THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:23 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: All right. Thank you to Sandy Berger for that briefing, and I don't have anything else that I'm adding to the mix from here. Any questions you all have?
Q The President sure gave short shrift to the governors' proposals --
MR. MCCURRY: Short shrift? I believe he called it a huge step in the right direction; did he not? Did I miss that?
Q That's all he said. I mean, doesn't he have any more interest in the details?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he has -- he complimented the governors on their very good work in a bipartisan way to address the issues of Medicaid and welfare reform. Like Senator Dole, he indicated that there is reason to believe that that type of common ground effort can bridge some of the differences that exist in this debate. And he's very encouraged by their willingness, most importantly, to move away from the concept of a static block grant and towards an individual guarantee that will assure that Americans have the health care that they need.
Now, as the President indicated, and also as Senator Dole indicated, there are likely to be some concerns that will have to be addressed as this moves forward. This will have to be evaluated in the context of discussions about the balanced budget and I assume Congress may want to look very carefully at the ideas that the governors have now put forward. And we'll have some specific concerns as the President indicated, that we'll need to address. But we're very pleased that they've passed a resolution that reaffirms our view that there needs to be a national commitment to guarantee health care coverage under Medicaid.
Q Well, is there anything cooking on the budget front?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, as you can tell from Senator Dole's statement today, and the President's statement, there are both sides in the budget discussions going on between the administration and the Congress. We're very keen on learning the views of the governors. So that has been a very important piece of work and I wouldn't underestimate the value of the work that they've done.
Q But, Mike, for Senator Dole and the President and the governors to be roughly in sync is not really that surprising. That hasn't been the issue right along, as Senator Dole has been the first to say. So whether the House Republicans and, you know, have they given the governors short shrift or are they --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I gathered from Senator Dole's remarks that he had been in contact with Speaker Gingrich. And I believe it is important for Speaker Gingrich to respond to the very positive comments that Senator Dole made today. This may, in fact, be a way to move forward. But, again, the issue will be how do we address the details. And we'll have some very specific concerns where we're not quite sure that the governors' proposal meets some of the elements that the President is concerned about, as he indicated. But we'll hope the conversations move forward.
Q Is this the kind of thing where the President would call the Speaker, or Mr. Panetta would call -- you know, discuss with the budget negotiating people, gee, you know, look at this, if a broad bipartisan consensus of all the 50 states you guys are saying this kind of stuff, shouldn't we listen?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it may be a little premature to suggest we'd move to that level of dialogue instantly. We'll be interested to see how Congress pursues the ideas that Congress has put forward and how willing the Congress will be to address some of the concerns we will. And, most importantly, how willing will the governors be as they put more flesh on the details of this proposal to address some of the concerns that we have. Specifically, the President's got -- I mean, he identified some areas that he has but the resolution that the governors put forward does call on a bipartisan group of six governors to continue working through the details, and my guess is that's going to be the venue in which the administration would be able to address some of its items.
Q Mike, with regard to Medicare, Senator Dole suggested this morning that that basically be taken off the table, or be taken out of politics, as he put it, and be assigned to a Greenspan-type commission ala 1983 with regard to Social Security. The President has indicated, you know, when he talks about the baby boom challenge to Social Security solvency, has indicated a similar view. My question is, is the administration willing to do this this year, or are you going to wait until after the election to move to a bipartisan commission on Medicare?
MR. MCCURRY: We need to take first things first. The President has identified in the area of entitlement reform, has identified savings that can come from the Medicare program and that we believe those are very necessary part of any agreement to balance the budget.
Now, we take -- we dispute the Republican view that you an go well beyond those savings and actually decrease the growth rate for the program such that you result -- such that the result is true cuts in the level of services that are available to Americans. That is an issue that has been imbedded in the budget discussions. But I think the President's view is let's not set aside the necessary savings that we've been able to identify in common between our two approaches; let's enact those. But neither the Republican majority's balanced budget plan nor the President's balanced budget plan deal with the problem we have in the next century as baby boomers begin to retire, as you get beyond the year 2010, 2011, into the second, third decades of the next century. That's a long-term problem that's going to require some very serious review of the program, but there is time to do that.
The issue in the short term is a balanced budget that will improve the status of the economy, will help all of those baby boomers that are preparing for retirement earn more money, protect their pensions, save for their future retirement needs. And that is the problem that the President has focused upon more urgently.
Q Do you see anything in Dole's idea today where even in the short term you might come to closure by taking the structural disagreements that now are on the table and taking them off the table?
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, the President has very directly embraced exactly that concept. He said, let's adopt the savings, the minimum savings that we've identified in common between both plans and take that issue of fundamentally restructuring Medicare -- whether or not we're going to allow Medicare to wither on the vine -- and put that over into either the debate this year or, if Senator Dole suggests a commission, some other venue in which the nation can have that type of discussion. I would take Senator Dole's treatment of that issue today to be a warm embrace of the President's own view.
Q Mike, this morning you indicated that the President would elaborate on this --
MR. MCCURRY: More or less.
Q You indicated this morning the President in his speech would elaborate on his direct concerns about the governors' Medicaid proposal. Since he didn't to any great extent, can you tell us a little bit more about what the concerns are?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. We would want to see more clarity around sort of three large issues. The President alluded to those in his remarks.
There must be a national guarantee to a meaningful benefit package. We need to really define with more clarity what a meaningful benefit package will be. There must be national guidelines for eligibility to protect those who are eligible under current law -- seniors, the disabled, pregnant women and children. We're very concerned, in particular, about coverage for three million children between ages 13 and 17 who are now phased in at different poverty levels under current law. We're concerned about how the governors' approach would address that concern, as an example.
But we need to make sure that the guarantee that exists, the individual guarantee that exists under current law is available no matter where you live and no matter what -- whether, you know, if you're covered under the current law you need to continue to be covered and that guarantee has to be real. That's the bottom line. Then, third, the third area that the President addressed in his remarks this morning is enforceability and how we can make sure that this individual guarantee is, in fact, available, what type of recourse is available to individuals who want to seek redress in the courts.
Those are the areas where there needs to be more specificity. The President is concerned about some of the things we hear about the way the governors would address that, but we're confident, as he indicated today, that we can work those concerns out and come up with an approach on Medicaid that will work. Similarly, on welfare, on welfare reform there are also issues that pertain to the approach that the governors would recommend that we need to work through, but we think we can do it.
Q Well, those are really serious concerns, obviously, Mike. How can he be so encouraged and calling this a huge step forward?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, because look at the distance that the governors have gone. Last time he saw the governors they were adamant the need for a block grant on Medicaid. They've moved considerably because, as Governor Thompson indicated, they understand that there has to be a win-win situation here, that both sides have to be in a position to say that they've addressed their priorities and that they've moved ahead. And the President is confident that can happen.
Q Could you specify the concerns on Medicaid -- can you specify the concerns on welfare reform that --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the areas -- no matter whether it's the governors or whether it's the dispute between the House and the Senate, the principal areas of concern have been food stamps, the benefit levels available to immigrants, the type of funding that's available in the so-called maintenance effort area to ensure that states have adequate funding to meet the needs of hard-pressed populations. Those are the same areas. There are some specific concerns that we've got with respect to welfare reform, but we think in some respects the governors' approach is better than the Senate bill; in some cases it's worse than the conference report that the President vetoed.
The most important thing that happened today is that Senator Dole acknowledged for the first time that the conference report was inadequate, and that the President may have had good grounds to veto that conference report because it had inadequate levels of child care support. Senator Dole more or less indicated that today by saying he agreed with the governors that they needed to make improvements in the child care area, and that was a very important concession by Senator Dole.
Q Mike, considering this is a time in which the President wants to close corporate loopholes, is he supportive of Reich's idea of giving corporations tax breaks if they would treat their employees better in a variety of ways?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I read a Washington Post story about a speech that Secretary Reich was going to give, but I talked to Secretary Reich, and I don't believe he said anything different than what he's said on prior occasions and what he argued in a very good New York Times op-ed article not too long ago. And I don't believe he had a specific tax break proposal in his speech that he gave today. At least my review of the advanced text didn't indicate that so I'm not --
Q Does he not have that proposal because he doesn't advocate it or because the White House doesn't want him to have that proposal?
MR. MCCURRY: No, it's because he did not intend to thrust forward with a new policy pronouncement today, in my understanding. He intended to kind of address an issue generically the he's talked about a lot: How can we encourage greater corporate citizenship; i.e, an attitude by corporations that live in communities and employ people in a neighborhood, what kind of responsibilities do they have to the neighborhood, to their work force? It's an issue that he has been very vibrant on as he has raised different ideas, and he is continuing to stimulate that debate as he should, as Secretary of Labor.
Q Those particular ideas that are outlined in the story, is the administration considering them in some larger forum?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware. I believe there have been, in roundtable discussions on policy approaches, that type of issue has arisen from time to time. And Secretary Reich has talked to those issues in the past, but I'm not aware of any particular pending proposal on tax incentives for corporations that take better care of their work force. Probably not a bad idea, but you'd need to look at that very carefully and, of course, in a formal policy review process, there would be a number of Cabinet agencies that would want to contribute ideas to the mix.
Q While we're on the debt ceiling, have you guys received it and when is he going to sign it?
MR. MCCURRY: He has received it, and I expect the action on it shortly, although not today.
MR. MCCURRY: In coming days. Towards the end of the week, but not Friday and not tomorrow. So, in coming days.
Q Does the President -- have the President's lawyers worked out an arrangement with the court in Little Rock on the venue or the format for the testimony?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I've heard, but you should ask them.
Q Is it your preference to do a videotape of that testimony?
MR. MCCURRY: The President, as his attorney said last night, will cooperate in an appropriate fashion, and they will define that in further discussions with all the parties concerned.
Q Why is videotape attractive to you?
MR. MCCURRY: The President is attracted to cooperating in an appropriate fashion. That will be determined.
Q How important is precedent set by former presidents?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, previous presidents have done exactly this. It's become almost a matter of routine now for presidents to offer testimony in a variety of cases, and done sometimes through videotape, I guess, back to Thomas Jefferson -- they didn't have videotape -- but back to Thomas Jefferson, presidents have testified at trial, so nothing unusual about that.
Q Is this to avoid the possibility for cross-examination?
MR. MCCURRY: I am not aware of any discussions related to the format of any testimony that might be given if the President chooses that as the appropriate fashion to cooperate.
Q Mike, was the President in any way surprised by this, or did he -- had he come to expect it, given --
MR. MCCURRY: No, it just came up, as you know, he was asked about it at his press conference, so he knew that that discussion was under way.
Q Actually, I think his answer to that indicated that he was not aware --
MR. MCCURRY: I think it was -- I think he had not heard it at that point when he had his press conference with President Chirac on Thursday, but obviously we've known of it since last Thursday.
Q Do you have any comment on this quote from Senator Kerrey in "Esquire" magazine that President Clinton is an unusually good liar?
MR. MCCURRY: Haven't read the article yet. Ask me later in the week.
Q Well, that's all we were asking about is that one quote.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't -- I think it's really unfair to take quotes out of context, so I'll read the article and let you know if we have any reaction.
Q Let me follow up on that with a broader question about the general civility of Democrats. You also had Hollings quoted locally as saying if the President's poll numbers were over 60 percent he's told by people at the White House that he could start dating again. Is that the kind of -- were you one of the people who told that by any chance? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Senator Hollings has always had an interesting way of putting things. But I imagine they take issue with things that we say down here sometimes too, so --
Q Now we know why it's self-defeating to try to elect members of his own party.
MR. MCCURRY: Say what?
Q Now we know why he thinks it's self-defeating to have his -- (laughter) --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think in both cases of those two, those are two United States Senators who very much embrace a large part of the agenda that the President has put forward for this country, and we appreciate the support we get from them.
Q Do you think they were just being cute, or were they serious?
MR. MCCURRY: I have no idea. I'll have to -- I can read the article and try to find out, but my guess is that both of them will be asked by you that question before I have an opportunity to do so.
Q Does the President want to deliver any bill on Senator Kennedy --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't think the President knows of either remark, to be honest with you. I haven't heard him mention it.
Q Would he be disappointed?
Q Mike, can you confirm a wire story that the President wrote to Turkish leader Tansu Ciller? And did he write a letter to any Greek leader?
MR. MCCURRY: I know that the story has come out of Ankara saying that he wrote to Prime Minister Ciller. I would hasten to add that he also wrote to President Demirel and to Prime Minister Simitis, the new Greek Prime Minister. And, again, it was in furtherance of his discussions with all three last week. We thanked them for their cooperation and successfully resolving the issue involving an islet in the Aegean Sea.
Q What does the letter say?
MR. MCCURRY: It says "thank you."
Q Is it a similar or duplicate letter to all three?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe the letters to all three were virtually identical. It thanks them for following up on the President's phone conversation and expresses the President's gratitude for their willingness to address this in a fashion that did not allow tensions to escalate.
Q And does he go on to ask them to further cooperate in the process of resolving the Cyprus dispute?
MR. MCCURRY: It reiterated our view that for two such close and valued allies, we hope that they can address issues in dispute in a way that avoids tension and avoids escalation. I'm not aware of the issue made reference to, that the letters made reference to the Cyprus issue.
Q When the President goes to Tokyo for a state visit, is there any consideration being given to have a stop over in Korea?
MR. MCCURRY: No. With regret, the President's plans at this point do not allow for a stop in the Republic of Korea.
Q Mike, back on Medicare and welfare -- Medicaid and welfare. The governors, by surfacing today with basically incomplete proposals -- proposals that need refinement and added content and detail -- are they setting themselves up to have those remaining details, in effect, nibbled to death by both sides? Wouldn't it have been better if they'd fleshed out both proposals? I gather they hadn't even gotten the CBO scoring on them.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, no, as the President indicated that their ideas will have to be scored by the CBO to be injected as an element in the balanced budget discussion. No, they -- I didn't hear any of the Republican governors demanding that, you know, or any of the Republican leaders in Congress, demanding that the Republican governors submit a seven-year balanced budget proposal scored by the CBO.
But their contribution was designed to be a useful one, and was designed to break what is acknowledged to be an impasse that exists on those entitlement areas in the budget deliberations. And so it was useful, and I wouldn't want to say that lacking complete detail that it was something less than a positive element in the dialogue.
Q So just to nail down this point, now that they've got these compromise proposals on Medicaid and welfare reform, and both Dole and Clinton say that it's encouraging and should help get balanced budget negotiations back on track, what happens next? How do you get -- what is the next step in getting the negotiations back on track?
MR. MCCURRY: What formally happens next, as the governors indicated, is they need to spell out exactly what they mean by some of the language in the resolution they've adopted. There is a subcommittee of six governors that will work towards that end. We'll be very anxious to see how they address the specific areas that I just outlined for you earlier, but that could then become -- look, let me step back a second.
In the Oval Office discussions -- we've told you frequently that what they have on the table are a menu of things available that are drawn from different sources. They have the President's balanced budget proposal. They have the Republican majority's balanced budget proposal. There have been ideas from time to time from Senator Breaux and Chafee, the so-called Breaux-Chafee Proposal. Senator Daschle had his proposal, which was very useful at one point in moving the discussion forward. You had the coalition budget proposal.
Now you've got, on the subject of Medicaid and welfare reform, ideas that are from the governors, that admittedly need some work, but at least they are ideas that represent a bipartisan consensus among the Democratic and Republican governors. If we're going to get this job done, we're going to have to have ideas like that that are available to those who would pass the necessary agreements so that it could be signed by the President.
And that's the work that happened today. It's encouraging. Both Senator Dole and President Clinton labelled it such, and hopefully that will make all sides understand the importance of achieving a balanced budget agreement. But let's remember: the President's been saying this every single day. Let's get the job done. Let's at least take what we have in common and pass it so we can balance the budget.
Q Is there any venue for talks between Panetta and Kasich and Domenici, or Clinton and Dole --
MR. MCCURRY: The venue is the one that the President declared in January when these talks broke down. His door is open. We're ready to go. Just do it.
Q Is he going to make a call to invite them back?
MR. MCCURRY: We've done that repeatedly. I mean, the door is open.
Q Do you find it significant that Speaker Gingrich is not here to participate in this, that he's in California?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I gather, from what I heard Senator Dole say, that he may have participated in some type of conference call earlier today. I am sure he appreciates the important role the governors can play in these deliberations.
Q What's the impact that the President's subpoena and the Whitewater investigations had on his campaign?
MR. MCCURRY: None.
Okay. Thank you.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:44 P.M.