THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
4:11 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: All right. Back to where we were.
Q Last night we were told these talks had no preconditions, and Gore said if there was progress reached today then maybe they'd have some kind of an announcement about a CR. Now, all of a sudden, the President is making an agreement on a CR a precondition to talk to the Republicans.
MR. MCCURRY: No, no, no. Let's clear that up. The meeting that occurred yesterday here at the White House was held without preconditions. The President had offered to the Republican leadership two options: come down and meet with me, no preconditions, we'll role up our sleeves, go to work; or, alternatively, we will be willing to table a seven-year balanced budget plan scored by CBO provided you will move to our Medicare-Medicaid numbers, as the President just indicated.
The Republican leadership selected the first option.
Q Option one.
MR. MCCURRY: We call it option one. They came, they went to work, they reached an agreement. Leon went up on the Hill, worked out the details of that agreement last night, and then went to the Hill this morning to finalize it so we could issue the structure or the framework that would have guided the balanced budget discussions. And clearly, it blew up during the course of the morning when the Speaker informed the Chief of Staff that his hands were tied and he could not abide by the agreement they reached last night.
Q Wait a minute. In what sense did he not abide by it?
Q Wait, wait, wait --
Q In what sense did he say he could not abide by it?
MR. MCCURRY: One at a time.
Q In what sense did the Speaker say he could not abide by the agreement?
MR. MCCURRY: That they would -- there were several elements of what they had talked about -- that they would move ahead according to the structure of some discussions they had last night on how you would handle issues like CBO estimating proposals, how the CBO would take into account most recent economic and statistical information as to the state of the economy. That sort of thing. And, of course, that they would be in agreement to pass a continuing resolution that would keep the government open.
Q You were asked specifically about that yesterday. On all sides nobody -- not from this podium or any other -- said that there would be agreement to do a CR until -- that would have to await the outcome of today's meeting.
MR. MCCURRY: That's correct.
Q Today's meeting here.
MR. MCCURRY: No, today's meeting --
Q That's what they said.
Q That's what they all said.
MR. MCCURRY: Today's discussions here were clearly going to take place in the context of reopening the government. That was the whole point of what they talked about last night.
Q Nobody said that yesterday.
Q Nobody said that.
MR. MCCURRY: I stood here last night and said that.
Q No, you didn't.
MR. MCCURRY: I did, too.
Q You did not. Nobody said that.
MR. MCCURRY: I'll go back and check the transcript.
Q Nobody said that.
Q Who pulled the plug on the meeting --
MR. MCCURRY: We said -- I said repeatedly yesterday that the purpose of these discussions and the reason the President was having them was to get the government open and get the budget balanced.
Q Nobody said that that was a precondition of today's continuing discussions.
MR. MCCURRY: No --
Q Nobody said that. Were you in the meeting, by the way?
MR. MCCURRY: I was not, but I will tell you --
Q Well, the people who were said otherwise than you're saying here now.
MR. MCCURRY: All right. Well, then I can't help you, then.
Q And why is it necessary to open the government to have talks?
Q Mike, I have a question.
MR. MCCURRY: Last question. I'll go see if I can get someone -- if you're not satisfied with my briefing, I'll see if I can get someone who will satisfy you. Do you have something?
Q Yes. What we're trying to get at I think is it seems that when Gingrich came to Panetta and said, gee, these guys are goofing around on the furloughed workers, I'm not sure we can get a CR that fast, that the White House then pulled the plug on the whole budget talks. And my question --
MR. MCCURRY: That's --
Q Let me finish, because I'm asking you, this is what I want to ask you.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q My question is, why not proceed with the budget talks? This other issue -- apparently, they want some sort of outline before -- doesn't that make it more incumbent to have budget talks, not less?
MR. MCCURRY: They agreed last night that as a way of getting the government reopened and getting a discussion moving forward on the balanced budget to structure this framework to handle the balanced budget discussions. They laid out a timetable that would have had sessions this afternoon, tomorrow -- they were going to talk about -- present overall budget plans this afternoon at 3:00 p.m. They were going to present discussions of Medicare-Medicaid tomorrow. They were going to move on to welfare and discretionary issues and taxes on Friday, and with a wrap-up session on Saturday. They had a clear timetable laid out.
The Chief of Staff had very good discussions with Kasich and Domenici last night to that end. They went to the Hill today to finalize that agreement and it was clear -- all the participants agreed, based on the meeting last night, that part of that was a CR that would reopen government, that would be reviewed perhaps at the end of the week or early next week to see if it was to be extended if there was a need for additional conversations. That was all part of the deal. And then that agreement ran into specific objections that were stated publicly by the Republican caucus members this morning. That's now -- I will go and see if I can get some more information.
Q Mike, can I follow that just briefly?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q I understand that scenario. My question is why not then, okay, put the CR aside and proceed with -- because we got a lot of bigger issues at --
MR. MCCURRY: You guys are missing the point. They had everyone in the room that you need to make an agreement. Either people's word count, or it doesn't. They made an agreement on how they were going to proceed last night. And then we ran into the situation today where the deal was off.
Q Can I follow up?
MR. MCCURRY: How are you supposed to make an agreement on how to proceed? How do you proceed under those circumstances? Are we supposed to bring Zack Womp down here and negotiate with him?
Q But, Mike, are you saying that there was a clear understanding --
MR. MCCURRY: There was a clear understanding on behalf of everybody participating in the room, on behalf of everyone participating in the discussions with Mr. Panetta last night, and on behalf of all the staff working on this issue that there was to be a CR today; that was to be part of the process by which we would have these discussions commencing today that would lead hopefully to a balanced budget agreement. I mean, that was -- we have said all along from the very --
Q How come nobody said that yesterday?
MR. MCCURRY: We said from the very beginning that opening the government was part of what the objective was here.
Q But not that there was an agreement.
Q Whether they said it or not, either there was an agreement or there wasn't.
Q But nobody said it.
Q Well, even if they didn't say it publicly.
Q What did they talk about today?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry, say again.
Q The President and Senator Dole, what did they discuss today?
MR. MCCURRY: They've been talking about how we can move ahead and try to figure out some way to reopen the government; how do you get some type of CR structured.
I'm not sufficient as a briefer, I've been told. So I'm going to go get someone else.
Q Oh, Mike. Come on, Mike, don't take it personally.
MR. MCCURRY: I'm hurt. I'm hurt, Brit.
Q Well, evidently.
Q What is Gingrich's role in all this? The Speaker has tremendous power. The President said that he's convinced that Dole is bargaining in good faith. Is the same true of Gingrich or is --
MR. MCCURRY: The President believes that the Speaker left here last night fully intending to make good on his commitment made in the meeting.
Q He controls the House calendar --
MR. MCCURRY: Should check in on that proposition.
Q Mike, can you just clarify -- who actually said we can't meet? Did the Speaker say, I can literally come up and negotiate, or did your side, Panetta say, if you can't deliver --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'm going to go check. I want to go see if I can Leon to clarify that point.
Q Could you just clarify one thing the President said? He said there would be no point -- he said me and Gingrich and Dole could get in a room and with Daschle and Gephardt and work out an agreement and then --
MR. MCCURRY: That's what they did last night.
Q No, a budget agreement, he said. And then we could send it up there and it wouldn't pass, and what would be the point of that?
MR. MCCURRY: They can't even make -- they couldn't even get an agreement to stick that they made here yesterday, last night, on the process. The President has a right to wonder whether or not they can make a deal that on the substance of the matter, which is infinitely more difficult, that's going to last.
Q Isn't it worth trying? Isn't it worth getting the three of them in a room?
MR. MCCURRY: How are you going to -- look, this is very complicated stuff. They laid out a process here to follow on how they were going to get at these issues. And it was all set and ready to go, and it got blown up by the House Republican caucus.
Q Mike, so are you saying there's no point in continuing talks at all because Newt can't deliver?
MR. MCCURRY: No. Panetta is continuing to work it. The President is continuing to talk to Dole. They are going to try to find some way to break the impasse, obviously.
Q Did the Speaker say he could not come to --
Q -- on CBO contribute to this? I mean, the Republicans are saying that they would accept --
MR. MCCURRY: No, that is absolutely incorrect. In fact, I'll tell you exactly what happened. They -- after the Vice President's remarks here last night, we heard rather quickly that there was some neuralgia on the part of some of the Republican members. The Vice President staff called the Speaker's staff and said, understand we had to go out and do that because of the way the Speaker characterized the discussion.
The Speaker's office -- and you should call the Speaker's office and they will confirm this -- they said we understand and we understand why the Vice President went out and made it clear that on the table would be elements of the President's plan because the Vice President himself, in the meeting, had clarified that point with both Senator Dole and Speaker Gingrich.
And so last night, before the public comments of some of the House members today, we had made sure that the Speaker -- the Speaker's staff understood why the Vice President made those remarks, and they agreed that the Vice President had stated it accurately.
Q Mike, have you asked or have you discussed with Senator Dole the possibility that since the Senate seems to be ready to go for a CR that they might just go ahead and move on that?
MR. MCCURRY: I think I should respect the privacy of the conversation, but basically, yes.
Q Did the Speaker say he would not come to a meeting here today?
MR. MCCURRY: Did the Speaker -- I don't believe that he said that at any point. But everyone understood what the process was to be today, and that process became impossible for the Speaker to follow.
Q Mike, is the standard now for getting an agreement having agreement from the House Republicans who have objected?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. There will be a real concern on our side now that any agreement reached is one that will have sufficient support on the Republican side. And we'll have to check that very carefully, obviously.
Q Mike, how long are you prepared to wait this out?
MR. MCCURRY: We can't wait it out. We've got a government that needs to go back to work, and we have federal workers that need to go back to work. And we'll continue to explore ways to try to break the impasse. Mr. Panetta is doing that right now. The President, obviously, has talked to the Senate Majority Leader today twice, and will probably do some additional.
Q Any chance Mr. Panetta could come down with us for a few minutes?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll check and see.
Q Mike, switching gears for a second -- Senator Dole is apparently considering going to Bosnia for Christmas. Do you know anything about that?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know anything about it. As you know, the President had very much wanted to himself, but after checking with our military commanders, we were told that was a very bad idea because it would interfere with the deployment that's now underway and, frankly, we would get in the way. So we elected not to do that.
Q How could it possibly be a good idea for some campaigning senator to arrive over there?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't -- the Speaker -- I would quickly point out that the Senate Majority has far less of an entourage than the President when he travels.
Q Has he sounded out the White House on this proposition of going?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I know of. I didn't hear it come up in any conversation that the President related to me, but it may have come up.
Q Which former commander told the Commander in Chief not to come?
MR. MCCURRY: No, no. We checked with that. We fully concur in their judgment. They're doing a very difficult and complicated deployment right now that involves a lot of movement in and out of both Tuzla and Sarajevo. And those airports are not sufficient to accommodate Air Force One and it's traveling party in the midst of what they're trying to do given the schedule they've got for deployment.
Q And also given the problems that Tower Air has been having lately. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Okay. I'll see if I can get some more on it.
MR. MCCURRY: I'm just trying get all the answers. There was a complaint I didn't have the right answers, so I had to go sort it out.
Let me just recall what the Vice President told you last night. The Vice President, when he came out, said they had had a very constructive conversation about how to proceed toward a balanced budget as soon as possible, and how to reopen the government and get a continuing resolution as the discussions proceed.
"We hope that with the joint statement after tomorrow's meeting we'll be able to say to you that there will be a resolution that allows the government to open its doors, and a schedule and a framework for constructive discussions toward a balanced budget within seven years."
And then he said, "We're, by design, trying not to say a lot about the details of the conversation this evening in hopes that after tomorrow's discussion there will be that joint statement," and that the reason why there was not an extensive conversation of a CR, that aspect of the discussion last night, was because, in fairness, the Majority Leader and the Speaker said they wanted to go back to their respective caucuses and review the discussion.
We, of course, needed to talk to Senator Daschle and Congressman Gephardt, as we did last night, but they wanted to talk to the Democratic caucuses respectively as well. So they held off a heavy read out on the substance of the discussion while that happened.
Leon went to the Hill last night, worked further on the agreement; went to the Hill today hoping to finalize the joint statement that would have been issued today. And had there been a joint statement issued today it very likely would have said something like that when the schedule for discussions is finalized by the parties, Congress will enact a continuing resolution to put government back to work while the discussions proceed.
That was unattainable today when it ran into objections from the House Republican caucus.
Q What's the answer to Alison's question about who pulled the plug on it? Did Gingrich say he wasn't coming up, or did you un-invite him?
MR. MCCURRY: No, it was just -- the issue that Leon ran into -- the agreement was they would have a further meeting today, most likely around 3:00 p.m., that would finalize this joint statement that would outline the procedures. And it was impossible to reach agreement on that joint statement when Leon went to the Hill. That was very apparent from the moment he started discussions this morning.
Q Why was that so --
MR. MCCURRY: And then he went to -- after meeting with Kasich and Domenici, where we first learned that it was going to be very hard to reach a deal -- and, of course, by that time they had just commenced one meeting on the Hill where C-Span was broadcasting the proceedings on the House, and we heard some fairly incendiary remarks from some members of the House. They stood up and started saying, no CR; we're not going to budge on this.
Q Why not cut the Speaker some slack and say, look, you know, we can't get a CR, but at least we can all get in a room and start talking about the budget?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, what are they supposed to do in the room? Reach a deal that then will be conditional upon the approval of 73 freshmen members?
Q Then you get to isolate the House freshmen further. I mean, but why not --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President had discussions with Senator Dole. I think it's likely that he will have another conversation perhaps by phone later today with the Speaker and the Majority Leader.
Q Dole's office says that he has -- that Sheila Burke has called Panetta to inquire about the possibility of Gingrich and Dole coming here to meet with the President this evening. Has that been received?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it's more likely that they will talk by phone. But that call did occur, yes.
Q And they asked to come down?
MR. MCCURRY: They said they needed -- that they hoped that the three could talk further today. They suggested maybe they should come down here. But I think given the President's schedule for the balance of the afternoon and evening, he probably have to do it by phone.
Q Mike, the President just said an hour ago that he's willing to do anything possible to try to get the government open. What --
MR. MCCURRY: He is. And we will continue to pursue this.
Q But he can't meet these guys in person?
Q If they want to come down here, why not let them?
MR. MCCURRY: Look, they need to talk. And I don't think they're going to have an objection. They're not going to have an objection to talking further, and they'll talk further.
Q But if they want to come down here, why not let them?
MR. MCCURRY: They can accomplish what they need to accomplish if they talk.
Q In other words, Gingrich didn't say, I can't abide by the deal, the whole thing is off, what happened is that when Panetta was in the meeting --
MR. MCCURRY: No, the Speaker --
Q -- he heard it on CNN, these guys making these statements --
MR. MCCURRY: Panetta then went later, around midday, to the Speaker's office and met directly with the Speaker. And they were joined by Sheila Burke at one point, and then I believe Senator Dole may have stopped by, too.
Q And at what point and for precisely what reason did Panetta say -- and how did the meeting get called off exactly?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they could not -- the Speaker made it clear they could not move forward on the terms of the joint agreement that they had drafted last night.
Q And did the Speaker at that point suggest there's no more for us to talk about?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he said they were going to have to go back -- I don't know his exact words, but they indicated they were going to have to do some more work on their side before they could figure out a framework that would work.
Q And you say now that he has been in touch with the President, the Speaker?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he has not, although, they -- as I say, I suspect they're going to talk again. And they've indicated to ABC that they have proposed an additional discussion tonight, which we, of course, will do.
Q Well, you knew about that. It wasn't just to me, it was -- you knew about that, right?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I didn't realize -- I did not realize that they had made that public.
Q I understand about the agreements need to be upheld, but are you willing to make an agreement with them to talk about the budget without a CR? In other words, are you willing --
MR. MCCURRY: The President made it very clear to them last night that he has two urgent priorities. One is to reopen that part of the government that is closed; and second is to move on with good-faith discussions for a balanced budget. Those are both important goals.
Q If he can only get one, is he willing to do that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he would -- one is better than zero, but we -- the fact of the matter is that if we don't get the government open tonight or tomorrow, we're going to start running into these deadlines on benefit checks that are going to be very, very difficult to deal with.
Q I know, but how does it make it better not to have any talks at all?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, you can have budget talks, but that doesn't solve the problem of benefit checks that are going to be delayed.
Q Well, why not have other talks?
Q You can solve the one, you certainly must recognize you're going to solve the other.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's -- we were trying to solve both last night and figure out a formula for solving both.
Q Well, I understand, but, Mike, aren't you concerned that if you go ahead and have the talks with the government still closed that there's a gun to your head factor that makes it unfair? Isn't that what this is about?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. I mean, look, the President all along has said these ought not to be related questions, that we should not hold the federal workers and their families and the services of the federal government hostage to budget discussions.
Q I know, but you could decouple them, too, simply by saying they're unrelated matters and --
MR. MCCURRY: That's what we -- we have said all along they are unrelated matters, but we --
Q Why are making a CR a precondition of talking about the other?
MR. MCCURRY: Because we're trying to get a CR passed.
Q I know, but by coupling them.
MR. MCCURRY: We're not necessarily linking them, but we got --
Q You are.
MR. MCCURRY: This is -- look, Brit, we're linking them because of the comments on the Hill today.
Q Okay, but don't say you're not linking them.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we -- I mean, we didn't suggest that linkage. That's my point. That got suggested on the floor today when that Republican member said that unless we get a balanced budget deal made and written in stone, they're not going to pass a CR.
Q You just laid out a schedule that the principals all agree they might be four days away from a balanced budget.
MR. MCCURRY: Right.
Q You said wrap it up by Saturday.
MR. MCCURRY: Right, and we think that ought to be sufficient grounds to pass a continuing resolution and open the government.
Q But if it's only going to be four days, why don't you go ahead -- in four days you could have the whole thing solved.
Q The heartbeat of America --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, in four days you've already jeopardized 3.3 million veterans' benefits and 13 million recipients of income maintenance benefits.
Q But how is not having any budget talks going to aid that process?
MR. MCCURRY: How is --
Q -- not have any talks at all going to help that?
MR. MCCURRY: You might be able to find a way to proceed with both simultaneously. That's what we're suggesting.
Q This just sounds like you don't want to deal.
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, that is just not true. Look, you guys can't rewrite the history of what happened here. What happened here today is very clear. They had an agreement on how to proceed to both open the government and balance the budget. They had it last night, and it got blown up today by the House Republican caucus.
Q Mike, did Gingrich suggest --
MR. MCCURRY: I mean, is that not manifestly clear to everyone in this room?
Q Yes, but you go and try again and keep on --
MR. MCCURRY: Okay, just as long as we know what the story is that we're reporting today.
Q Yes, but also the President has been repeatedly saying today that he just doesn't know who to talk to over there. And isn't this just in a sense a way of exploiting the fact that the Speaker doesn't seem to have the House Republicans under his belt, and the more you --
MR. MCCURRY: You will have to do that interpretation yourself.
Q Is the President going to call Gingrich and Dole, or are they going to call him? Are they going to be in the same conversation?
MR. MCCURRY: They have now apparently said publicly that they have proposed that they have an additional discussion tonight. And I can't imagine that that won't happen. I just don't know when it will happen.
Q They will call him, or is the President --
MR. MCCURRY: We'll work it out and let you know however they talk.
Q So at the end of the day it's fair to say that talks continue?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it's fair to say that the President is determined to continue talks that both keep the government open and balance the budget.
Q Mike, there's some ill will on both sides between the House Republicans and this White House. But it seems that the House Republicans --
MR. MCCURRY: A portion, an element of.
Q The freshman, let's say.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, we don't have -- look, we don't have any reason to doubt that when the Speaker left here last night, he intended to get this agreement done.
Q I'm talking about the element you're talking about.
MR. MCCURRY: I want to make that very clear.
Q They've said that they don't really trust the White House, and that the --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they've said worse than that, quite frankly.
Q Let me finish, because I actually -- I'm going to ask you -- the White House desire for a CR is the only leverage they have, and they don't really trust that the White House will then follow that through with a deal. Is there anything the President can do to instill trust in them to get this process going?
Q He can get on his hands and knees.
MR. MCCURRY: He has stood here and made as plain as he can his determination to reach a balanced budget agreement with them.
Q Let me make sure that I understand what you're saying here in response to what Brit's saying. Are you telling us that now, contrary to what we've been dealing with for the past couple of hours or so that the talks are off, that, in fact, you all are in the process of setting up another series of talks and they're going to start tonight?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I don't -- some people may be reporting talks are off. I think what is accurate to say is that last night the President of the United States, the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader agreed to a framework by which they could have discussions on a balanced budget, and that agreement fell apart today. That's what happened.
Now, we are trying to put that agreement or some --
Q Well, what's the next paragraph? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: -- we're trying to -- we continue to work. Administration officials continue to work with congressional leaders to attempt to repair the process.
Q -- fallen apart, right?
Q The agreement to have talks fell apart, so the question is, are you still going to have some talks tonight? That appears to be --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, as I said, I think -- I suspect that the Majority Leader and the Speaker and the President will talk again at some point tonight.
Q By phone.
Q By phone -- no place to meet.
MR. MCCURRY: By phone. We suspect most likely by phone. If that changes, though, keep -- tune in to your dial.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 4:49 P.M. EST