THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:25 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Happy New Year to all of you, and here is the first White House news briefing of 1996. Let's make it a short one.
Q Let's make it real.
MR. MCCURRY: Make it real. Okay, let's make it real, Helen. Go.
Q Okay. How long is the President going to tolerate this club over his head and over the nation in terms of shutting down the government?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, if the President could take that club and throw it into the fireplace and burn it and get this government open again, he would do so on his own. But we have a constitutional system here that has branches of government and the other branch of government has not sent to the President a sufficient measure to open the government.
Everyone knows that every single day that we have had conversations with the congressional leadership, we have encouraged them, including today, to pass the necessary legislation that will reopen our government and get federal workers back on the job, because the consequences are taking a dreadful toll on the American people, on the federal workers who are at home and on those who legitimately expect services out of our government.
Q Well, how come it hasn't hit home on the Hill --
MR. MCCURRY: I can't answer that.
Q And why doesn't he go to the country, then, and make it into a -- an appeal?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President did exactly that, addressed the country on Saturday during his radio address, pointing out the need to get the government open and will continue to do so on a daily basis. But I think everyone who has followed this knows there is a history now to why we've reached this impasse. We had wanted to have budget discussions that would reach the goal of a balanced budget in the context of a government that was reopened, and that was not a sufficient proposition for a certain portion of Republicans in the House of Representatives, even though it was quite apparent that Republicans elsewhere on Capitol Hill were amenable to that.
Q Does the President support the House plan -- you may have answered this before -- to open the government with a restriction on the amount of hours the budget can be debated?
MR. MCCURRY: There is a procedural dispute going on about how a balanced budget agreement might be debated. We think that's up to congressional leaders to solve. We think that that should be set aside from the issue of opening the government. And, indeed, the President's encouraged that Senate Democrats, in any event, have offered a variety of measures that would allow federal workers to return to their places with pay.
It is -- you know, the worst of all situations is to see these federal workers furloughed. Somewhat better, but not much better, is to at least allow them to return to work so they get the legal right to be paid down the road, but best of all would be to see the services of government restored with federal workers back on the job earning the pay they're entitled to receive.
Q So he doesn't support the House -- the answer to the question is he doesn't support the --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, those measures all --
Q -- the House Republican --
MR. MCCURRY: Those measures all went back and forth and changed sufficiently during the day on Sunday that I think you need to check in at the Hill to see what the latest status of their own discussions are. I don't think those provisions are still available by either the House or the Senate.
Q What time do Republicans arrive, and does the President have anything out of his strategy session this morning with Panetta that he can put on the table and move things tonight?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President had a very good session with Mr. Panetta. And to answer the first question, we expect to see the Democratic leadership down here around 4:30 p.m. and then the Republican leaders at around 6:00 p.m. They will meet in the Oval Office. The President did a lot of good work with Mr. Panetta and they went through a lot of different ideas. There's a nice, big chalkboard in Mr. Panetta's office that's got a lot of lines and arrows and squiggles and numbers on it. And it doesn't look like they were designing plays for the 49ers-Packers game this weekend.
Q -- sounds like if they're going to meet in the Oval Office that you've pruned the guest list a bit.
MR. MCCURRY: It's the same -- the principals group is the same principals group that's been meeting throughout the weekend.
Q What about the advisors? Last week --
MR. MCCURRY: We don't anticipate a meeting of the advisors this evening.
Q -- in the meeting with the -- in the meeting today with the principals, will the advisors, the people who have been sitting behind the principals at the table in the Cabinet Room, be attending?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe that they will be down here. If they're down here, they're on standby to assist if any expertise is needed for the budget discussions of the principals.
Q Does this signify a ratcheting up of --
MR. MCCURRY: No.
Q -- seriousness, or what is it -- why are they meeting in a smaller group than they have been?
MR. MCCURRY: They just -- because they've got serious business to do, and they're down to issues that they believe they can address at the principals' level.
Q Can you just go down the list? I mean, does it include Armey and --
MR. MCCURRY: It includes the President, the Vice President, the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House, the Senate Minority Leader, the House Minority Leader and Congressman Armey.
Q But not Sabo, Exon --
MR. MCCURRY: No, not the budget advisors.
Q Mike, I realize it's impossible to know this kind of thing, but again the Oval Office venue suggests relatively a somewhat probably briefer meeting than they would have had? It doesn't suggest like dinnertime or midnight mass, or something like that?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to predict. I mean, they've got a lot of very serious work to do. The work that they've done to date has been very important in building some common understanding of what the policy implications are of various choices they must make, but as they make these choices or if they do make these choices, they're now in a much better position to understand how they would craft legislation coming out of any agreement they might reach. But that was very important work that occurred over the weekend. They're now down to a point where they need to address some of the tradeoffs that are going to have to be made if there is going to be any final balanced budget agreement.
Q You've talked about the impact of what's a partial shutdown in this case. But if there was a fairly widespread impact on the populace in general, it would seem logical that they would be contacting their congressional representatives and there would be constituent pressure that would cause them to open the government up. But there doesn't seem to be evidence to suggest that.
MR. MCCURRY: You're wrong. There is exact evidence to the contrary, and member after member in Congress have indicated they're hearing from angry constituents, angry federal workers and people who are, one way or the other, have lost services of government. I just dispute the premise of your question.
Q But the government remains shut down --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we can't open it. The President of the United States can't open it. If he could, he'd do it right now.
Q Is it conceivable that this situation could continue indefinitely, partial shutdown and --
MR. MCCURRY: It's hard to imagine.
Q Why is that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, because I think at some point that even those who are currently blocking any consideration of a measure that would reopen government will come to their senses and say, look, this is no way to behave.
Q Why do you think they will?
MR. MCCURRY: Because I think they are feeling the pressure, too. I mean, there has been some indication of softening on the attitudes of those who heretofore have been blocking any measures that would be sufficient to restore the services of government. And so maybe as time goes on and time takes its toll on the American people, members of Congress will gain further enlightenment.
Q -- you mentioned what you've heard what members on the Hill are hearing. But what about the White House -- the comment lines here? Have you experienced any kind of a groundswell of --
MR. MCCURRY: Sure. People here are angry, and they are angry at everybody here in Washington. And they want to see government re-opened.
Q I mean, have you got any statistics or any kind of --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't have any statistics, but the --
Q -- evidence of how --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't have statistics, but when I checked they said that the comments are running roughly as they had been before which was anywhere from four to one to five to one in favor of getting the government open again.
Q Mike, I'm trying to figure out how the progress that you say has been made is being made. You said they're going to start to begin addressing some of these tradeoffs. Can you give us a little better sense of why this meeting, say, is going to be a good friend and is further along than in the meeting a week ago on the same topic?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I wouldn't add to what I said on Sunday. I mean, I sketched out exactly how they had proceeded through the issues as we described them -- tier one, tier two, tier three issues, and I gave a pretty good rundown on where we are there, and nothing's changed substantively from where the parties are since that briefing on Sunday. But we've done some strategy work here. We presented it. The Republicans have as well, and we'll see how the discussion goes.
Q Can I just follow up?
MR. MCCURRY: Sure.
Q After all these discussions, has the White House come any closer to saying, okay, now we've talked,, we have a sense of where you're coming from, where the give is; we can now lay down a seven-year balanced budget on the CBO estimates ourselves?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't anticipate the session proceeding in that fashion.
Q Do you have any up-to-date figures on what the shutdown in the aggregate is costing the taxpayers? And also, do you have any figures with regard to the impact on the private sector side, you know, on the contractors, the providers? For instance, does the White House know how many people in the private sector have been laid off as a result of --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe we have had that kind of data assembled. The best information we've got on the effects day to day is the document that OMB continues to make available. I believe they have not updated this for the new year. So the last issue was just prior --
Q The last one was the 29th of December --
MR. MCCURRY: I think that may be the most recent one available, but they are working to update that today. They are getting a lot of anecdotal information about what the impact of contractors are and they know what the lost effect of the work done by the federal employees is as summarized in that document. But it's the estimated cost in payroll terms is at least $40 million to taxpayers if you assume -- that's the payroll cost per day of the federal workers who are currently furloughed, and everyone has pledged to them that they will make good on their back pay, so that's lost work, lost productivity that mounts with each passing day.
But as to the private sector effects, we've seen anecdotally information, but agencies have that custody of whatever information they've got on that directly.
Q But shouldn't somebody on the Council of Economic Advisors be able to give us some pretty good estimates of the --
MR. MCCURRY: It's, Leo, very, very hard to do that for the Council of Economic Advisors, because among other things, all of the statistics that normally the government would be collecting now to measure price impact and unemployment impact is all in abeyance. There's no data collection going on right now, which is a significant loss of information that policymakers would otherwise have.
Q What is the administration's position on the Treasury union suit that would declare it unconstitutional --
MR. MCCURRY: I believe we have filed as a party to that dispute. Although as a general proposition, the President believes people, if they're working, they ought to get paid, and they understand the frustration of those who say that they're being forced to work without any guarantee of wages. We abolished slavery in this country a long time ago.
Q You're conceding that this whole maneuver on the part of the Republicans in the House is very effective and will go on and on.
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't say that --
Q That there is no way out of it.
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't say it was very ineffective in the least; I think it's appalling.
MR. MCCURRY: Defective?
Q No, effective. It is effective.
MR. MCCURRY: Effective. Why is it effective?
Q Well, it's traumatized the President.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe the President is traumatized. The President is very determined to work through the budget issues --
Q Paralyzed. It's paralyzed the Executive Branch.
MR. MCCURRY: -- exasperated that the Legislative Branch has not reopened government.
Q You said it's hard to imagine this impasse will continue because the other side is going to get enlightened. But the other side's view would be that it's the President who needs to be enlightened. And I wonder if this situation is intolerable enough that the President might be willing to make compromises that before seemed impossible or he was unwilling to make; or is he willing to just hang tough and let this go on forever until the other side comes around to his --
MR. MCCURRY: The President is not willing to accept the unacceptable.
Q How about beyond tonight, is there anything -- any meeting scheduled -- set up?
MR. MCCURRY: We'll just take it hour by hour, and we'll let you know if there are any further meetings scheduled after the meeting this evening.
Q Can you give us a better idea of what's going to happen at the meeting tonight? Is there an agenda, are they going to focus on specific topics like Medicare? And is he going to bring anything new to the table, any revised proposal in any area or set of options or --
MR. MCCURRY: As a general proposition, no, I can't predict for you what's going to happen at the meeting tonight. I can tell you in general,as I said on Sunday, that I expect them to work through all of the issues that need to be addressed if there's going to be a balanced budget agreement.
Q So they don't have any set agenda -- focus on one thing as opposed to another?
MR. MCCURRY: They have working -- as a result of all of the work they did and as a result of the analysis done by the staff, they've got a good sense of where there is agreement, where there are some differences and where are the toughest choices that exist, and I think they can walk through those in an outline form now that they've had the extensive policy discussions that underpin those numbers.
Q Will this consist of more laying out of policy positions as in previous meetings, or is there something about this session that will be different?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that the difference is that they're now at a point where they need to start making some tradeoffs between those issues if there's going to be an agreement.
Q Well, is it going to take -- can you imagine that you can resolve the tradeoffs and address the tradeoffs in one session? Isn't it going to take several sessions?
MR. MCCURRY: It's hard for me to imagine that they can, but we'll have to see.
Q Mike, one reason the shutdown may not be so apparent to many people is that there were about 500,000 workers who are working without pay, and if that lawsuit that was referred to earlier is successful, those workers would no longer be on the job, and therefore would perhaps make the point that these workers are providing functions that are appropriate and useful -- border patrol and prison guards and that sort of thing. So why wouldn't the White House support this lawsuit in ta way of trying to end the crisis?
MR. MCCURRY: Because the President believes that the services of the government ought to be available to the American people, and we're interested in getting the services restored, not cutting them back further.
Q But wouldn't it lessen -- end the shutdown more quickly?
MR. MCCURRY: I have no guarantee of that, and in the meantime you would have jeopardized many millions of Americans, both their health, their safety, their security. You suggested some areas where if you shut down in total, those who are currently furloughed -- I mean, who are excepted from the furlough but who are working, you can have very instant and grave effects on the American people.
We can ameliorate some of the consequences of this shutdown because we have the statutory legal right to deal with situations that present a threat to the life, property or health of the American people. If we lose that because of this suit, I think in fairness, federal workers will have made a point that they ought get paid, but then we face very grievous results for the American people. To make -- that point doesn't need to be made so dramatically. I think it's quite clear to most Americans that we, the people, establish a government and it ought to be doing its work, and those who are hired to do that work ought to be at their places, reporting for work and getting paid for what they are supposed to be doing. The American people are pretty clear -- they don't understand why this shutdown has gone on for so long.
Q Mike, more and more Republicans, including freshmen, are now saying that they're ready to compromise on every single component issue in this budget by, except the seven-year balanced budget as scored by CBO. Is the President's position still that he is willing to negotiate an agreement that eventually will have to be scored a seven-year balance by CBO, but is not willing to begin the process of tradeoffs by presenting a seven-year CBO --
MR. MCCURRY: The question was already asked and answered. But I will say that we're very encouraged by the statements from some of the House Republican freshmen over the weekend that they would drop their insistence on the very large, and the President feels unnecessary, tax cut that so far, up to this point, they seem to be wedded to. There were some encouraging comments.
Q But tonight is the President going to walk in there with -- seven-year balanced CBO scored plan, or is he going to take it one component at a time?
MR. MCCURRY: The President feels that all the work that we've done both meeting at the principals' level and the staff work and the work that we've done over the weekend, he is well equipped to deal element by element with the necessary ingredients of a final balanced budget agreement.
Q There won't be a new Clinton budget tonight?
MR. MCCURRY: We're looking to get a balanced budget agreement that is both an instrument of the Congress and the President.
Q Is this the first time the principals will have met without advisors in the room?
MR. MCCURRY: No. That's occurred on at least several occasions during the course of this discussion, going back weeks and weeks, but not in the most current round or formulation, not since the meeting, I guess, three weeks ago.
Q -- photo op in there?
MR. MCCURRY: I would say conditionally, yes, but we would want to touch base with the other participants and make sure that that's okay with them.
Q Any reaction on AT&T?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't have that. We were going to get something on that, I don't -- let's see if we've got something on that.
Q What would the President be doing this week if he were not handling this? Are there events that he has -- long-term events that he has canceled, or other issues that he was going to be undertaking this week that he's not because of the budget?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, yes. You know the period of the year that we're in, if we weren't in a protracted debate about the FY '96 budget, he would be meeting extensively with advisors preparing the FY '97 budget. But you can't prepare his budget proposal for the next fiscal year when we haven't arrived at a budget for the current fiscal year.
So, of course, there's a lot of work that we would be otherwise doing in the normal course of business. We'd be preparing to deal with Congress in an orderly fashion on appropriations bills. But all of those are now months overdue, and the Congress hasn't produced legislation satisfactory to the President in a reasonable time. Certainly they didn't produce the bulk of the appropriations bills within the fiscal year so the President could timely consider them.
Q Will you ask for an extension on the February 5th date when you have to put in the new budget?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we won't -- we're not at that point yet, but with each passing day that there's no FY '96 budget it does affect the ability of the Office of Management and Budget to prepare guidance and take requests from agencies so they can compile the President's budget proposal for FY '97.
Q What's the status of the possible trip to Bosnia for the President?
MR. MCCURRY: No change.
Q Senator Dole suggested dealing with expiring provisions, such as money for unemployment compensation. Is that something that the administration is working with Dole on? And is there a list being compiled of these expiring provisions?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have in the most current review of the OMB consequences of the shutdown, we can give you a pretty good sense of the unemployment insurance compensation in the 11 states in which the funds are near to expire. Again, temporary emergency measures to manage the consequences of the budget shutdown -- or the government shutdown are far less satisfactory than a continuing resolution that allows the government to reopen during the period in which we are seriously negotiating these issues.
We'd much rather be dealing with a measure that would get people back to work and get them paid than to deal with micromanaging specific impacts because there's a lot of things in it, you know, are not maybe as emergency or as pressing, but are still very consequential. Think of all the NIH research, for example, that's being lost in the interim. I mean, that's the kind of thing that's got longer-term effects that are more deleterious maybe than the short-term consequences of not getting unemployment benefits out, but they are equally damaging to the long-term health of the economy.
Q You mentioned that you have the ability to deal with cases that affect safety and health. How about the Meals on Wheels program? Is there anything being done to prop that up?
MR. MCCURRY: At the moment, regrettably, no. I mean, there are 600,000 elderly people who get meals delivered through the Meals on Wheels program, and my understanding is that funding is going to expire for those programs so that the service providers at the local level that provide those meals are going to be out of funds as of the end of this week.
Now, I've got to believe that at HHS and elsewhere they're looking at how they can manage that, but -- and that, of course, in our opinion, might run into the category of posing a real threat to the health of those elderly people who depend on those meals. But that's one example of the type of consequence we are now facing as this shutdown continues.
Q Now that this has gone on for a long time, has any recommendation gone to the President to reclassify any employees the same way as in the first shutdown with the Social Security --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe any proposal has gone to him,although a great deal of analysis of exactly that question is occurring by the lawyers and by others at OMB.
Q Would you expect anything in the near-term?
MR. MCCURRY: I will predict with confidence that they will continue to look at it, but I think they can't forward the recommendation until they're absolutely certain they have satisfied any legal conditions that apply to that kind of designation.
Now, as you know, one of the things pending in Congress in the last several days was to just change the entire order of the classification and declare that all federal employees are excepted from the furlough. The problem with that is that -- no guarantee that they get paid other than that they incur a legal obligation -- or the government incurs a legal obligation to pay them at some future date.
Q Do you have any response to the cigarette companies' chart accusing the administration of a power play in trying to regulate the sale of tobacco to minors?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they're wrong, but the comment period on the administration's initiative related to tobacco is open until midnight tonight, and those comments will be duly assessed by the Food and Drug Administration. They will prepare an analysis and then proceed with the rulemaking as they see fit. There have been literally hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of comments submitted. Not all of them reflect the viewpoint of those who have a vested interest in continuing to sell tobacco and those who oppose the President's efforts to attempt to restrict the sale of tobacco products to minors.
Q Do most of them -- are most of them against the administration's viewpoint?
MR. MCCURRY: I would really prefer you -- FDA has examined those, and they will make a formal analysis consistent with their rulemaking responsibilities. They can tell you -- give you a rough sense of how the comments have come in so far.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:47 P.M. EST