THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
12:11 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon. I have nothing to report. So I'll briefly brief.
Q What time is the meeting on the budget?
MR. MCCURRY: Mr. Panetta is on the Hill and continuing his discussions with both Republican and Democratic leaders at this moment. I really don't have anything further to report. They were working through some of the issues that arose in the President's meeting yesterday with Speaker Gingrich and Majority Leader Dole. Mr. Panetta had a subsequent meeting last night to work through some of the details and he's been on the Hill for most of the morning working on those same issues. And I would really prefer to await a readout from his meetings today to see where they are.
Q There will be a meeting here this afternoon, or is that not yet clear?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't -- I'm not in a position to confirm any meeting at this point.
Q Are they still talking process, framework for the discussions, and not the substance itself?
MR. MCCURRY: They've been trying to decide -- the effort has been aimed at designing a framework for balanced budget discussions that would allow the leaders to address some of the substantive issues that are at stake in the budget debate.
Q Can you give us any idea what framework means?
MR. MCCURRY: Framework is just a process, what process will they use, what kind of overall parameters would govern the discussion that the principal leaders of our government would have as they attempt to reach a balanced budget agreement.
Q For instance?
Q Senator Dole was just saying on the floor that one of the terms would be there would be a news blackout at the end of every day. Is that something you agreed to?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President and I believe -- I can't speak for the Republican leaders, but I believe they share this view -- they believe it's important to provide timely and accurate information to the American people about the status of their discussions. But they agreed that for the sake of the discussions, the best way to do that would be to agree to joint statements that would report on whatever issues they had covered or whatever progress they had made. And the President certainly concurs in that view.
Q -- when?
MR. MCCURRY: At whatever point the leaders feel it's appropriate to issue such a statement.
Q What are the prospects for a continuing resolution that would put the government back today, which was something that was talked about yesterday?
MR. MCCURRY: Uncertain.
Q Mike, based on your State Department experience, how does this search for a framework compare to, say, the lead on to a treaty signing or Middle East peace signing?
MR. MCCURRY: Secretary Jim Baker, to my recollection had made something like 14 trips to the Middle East prior to Madrid Conference to establish the Middle East peace process. And so we have had to travel far fewer miles and have held far fewer meetings. It's not a surprise that sometimes designing the procedure for a negotiation is one aspect of the negotiation itself.
Q Why is the CR uncertain?
MR. MCCURRY: Because I just don't have anything to report definitively on what the status of a CR is.
Q There's a report that Panetta has left the Hill amid new problems that have arisen.
MR. MCCURRY: I spoke to one member of the Chief of Staff's party on the Hill about 20 minutes ago, and so if that's true that's happened in the last 20 minutes.
Q Mike, is this news blackout or limitation also driven by the recent history -- Andrews Air Force Base four or five years ago when there was a large number of people and a lot of leaks -- is that what the President and congressional leaders have in mind?
MR. MCCURRY: If I understood Senator Dole correctly, and I believe the point he was making is that sometimes the public dialogue can impede the ability of the leaders to discuss these issues and resolve them. And whether or not that's true, that seems to be the admonition that the leaders would wish to impart to their staffs and others at this moment. I think we are duty bound to abide by that.
Q Is this also an attempt to avoid public criticism in case the President's values are violated?
MR. MCCURRY: No. I mean, that is -- whatever work product results from these discussions will be judged on its merits by the American people.
Q If there's a joint statement on a framework of principles or whatever that's followed by a CR, would the actual negotiations, continuing of the talks, be at the presidential level or at lesser official levels?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the discussion they had yesterday was with the understanding they would continue in a format in which the President, the Vice President, the Speaker, the Majority Leader, and the two Democratic Minority Leaders would participate. And I believe the Chief of Staff Panetta, as well. I'm not certain of that.
Q I don't know what this means and maybe we can find out before the briefing is over, but I was just --
MR. MCCURRY: I hate questions that start like that. (Laughter.) "I'm not sure what this means," "I don't know what this is."
Q Well, I was handed a note that says the talks have broken off on the Hill and Panetta is headed back. I don't know whether that is good or bad or --
MR. MCCURRY: We just had that question.
Q Why don't you go find out?
Q Can we find out --
MR. MCCURRY: As I said --
Q You've got time.
MR. MCCURRY: If that was like 20 minutes ago.
Q Can we find out if that's good news, bad news --
MR. MCCURRY: Helen, you're looking positively red. Do you want me to go find out?
Q Don't avert the attention here. You just go into Panetta's office and -- (laughter.)
Q Can you find out if that's good news, bad news, indifferent news, routine --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm willing to -- since that is the most urgent issue of the day I am willing to take a break and see if there's anything to find out. Why don't you guys find out if Leon's on his way back. I'll go see what I can see -- continue flapping my yams.
Q Can we do Whitewater for a second while you are checking this?
MR. MCCURRY: If we really must. (Laughter.)
Q Why is there this debate on the Senate -- what is the problem in a nutshell right now why the Senate is about to vote on this subpoena?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe that that was covered amply in the letter that Ms. Sherborne, the Special Counsel to the President, sent to Senator D'Amato today. In a nutshell, it's that they can't get agreement from House Republican chairs whose committees are looking into the Whitewater matter that they acknowledge the President's right to have representation by an attorney and to have conversations in private that are privileged. In a nutshell, that's it.
She's got a letter that they sent up to Senator D'Amato this morning that covers where they are. They had a very important breakthrough yesterday in discussions with Mr. Starr on acknowledging that privilege. And, unfortunately, that was not extended to the congressional committees on the House side that are looking into the Whitewater matter.
Q The dispute centers on whether the documents in question are subject to that privilege, right?
MR. MCCURRY: No, it's -- the issue is whether or not those who are pursuing this matter will acknowledge that the President has not waived his right to a confidential relationship with his attorneys by providing the notes. The President is happy to provide the notes, but he just wants it made clear that there's no waiver of his attorney-client privilege implied by turning that over.
Q Since Senator D'Amato presumably did not have any control and could not force Congressman Leach, for example, to accept these conditions, then it appears that at least a vote on this subpoena is inevitable.
MR. MCCURRY: You'll have to ask those who are following this more closely. I don't know what the status is.
Q On the House side, they're voting on -- had started when the briefing was called on securities override. Has the President been lobbying on that this morning? Was he making any effort in that?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I am aware of. He made two phone calls to Senator Specter and Senator Dodd last night that I'm aware of. But he did set forth in his veto message his specific concerns with the securities litigation legislation and made it quite clear to Congress how they could adjust the legislation to achieve his support. That would be a more fruitful way to pursue a very necessary reform of our securities law, than attempting an override of the veto.
Q If they get the override and it passes by majorities -- is the President going to try to stop the override at all? I mean, it becomes a moot point about making changes if they get it through.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, if they get it -- obviously, if it becomes law without the President's support, we will faithfully execute the law, but we'll also work to address some of the specific concerns that he cited in his veto message.
Q Are they making any lobbying effort, though, in the Senate side, if not on the House side?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. I would have -- certainly not at the President's level, perhaps at the staff level. But I'll have to check that.
Q If there is a problem on budget, does the President have any plans for what he might do? In particular, there's some talk that veterans checks wouldn't go out tomorrow unless you do something different than you've already done.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's correct. There needs to be a full appropriation -- or an appropriation for veterans benefits by tomorrow, by December 21st, in order for 3.3 million veterans and survivors to receive their January 1st benefit checks on time.
By the way, by Friday there needs to be an appropriation for Aid to Families with Dependent Children grants to be paid. That would affect 4.7 million families, a total of 13 million recipients who would not be in a position to receive necessary income support. So obviously that's very --
Q I'm sorry, Mike, could you repeat that one more time?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't have dollar amounts here. OMB might be able to help you with specific dollar amounts.
Q Friday, 8.7 million families won't get aid?
MR. MCCURRY: By Friday.
Q That's 4.7 million families.
MR. MCCURRY: That's 4.7 million families, and a total of 13 million recipients. Those are, obviously, in most cases, mothers with dependent children.
Q Well, Senator Simpson was saying today that the President only has himself to blame on the veterans benefit for vetoing the VA appropriations bill.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President did not veto that measure because it contained funding for benefit checks, obviously. So that's kind of a fraudulent argument. The concerns raised in the VA-HUD-independent agencies appropriations bills are the ones that the President cited, and they include the lack of sufficient funding to keep our environment clean, among others, but most principally that. It was not related to benefits.
Q But it had the effect of cutting off the money that would have been available for the benefit checks.
MR. MCCURRY: That's correct, but -- I mean, the issue is that -- upon which the President vetoed that bill are well-known. In any event, the way to solve that problem in particular is to have a continuing resolution that keeps the government open.
I am reliably informed that Mr. Panetta is not on his way back from the Hill; he's still on the Hill and he's conducting an additional meeting. It sounds like it's in the neighborhood of the Speaker's office.
Q What steps would be needed to correct the situation regarding the AFDC checks and the veterans checks?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe you would need some type of continuing resolution that would provide stopgap funding for the government, and those benefit checks could go out in a timely manner.
Q Could it be so narrowly drawn as to be only for those items?
MR. MCCURRY: It could, conceivably, if Congress wanted to pass a very limited CR of that fashion. But our preference, of course, would be a CR that's sufficient to restore the American government to the American people.
Q How was this problem solved last time, or tidied over last time?
MR. MCCURRY: They came right up to the deadline, but it passed -- got the agreement on the continuing resolution prior to those benefits being affected, is my recollection.
Q There had been talk of these mini-CRs, as the Republicans were calling them. I seem to recall that the White House wasn't particularly in favor of those types of --
MR. MCCURRY: The White House is in favor of seeing the government as fully restored and reopened.
Q So would you oppose a mini-CR this time, if the Republicans --
MR. MCCURRY: We're interested -- we don't want to see people's lives unnecessarily disrupted by this shutdown. Certainly the failure to receive benefit checks is a very untimely disruption. Our interest, though, is in seeing the government reopened and we will do that the best that we can, depending on what is sent to us by Congress.
Q Are they January 1st checks, as well?
MR. MCCURRY: The AFDC grants -- I think these are grants that go out to states and then allow the states to administer the benefits. They are January 1st benefit checks that are affected.
Q Is Panetta making a special plea now on these AFDC --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President yesterday made the plea that we need to see the government reopen and made the point that not only these benefit checks, but all the services that are affected by government, whether it's -- I've talked a lot about mortgage loan applications that are not closing at FHA. So these are not just parks that are closed, it's a whole range of government services that design and protect the American people.
Here's -- this one interesting -- we have this list that's available, if you're interested, the effects of the shutdown. But these are the kinds of things that help educate the American people about what government does. One example, the National Institute of Standards and Technology at the Commerce Department, they regulate measurements, the standards for measurements. Companies, universities, hospitals, defense and law enforcement agencies depend on NIST -- National Institute of Standards and Technology's laboratory-based research and services for calibration of measurement devices. And there are over 20,000 measurement samples performed resulting from these tests each year, used by over 3,000 large and small companies. This agency now has no funding and is getting ready to close.
Imagine the overall effect on Commerce and our economy.
Q A gallon is a gallon. I mean, what's going to change between last week and this week?
MR. MCCURRY: No, come on.
Q No, seriously.
MR. MCCURRY: You're more sophisticated than that.
Q Some of the House Republicans this morning --
Q Mike, he doesn't know the answer. You ought to answer the question for him, shouldn't you?
MR. MCCURRY: How you calibrate very precise -- how you measure very precise quantities using sophisticated measuring devices is something that is very important in a wide range of commerce.
Q Do you need the federal government to do that over a two-day period?
MR. MCCURRY: I can think of one, which are the precise measurements of time that are used to calibrate devises that are used in a large volume of medical research when they're measuring the effects over time, over specific quantities of time of the effects of mutations in genes. Some of the most important biogenetic experimentation that occurs in this country that's important to find cures for diseases -- all that type of work depends on those types of calibrations.
Q Mike, some of the House Republicans this morning were indicating they were very unhappy with the way the Vice President characterized the meeting last night. Do you know if that's a factor in why a meeting hasn't been set for sure this afternoon?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know and I wouldn't attempt to speak for them.
Q Can you give us some better sense of what went on in the meeting yesterday? Two hours of discussion -- was it all process-oriented, or was there any substantive discussion of Medicare as a block grant or --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they touched on the overall issues that are related to the budget, but it was clearly more a discussion of the process that they would use to move forward.
Q Did Speaker Gingrich in that meeting lay down a line in the sand for the President on tax cuts?
MR. MCCURRY: I did not hear him report that when he commented on the meeting.
Q Is it fair to say there's an expectation here that the President will sit down with Gingrich and Dole today?
MR. MCCURRY: I said that that was uncertain.
Q Even though yesterday it seemed that everybody was saying it was going to happen? No?
Q Mike, does the President plan to consider any action against Japan given that the Secretary of Commerce has defined that Japan has violated international whaling agreements? Apparently, he is empowered to take trade sanctions by mid-February.
MR. MCCURRY: I have not seen anything on that. I would have to check further on that. I don't know the answer to that.
Q Were there any emotional exchanges in yesterday's meeting?
MR. MCCURRY: No. It was reported accurately by the Vice President, by the two Democratic leaders, by the Speaker and by the Majority Leader as a cordial and productive exchange.
Q Mike, apparently, the House has voted 319-100 to override the veto on the securities litigation reform law. Any comment on that, first? And second, are you in a better position as far as you can tell in the Senate?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I stand by what I said earlier, that we obviously will faithfully execute laws if the veto is overridden. But the President has concerns about the securities litigation measure that he stated last night and we will attempt to address those concerns if we are in a position where we are required to implement the law.
Q How about the Senate? Do you believe you have the votes, or do you know?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know the answer.
Q Are you working it hard?
MR. MCCURRY: The measure as it passed, I think, had a sufficient measure to override a veto, to my recollection.
Q If the Senate does override --
MR. MCCURRY: It was within several votes, I think.
Q This will be the first override of a presidential veto --
MR. MCCURRY: If it's overridden, but we will have to wait and see what happens with the Senate.
Q The Republicans say the that they're shocked by Clinton's nitpicking veto.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President, as he said in his statement last night, is concerned about the rights of investors, particularly people of modest means. There are a lot of elderly in this country in particular who we have heard from by the basketful who are very concerned about the status of their investments and who believe they have legal rights that need to be protected, and who are fearful that this legislation would impede their ability to plead cases before our courts. And it was exactly that issue, the pleading standard that applies, that most concerned the President.
Of his three specific objections to this legislation, the most important was the one that in the President's view would have the effect of closing the courthouse door on investors who have very legitimate claims in our courts. So he is protecting the rights of investors who feel they have been subject to any type of fraudulent representations and who need to have the right in the courts to address their grievances. And there are aspects of this legislation, as the President suggested in his veto message last night, that would be impaired by this legislation.
By the way, the President came to this point of view after a very extensive and very detailed review of this legislation, after hearing from a number of legal experts from around the country -- professors of law who looked at the conference report, the language in the statement of managers quite clearly and who suggested to him, sometimes in unsolicited letters, that the legal standard that would apply for pleadings would be very damaging to investors, particularly those of modest means who would have no other place to go but to the courts to attempt to address their grievances.
Q You sound and the administration seems, though, surprisingly unconcerned about the prospect of an override, especially the first override.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, this is an important, but obviously a fairly technical piece of legislation dealing with securities law. It's important because it addresses the whole question of frivolous lawsuits, how do you protect against that; but also simultaneously, how do you protect the right of Americans to go to the courts and address the concerns that they have. But it's -- we are talking about a technical and complicated piece of securities legislation.
Q If they do override the veto, what are the President's options for addressing some of the concerns that he has?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Securities and Exchange Commission does have available administrative rule-making procedures that could conceivably address some aspects of this. But fundamentally, the issue here is what standard exists in the courts. And the President had preferred that we'd see one of the standards adopted in our courts, specifically in the second circuit, codified in the statute. The problem is that the statement of the managers of this bill leaves open the prospect of a higher standard. And our concern is that would then be raised in court challenges and be cited as a reason for a higher standard that the very stringent standard that already exists by virtue of the Second Circuit ruling.
Q Apparently a couple of states already have pleading standards similar to that contained in the bill. And Senator Dodd even offered some examples of successful litigation. What was the President's reaction to that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President was well aware of that argument and had had good conversations with Senator Dodd on that point. But on the balance felt that that was not adequate protection. He reviewed that specifically and relied, again, as I say on expert recommendations made to him by a variety of people in the legal academic community who wrote to him and who expressed an opinion contrary to that.
Q Mike, I still don't understand. He thinks this is a bad bill because unscrupulous people will be able to prey on little old ladies, but -- and he's going to veto it, but he's not then going to try to sustain his veto?
MR. MCCURRY: Not because of that, but because the little old lady, to use your phrase, has got to have the right to go into a court and be able to attempt to address her grievance.
Q Then why not fight to sustain the veto?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we are -- they have just voted now. We've sent our very specific concerns and objections to the Congress last night and have obviously made it clear to them that we believe there's a way to fix this legislation so it would be acceptable to the President.
Q Who decides what's frivolous or not?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that is --
Q Why is that term constantly used when people are appealing for justice?
MR. MCCURRY: That was the heart of the debate in the Congress and specifically of the administration's concern -- how do you protect against lawsuits that are less than meritorious, and how do you protect companies that are -- particularly newly-formed companies that are in a start-up phase, and how do you protect them from unnecessary litigation. And that -- there was a great deal of testimony back and forth in both Houses on exactly that point. It's not -- to my knowledge not a legal standard or not a legal definition, but rather something else.
Q I want to go back to the budget talks today. You say you're uncertain about prospects, but given the fact that Panetta's still up there, you're not ruling them out by any means, are you?
MR. MCCURRY: I just don't have any way to guide you one way or another since there are conversations that are underway.
Q Mike, can you clarify the President's position on the Senate Democratic plan to balance the budget? Does he endorse it, or does he reserve the right to endorse it, or will coalesce -- support coalesce around it?
MR. MCCURRY: He agreed with the Majority Leader and the Speaker last night that it is the type of proposal that ought to be within the parameters of the discussion that they are now going to have.
Q Just to make sure, Mike, what's going to happen this afternoon --
MR. MCCURRY: I just -- obviously I can't tell you right now.
Q When you know -- will you keep us up to date on that?
Q -- what you're saying is that it's not at all certain that there will be any meeting of the President with the Republican leaders at all?
MR. MCCURRY: I would just prefer to wait and get a report from Mr. Panetta at the conclusion of his meetings on the Hill before we announce any schedule.
Q Going back to his question, the Speaker and the Majority Leader last night had differing accounts of the importance of the Senate Democratic plan. The Minority Leader spoke of it as being one side of the box that would be -- within which this negotiation would take place. Does the President believe its going to play that role at the table?
MR. MCCURRY: The President believes it ought to be one of those sources of inspiration as the leaders begin to discuss these issues. And there will be others as well, clearly.
Q I know you haven't decided yet whether there's any move in the Senate on the securities litigation. But which White House staffers might go up there? Quinn? Lindsey?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that there is -- apparently, one House has already taken a vote and override without looking for further clarification from the White House, so I'll have to check and see if there's any plans for that.
We'll keep you posted as we learn anything more. Obviously, we're a moving target.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 12:37 P.M. EST