THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
12:10 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. First, the President and some of his meetings this morning on the subject of Bosnia -- he has just concluded a 45-minute briefing with General Shalikashvili on the NATO operational plan, which is now coming together in Brussels. I think, as you know, General Shalikashvili, as our Chiefs of Defense staff person, participated in meetings yesterday in Brussels in which NATO military commanders finalized the plan that will now be presented to the North Atlantic Council in the next several days.
The President was gratified for the briefing, obviously, and impressed by the considerable detail with which NATO military commanders have addressed the issues surrounding the deployment of the implementation force, which will now help keep the peace in Bosnia.
Based on the briefing the President has received today, he will be able to instruct Ambassador Robert Hunter, who will represent the United States at the meetings of the North Atlantic Council we believe Thursday and possibly Friday as to the U.S. position on the integrated NATO operational plan. And I think, as you know, that plan is likely to be adopted sometime by the end of the week.
In addition, the President has been on the telephone in the hour since his radio -- or television address last night; has had contact with various members of Congress, including the leadership; also talked to former President Bush and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell, among others. And he will depart shortly for Capitol Hill where he will address the Senate Democratic Caucus on the subject of Bosnia, although he will likely also have some conversations related to the budget and the coming budget discussions.
The President will participate in meetings with the congressional leadership this afternoon, and then a larger group of members of committees that have jurisdiction for armed services issues and national security issues. And the subject there, of course, will be Bosnia. You will have an opportunity to hear from him at the beginning of that meeting.
And sometime either just prior to those meetings this afternoon, or just after, he is expected to take action on both the Alaska bill and the highway bill. And I think you all got the general drift that he is likely to indicate his approval of both.
That is sort of an update of the President's schedule. He departs this evening for a trip to the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, a visit with our troops in Germany, and then the US-EU Summit in Madrid, a trip that will be very important both in framing a larger international discussion of the issue of Bosnia. There has been very gratifying response to the President's remarks in European capitals.
In one way or another throughout Europe, European leaders are making it clear that the U.S. participation in this NATO force to implement the peace is an indispensable element of the plans to keep the peace in Bosnia. And literally, as one defense minister said, it would not happen if the United States were not to participate -- a point that the President, of course, made to the nation in his address last night.
So his work on the subject of Bosnia will continue. In the coming days, we'll also be monitoring closely the discussions between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom on the Northern Ireland peace process --
Q Where is that going? Is there any break in that at all, or is it a stalemate?
MR. MCCURRY: That would be up to the parties to report. We have monitored those discussions and attempted to facilitate their direct dialogue, when that was the appropriate role to play -- that it would be up to the parties themselves to indicate the status.
Q You mean, you' going in there, you don't know what the situation is?
MR. MCCURRY: I think we have a very good idea of what the situation is, but as I indicated, it's up to the parties to report publicly how they're making in their -- what kind of progress they're making in their dialogue.
Q Mike, is there any presidential action likely today on the defense appropriations bill?
MR. MCCURRY: There is no action anticipated by the President on that subject. The Chief of Staff is meeting with the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the House Appropriations Committee at this hour. And we'll have to -- based on that conversation, there will then be subsequent conversations here. And I can't predict that the President will take any final action on the DOD appropriations bill today.
Q What was Bush's reaction, Powell's reaction?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't think it would be appropriate for me to characterize their responses --
Q Well, he was soliciting their support. Did he get their support?
MR. MCCURRY: They are public figures and entitled to make their own public statements on this subject.
Q When were they called? Were they last night, today? Which --
MR. MCCURRY: My understanding is that they were during the course of the evening last night.
Q Why did he call them? Was he looking for their support, or did he just want to explain what he was doing?
MR. MCCURRY: I think he felt it important to reach out to those who played important leadership roles in the most recent administration and to leaders on the Hill to both summarize his address, to stress its importance, and in some cases to thank those who had already commented publicly that they would keep an open mind and continue to hear the President as he makes his case to the nation.
Q Who else did he call besides Powell and Bush?
MR. MCCURRY: He called, among others, and this may not be an inclusive list, but I think it is -- represents most of the calls he made last night: Senators Nunn, Robb, Dole, Speaker Gingrich, Senator Daschle and Congressman Gephardt, as well as General Powell and President Bush. He also touched base --
Q What did he say -- how am I doing? They heard the speech. He didn't have to explain the speech to him.
MR. MCCURRY: Helen, as I already indicated, I think it would be appropriate for them, if they wish to comment publicly for them to comment --
Q -- the story a little to get it off the --
Q How long did he talk to Bush, and did they talk about anything else?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't -- don't have a detailed readout on the call. I know that the subject was principally Bosnia, but I don't know whether they touched on other subjects.
Q Has he called Bush before?
MR. MCCURRY: He's had several conversations from time to time with former President Bush. They most recently reviewed U.S.-China relations and Bosnia when they met in the Oval Office after the unveiling of President Bush's portrait in the Residence.
Q What's the White House assessment now for where things stand with Congress on Bosnia?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry --
Q What's your assessment of where things stand with Congress now on Bosnia --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President and the White House are gratified that many members of Congress last night said what we believe to be the general public reaction -- that there is support for the President as the wrestles with a difficult decision that he had to make, while at the same time there is skepticism about the deployment of U.S. troops in connection with this effort to keep the peace. That's understandable in the President's view. We believe we will have to continue to explain to the American people the nature of this conflict, the precise details of the settlement, which has now brought that conflict, we hope, to an end, and the requirements of U.S. leadership as we work with the parties to implement that peace. Not one speech will convince a skeptical Congress or a skeptical nation that this is the right course. But the President believes in time the argument that he advanced considerably with a very good speech last night will prevail, because he believes the merits of the case he presented last night are so very strong.
Q There seems to be some sentiment in the House not to bring the nonbinding resolution to a vote. Do you have any assurance from Speaker Gingrich that the House will vote on this?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe it would be more proper for the Speaker to talk about congressional consideration of any expression of support they wish to offer to the President. We will certainly have further conversations, indeed, most likely this afternoon, with the leadership about the timetable for congressional consideration, but in our view that consideration and that expression of support are very important as we look to the eventual deployment of troops to Bosnia by mid-December.
Q What is the likelihood that the President, at some point, would consider concessions on the budget in order to win support for the Bosnia plan?
MR. MCCURRY: The President does not see those as being directly related propositions. There is a funding issue associated with the deployment of U.S. troops. That is, indeed, one aspect of the conversation that Chief of Staff Panetta is not having on the Hill. We've got a $260 billion-plus appropriations bill for defense that does not specifically account for the deployment that is now necessary, related to Bosnia. And how that funding is handled in the context of the overall appropriations bill is something the Chief of Staff certainly wanted to address. But the larger budget issues need to be addressed along the lines of the principles the President has articulated. And certainly the timetable that the Congress has made clear through its leadership, is the priority of Congress. And that's the process that will begin, we hope, with good-faith discussions tonight.
The only thing the President hopes in connection with budget discussions is that we at least agree between the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch, early and quickly, as the highest priority, that we avert another government shutdown on December 16th.
The President believes there is no reason for the U.S. taxpayers to foot another gigantic bill for the cost of a shutdown, nor should anyone have to negotiate these very difficult, contentious budget issues in an atmosphere of crisis.
Q Do you share the views of a lot of aides here at the White House who think it's unlikely that any sort of agreement will be reached by the 15th?
MR. MCCURRY: There is no way of telling at this point. And the people who are serious about the budget discussions coming forward I don't believe are predicting either a quick resolution or a quick failure. They believe they will be very difficult, tough negotiations, most likely going right up to mid-December. But there's a hope by the President we will avert any crisis atmosphere, and certainly a hope that they can resolve these issues amicably and get on with the nation's business.
Q Mike, in light of the Speaker's complaints about the flight to Rabin's funeral, would you expect any discussion of the budget at today's talks? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that I see the direct connection there. It must be alluding me today. But I don't --
Q -- the President didn't take the opportunity aboard Air Force One to discuss the budget. He has another opportunity today.
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, well, they will be in the room together, and I think the President will be perfectly willing to discuss the budget if there's a desire to discuss the budget. I don't think he would be surprised if there is some discussion of the budget.
Q Mike, would you discuss some of the rationalization for the President's decision to go ahead and sign the highway bill?
MR. MCCURRY: I would prefer that you see the full statement that will explicate the President's reasoning. But it is essentially this -- there are gaps in the interstate highway system, which is really one of the testaments to America's ability to pull together as a community and complete massive and important public works projects. There's a gap, I think, of just over $5 billion of funding necessary to complete critical segments of that interstate highway system. And without the designation that is contained in this bill, many states would therefore not receive the federal funding they need to complete that necessary work to complete the system.
Now, the President's chief concern all along, and the transportation department's chief concern, has been highway fatalities. And we know that there is a direct correlation between speeds on interstate highways and highway fatalities. Now, the transportation department has been doing some very sophisticated work about how highways of the future can minimize the risk of highway fatalities, including high-speech crashes that result in fatalities. And that work will continue. It's important. It's important R&D work that, frankly, we hope won't be threatened by further budget cuts. And that will be a way in which we address highway safety issues in an environment in which states do have options to raise speed limits on those federal highways and, indeed, their own state highways.
Q So he's going to swallow his concerns about the fatalities on -- in this country that have diminished under these --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that I'd say swallow it. He's going to recognize that there's overwhelming support in Congress as it passed this bill. There's not a certainty that any veto that he would exercise would be sustained by the Congress. And in any event, his concern about the funding and the completion of the highway system remains.
Q What is his view just on this one specific issue, the speed limit? Would he veto it if it was stand-alone piece of legislation?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President has said and the transportation department has said that if that were a stand-alone issue, which it is not, we don't think there is a persuasive case for raising the current maximum federal speed limit, based on the public safety-public health issues that arise. But it is not presented to the President in that fashion, and as everyone in this room knows, he unfortunately does not have the line-item veto.
Q A lot of the questions on Bosnia on the Hill concern exit strategy. Can you put the year in context? Is that an estimate of how long it takes or is that a deadline, a rough deadline, that we'll leave once that time is up?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'd prefer to leave that discussion to after the formal adoption of the plan by the President -- first by the North Atlantic Council, then final approval by the President. The President will have an opportunity to review that in further detail when he meets with some of our senior military leaders on Saturday. But in a broad sense, the military mission as it has been very precisely defined by NATO, and the mission plan that has now been developed in Brussels by NATO estimates that in the period of one year, approximately year, you could accomplish the mission objectives. The mission objectives are to help the parties withdraw to the places that they have committed to withdraw to as a result of the agreement in Dayton and then to police in a sense the requirements to allow freedom of movement, freedom of access that are contained in the very detailed annexes that are part of the Dayton agreement. The President believes and the senior military leaders of the United States believes, and NATO military commanders believe, that that mission can be accomplished in approximately one year.
Q Is Panetta's meetings with the appropriations chairmen focused on the defense appropriations bill --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, the meeting he is having today at noon is solely on that issue. As you, I think most of you know, that sometime this evening, I think after 6:00 p.m., there will be further discussions as they begin to talk about the budget talks. They're talking about talking beginning this evening.
Q Out of that budget meeting, do you there will become an agreement on how to proceed with budget negotiations? Is that what is expected?
MR. MCCURRY: Can I use a State Department word? They'll discuss the modalities this evening. But I don't know that they will necessarily resolve it. The President believes it's important to get on to the substance of the discussions, and we hope there will be a minimum amount of dispute over the nature of the talks or the process. But its clear that the White House has important, strong views; the congressional Republican leadership has strong views; and congressional Democrats have strong views. And all of those views need to be accommodated in reaching an agreement that will have, broad, bipartisan support. That's what we're going to need if we're going to achieve the objectives of a balanced budget in a time certain, reflecting the principles the President has put forward to the Congress, as the President and Congress have now agreed to in the recent continuing resolution.
Q Mike, what's the reaction to Republican efforts to even dictate who's in the room, the Democratic makeup, that Laura Tyson has never wanted a balanced budget, so she's out -- that kind of stuff?
MR. MCCURRY: They are the kinds of issues in an environment in which we are dealing literally with life and death issues that don't seem to be so significant that they are irreconcilable.
Q And do you know who's going to go tonight?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to predict. I know Mr. Panetta will go, and we'll see where we go from there.
Q Do you have any reading of your White House comment line since the Oval address --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, we do. I got a brief rundown on it. There were several thousand calls in the period, I guess, through last evening and probably into this morning as well. And I describe the results as not counter-intuitive, to use a word the pollsters sometimes use, because it reflects some of the news organizations that have polled.
I'd say of the several thousand calls, they were pretty well evenly split on the subject of President's speech -- some Americans liking it, other Americans not liking it. On the subject of deployment of U.S. troops to Bosnia, there was a great deal of skepticism. And the American people clearly want to know more; they clearly are asking questions like why do we have to carry this burden; why aren't the Europeans doing more; what is this conflict about to begin with?
Obviously, I'm editing out -- the President got a lot of very complimentary comments from the American people, too, but people are skeptical about the need for U.S. troops. And that's -- the President began to make that case that night, and I think he will continue to make that case, and so will administration officials on the Hill. And we are fairly confident in time, particularly as Americans understand more about the role the Europeans have played in protecting the warring parties during the years of the UNPROFOR deployment, the commitment that they've made over time, and the requirement now that the United States participate as a matter of the ability of NATO to address a conflict of this nature. As they see that argument unfold, as they learn more about it -- and clearly they're anxious to learn more -- they will be supportive in time.
Q How many thousands -- how many calls were there, more narrowly -- 5,000, 7,000?
MR. MCCURRY: It looks to me there were probably in the neighborhood of between 2,500 and 3,000 calls, just on the information I have, and that's a rolling figure, as more people call into the line. But the President appreciates, you know, the response of the American people.
Q That's last night?
MR. MCCURRY: Last night through early this morning.
Q Is the President at least willing to consider the possibility that no matter how many speeches he gives and how many talks -- how many arms he tries to twist, that the American public just is not going to accept this; they have a gut feeling that this is not the right thing to do?
MR. MCCURRY: No, the President is not willing to accept that. And I think he feels the merits of this case, as they are understood in time by the American people, are strong. And that Americans rise to a challenge like this, even when they are initially skeptical about the need for such a deployment. They feel, and they know, that in this world that we live in now, we have some unique responsibilities. And we have those unique responsibilities because we've been fairly well blessed in this world. And there are times when our leadership role and the role that most Americans expect the United States to play in this world require stepping up to a challenge like the one we will face in Bosnia. The President is confident the American people, as they think through the issues here, will come to see that. And he hopes that the Congress will reflect that view in time.
Q It's interesting, because the President did accept public opposition to the deployment in Haiti and felt that it was something we needed to do despite the public opposition. You feel the situations are different enough that the President feels the argument will be made for Bosnia and would not go against public opposition?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the cases are different because the nature of the deployment is different. Our troops, as they went into Haiti, were facing a prospect of armed resistance. We believe the commitments of the parties in Bosnia lessen the likelihood of that, and every effort has now been made to minimize the risk.
And I think the bottom line is, that Americans as they come to understand we're not going to war but we're going for peace will appreciate that the United States has got a role that we must play of necessity because of the leadership role we play in the most important and endurable military alliance in world history; and also because of the moral commitment we have to both the security and stability of Europe and the need to end the type of atrocity we have seen in Bosnia over the last three and a half years.
Q Did the President call President Bush and Colin Powell because they had the experience of trying to build congressional and public support before the Persian Gulf War?
MR. MCCURRY: He felt it was just a good idea to touch base with them, two people who were instrumental in winning the Persian Gulf War; touch base with them and to advise them of the decisions that he had reached as Commander in Chief and make sure that they had an opportunity, personally, to ask any questions they might have of him as they, themselves learn more about the nature of our commitment to the peace process.
Q He wasn't seeking the benefit of their experience in -- before the Persian Gulf --
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't suggest that, but I'm sure -- without getting into the substance of the calls, which I don't think it would be proper to brief on, I think the President appreciated any insights that they may have had.
Q Let me make sure I understood this recent exchange. My understanding of the administration's position is that it would be vastly preferable to have an expression of support from Congress, but not essential. Is that still the case?
MR. MCCURRY: It's our view that we will seek an expression of support, and the President has some confidence he will get that expression of support.
Q Two -- you might have answered the first one -- is there a date yet for Paris?
MR. MCCURRY: There is not. We are still in consultations, and we still are aiming in the neighborhood of mid-December.
Q And the second, Mike -- Claire had asked earlier about the prospect of no deal. And if the President is so sure about -- or hopeful that not only there can be a deal on the budget, but that there can be one without another shutdown, why is there so much currency in discussion the prospect of a no-deal, including among the President's advisors, and often in public?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, because I think that most of -- they have to be realistic about what the prospects are. And there are deep differences in philosophy between the approach of the Republican congressional majority and the President on these issues.
And it's not clear at this point how those differences are going to be bridged. But the President also believes that Congress will most likely not want to endure the same type of crisis atmosphere we had most recently when the federal government had to shut down. And he is going to suggest they make a commitment not to go -- put the country through that type of situation again, as we attempt to resolve the issues.
Q Is a no-deal deal a politically palatable outcome for the White House and the President?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, a no-deal deal, quote, unquote, is impossible in a sense, because the federal government must function and it can't function without budget authority all the way through November of 1996. Now, it's a separate question to ask: Are the fundamental questions about priorities, of what commitments we expect of our federal government, of what we the people want from our federal government and how much we're willing to pay for it. Those fundamental principles are not going to be reconciled fully, in the President's view, in the coming budget discussions. And they will most likely form a part of the political discussion that this nation will have together as we approach November of 1996. And the President believes that's proper and very appropriate. And frankly, he relishes the notion that we'll have a presidential election in 1996 that's about something important, rather than something insignificant. We've had too many elections that have dwelt on the insignificant.
Q Are you saying you think Republicans have more riding on the deal, a reconciliation deal, a seven-year balanced budget?
MR. MCCURRY: No. I'm not saying that.
Q Are you saying, then, that come December 15th, if no agreement is reached then the President wants a commitment from them to have some sort of either long-term continuing resolution in effect, or stop-gap measure so that talks aren't sidetracked?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. Something to make sure that we have the orderly functioning of the federal government, absent a resolution of the larger issues, so that we don't go through the same type of shutdown scenario that we had to go through this month.
Q Do you have any briefing schedule in Europe? And also, when they say "press statements" what does that mean -- at Downing Street and --
MR. MCCURRY: Typically, I think in -- at 10 Downing we're doing a front door, as its called, which is a familiar press availability, as you know it here, when there is an important bilateral meeting here. And there will be other press availabilities the President will engage on during the balance of his schedule.
And we will brief regularly as necessary back here because the focus is going to be on budget discussions. I've encouraged the Chief of Staff to speak with reporters up on Capitol Hill when he is concluding meetings up there that will be of substantial interest to news organizations, because that's probably the best place for us to provide our thoughts on any deliberations that are occurring up there.
Q Is the President going to meet with the NATO commander when he's --
MR. MCCURRY: He will see General Joulwan on Saturday in Germany, yes. And I believe -- I strongly suspect that he'll see some other NATO commanders and also U.S. commanders who are dual-hatted.
Q Japanese news reports are saying the President will reschedule his trip to Japan in April. Does it look like the trip will be later rather than sooner?
MR. MCCURRY: We've had discussions with the government of Japan about dates for a possible trip. To my knowledge, there have been no formal resolution of those discussions. There are dates that are being discussed in April.
Q Signing the Alaska bill today -- is the Tongass National Forest issue bill, or what are the big questions in this --
MR. MCCURRY: I had something on that earlier that described -- oh, I lost it. We'll look for it. It's got a variety of forest protection measures, I think, in it. Let me get a --
Q This is not --
MR. MCCURRY: No, this is not -- it does not relate to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Q Today's Bosnia meetings -- does the President expect to get into nuts and bolts discussion of funding, or does that come further down the road once the broader questions about what the force role is?
MR. MCCURRY: I think he fully -- is fully prepared to answer the question, how much do we estimate that this will cost if the deployment is along the lines that has been suggested in some of the initial work on the NATO operational plan. The mechanism for funding, whether it should be a supplemental or how it would be funded, I think, is going to have to develop after we consult further following Mr. Panetta's --
Q -- total pricetag on military and the nonmilitary aspects of --
MR. MCCURRY: I cannot. I know Secretary Perry has indicated the deployment of that component of the overall NATO force for the period that we've talked about is in the neighborhood of $1.5 billion.
Q But that doesn't include any of the subsequents --the development work that's --
MR. MCCURRY: The type of financial assistance that is being discussed, and that I think will be a major focus of the London conference early next month, which it runs in the billions of dollars when you look at the total need to reconstruct Bosnia, which will be borne principally by the Europeans and by other nations. But our commitment that we have publicly discussed in the coming years for that reconstruction effort is in the neighborhood of $500 to $600 million, "m" as in million dollars.
Q Mike, when is the President going to announce his candidacy for reelection?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. Next year sometime. He's been very preoccupied with other matters, and he hasn't been thinking about that very much.
Q Is he running? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Let me go through just on the -- this is a ban on oil exports from the Alaska North Slope. It does not affect new exploration or drilling in ANWR, to my knowledge. It's an administration-backed measure that provides incentives that will stimulate oil and gas production in the U.S. and allows -- also allows sale -- there's been discussion of privatization of the Alaska Power Administration. It would allow the sale of the Alaska Power Administration -- other provisions in there.
Q It repeals the ban on exporting North Slope --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, it repeals a 22-year-old ban on exporting crude from the North Slope.
Did you have another one? You didn't get any luck on that one. Let's try something else. Anyone else?
Q -- benefit our trade deficit, presumably, with Japan, if we can sell oil from the North Slope?
MR. MCCURRY: It would have positive impacts on our trade situation, but more importantly it also reflects a more comprehensive approach to our national energy strategy, as well.
Q So what did Bush and Powell say?
MR. MCCURRY: What did they say?
Q -- when they opposed going into Bosnia in the first place?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, you know, they -- I can't honestly say I've seen anything reported on President Bush's view, but I have seen some things reported on General Powell's view. And I think it just is more appropriate for them to speak for themselves. They certainly are very capable of doing so.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 12:42 P.M. EST