House, which jeopardized a veto; and, two, internal White House polls which perhaps were showing a growing bipartisan blame on both --
MR. MCCURRY: Slightly, and not at all.
Q Can you give us an idea of what's going to go --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, let me get on -- on the question of Democrats, it's important to note that one fact of life we were dealing with here is that many Democrats had voted, especially on the House side, for the coalition proposals offered by Congressman Stenholm. And many of them, fairly, in the White House's view, said we need to protect our voting records here. We are on record in support of this type of measure. And the language at various points being suggested Friday and Saturday, would have put them -- had they indicated their opposition, would have put them in conflict with their prior recorded votes. That's a situation we well understood.
I don't know that there was a real concern about defections. I think it was more -- I describe it more as being a desire on the part of the President, after conversations with the Democratic leadership, to do something to reopen the government. What everyone was feeling was a very intense concern on the part of the American people and a sense that this was not the type of crisis that ought to be tolerated by elected leaders. And everyone felt a responsibility to find a way to bring it to an end. That was certainly true of Senator Dole, certainly true of Senator Domenici, became true of others on the House side. And I think it was really a determination to bring this crisis to an end so that we could set the table for the real discussion that has to happen.
All along we've said -- day after day I've told you here we want to take the budget issues that are fundamental in this debate and set them outside the context of crisis. And that's what happened yesterday and it's why the President is very satisfied with the outcome.
Q Mike, without going into what it should be like or income levels, or whatever, is the President still in favor of a middle class tax cut?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. He is still in favor of his Middle Class Bill of Rights and tax relief for working moderate income families that especially he has targeted on child care and educational opportunities that will help Americans get the skills they need to be productive and contributing members of the 21st century American economy in jobs that are higher paying.
Q How does the rest of the week play out? I mean, when do we get briefings on this trip of why he's going and so forth?
MR. MCCURRY: Right. We'll do a background briefing tomorrow at the conclusion of my briefing on the trip to the United Kingdom and Ireland. We'll have some additional -- most likely in the next two days, some additional follow-up work we can brief you on, on the budget issues. But beginning, hopefully, Wednesday afternoon, we'll be preparing for a short vacation that will be somewhat more relaxing than the last two or three weeks.
Q Details, details.
Q Does he go to Camp David for Thanksgiving?
MR. MCCURRY: His plan now is to go to Camp David for Thursday and Friday. I don't know for certain the plans for Saturday or Sunday, although at least one member of the First Family has expressed a preference for staying up there through the weekend. But we'll have to see how that comes out.
Q What about tomorrow and Wednesday? What's he planning?
MR. MCCURRY: We're still working on schedule issues for Tuesday and Wednesday.
Q Despite the President's injunction against gloating, the latest public polls as near as we can tell, do show a clear public predisposition to support the President's arguments. They say that they think he's more conscientious in trying to find a solution, blamed Congress, relatively speaking, quite a lot more than him for the shutdown. Does he feel, thereby, in any way vindicated for having made this stand?
MR. MCCURRY: To my knowledge, the President paid very little attention to anyone who came running in to see him with polls. He, frankly, didn't give a damn about the polls. And he said so, and he told the leaders that. He said, I don't care if my popularity goes down to five percent; that's not what this is about. And he made much the same point to members of the White House staff earlier and said, look, polls will go up and down. We've got a long ways until November of 1996, and no one ought to pay attention to polls because what we ought to pay attention to is how we are going to go through this debate now with members of Congress in which there are very real issues at stake and make sure that we do what we think is right for the American people. And that's what he's done all along. And you all can do all the polls you want to.
Q When did he say this to the leaders, about not caring if his popularity --
MR. MCCURRY: November 2nd. November 2nd he told them point blank, I don't care what my poll ratings are going to be and I don't care -- you have not come forward to address my priorities. You'll recall that I -- this goes back to a lot of briefing I gave you on that meeting that he had with the four leaders in the Oval Office on November 2nd. And he said to them exactly what was important in his view, which is that you need to acknowledge my principles in this debate. I have come forward and said, all right, balancing the budget is an objective we share; doing it in some time certain is an objective we share; providing tax relief to working families is something we share. And I have publicly, at some cost to myself in polls and popularity, said I will work with you on those objectives. But you have to acknowledge my priorities. And that had not happened until we got this agreement last night.
Q Mike, there's something very strange that happens about every hour on the hour, a big blurb comes out from the House Republican Conference Committee explaining their part in all of this budget -- and they discuss it and they're always right and everybody else is always wrong. This happens so much. We don't see anything from the Democrats. And the same things happens on CNN quite a bit. Last night there were about four or five big, not attributed to anybody, big blurbs on CNN about how right the Republicans were on this thing. What's happened to the Democrats?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they've been up there making a good case and we had the President here last night.
Q They are lacking in total leadership on the House floor and you know it.
MR. MCCURRY: The main blurb that caused me concern last week from the House Republican Conference was the one that put out direct phone lines here at the White House at a time when we were dealing with short staff. And to my knowledge, the House Republican Conference was not. We were dealing with a lot of phone calls they had directed down here. But even with the limited technological capabilities of those who were here, i.e. me, we did figure out how to hit the transfer button on the phones so we could send the calls right back to the House Republican Conference. (Laughter.)
Q -- because I could tell you something.
MR. MCCURRY: Sarah, I will inform Democrats far and wide that we need to do a more aggressive case of getting the President's arguments out there to the American people.
Q As regards telephones here at the White House, it takes an hour sometimes to get a normal query through the White House, and then you don't get any answer, you don't get callbacks. You people hide your telephones down here, and it's a shame.
MR. MCCURRY: I know in the last week a large part of that was because we were significantly short-staffed.
Q Well, I realize that, of course, but --
MR. MCCURRY: That's one of the reasons why we've established a comment line and worked out ways to --
Q Thank you -- thank you.
Q She's right. She's really right. The Republicans have -- she is definitely right.
Q Can you give us any sense of what kind of backlog --
MR. MCCURRY: Look, on the point of direct telephone lines, we try to assist those communities that we serve here. And I'd make the point that we don't -- we've got an office that handles public inquiries and public comments and we try to direct phone traffic to that. When we're dealing here in the Press Office with media inquiries, we try to keep those lines open.
Q Let me tell you what happens. What really happens. Anybody calls 1414, to use the old White House number, most of the time won't answer and it won't refer anybody to a person unless they know who it is. And if it's a press person, you can't get through to anybody at all. And when you call your office down here, your lower office here and ask to be referred to somebody that you could talk to and give a query, that they're the ones who will handle it, they ought to get it, you can't get through.
MR. MCCURRY: I will see if we can't do a better job of making sure we get telephone calls going through to the people they need to get through to.
Q Can you give us a sense of the backlog of work that's here now? I mean, everybody came walking back in this morning, but you were those days without staffing in the White House. What kind of backlog of work is there?
MR. MCCURRY: There is -- office by office, there is a considerable backlog of correspondence. We have had -- we have wanted to be accessible to the American public so they could voice opinions, but we were short-staffed. A lot of that had to be recorded electronically, and we're going to take a lot of that commentary off the voice mail tapes and record it so the President will have the advantage of the thinking of the American people.
We've got -- in the critical areas of legislation and what was coming from the Hill, we were able to have accepted personnel handling a lot of that type of traffic, and certainly for anything that would involve emergency situations or national security, we had staff here on board that could handle those situations. So there's less of a backlog there.
Unfortunately, the kind of backlog that developed were in compiling the views of the American people, making sure that that information was available to the President, and then the slowdown in processing material from agencies. You know, each agency now has to deal with the consequences of shutdown and the backlog of pending decisions or pending action matters. And as they get stacked up and as they get stacked up here at the White House, there is a bottleneck that develops.
Now, one of the things we're doing now is to attempt to analyze where that is and to make sure that people work hard to get it back. And one thing the President is encouraged by, a lot of people who were forced by result of this shutdown to stay at home over the past week, since they are getting paid for that period, a lot of them have made the commitment to stay here and try to erase that type of backlog as quickly as possible.
Q I just wanted to give you a chance to possibly elaborate on something you said earlier when you said the Speaker played a role. From a White House perspective, what role did he play?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he's the Speaker of the House and there would have been no agreement without his support.
Q What role do you think he played --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. Mr. Panetta -- remember that when the President, last Monday, a week ago, met with the Majority Leader and the Speaker, they didn't make much progress at that point on those discussions, but what they did do was designate Mr. Panetta, Mr. Kasich, Mr. Domenici and Mr. Szabo and Mr. Exon to follow up the discussions. That's who Mr. Panetta worked with principally. The discussions that then occurred between the Republican negotiators and their leadership you really have to ask of the Republican leadership.
Q You seem to be damning him with faint praise, though. Was his role overall helpful?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't mean to do that. I don't mean to do that. I just don't know -- I don't know what kind of conversations they had back and forth. I can't provide you a tick-tock on what internal deliberations they had on the Republican side as they dealt this with. But, clearly, there would have been no deal without the speaker.
Q December 15 seems an awfully short deadline to reach agreement on all these budget issues. In view of the public's experience with the shutdown in recent days and the heat both sides felt from the public to get this over with, what happens December 15 if you need a little bit additional time? Do you think the chances are greater now that you could get a CR without getting a shutdown at that point?
MR. MCCURRY: We believe here at the White House that the experience of the last week, the loss of service to the American people and the concern and dismay of federal workers who want to do their job on behalf of the public, given that concern and given that dismay, we think that will be a powerful argument to not let this happen again.
But there is no guarantee of that. These are difficult issues that go to the fundamental difference that exists between the President and the Democratic party on the Hill, and the new Republic, the majority in this Congress. And those differences are deep. That we are able to bridge them in order to get a temporary measure and reopen the government, but we're now dealing with a balanced budget proposal. And the consequences of that deliberation are much more significant, much more long-term; the stakes are much higher. And whether or not we can resolve those issues amicably by December 15th is a very real question. There is no answer to it at this point. Obviously, on the part of the President, we hope that we can. We hope there will be the same kind of flexibility in reaching agreements that was shown when the Congress acknowledged the President's priorities last night. But we'll just have to see where we come out.
Q Would a 75 percent funding level be acceptable --
MR. MCCURRY: Look, just as -- I'm going to establish pretty much an ironclad rule here from now through December 15th, I'm just not going to get into specific, substantive aspects of this negotiation day in and day out. They're going to have to do this work; they have to do it face to face. Those who are doing the negotiating will, as they see fit, brief publicly on it. But it's not wise for us here at the White House to speculate on what type of agreement might be reached if and when the negotiations begin.
Q There have been a few stories now about Senator Dole coming out against expanding NAFTA, new trade negotiations. There was a story in the Post yesterday that said that Dole is -- kind of intimated that Dole is pandering a little to the Buchanan conservatives who don't like NAFTA and who don't like trade. I'm wondering, is the White House satisfied with the level of Senator Dole's leadership on this?
MR. MCCURRY: We have not been closely monitoring Senator Dole's pronouncements on the campaign trail. I, frankly, was unaware of those remarks, but I'll take a look and see if we've had any policy-related discussions on free trade agreements.
Q Mike, last week you took a question on whether the White House, in view of the acquittal of Billy Dale, was now prepared to offer some kind of back work credit or extra retirement pay or a new job. What's the answer?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I am aware of, but I don't have a definitive answer. I'll keep working at it.
Q Will you try and get one?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll try, yes.
Q One area of sizeable difference between the administration and the Republican budget plan is Medicare and Medicaid budget baselines. Is that something that could be revisited, given the magnitude of the differences?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the baseline will be affected by the technical economic assumptions that are now going to be developed by the CBO in consultation with the OMB and outside government experts.
Q Do you have a new date for the Tokyo trip?
MR. MCCURRY: No. The Vice President did consult with the Japanese government as he
represented the President -- by the way, the Vice President had an excellent series of meetings, was successful and very capable in representing the President at the APEC leaders summit. The President, in his brief remarks to the staff today, paid special note to the very fine role he played on short notice and the fact that he's spent I think a total of 20-plus hours on the airplane. But he got the job done. And among the things he did raise in his meeting with Prime Minister Murayama was the optimal date for the President's promised early visit to Japan.
Q Which was what?
MR. MCCURRY: They have not settled on a date. They're still reviewing different possibilities.
Q Mike, what's the President's position on the Hooters case? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I don't even -- I talked to a friend about it, and I don't even know if he knows what it's about.
Q For the record, Mike, I'd like to thank April Mellody for the work she did for us last week. (Applause.)
MR. MCCURRY: That's very gracious and very -- let the record show that April Mellody did a good job under difficult circumstances representing all the essential employees of the White House Press Office. She has a very nice day off, and a very well-deserved day off.
Q She didn't get the thank-you from the President out on the South Lawn.
MR. MCCURRY: She, I think, was probably more happy to have the day off. But I think all of my -- I'm very happy all the staff is back here. I hope during the course of the last week you really came to understand a little bit more about indispensable everyone on the White House Press staff is to all of you.
Q Just to return to the budget agreement for just a second -- isn't it a fact that the CBO has the last word, is the final judge of the numbers? And if that's the case, what does the White House really gain?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's interesting, by law they always are. They always have to score any final action by Congress, and that is the definitive statement on what the economic assumptions are for acts of Congress. So, in a sense, they were putting into law something that is already in law.
The key thing from our perspective is that they agreed that they would use the most recent current projections and they would do so in consultation with the OMB and with private experts on the outside. You see, our view is if they go to the private sector and talk to those who do the blue-chip forecasts, they will very quickly see a powerful argument in the economic academic community why we need to revisit some of the growth targets that they've been using heretofore. But, that is -- I heard Congressman Kasich make a point last night which I think is a good one -- that is the province of technical experts and economic experts who then make decisions, make judgments that can help policymakers make policy. And on that point, Chairman Kasich is 100 percent correct.
Q In that regard then, Mike, how do you start, how does Panetta start next week to talk about policy differences without the underlying agreement about what you'd have to spend, discretionary spending, what you're going to have --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know, and we can't -- I've offered to you some thoughts about what we think the sequences of issues should be, and that may, in fact, be a part of the initial dialogue they have to have with the Republican side. We can't suggest you that's necessarily the way things are going to go.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:38 P.M. EST