THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:15 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Well, before we get going, any veterans of the First Lady's trip to India? Ah, Gene. Let me ask you a question. This comes from the Reuter wire, so you're an appropriate person to ask this. Did you, while you were there in New Delhi, by any chance happen to visit the International Museum of Toilets, out of curiosity?
According to the Reuter wire here, when you go to the International Museum of Toilets, visitors are greeted with ferns sprouting from a toilet bowl at its main entrance. (Laughter.) They take the business of bathrooms very seriously it reports here. The museum chronicles the rise of the toilet from 2500 B.C. to 1980 when the first auto-control toilet was installed -- a very important advance in technology. From the humble chamber pot to the mighty septic tank.
Q This is on C-SPAN you know. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: The vital role the toilet bowl played in history. (Laughter.) Gene Gibbons, you didn't see that?
Q Can't imagine how we missed it.
MR. MCCURRY: I can't imagine how the First Lady missed that on her trip.
Q Did Jimmy Carter visit that exhibit with Sam Donaldson?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll bet you when their government shuts down the International Museum of Toilets stays open. How much you want to bet?
Q It's just that the ones they have are so old it looks like a museum piece.
Q What do you know?
MR. MCCURRY: All right. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I have -- today is my correction box. I'll start with two corrections of things I said which were in error. I made the mistake of saying at one point during the briefing when I was describing the differences between this shutdown and the previous shutdown, talked about the processing of Social Security claims, and incorrectly, of course, said that HHS employees were involved in that. In fact, as Shirley Chader, the Commissioner of Social Security, pointed out to me, Medicare and Social Security applications are processed by the Social Security Administration, which is, as you know, an independent agency.
Q And they're emergency people, right?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Now, on the subject of excepted employees and emergency employees, let me go back through that again since I didn't -- I had that in a shorthand sense correct, but the term that we use, since there was some interest in this, "are excepted" --
Q Was this a second correction?
MR. MCCURRY: This is my second correction.
Q Apparently, you made a faux pas.
MR. MCCURRY: No, no, no, no. (Laughter.) I have, because of the inclement weather here in Washington, I need to clear this up for the following -- you'll see why. Excepted employees is the term we use for those who are excepted from the current furlough because they're performing functions related to national security, protection of life or property, or the orderly suspension of agency operations.
That I am told by the Office of Personnel Management is a separate term of art from the term emergency personnel because emergency personnel are those who are required to come to work when there are inclement weather conditions and the federal government requires them to report. So, in fact, there may be some excepted employees who are not, in fact, emergency employees. And OPM is concerned about this with the likelihood of weather tomorrow that might require them to have emergency workers reporting, but not excepted employees.
Q Let me go back to that Reuters story --
MR. MCCURRY: I love that. And I have right here at much greater length a description of all this.
Q Why don't you go back to essential, it worked better.
Q So the idea they could be emergency or excepted, but never non-essential. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: That's correct. (Laughter.) No such thing as nonessential.
Q When are they going back to work?
MR. MCCURRY: They will go back to work immediately, and as the President told the two Republican leaders yesterday, certainly before Christmas.
Q Do you have any further update on the comment you made yesterday about the President's feeling that he should be suffering or experiencing this in much the same way as some of these other government employees, and so on?
MR. MCCURRY: They're looking into that, and they've got one option they're going to present to the President. And I'll see if he elects that option. There's no way that he can reduce his own pay, that's against the law for him to do. But he could hold his pay in abeyance, and that's an option he is considering.
Q In light of his concern and feeling about them, is there any feeling here with him or anyone else that this round of parties here night after night this week is unseemly and inappropriate?
MR. MCCURRY: No, the President, as he made clear, he said, this is the Christmas season, a holiday season. The President believes that we ought to keep some things first and foremost and this is a time when people of different religious faiths celebrate religious holidays of significance. And despite the hardship that the shutdown is putting on the American people and on federal employees and their families, the President doesn't want to compound that sense of misery by canceling holiday traditions -- especially for all of you in the press corps who are invited to receptions tonight and tomorrow night.
Q Is he going to have one for non-excepted federal -- (laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: There are excepted and non-excepted federal employees who are attending some of these receptions.
Q Mike, how would he hold his pay in abeyance? How would that work?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll look into that, and if he decides that's what he wants to do, we'll give you a rundown on how that happens.
Q Who now is paying for the Christmas tree, the lighting?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'm told by the National Park Service that the President's concerned that the lights stay on and his offer to pay the electricity bill if necessary has triggered a wealth of interest up in Congress. And members of Congress want to participate in deferring the cost and so apparently do some other private citizens. So it looks like they will have enough money to keep the tree lit. But the President intends to send a check for the first night's lighting, which is approximately $240.00, to the National Park Service. And looks like there are others who will contribute in the spirit of the season to keeping the Christmas tree lit.
Q Who's paying for the rangers who were there that night?
MR. MCCURRY: That is the -- the rangers are there in connection to the Pageant of Peace. You should check with the Park Service. My understanding is they do have some security people who are excepted employees and would be on duty anyhow who would have to guard both the trees and some of the power hook-ups. And they check on those on a rotating basis. But I think the rangers were there in connection with the Pageant of Peace. My understanding is that the Pageant of Peace has been canceled as a result of the shutdown.
Q Mike, didn't yesterday -- I think you said that the Park Service is soliciting contributions, was the language, and now it's triggered --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe they were soliciting. I believe that they've been receiving calls from people who wanted to know how they can contribute. That's my understanding. But --
Q Has the President already sent this $240 check?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he intends to.
Q What's the attitude, feeling here about this meeting coming up in terms of the possibility of success?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President certainly hopes that by meeting with the Speaker and the Majority Leader we can move the discussions forward and both restore our government to the American people who are losing some portion of the government services and also move forward on the balanced budget discussion so that we can achieve that very important goal. It remains to be seen whether that will be possible.
Q Mike, Speaker Gingrich, and Leader Armey are talking about either having a shortened Christmas adjournment or none at all. How does the White House feel about that idea?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the congressional leadership has to determine the schedule of Congress, but, of course, there is no measure pending for action by the President that keeps the government open. So it's understandable that the Congress would want to remain in session to deal with that issue.
Q I just want to clarify something in those options that the President presented yesterday to the congressional leaders. One of the options apparently was that if they would agree to his figures on Medicare and Medicaid, that you would agree to the CBO economic assumptions. Now --
MR. MCCURRY: No, no, no. He said -- that's not what the President offered. The President said to them that we are prepared to present a seven-year balanced budget plan scored by the CBO. But in order to do so, we need for you to move to our numbers on Medicare and Medicaid.
Q Just to clarify, though, your numbers on Medicare and Medicaid, the figure $140 billion for Medicare, under the most recent scoring by CBO is $97 billion. So are you talking about $124 under the new CBO baseline or what the President had offered before the CBO said --
MR. MCCURRY: The figure that the President made clear, to make clear that he was talking about our Medicare-Medicaid policies, were $124 billion in savings on Medicare and $54 billion in savings in Medicaid.
Q As scored by OMB.
MR. MCCURRY: That is the OMB number. He was saying, let's move to the policy provisions that I've included in my balanced budget plan. Now, CBO scores them somewhat differently, from what I understand are largely technical differences. And it's believed by economists that both CBO and OMB that they would be able to come to an agreement on how you would score the policy that the President has laid forth in his balanced budget plan.
Q So it wasn't as if the President last night had moved $25 billion --
MR. MCCURRY: We didn't give them an artificial $44 billion worth of savings, no. He was clearly signaling his interest in his priorities as they relate to Medicare and Medicaid.
Q Are you going to give us a photo op at the top of the meeting?
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't had a chance -- the President, as you know, has been out of the building for a while. I haven't had a chance to ask him that. We'll see. They've got a lot of work to do and I wouldn't be overly optimistic about it.
Q The President mentioned that he had one question remaining on the securities tort reform bill. Can you enlighten us on what that question is?
MR. MCCURRY: I could try and I would get it wrong. It has to do with the procedures for litigation, but I'm not enough of an expert on the issue itself. It has to do with how issues are presented when pleading before courts. I'm not certain that I understand technically the issue, but it's one that the President is concerned about and asked for presentations to be made about that issue. That's the one that he referred to earlier today.
Q Does the President plan to set down this proposal in the meeting today? What are you anticipating being done --
MR. MCCURRY: I think we just have to give you some sense of how the meeting occurs after the meeting. I can't predict how it will go.
Q Does the President's offer yesterday afternoon to present a seven-year plan using CBO's scoring if they will, if the Congress moves toward him or to him on Medicare and Medicaid indicate that the White House has at the ready a seven-year plan?
MR. MCCURRY: It indicates we've done a substantial amount of work on how you would reach that goal. And as the President indicated earlier today, he has been working very hard on that and has had his negotiating team and budget experts working very hard on those issues and we are prepared to get into that substantive discussion.
We, frankly, were prepared to do that last Friday when we went to the negotiating table with a package of new ideas that we thought would lead to good-faith negotiations. They did not because the Republicans saw fit to suspend the negotiations.
Q Can you just give us a progress report on how Leon's doing with the Democrats and whether you guys have found consensus around any --
MR. MCCURRY: My understanding is he had very good meetings with the Democratic task force on the budget on the Hill today. They reviewed a lot of the issues that we're talking about. They reviewed the likely scenarios for the discussion the President will have later today. It was described to me as a good, honest and candid session.
Q Do they have consensus around a budget approach?
MR. MCCURRY: They've got -- the Democrats in the House and the Senate have a lot of unity and they have a lot of confidence expressed in the President as he goes into this important meeting.
Q There's been a lot of talk about this meeting today in singular terms. Is the White House willing to turn this into a continuing negotiating session should they make progress, just between the three of them, or would you insist on expanding it if there's some progress?
MR. MCCURRY: Remember the statement issued by the Speaker and the Majority Leader last night in which they made quite clear this is not a negotiating session, and that's the White House view, as well. They're having a meeting --
Q What is it?
MR. MCCURRY: They're having a meeting to talk about the fact that the government, in part, is shut down at the moment and there's been a lack of progress on the goal that the President and the Congress are both committed to balancing the budget in seven years.
Q The germination for this seems to have been Dole's comment on Sunday that he and the President and the Speaker could work things out in a day or so if they all sat down together. Is that a possibility that there would be some negotiation?
MR. MCCURRY: That statement is at least two-thirds true.
Q Humor aside, I mean, is there any possibility of a three-way negotiation, using that word?
MR. MCCURRY: I obviously can't predict that right now.
Q Who is going to participate in the meeting tonight?
MR. MCCURRY: My understanding is that the President, the Vice President, the Majority Leader, the Speaker and the Chief of Staff will participate.
Q No Panetta?
MR. MCCURRY: Chief of Staff.
Q Oh, Chief of Staff.
Q Would it not be a constructive step for the President, since the White House has been at work in developing the seven-year CBO-scored plan and the Republicans on the Hill say that any seven-year CBO-scored plan you want to put on the table is good enough to get talk started, to go ahead and put that on the table since, after all, there is that requirement in the law that's where you end up anyway?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President offered to do that yesterday under terms that he thinks are important, because they go to the heart of the agreement that he has with the Congress, which is that they will address as a matter of priority, Medicare and Medicaid and making sure it has necessary funding to honor obligations made to the nation's elderly. And the President offered a way to get that type of work done yesterday, but the route selected was one in which there would be no preconditions and I think we ought to honor that.
We're not requiring of the Republicans that they have any new proposal that scales back their tax cut or drops the tax increases they have on working families, or that restores the funding necessary to protect the environment or that makes the kind of investments in education and technology that the President considers important, or that -- we haven't put those down as prerequisites for a meeting. And because of that I described these talks as commencing with no preconditions attached.
Q But there are also no negotiations expected, correct?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't predict.
Q Well, I know, but you just said a minute ago that the leader and the -- the leaders on the Hill have said it wouldn't be a negotiating session, and you agree with that. It presumably means what it says, doesn't it, that you don't expect there to be a negotiation.
MR. MCCURRY: I think that's right because there are negotiators available who can negotiate. That they -- I believe it's correct to say that what the President will look for -- and I can't speak for the Speaker and the Majority Leader, but I assume what they're looking for, too, is some framework that can move this discussion off dead center.
Q How does the President interpret the vote yesterday in the House, which was quite large for achieving something that he has not yet offered a plan to do -- that is to say, a seven-year CBO scored budget?
MR. MCCURRY: He interprets that as a reaffirmation of the agreement that he has already made with the Congress.
Q Daschle and Gephardt -- this is a separate meeting, or might they join --
MR. MCCURRY: They will have a separate meeting with the President at the conclusion of the meeting with the Speaker and the Majority Leader.
Q Does the timing of the meeting have anything to do with the FOMC meeting, and what effect do you think it will have on the talks if the Fed decides not to cut --
MR. MCCURRY: No, and I can't predict.
Q So basically, what the President is going to do is meet with Gingrich and Dole and then have whatever substance they have there, and then report to Gephardt and Daschle on the outcome of that meeting.
MR. MCCURRY: That's correct. And then I would imagine that the Minority Leader -- the two Minority Leaders will be available to you.
Q In the conditions or offer or whatever you want to call it that the President laid on the table yesterday -- are his Medicare and Medicaid numbers of $24 billion and $54 billion new CBO or old CBO numbers -- are those -- is that non-negotiable, as far as he's concerned?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President's made very clear how strongly he feels about those priorities. He is committed to budget policies that protect the commitment we've made to the nation's elderly and to the nation's poor that they have adequate health care, especially in old age. And that could not have been clearer from the last six months of dialogue about the budget that the President considers those priorities important. And that's why, in fact, the President was encouraged when Congress recognized those priorities in adopting the language adopted in the last continuing resolution. The President's not taken to waving that language around to remind people that this Congress agreed with him that those are fundamental priorities that have to be addressed in the budget.
So far, the Republican majority in Congress has failed to produce a budget that meets that test. So there is an obligation on them now to come forward with some budget ideas or proposals that meet the test they've already agreed to as a matter of law.
Q Now, if I may follow up, the Republicans have said that their numbers on taxes, on Medicare, Medicaid are negotiable. Are the President's numbers on Medicare and Medicaid negotiable?
MR. MCCURRY: If there is a good-faith negotiation, I would assume that everything will be on the table.
Q Mike, is he willing to continue these talks until the budget crisis is solved, or is he going to require some kind of precondition to continue them after today? Or is he just willing to say, I'll meet with you guys every day until we resolve this?
MR. MCCURRY: I just don't want to predict what tone the discussion will take. Clearly, the President is interested in making progress, both to see that the government is reopened and to see that we balance the budget. I suspect we'll know rather quickly whether this type of discussion that the President has today can advance those goals.
Q Are you optimistic?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not optimistic or pessimistic; I'm realistic.
Q What do you make of Speaker Gingrich's comment yesterday that he was uncertain as to whether federal workers who are furloughed will get back pay?
MR. MCCURRY: As I said earlier to some of you, I believe that that adds to the sense of uncertainty that many federal workers and their families will not have in the midst of this holiday season. The President's view is it's not their fault that this government is currently partially shut down and that those who would like to work and want to work and feel like they should be at work ought to be paid once they do get back to work.
Q Is that a condition of restarting the government to the President?
MR. MCCURRY: We're not laying down conditions, we're interested in getting a continuing resolution that can get the government open.
Q Can I change the subject?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q On the Whitewater document, the question that the Senate Whitewater committee wants, has the White House handed that over to the Senate committee yet?
MR. MCCURRY: They have not. I'm not aware of anything new on that. We did send the letter, or Special Counsel sent a letter to the committee counsels last night in an attempt to move that forward so that we can provide the notes that the committee seeks. But I'm not certain that there has been a response.
Q Why did it take until last night to do that? That proposal was announced days earlier, and as of yesterday, neither the committee nor the independent counsel had received the offer. What was that all about?
MR. MCCURRY: They received it during the course of the business day yesterday.
Q I know, but they offer had been made, had been announced the end of last week.
MR. MCCURRY: It's a little bit of history there. We had sent up a proposal that we had suggested some things that we would like to see happen in connection with providing that to make it clear that the President's right to confidential conversations with his attorney is protected because it's privileged, and there has been discussion back and forth on that. Certainly, you've heard Senator D'Amato comment publicly on some of that, so we sent up a further letter clarifying exactly what we were looking for yesterday.
Q Who has physical possession of the notes now?
MR. MCCURRY: I do not know the answer to that.
Q Are the President's Christmas plans in abeyance because of the budget ---
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he's been attempting to make plans for the holidays. Given the uncertainty related to the current partial shutdown of the government that's been difficult. He had planned to do some travel, but I think that's most likely been ruled out now since we're in an atmosphere where we're not certain what's going to happen. And the President wants to be available should there be any good-faith effort by Congress to advance either the budget dialogue, or if we haven't gotten a quicker approval for a continuing resolution, he wants to be available, obviously, to do whatever it takes to restore the services of the government to the American people.
Q When will the President be vetoing Commerce, State, Justice?
MR. MCCURRY: We've got a -- what time is our -- at 2:15 p.m.
Q Mike, what point was the President trying to make by walking around with a copy of the CR language from last time around?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the point that I just made a moment ago -- he wants to remind people that there are two parts to this agreement. We have gone a long way towards the first part, which is the seven-year balanced budget plan under CBO numbers. But there's a second half, there was, and that requires the President and Congress to address all those priorities that the President considers fundamental in this discussion. And we haven't seen any willingness on the part of the Republicans to move in that direction.
Q Mike, they argue that their budget which he vetoed addresses all those things and that all you're talking about there is the adjective "adequate." Adequate is not empirical. It is anybody's judgment. Does the President really believe he can negotiate this and he gets to be the judge of what "adequate" means?
MR. MCCURRY: The President believes that he has stressed over and over again, made clear to this Congress why those are priorities. He believes that large measure the majority of Americans understand that as well and have indicated that view to the Congress. And he's making it very clear that he's standing for those priorities and needs to see movement in the direction of those priorities by this Congress.
Q Before what?
MR. MCCURRY: Adequate -- what they've offered so fair ain't enough when it comes to adequate.
Q In whose opinion?
MR. MCCURRY: In his opinion. But his opinion counts because it takes two -- there are two sides to this agreement, the President and the Congress.
Q But you can't say there's been no movement. I mean, they've knocked, what, $69 billion off their Medicare savings?
MR. MCCURRY: When it comes to adequate funding for protecting our environment, they've just sent him measures that he was forced to veto because they manifestly did not provide adequate funding to protect the environment. In fact, they cut severely enforcement for protecting this nation's environment. Look across the board -- Agriculture, Veterans, Medicare, Medicaid, Education --all of these areas there has been no willingness on the part of the majority in Congress to move in the President's direction by a sufficient -- I mean, you could say it's a matter of interpretation by a sufficient amount, but that's the point.
Q I mean, as in adequate, is it like pornography -- he'll know it when he sees it -- or is it something to be negotiated? What is adequate?
MR. MCCURRY: Adequate is clearly something that we believe would have to be addressed in good-faith negotiations.
Q Is the President going to veto the defense authorization bill?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't even know the status. Has the bill been sent down yet?
MR. JOHNSON: There's not a bill here.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe there's a conference report here. We will look at it. There is a statement of administration policy available on that that does indicate that in its current form as it was being debated in the House, it would be subject to a veto.
Q Mike, the Japanese have just announced a $7-billion bailout package for some of their financial institutions. Given the fact that this administration has repeatedly asked the Japanese to do something about their domestic financial situation, do you have an assessment or reaction to that?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't have an assessment. They've just announced that, and we'll have to look at the package and see if we can have some appropriate comment once we've analyze the package as they developed it.
Q On the securities litigation reform, are the questions that he has about the process of litigation enough for him to consider vetoing the bill?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that the question is whether they are sufficient to require him to withhold his approval and thus veto or return it to the Congress. And that's the exact question that the President is examining later today.
Q Some questions have been raised on securities that suggest that the President may have at one point decided to sign the bill, but an intense lobbying campaign by some of his aides, particularly Bruce Lindsey, got him to change his mind. Is that at all correct?
MR. MCCURRY: The intensity of feelings on this issue are well-known to anyone who has talked to various parties that would be affected. And there's been no lack of remonstrations to the President regarding the bill. I don't -- wouldn't attach that to any particular staff person or any particular outside citizen, but there has been a high degree of interest in the legislation and a high degree of activity in attempting to persuade the President of the merits of different points of view about the legislation.
Q Is that why he's taking until the last minute?
MR. MCCURRY: No. The President is taking until the last minute because he has specific concern about one aspect of the conference report, as I just indicated.
Q The concerns that you're talking about, is the President hoping that he'll get an answer today about whether that can be ameliorated through rulemaking? Is he still pursuing that?
MR. MCCURRY: The discussion will most likely touch on that type of analysis.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MR. MCCURRY: You're very welcome, Helen.
END 1:43 P.M. EST