THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:30 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the White House. Welcome to our daily briefing. It's so nice to see you. Why is everyone wearing purple today?
Q Budget negotiations -- what's the status of today's meeting?
MR. MCCURRY: Cloudy. No, let me just -- the President just --
Q Well, Mr. Domenici and Mr. Kasich just came out and said it wasn't going to happen.
MR. MCCURRY: The President just concluded a phone call with the Speaker, the Majority Leader and Mr. Armey that lasted about 40 minutes. We've been contacted by staff through our Congressional Affairs operation, through Pat Griffin, indicating that they desire to have a phone conversation. The President did call them. They had a good conversation that lasted 40 minutes. The President indicated he was ready to meet both Minority Leader Gephardt and Minority Leader Daschle, who arrived here at the White House. And they were anxious to meet. And we are ready to go to work to make progress on a balanced budget agreement.
That apparently is not going to happen. They indicated they are not -- they are not coming. I will leave it to them to explain their reasons why. But I'll say on behalf of the President that he's, of course, disappointed that they are not going to keep the date. But he indicated in his telephone call that he's prepared to continue discussing budget issues. Indeed, in this very telephone call they exchanged views on a variety of elements in the budget. The President, in fact, felt in the phone call itself there was some evidence of progress. But there is not a meeting today. And they left it they would talk at a future time by phone and see if we can arrange a meeting at a future date.
Q -- 1996?
MR. MCCURRY: The President hopes that they make progress as quickly as possible, because as he says repeatedly, both publicly and privately, we have within our grasp a historic agreement to cut the budget deficit, to achieve a balanced budget, as scored by the Congressional Budget Office, and to do it right now. And the only thing holding up that agreement are insistence on the other side of these discussions that they go farther than the President deems possible when it comes to restructuring Medicare and providing tax cuts that are disproportionately large. That they -- they will continue to discuss these issues, and the President in good faith, as he has just now on the phone, will look for ways to bridge these differences so that we can achieve some type of agreement that will enjoy the support of the Congress and the support of the President.
Q Did the Republicans make any specific demands?
MR. MCCURRY: I, you know -- I'm sure they will characterize whatever they want to say about the conversation.
Q Well, would making a full-scale counter-offer to their offer of last week be among the President's plans?
MR. MCCURRY: The detail with which the President has been addressing these issues, that makes it very clear that they've got it within the capacity of the current ideas on the table to bridge the differences and reach an agreement.
Q Mike, excuse me -- there's a question on the floor. Can you answer the question, please?
MR. MCCURRY: What's the question?
Q The question is: Would making a full-scale counter-offer to the full-scale offer made by the other side last week be one of the things the President is prepared to do?
MR. MCCURRY: I have -- I have no idea of whether that would make any progress. The President has put forward ideas, has demonstrated flexibility in these discussions. I don't know whether that would result in any movement on their side.
Q That's normally the way negotiations proceed -- one side makes an offer, the other side counters.
MR. MCCURRY: We've made -- and that's happened several times in the course of these discussions, and the last meeting ended with the President, in fact, advancing a new proposal.
Q -- which he acknowledged was not a full-scale counter-offer. Is a full-scale counter ever going to come?
MR. MCCURRY: They are so deeply into the substance of these discussions that they're not at the -- I mean, in a negotiation when you trade proposal and counter-proposal, that's usually in the initial stage of a negotiation. They're at a point in this negotiation where they're deeply into the details of an agreement. And frankly it would be a step backwards at this point if they were doing that type of an exchange.
Q Mike, is there any surviving or existing negotiating process at this point?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has suggested to some of the White House staff that there are some ideas that, at staff level at any event, we should seek some clarification on, because there have been some ideas discussed and they need to get into some of the substance of that; but there's no mechanism that I'm aware of for that, the way they left the discussion they would visit again by telephone and hopefully meet soon.
Q Mike, what exactly is the White House's understanding of why the Republicans aren't -- to come here? And what did they say to the President? They must have told him something.
MR. MCCURRY: Beats us. Beats us. I mean, they were making progress. The President has felt they've made good progress in these discussions. It's clear that the President is serious. The President believes they are serious. The President believes an agreement is very close. Why we can't get that across the finish line is not quite clear to the President, but he'll continue to be available and continue his desire to resolve these issues so that we can get a historic, balanced budget agreement.
Q If I could just follow that up. Yesterday and earlier today some of the Republican leadership were saying, look, we're not going to come down there if the President doesn't move and if he doesn't give us a counter-offer. And they, in fact, sent you a letter yesterday to that effect. Is it your understanding that that is really why they're not coming, because the President did not --
MR. MCCURRY: As I say, I imagine they will be perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. I would say on the President's behalf --
Q We'd like to hear the White House version of it, though.
MR. MCCURRY: On the President's behalf, he has shown flexibility in these discussions, and he's continued to attempt to bridge the differences. He's made it clear what principles he must stand upon -- and you all know them, and I don't need to recite them again -- but they have to do with the important commitments that we make to our nation's elderly through Medicare; the importance for our economy in providing both a balanced budget and tax relief targeted on middle income Americans, and not raising taxes on hard working Americans. All of those parameters of the discussion are clear to them, clear to you because we've talked about them repeatedly. But within those parameters there have been enormous flexibility shown by the President and a willingness to engage them on different elements of the plan to try to find a mutually satisfactory agreement.
Q Mike, I'm not trying to find out about the past, I'm trying to find out about what happened today and just get a sense of how it finally broke down. I think you're right -- you can assume that we know all of those things; we can stipulate them. So if you could just give us some idea of what the final --
MR. MCCURRY: I've told you, I'm --
Q -- when they told the President we're not coming, did they not give him a reason why?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe that it is fair for me to let them characterize their half of the conversation for themselves. I'm sure they will.
Q Mike, last week, you characterized this as a recess when the talks halted. Where do you say they are now? Will you acknowledge that they've broken down?
MR. MCCURRY: It's a recess, and the bell has rung, and the Democrats are back in the class. We don't know where the Republicans are.
Q This is a boycott of a face-to-face meeting. Is it unprecedented that a president calls a meeting and they refuse to come even to talk?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not enough of a historian to know whether there is any precedent for the President and the Democratic leaders of Congress prepared to meet in the Oval Office for a scheduled meeting, prepared to do the nation's business, being told by the Republican leaders in Congress that they're not available.
Q And it was his understanding that they would show up?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, absolutely. And there was staff level discussions, and certainly our understanding that there would be a meeting today. And that's the way they left it when they last met a week ago.
Q What did the group discuss, if anything, or decide, if anything, in the meantime about a continuing resolution or a debt limit extension?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't hear the conversation. I don't know whether those subjects were addressed.
Q So at this point, what is the status of --
MR. MCCURRY: We -- our assumption is the status is the same as indicated by the Republican leadership, that the don't intend to play games with shutting down the government or putting the full faith and credit of the United States government at risk. There have been statements from back-benchers --
Q -- Republican leadership are you referring to --
MR. MCCURRY: Mr. Kasich, who's Chairman of the Budget Committee --
Q Not Mr. Gingrich.
MR. MCCURRY: -- and who I assumes speak authoritatively. I can't imagine a situation in which --
Q -- he speaks for the Senate?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't imagine on serious matters related to the budget or the debt that the Chairman of the House Budget Committee would be out of sync with the Speaker. That's incomprehensible to me. (Laughter.)
Q Since they are going to make clear what blew up on this phone call that caused them to cancel their trip across town, do you want to take a whack at what, from your perspective, went wrong on this phone call?
MR. MCCURRY: Look, I can't. They've been out around the country and maybe they've been talking to a lot of hard-edged Republicans, I don't know. You should ask them.
Q Well, how would you characterize what they talked about for 40 minutes?
MR. MCCURRY: I'd say that the President continued in good faith to see if there was a way to bridge the differences that exist, and he was talking numbers.
Q Did he make any new proposals today of any sort, large or small?
MR. MCCURRY: They continue to discuss the same issues that have been before them. There have been -- there are ideas; there has been give and take; there have been a number of issues discussed. And as I said, they are so deeply into the substance now, but it's not -- they're not at a point in which they are exchanging offers back and forth; they're dealing in the substance and detail of the intricate process of writing a budget.
Q How would you characterize the possible loss of momentum, despite the progress you've made; and whether that momentum falls below a critical point that you lose progress, it's undercut?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's sharing critical mass. But, you know, on the other hand, it's not dead. Someone said, you know, if you put the pane of glass up to the body you'd still get the little smudge indicating that it's breathing.
Q Well, what indications, what vital signs do you detect that lead you to believe it's not dead?
MR. MCCURRY: Faint ones.
Q Mike, did the Republicans -- have the Republicans responded to the President's proposal that he put on the table at the end of the last meeting and that you have been talking about ever since?
MR. MCCURRY: I really would -- if we're going to make any progress in this process, it's best for me not to characterize their side of the conversation. They'll give you an answer to that if you ask. I believe they wanted more specificity, and I believe the President feels that he's been very specific in addressing how you would bridge some of the gaps and how you would develop some of the proposals that he has put in front of the negotiators.
Q Did they want more specificity or more movement?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll leave that for them to answer.
Q Whatever happens in the broader budget negotiations it would still -- I assume you believe that one of your responsibilities to keep as much of the government going as possible in this. What Panetta said yesterday that the White House is prepared to accept 25 and 30 percent or more cuts in the CR to cover the agencies now operating, I guess, under the prior CR. Do you know if any discussions going on on that track at all?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there are --
Q -- they were just sort in abeyance until today's meeting?
MR. MCCURRY: I think there are worse-case scenarios in which we have to begin to deal with the issue of how do you fund for the long-term programs that are necessary for the American people in the view of the President in the face of a Republican Congress that doesn't want to pass full appropriations measures. They might instead go for some targeted type of appropriations. We, frankly, don't know how in the world that would work. We haven't heard a satisfactory explanation from anyone on the Republican side of how they would actually accomplish that and fulfill their constitutional responsibilities. So I really would have to leave that to them. But we clearly don't want to see government programs that are necessary for the American people strangled. We don't want to see another government shutdown. And if necessary, the President will have to deal with the issue of how we continue funding for those parts of government that do not have full appropriations bills. But hopefully we will not be at that point. Hopefully there will be an opportunity for us to continue these conversations.
Q Well, at what point do you determine you seek a full-year CR?
MR. MCCURRY: Not at this point.
Q Mike, what's the process by which these talks might get going again? Who will make the first call? How will that work?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they left it informally at the conclusion of the call, as I understand it, that they would visit again by phone and see where they go in no time certain, but the President hopes that would be soon.
Q Would it be too strong to say that the talks have collapsed?
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't say that. I would say what I've tried to accurately report here.
Q Mike, if they are --
MR. MCCURRY: We've taken a pause in the recess. (Laughter.)
Q If they start passing these baby appropriations bills and don't offer any money for things like, you know, Goals 2000 program and other such -- I mean, do you any recourse that you see?
MR. MCCURRY: The President will have to address that as best he can, but the power of the purse under our Constitution lies with the Congress. And there have been appropriations measures passed which were not satisfactory to the President. He vetoed them, as is his constitutional right, and those vetoes have been sustained. So we're at a point where Congress really has the constitutional obligation to decide how they proceed with the funding of the government.
Q Do you see any difference between partial shutdowns and targeted appropriations in which you veto them? I mean, isn't --
MR. MCCURRY: It's an intellectual concept that I will have to take some time getting my meager mind around.
Q Isn't this -- don't you get the same result -- they pass out an appropriation bill that doesn't have national service, and you veto it; there's no education appropriation -- they get no money.
MR. MCCURRY: I think one might argue that this is government shutdown by another device. That's most unfortunate, and it's contrary to the indications from the Republican leaders that they weren't going to try that tactic anymore.
Q Wouldn't in that case it would be more the burden be on the President, obviously? If you have an appropriations measure that has some small disagreement over some programs; he vetoes; government shuts down. You would attempt, again presumably, to blame it on them; they no doubt would attempt to blame it on you.
MR. MCCURRY: Some of these things I've heard about in terms of targeted appropriations are not any small disagreements. They're talking about wholesale repeal of major worker protection legislation, for example, within the Labor Department by refusing to fund anything that protects workers while they're in the workplace, protects their pensions, protects their right to bring labor grievances.
Q Who said that? You might --
MR. MCCURRY: Mr. Blankley said that in The Washington Post; said that they might fund nothing but labor statistics collecting at the Labor Department.
Q Isn't it true that the Democrats are the ones that are holding up the appropriations bill for Labor and HHS?
MR. MCCURRY: The Democrats are looking for -- I mean, that's a debate about the Senate, and there's a willingness on the part of the Senate to proceed to final consideration of that appropriations bill. But that's not the issue as defined by Mr. Blankley.
Q Gingrich said after the phone call that once the President proposes a firm budget offer, then they're prepared to meet. He also -- he threw out Sunday or Monday meeting, to accommodate Dole's travel schedule, evidently. Are you aware of any of this?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I was not aware of the Majority Leader's travel schedule. I didn't realize -- I don't recollect anyone suggesting to me that specific times were discussed. The President just hopes that they can get on with business as soon as possible; indeed, he was ready to go forward today.
Q If there is no budget deal, if the breakdown continues, can we assume that when the President gets around to submitting his '97 budget that that budget will take the government on a glide path to balance in 2002, according to the President --
MR. MCCURRY: The President and the Office of Management and Budget will do the best they can, because they are required to meet a federally-mandated date. They will have to produce some budget submission by February 5th, according to the Budget Act, and they will meet that deadline. They will do it as best they can, but it will be difficult to construct a full budget proposal if there's no starting point as a reference. And the starting point as a reference would, of course, be the FY '96 budget.
But they will do the best they can. They will certainly reflect the President's commitment to a balanced budget, to the commitments he's made during these negotiations and to the priorities that he repeatedly stresses -- that we can balance the budget, but do so in a way that protects Medicare and Medicaid, protects our environment, makes investments in education and technology that will grow the economy in the future, and that avoids unnecessary tax increases on working Americans.
Q Dole, Gingrich and Armey have released a statement as follows -- quote: "We spoke to the President by phone for 40 minutes this afternoon. It was a frank and useful discussion. And we told the President that once he proposes a firm budget offer that moves in the direction of the bipartisan common ground our proposals have established, we are prepared to meet."
It would seem that these guys don't think that a firm budget offer would be a step backward. Would the President, in light of that, perhaps be prepared to --
MR. MCCURRY: The President believes that he has more than satisfied the conditions that they have laid there, and he's ready to go to work, ready to go to work today. He believes that the ideas necessary to meet exactly those stipulations are there.
But, remember, these goal posts that they erect for the President keep shifting, don't they? For a while it was, you know, you have to have a seven-year balanced budget scored by the Congressional Budget Office, which the President has done. The President has modified his own budget submissions and his own proposals and engaged with them in good faith, and had good give-and-take with them in pursuit of these objectives. And now they want more. Now, they want something that moves even farther in their direction.
Q Isn't it true that what they said was that no serious negotiations could begin until the President had a seven-year plan scored by CBO; and now that he does, aren't you all saying that that ought to be the final offer on your side? Are you intending that to be a final offer?
MR. MCCURRY: I have told you that, a, the last idea submitted was the idea submitted by the President; and, b, the President has shown flexibility in his discussions. And they know that, and one can only surmise publicly that they've suggested there needs to be more to fit their own purposes.
Q How does this continuing impasse affect the President's thinking about the State of the Union and the type of message that he wants to give?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the environment in which these budget discussions occur will certainly have an effect on the State of the Union. The President had hoped to go before Congress and celebrate with them the achievement of a historic balanced budget agreement. He thought that was possible. Indeed, if you asked him right now, he'd say it is possible. He'd certainly rather be standing before the Congress in that circumstance than standing there locked into a negotiation that hasn't reached that very worthy objective.
Q Is he an eternal optimist?
MR. MCCURRY: He's a realist, and he's a pragmatist --
Q -- positive spin on something that seems to be --
MR. MCCURRY: -- and he's a very hard worker. And he's working very hard to reach an agreement that would be good for the American people -- one that is, at the same time, consistent with what the President believes are the values of the American people.
Q Just to clarify Brit's question, did the President tell the Republican leaders that he would not advance any further proposal?
MR. MCCURRY: No. He was very -- I'd say -- they say "frank" in Canada. I think that's accurate. I think he was --worked hard in the conversation to see if there were areas where additional accommodation could be reached.
Q Well, you've told us it wouldn't be particularly useful, but what I'm trying to get at -- absolute rejection of their request?
MR. MCCURRY: We're not into absolute, hard, fast rejections, boycotts, breakdowns, collapses. We're into getting the work done of writing a balanced budget. The President is prepared to do that right now, and we've got the Democratic leadership in Congress here at the White House. They're prepared to go to work. The Republicans will have to speak for themselves on why it's not possible for them to make progress toward that goal today.
Q Given this apparent Gingrich standard of a firm budget offer or no meeting, will there be a meeting in our lifetime?
MR. MCCURRY: Given what's happened in the hours of meetings that have been devoted to the balanced budget, it's hard for me to imagine there won't be a meeting here at the White House sometime soon that will move us towards the goal of a balanced budget. How that will happen, I can't predict. But the President's ready to do it, ready to meet with them, and believes the job can be done.
Q What are you going to do with the Democratic leaders now?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they are going to go in and visit with the President. The President wants to brief them on the telephone call, obviously. They will certainly discuss these issues and move forward. I know Congressman Gephardt, I believe, has a busy schedule. He'll be having a press conference later today, I believe to talk about the Kemp Commission report. And Senator Daschle will be around and about as well, I'm sure.
Q Mike, State of the Union is six days away. Could it be that the Republicans didn't want to give the President opportunity to celebrate a balanced budget on State of the Union night?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, such dark motives I will leave for you to speculate upon. But I have no way of knowing, so I can't say.
Q Is anybody in the White House speculating on such dark motives?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. We would be wasting a lot of energy if we tried to figure out what the Republicans are doing, because it's not abundantly clear that they know what they're doing.
Q Does the President believe that it might be helpful if he stepped back right now and maybe let the Republicans deal with the moderates in the House and the Senate, maybe the Breaux-Chafee group and the blue dogs, and let that go?
MR. MCCURRY: Look, you know, the President is smart enough to understand that they've got a complicated dynamic in their caucus. And throughout this whole process he's been cognizant of the fact that they've got difficult political situations that they're dealing with, for a variety of reasons and for separate reasons. You know, they're not necessarily identical if you look at all three of the Republican participants. But I think he's been smart enough to understand that if he's going to make any progress in these discussions, he has to understand what political world they live in and that's, you know, a rough and tumble and nasty one at times.
Q Back when this was first shaping up, the President held back from any direct negotiations until it reached a certain point. That point seems to be fading fast. Does that not encourage the idea of having him step to the background for other Democratic leadership to rise?
MR. MCCURRY: -- it fading fast, the President just had a 40-minute phone call with the three people who were probably instrumental on the Republican side in getting an agreement. So he's directly engaged and believes that if he remains directly engaged that we can get the work done.
Q Has there been a damage control operation set up in the White House for Mrs. Clinton?
MR. MCCURRY: No. There's been a -- you know, there's -- I saw a report on CNN. I think CNN managed to find out that we've got some people who work on Whitewater-related matters as they pertain to White House business who work for the Special Counsel's Office. But that team has been there for over a year, and I think you know most of the people who are participating. I'm not aware of any other separate effort.
Q Do you think that she's slipping in terms of her own defense as she goes around the country?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I think she is having a good time talking about her book, answering these questions that people have. And I believe she feels like as she continues to answer these questions people will say well, you know, so what's the big deal.
Q Does the President believe that Senator Dole is still a voice of moderation and an agent of compromise in these talks? Or has he abandoned that role?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that the President believes that the Senate Majority Leader remains committed to good-faith negotiations that will balance the budget. And I think he also understands that there's a political dynamic that affects the Majority Leader. And he's aware of that and, if not necessarily sympathetic to it, I think given what it's ultimate purpose is he certainly is -- at least understands the situation that the Majority Leader is in.
Q What would you say to people who might ask, seeing the latest David Watkins' memo that was released by Congressman Clinger's committee today, that it seems to be even further evidence that the First Lady may have at least given a lot of people the strong sense that she wanted to have the Travel Office employees fired?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not sure what you're referring to in specific --
Q There was another memo released today that was even earlier than the one that came out the week before last, and in this one, he says that both Vince Foster and Harry Thomason -- he's very specific -- carried him messages that the First Lady would like to have these people fired immediately.
MR. MCCURRY: I honestly don't know enough about it, and my understanding is Mr. Watkins is testifying about it right now, so I don't think it would be proper for me to say anything.
Q Did anyone in the White House have anything to do with Mr. Watkins' decision to request the television be removed from that? And if not, do you approve of that, or would you have preferred that he testify in public?
MR. MCCURRY: We were not consulted about that. As you know, White House employees who have testified before that committee have done so under oath before the camera and provided the truth. That's the way the President would have it; that's the way the White House would have it. And if anyone asks our opinion, we'd say those are the circumstances under which people should testify.
Q Mike, you describe the President's view that Senator Dole remains committed to good-faith budget negotiations; does the President hold the same view about the Speaker and Mr. Armey?
MR. MCCURRY: He does. I think that they all live in complicated worlds. Some of them are very strange worlds. But I think they are looking for a way to try to achieve a goal that they are committed to. The question is, put a different way is, do all of the people participating in these discussions share the objective of balancing this nation's budget and doing it in a time certain? And the answer is yes. There are some profound disagreements about what you do and what you do in addition to achieving that objective. See, we've got -- we are almost there on balancing the budget. We've got the savings in hand, and now they're looking for a way to do a tax cut, and do one that we believe you can do it. You can do it if you are prudent and modest in your expectations. And I think they have somewhat larger ambitions on when it comes to tax cuts.
But that produces somewhat larger consequences when it comes to a program that the President fundamentally cares about, which is Medicare. That's the heart of this. It hasn't changed. That's what the issue is. No amount of demands for more written proposals changes that fundamental equation. And that's the fundamental equation that will have to be addressed if there's going to be an agreement. And that will either happen or it won't.
Q Mike, on Chechnya, yesterday you expressed deep concern about the use of force by the Russian government. This morning, Secretary Perry said, quote, "What the Russian government is doing is essentially correct." Can you reconcile those statements and give us --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that is a very truncated reference to what Secretary Perry said. He said he really hesitated to make -- second-guess what his own judgment would be if faced with those circumstances. He suggested that he would not necessarily have done things in that fashion. And he certainly suggested that he wishes that this operation minimizes loss of life, which has been our concern, as reflected in the statements from the WHite House and the State Department yesterday.
Q At this end, on the phone call was the President joined in the conference call by anyone else at this end?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe that the Vice President at least was monitoring the conversation or had some idea that it was happening when it happened, and I believe Mr. Panetta as well.
Q Was anybody listening on an extension, or was it just the President on the -- (laughter) --
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't -- I'm not aware of anyone listening in on an extension.
Q On the Fed and Blinder's resignation, is that a sign at all that Greenspan is the leading candidate to be reappointed as Chairman.
MR. MCCURRY: I've seen exhaustive analyses to that effect, but it doesn't change the fact that the President himself answered that question and answered it directly last week, which is that he's not at a point where he's made any decision about that appointment, nor about the other two vacancies that now exist. He will do that in due course. He will get recommendations from the National Economic Council, which will consult within the administration, interagency, to look at names, review different possible candidates for the vacancies, and then to address in sequence the issue of the expiration of the term of the current Chairman.
Q -- left, is there any -- has there been any recommendations at all? Have they been --
MR. MCCURRY: Because of the pending vacancies, and also the expiration of the term of the Chairman, these things tend to have an impact on -- one on each other, as you can imagine.
Q So he wants to wait until --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, not necessarily. We'll keep you apprised as the President continues the process.
Q Mike, did you say earlier there might be an exchange, a high-level exchange, on Chechnya between Washington and Moscow? Has there, and if not, when might that occur?
MR. MCCURRY: You should inquire at the State Department about meetings that the Deputy Secretary may have had.
Q Now that you've seen the recommendations, what do you think about the Kemp Commission flat tax proposal?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll be honest with you, I don't believe that we have seen the recommendations yet, not to my knowledge. There has been general discussion here at the White House that we continue to be concerned that a flat tax proposal, while seemingly attractive, in most forms that we have seen it proposed specifically, which this commission does not attempt to do, and most specific forms that the flat tax proposals take, they run the risk of making the budget deficit situation far worse unless you're willing to stomach what the President considers to be unnecessary tax increases on middle income Americans.
Every proposal we've seen, whether it's Senator Gramm's released yesterday, whether it's Representative Armey's, released prior, run very large budget deficits year after year. That would have to be addressed in some fashion if you can remain committed to balancing the budget, and the best way or only way we know of to do that would be through income tax increases, which is not the President's idea of tax fairness or tax simplification or tax reform. So he remains committed to true tax reform proposals that can bring relief to the taxpayers, that provide for greater simplicity, greater fairness and most importantly, are fiscally responsible by not adding to budget deficits. And there are ideas out there about how you can do that and some attractive ideas, in fact, and we'll continue to look at that.
Q But do you think the Internal Revenue Service code of the tax system that we have now is not working as the commission states, and needs to be replaced by something?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President believes that under this administration, there have been important improvements in the way the IRS does its work. They've become more customer-friendly. The Vice President, through the Reinventing Government initiative, has brought a lot of new procedures and new helpfulness to that agency, and their reputation is growing, is at least improving when it comes to serving taxpayers.
Q That's not the code.
MR. MCCURRY: Is the tax code itself unnecessarily complex? Of course. But is reforming that an easy task? No, because, why is it complex? It's in there because it is providing incentives for certain things that as a matter of national policy at times congresses and presidents have felt important -- homeownership being probably a prime example. So we will continue to look for ways to make tax codes simpler; but sometimes, you know, simple ideas can be simple-minded if they're not artfully constructed.
Q Mr. Bennett, Bob Bennett was in today. Do you know what that was about?
MR. MCCURRY: I do not.
Q One other question about him. The President expressed his sympathy for what Billy Dale had gone through. Not very many days later, Mr. Bennett, the President's personal lawyer turns up on television making allegations about plea bargains, which Mr. Dale's lawyers say were false, but even if true would raise all kinds of questions about the propriety of how Mr. Bennett came in touch with that information. How is it that the President, after expressing sympathy, can have his lawyer out make charges like that?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe the President authorized Mr. Bennett to make any suggestions related to plea bargains.
Q But he was not -- did he speak to Mr. Bennett afterwards? Did he have anything to do with Mr. Bennett obtaining that information?
MR. MCCURRY: I can inquire. I don't know the answer to that.
Q Mike, I believe one of the recommendations of the Kemp Commission is to have what they call dynamic scoring in figuring deficits in the context of a flat tax. Does the administration believe in dynamic scoring or does it feel that these things ought to also be CBO's scored?
MR. MCCURRY: Either the Treasury Department, Les Samuels, who I believe may be even the Council of Economic Advisors, has testified before both Senate Finance and House Ways and Means on dynamic scoring. So I'll go back and check that record, or maybe someone can help you get that testimony. But we've testified on the Hill on dynamic scoring in the past, and I'm not aware of any change in our views.
Q Mike, back on the Travel Office thing, it is -- it has been repeatedly stated here that the concern was financial mismanagement. But none of this, and it's often overlooked, was tax money. This was all news media money. And as far as I know, no one in the news media had complained about any mismanagement. So why was there this great concern here?
MR. MCCURRY: The concern as it was reflected in the White House Travel Office management review and the GAO report were about significant financial management weaknesses that exist in the system. And on the -- taking from your question, we have not heard any of your news organizations suggest that anything is less than better about the situation in which these funds are now managed.
Q Well, there have been numerous complaints that the cost of travel has risen exponentially.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the cost of travel has risen across the board because the cost of travel is one of the things that is rising in our economy.
Q And that the efficiency of that --
MR. MCCURRY: -- and because of the way, frankly, the way the number of news organizations committed to covering the President and traveling affects the overall cost of presidential trips.
Q Are you claiming that that office is run better now than it was?
MR. MCCURRY: That has been -- that was stipulated to by the General Accounting Office when they reviewed the office.
Q I'm sorry, you want to run that by us again?
Q You're saying the GAO --
MR. MCCURRY: Progress was made in 1993 to improve travel office operations right there in the GAO report.
Q You just said that no news organizations have complained. I have attended meetings with --
MR. MCCURRY: No, I've said that --
Q -- many news organizations --
MR. MCCURRY: I've said that no one --
Q -- complaining about the operation of the current Travel Office.
MR. MCCURRY: -- have said that no news organization that I'm aware of has suggested that the financial management practices of that office, which is what we're talking about, are less accountable now than they were prior to 1993.
Q So they haven't gotten worse, you're saying, but they just haven't gotten better?
MR. MCCURRY: Look, I'm not the judge of that. Your budget people and your editors and the people you deal with are so -- ask them. If there are specific complaints you want to forward to the Travel Office via the Press Office, let me know.
Q Mike, occasionally you give us an idea of the kind of phone calls that come into the White House. Can you give us some sense of whether there have been a lot of calls since the Larry King program last night on the Travel Office issue?
MR. MCCURRY: I will check. I'm not aware of any. If there are any, I'll report.
Q Balance of trade report came out this morning. It shows a widening deficit with Japan for the first time in seven months. Can you tell us anything there?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't have anything beyond what the statement of the Secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown, says -- that obviously there is an enhanced competitiveness across the board, given the size of the deficit itself and the improvement for the fourth monthly period in a row. There's indication of a fundamental soundness and strength in the economy and our ability to compete. But there are also fluctuations that deal with seasonal factors in these numbers, I think, have to be taken into account, too.
Q Was the President surprised that the Republicans didn't show up? And he had no advance intelligence that this -- because they had been saying, and they were speaking quite often, that they might not.
MR. MCCURRY: We've -- you know, we read the papers and saw what they were saying and imagined that there might be some different outcome, but certainly didn't know for certain prior to the phone call.
Q Mike, prior to this meeting you were relentlessly saying that you had no reason to expect the meeting would not take place, that you fully expected -- meeting would happen.
MR. MCCURRY: That's correct.
Q Does what eventually turned out give you any pause over your statements that you fully expect the Republicans will abandon tactics to shut the government down or to possibly --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe so, because I haven't -- I mean, the general calibration of what they've said publicly, in our view, is that they realize that their tactic of shutting down the government backfired on them and wasn't particularly useful in getting an outcome that they sought. And there have been public presentations by them that they don't believe they're going to try that tactic again.
There have been some, as I say, back-benchers in the Republican Caucus who continue to insist that they may want to pursue those tactics, but I'm not confident that they're speaking authoritatively for the leadership.
Q One last question. After the last meeting that --after the last, pause, meeting, President Clinton asked the leaders to agree upon the post-meeting spin of recess -- we're going to get there; this is just a temporary pause. Was there a discussion in this phone call about the spin of the day from either side, and was there an agreement on that?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President indicated generally to the people on the phone what I've just indicated to you.
Q Meaning what?
MR. MCCURRY: I think he --
Q Let's all go out and not attack one another too much --
MR. MCCURRY: No, he said --
Q -- or subtly attack one another --
MR. MCCURRY: -- he indicated to them how we would characterize the conversation.
Q Oh, he told them what you were going to say.
Q He told them they had a good time.
Q The one paragraph they put out -- was that agreed on?
MR. MCCURRY: It was pretty clear to the President they would say something of that nature, yes. Okay? Thanks.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:12 P.M. EST