THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:11 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the White House. We start today with an item from The New York Times, Friday, January 19th, a letter to the editor: If the discovery that the universe is five times larger than previously estimated, with 40 billion more galaxies, each made up of 50 billion-100 billion stars, merits only a two-column headline, you have mastered the art of understatement.
Bill Clinton I don't believe will master the art of understatement this evening. (Laughter.) But he will have something less than 40 billion words for you to contemplate in his celestial galaxy tonight.
The President is working hard on the State of the Union address, having an enjoyable time working with his speechwriters. Enjoyable is, I guess, how you define it. No, he's in very good spirits and he's making a lot of progress on the speech. And as you know, we'll be dribbling out details and maybe even a piece of text or two as the evening progresses.
A couple of items to begin with -- sitting with the First Lady tonight will be --
Q Her lawyer. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: -- several distinguished Americans. Mayor Norman Rice of Seattle, Washington, who is the President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, will be sitting with the First Lady and Mrs. Gore, as will Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, who is the Vice President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors; Eli Wiesel and Marian Wiesel will be guests of the President and the First Lady.
Also sitting with the President will be Aaron Fuerstein,* of Maldon Mill* in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Some of you may know the story of Mr. Fuerstein, but he really captured the imagination of many of us with his generosity to his employees after his factory burned down in December of 1995. He had 2,400 employees out of work two weeks before Christmas. He paid them for the entire month while they were idle; kind of a hero of the way labor and management can work together in teamwork and something that -- a general subject that the President will reference tonight.
Also sitting with the First lady will be Rosana and Annabell Monte, of Fort Meade, Maryland. Mrs. Monte's husband and Annabell Monte's father, Evilio* Monte, is a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army's 55th Signal Corps Company. He is now stationed in Sarajevo. They will be there symbolically, representing the family of all of those now stationed not only in Bosnia, but around the world, who help the United States keep the peace and shoulder our global leadership responsibilities, a subject that the President will devote considerable time to this evening.
Q Anyone else?
MR. MCCURRY: There will be some others, but I'll let the President introduce them.
Q Since this is a rather large number -- apart from warding off process servers, is there any other -- any reason for this?
MR. MCCURRY: Brit, be careful with that, okay. There are traditionally and customarily people who come to be the President and First Lady's guests. And this is not an unusual number.
Q Is Chelsea going to be there?
MR. MCCURRY: It's not clear at this point.
Q And when do we get the speech?
MR. MCCURRY: As soon as it's in a sufficient advance text to provide.
Q Do you have any kind of a general idea?
MR. MCCURRY: General idea? The President will work on it for the balance of the afternoon. We'll keep you posted.
Q Mike, since the briefing that you gave on Friday, has there been any more thought or can you give us any more detail on what he'll say about the current state of budget negotiations and the seeming lack of them, and also, about the debt limit?
MR. MCCURRY: He will in both cases suggest, one, the government should not be shut down again; two, we need to extend the debt ceiling because it's a necessary piece of business; three, we can balance the budget. There's enough savings on the table now in the discussions that have been held between the President and congressional negotiators that, even according to Congress's own economists, the budget can be balanced. He'll make those points tonight, and will do so in a nonconfrontational way.
Q You've no doubt read that the House freshmen have been gently instructed to be polite tonight. Can you talk to your prediction as to the reception and what you're hoping for?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll believe it will be a reception that befits a very dignified state occasion that's suggested in the Constitution of this land.
Q Will the President take note of the presence of his wife? What will he say about Mrs. Clinton?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll leave that for him. I suspect he will.
Q Mike, there's a story in the Times today about the President's interest in banning contracts with companies that hire illegal aliens. Can you confirm the gist of what the President wants to do in that regard?
MR. MCCURRY: I saw the article; I didn't see anything there that looked incorrect to me, but I think I'll leave that to the President in his speech tonight.
Q He'll talk about it tonight?
MR. MCCURRY: If he chooses to, yes. But I wouldn't be surprised if he does.
Q Just to follow up on what I think was Terry's question yesterday about the First Lady -- does the President in any way intend to make any reference to what is known as Whitewater?
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, he loves his wife, he's proud of his wife; I'd be surprised if he doesn't.
Q Just to make sure, then your assessment of that subject that you gave us here yesterday, a, that the issues are not problematic for the White House; b, that there's no particular interest in them and, therefore, there's no interest in saying anything about them -- those statements are no longer operative?
MR. MCCURRY: No, no. Not at all. I said -- the question is, is the President going to acknowledge the First Lady during the speech.
Q No, no, my question was not the First Lady --
Q No, that's not what she said.
Q -- my question was, is the President going to refer to Whitewater.
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, no, no. I didn't --
Q Is he going to go to bat for her in terms of --
MR. MCCURRY: I misunderstood the question. I thought the question was, is he going to acknowledge his wife. Of course, he will.
Q No, but my question -- can we have an answer to my question, which was, is the President going in any way in this speech to allude to or comment on what has become known as the Whitewater issue?
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't seen anything that would suggest to me that he is, but I think he intends to acknowledge her and will do so in a way that is personal and appropriate. I can't predict how that will come out.
Q Will he be naming his new Drug Czar tonight?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that's very likely.
Q Is he going to issue an order of some kind concerning the hiring of alien immigrants?
MR. MCCURRY: That is the question we just had on The New York Times story, and I think I came close to confirming it, yes. (Laughter.)
Q Do you see this speech as the unofficial campaign kickoff? How important do you see this speech politically?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I don't, and it's an important speech because it's one that is more or less required in the Constitution. The President believes that as he describes the challenges that we face in the 21st century. And as he suggests the way we can come together as a country to address those challenges, he'll present a fairly exciting view of the possibilities that exist for this country in the 21st century.
If there's a political dimension to that, you all will figure it out quickly enough. But I think the American people will see a president who is very confident about our future and who wants to continue leading this country into that future.
Q Why nonconfrontational? Since there is such a deep impasse in terms of where this country stands today, and adding to all of its insecurity in terms of the budget and deficit, does he really think that kid gloves now is going to do the trick?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's a difference between being confrontational and contrasting your view of the future versus the view that exists from others.
Q My view of the present is that it's --
MR. MCCURRY: And I believe the President will provide his vision. I think it will be pretty clear and he will, in some cases, directly contrast that vision with the ones suggested by his political opponents. But the tone of the speech is neither partisan, nor angry, nor confrontational. If it is anything, it is uplifting and suggests a sense a confidence about America's purpose in this world and our purpose here at home as we face the challenges that we'll face in the years to come.
Q The list of guests that you gave us, is that an exhaustive list?
MR. MCCURRY: No. I said there will be others that the President, himself, will likely want to introduce.
Q Is Alan Greenspan going to be one of those people?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware.
Q Colombian ex-Defense Minister Botero yesterday came out singing like a bird about President Samper's knowledge of the financing of his campaign by the drug mafia. A lot of the press in Colombia now are moving the possibility that pressure was exerted by the U.S., it came in the aftermath of John Deutsch's visit down there. And I was wondering if the United States was, indeed, expressing an interest at getting at the bottom of President Samper's knowledge in the --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, our concern about those matters has been expressed by State Department officials in the past. I'm not aware of any such effort, but I'll check it at the State Department and see if they have anything to add. My guess is that subject will arise at the State Department briefing today.
Q To follow up on that, Mike, decertification is coming up in March. Is it likely that Colombia would be certified as cooperating with --
MR. MCCURRY: I won't speculate lists. As they're in the final stages of the certification process now, it would be not wise for me to speculate on the status of individual nations.
Q To follow up on that, should Samper refuse to resign, do you think this could affect the state of cooperation between the administration and Colombia?
MR. MCCURRY: We have enjoyed cooperation with governments of Colombia, including the Samper government, in our efforts to address bilateral issues, regional issues, hemispheric issues, our work together at the Summit of the Americas, and our work especially to counter drug trafficking. And we would expect that close cooperation to continue no matter what political dynamic exists. But I am saying nothing that would suggest that we believe that there is an outcome determined one way or another that is a course for the people of Colombia and is properly for its law enforcement, investigative, and judicial procedures.
Q Is Leon Panetta going to give us some more specifics on the initiatives -- legislative initiatives?
MR. MCCURRY: He will. Our plan right now is around 4:30 p.m. to have an embargoed briefing that he'll give that will go through some of the specific ideas that the President will be talking about tonight, so you can have a little more background on those.
Q Why is it embargoed?
MR. MCCURRY: Just till --
Q When is it embargoed till?
MR. MCCURRY: It's embargoed till 6:00 p.m.
Q What's the point of that?
MR. MCCURRY: Less time for the Republicans to start shooting at him. We would prefer that we don't have everything dribbled out in advance.
Q Mike, the Colombian Congress had an investigation of President Samper and it was sort of viewed here is a whitewash. At least some said department officials said it was a whitewash. Does the U.S. government have any confidence that any further investigation of President Samper is not going to have the same basic outcome?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's not really the position of the United States government to speculate on the type of law enforcement judicial proceedings that are underway in Colombia now. I suggested to you what our status -- what the status of our bilateral relations are and would be, and I believe it would be more correct to say that we look forward to a continued fruitful cooperation on those issues that are important to both nations as we work together in this hemisphere.
Q Mike, on the debt limit, the Speaker said yesterday that one way to get out of this box might be to have a debt limit increase bill with the Senate version of welfare reform tacked on to it. Would the President accept that?
MR. MCCURRY: The President -- the Senate-passed version or the recent congressional-passed version?
Q The Speaker referred specifically to the Senate version.
MR. MCCURRY: I think I will stick with what I told many of you earlier, that the President believes the most important thing to do is have a clean extension of the continuing resolution and a clean extension of the debt ceiling. You'll know that there are members of the Republican caucus who are now actively encouraging the Speaker to follow that path. Because they are deliberating that internally within the Republican caucus in the House, I don't think I should prejudge any outcome. The President wants to see a clean debt ceiling extension. We will speculate down the road on what else he might see. But at the moment, it looks within the realm of the possible that there will be a clean extension of the debt ceiling, and that's certainly the White Houses's preference.
Q Mike, could you just reconfirm that the President's intention is to sign the Senate welfare reform bill should that --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that is a moot point. It's not pending before him and it hasn't been passed by Congress, and I can't speculate that that's what they will indeed do.
Q Right. But is he changing his position with the Senate --
MR. MCCURRY: No. Okay.
Q So he would sign it if he got it?
MR. MCCURRY: What we've indicated in the past about the Senate version of welfare reform stands. But it's -- as you all know, is a moot point because the Senate bill never made it very far in the Conference Committee, because the Conference Committee produced a piece of legislation that obviously is unacceptable to the President.
Q Can you state the President's position on the Senate bill --
MR. MCCURRY: I'll go back and retrieve the transcript and read it to you if that's necessary.
What else? Okay, thank you.
Q Mike, will the United States be assisting North Korea in any way?
MR. MCCURRY: We are not providing food aid to North Korea at this time, but we are considering providing humanitarian assistance to the World Food Program, which is an arm of the United Nations. There are some discussions that we anticipate very shortly with the Republic of Korea and Japan. We believe there are serious food shortages because of the opaque nature of society in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It is impossible for us to assess completely the nature of any food shortages or any potential suffering by the people of the DPRK, but naturally, we'll work closely with our close allies, Japan and South Korea, in providing humanitarian assistance.
I'd note that, last year, in response to flooding in North Korea, we also provided some financial assistance. Our thoughts, if there is, in fact, shortages affecting the people of North Korea, our thoughts will be with them.
Q This will be done tomorrow. What's his intention as far as the event in Louisville is concerned, and how close was he to Mike Synar?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he starts the day, as you know, with a tribute to former Congressman Synar, who is a beloved figure within our party and who the President admired greatly. I think it's within the range of the possible the President might make reference to him in the State of the Union Address tonight. As a matter of fact, after he goes to the memorial service where he does speak, I believe, he then goes to --
Q Why is it closed, then?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to check. It may have been at the request of the family.
Q And what about Louisville?
MR. MCCURRY: Louisville -- he then goes on to Louisville. He's got a series of public events that I think will concentrate on some of the things the President will say in the State of the Union address about crime, about keeping police in our communities, working with communities to fight crime, a subject the President will talk about tonight as well as the important achievement in the 1994 Crime Bill putting 100,000 cops on the street, a subject that will generally be part of the focus tomorrow in Louisville.
Q What's the focus on crime as the subject on which you'd do events on the day after the State of the Union?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it will follow thematically one of the central elements of the President's speech tonight. So as is the tradition --
Q Should we expect Panetta to give us more of that?
MR. MCCURRY: I think there will be some more that he can say, yes. Okay, that's our holding pattern until later.
Q -- motor voter bill?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't have anything on that.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:28 P.M. EST