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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 6, 1996
                           PRESS BRIEFING
                           BY MIKE MCCURRY

The Briefing Room

1:42 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Let me start before we go on to other questions -- one item of interest.

Q What's his status now?

MR. MCCURRY: U.S. General, Retired.

Just to call attention to something that Secretary Reich has announced today -- I think some of you are aware of this. He has announced today that beginning tomorrow there will be a six-month grace period in which employers can restore to their 401-K retirement security plans contributions that they should properly have made, but for whatever reason failed to do so. There will be sort of a painless way for employers to restitute the funds to 401-K plans that the employees are legally entitled to and, in fact, will need to protect their retirement income security needs as they approach retirement years.

The White House wanted to call attention to that. That's important because it follows a series of steps that President Clinton has pursued to make sure the pension protections of today's workers will be secure as they approach their retirement years. You can get more information on that from the Labor Department. I believe they've announced that.

And on to other questions.

Q Is the White House gearing up for a race against Bob Dole? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: The White House is gearing up, the President is gearing up to get back to work, to now address the questions that are still on the front burner when it comes to the work we have to do here in Washington -- to balance the budget, to achieve welfare reform, to pass needed health care insurance reforms, and to do that quickly.

Now that maybe the Republican and presidential festivities have settled down a little bit, we can get on with the work that this nation expects the Congress and the President to do together, which is to give the nation a balanced budget, to protect our environment, to protect the kinds of investments in education and technology that will help the economy grow in the future, and to make sure that we make good on the promise of Medicare and Medicaid benefits for those who are going to be in need of that type of health care. That's what the President will be working on. That's what we're focused on today, and I'm not aware of our focus being anywhere else.

Q Mike, no sooner had Bob Dole emerged as the clear front-runner after yesterday's primaries than he accused the President of having vetoed welfare reform, having vetoed a balanced budget deal, and he is telling people -- the American people that it's time for them to veto Bill Clinton. Don't you have any response to tt?

MR. MCCURRY: The President has repeatedly made clear to the American people that he wants a balanced budget, he wants welfare reform, he wants health care reform, but he wants to do it in a way that makes sense. And what the President vetoed were tax increases on the lowest income working Americans. He vetoed rollbacks in environmental protection that the American people expect of their government. He vetoed the kind of cutbacks in funding for education and technology grants that will keep this economy growing. And you all are well familiar with the history of that debate, and so is Senator Dole.

But the important thing now for Senator Dole, for the President, for all the Republican leadership, for all the members of Congress, is get back down to the business of addressing these concerns that need to addressed now. There is a period, hopefully, now where the dust settles a little bit on politics and we can get on with the business of running the country. And that's what the President will be doing.

Q Does the President think that Bob Dole will be a formidable opponent?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that he's given it a lot of thought.

Q What do you think?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't have an opinion. (Laughter.)

Q Have you all taken enough of a look to comment yet on the appropriations bill that they announced today --

MR. MCCURRY: The House Republicans have got an interest in doing some of the things I was just talking about, in fact -- helping address some of the priorities the President has been stressing. I don't know that they are quite sufficient in their response to the President's concerns, but we are working with them. We will work through the House consideration of FY '96 appropriations measures through the Senate's consideration.

Ultimately, I think, we'll probably have to go to a conference in which the White House hopes that these areas of concern that the President has identified -- specifically, making sure our environment is protected, making sure that we've got the right kind of investments in education and technology to keep our economy growing, making sure we don't roll back the kind of spending that we need to do to protect our elderly if they face illness and sickness, making sure that we do the right things when it comes to tax policy and employment growth policy.

All of these things together we think we can address. The President has got some proposed investments in those areas, which we have forwarded to Congress. We pay for them. It's not new spending. We pay for them by offsetting elsewhere in other parts of the federal budget. And we'll work through these issues with the Congress in the course of the coming weeks and get a package that is acceptable. The President's view, based on the discussions Mr. Panetta and others have had, is that this Congress now understands that they can't hold the American people hostage by threatening to shut down the government. They don't appear to want to do that. Obviously, the President has never wanted to do that.

So we believe we'll be able to resolve these issues, get the right type of spending package together, make sure that it's fiscally prudent, in the best interests of the American taxpayer, and get on with business. We hope that business will include a larger attempt to reform our welfare system, to pass the Kennedy/Kassebaum health care reform legislation which is so necessary. And the President still believes and still has not given up hope that perhaps the Republicans will want to deliver something that the President very much wants -- a balanced budget agreement that will make sure that the American people see us living within our means.

Q Does the President believe he can have a working relationship with Bob Dole one hour and an adversarial campaign relationship with him another hour?

MR. MCCURRY: The President believes that the election in November is eight months away, and there will be plenty of time for campaigning much farther down the road. But the President is the President, the Majority Leader is the Majority Leader. They've got to work together to balance the budget, to reform welfare, to reform health care, and they've got a lot of time left on the calendar in 1996 to get that work done.

Q Mike, as the Republicans prepare this package to restore some of the funding for education and the environment and so forth, they've demanded offsetting entitlement cuts. How does the White House feel about that?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we don't believe that entitlement cuts -- I mean, predictably, the Republicans come back to wanting to cut Social Security and wanting to cut Medicare because that's the direction that they like to go most of the time. The President believes that if you're going to get savings out of the entitlement area it ought to be part of a comprehensive balanced budget agreement; it ought to be done in a sensible way that meets long-term goals that preserves those social safety net programs that are important to the elderly, important to the poor and that live up to the commitments that we've made in this country through our social insurance system.

So that's the right way to do it. The President continues to believe you can generate those kinds of savings within the context of an overall deal. But the idea of a stand alone program of cuts or decreases in the rate of spending for Medicare doesn't seem to him to make a lot of sense.

Q Mike, if the House and Senate conference their appropriations packages and send him legislation that includes both the contingency, that is, the money is only there if there's a larger balanced budget that has the offset. And if the amount, as they are marking up, is less than -- it's about half of what he's asked for, would he veto that package?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, what we've heard in the discussion from the House side is not encouraging because that's not acceptable in the President's view in terms of restoring those investments in the areas that the President has identified as priorities. It's a little more encouraging on the Senate side. But based on our discussions and Mr. Panetta's discussion specifically yesterday with the Speaker, with the Majority Leader, with Mr. Armey, we know that we've got a ways to go, but we are hopeful that we will end up with a mutually acceptable package of both investments and also commitments to future cuts in spending. We would like there to be an overall agreement on a balanced budget goal, but I don't know how committed the Republican leadership is to that proposition at this point.

Q Can you say that another shut down is out of the question, that that's not an issue anymore?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the question of whether there will be another government shut down, frankly, is up to the Congress at this point. The President certainly hopes there won't be, has never thought there should be, believes that that tactic failed abysmally in terms of the Republican use of this as a tactic in budget negotiations. And I believe that he feels the Republican leadership understands that they made a dreadful mistake when they put this nation through two government shut downs.

So, on balance, the President doesn't believe it will happen again.

Q Does you have any reaction at all to the Forbes/Kemp statement, the way it fractures the Republican party?

MR. MCCURRY: I've only heard that it occurred, but I didn't see it and haven't looked at it.

Q But you know what he said, though; I mean, can't you give some assessment --

MR. MCCURRY: I don't even know what he said. I didn't really hear it.

Q What do you mean when you say that the Republican festivities may have settled down, that the dust is settling --

MR. MCCURRY: I just was watching CNN and I was hearing a lot of pundits talk about that. Maybe you can tell me. What do you think, Wolf?

Q I'm not sure what you meant.

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not sure what I meant, either. (Laughter.) What I think -- what I meant was I wasn't making any news on that subject, as you might have gathered.

Q Well, just to follow that up, is there any time when --

MR. MCCURRY: Yes. Try again. (Laughter.)

Q Do you have any better estimation of when the President might see fit to officially declare himself a presidential candidate?

MR. MCCURRY: No. I asked him that last night and he acted very bothered by the question and went back to signing some books he was signing.

Q Is he a presidential candidate?

Q He was signing some what?

MR. MCCURRY: Some books he was signing.

Q He's already a presidential candidate.

Q What books? What books was he signing?

Q Primary Colors. (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: He was just signing some -- they were some commemorative books or something that he was signing, as he does from time to time.

Q So he was troubled by that question?

MR. MCCURRY: Bothered that I was interfering on his work by pestering him with a largely political question.

Q What do you think of all the polls that show that he has a decisive lead over Bob Dole right now?

MR. MCCURRY: That they will assuredly change in the next eight months, so ask me in about seven months.

Q Mike, does the President agree with General McCaffrey's suggestion, the price the country is paying for illegal drug use is substantially less now than it was in the 1970s?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes. And that is, there's good statistical evidence to suggest that's true. But as he just said, the source of concern -- the greatest concern to the President, one of the reasons why he is conducting this extraordinary leadership conference tomorrow is the incidents of increase among the youngest Americans. We're very concerned about seeing, you know, the rates that have largely been favorable in overall drug use and adult populations take a turn for the worse among the youngest populations, and that's a source of real concern.

Q If I could follow that -- I hesitate to do so, but '70s drug use did not seem to be associated with the level of violence that is associated with drug use now. And claims, depending upon the politician and times, that most of the violent crime we're looking at is rooted in the drug use. Despite that, you feel the country is better off now, or at least that illegal drug use is taking less of a toll now than it was in the '70s?

MR. MCCURRY: There are two separate sets of questions there. The economic impact of drug use and what damage it's taking across our total economy. And, remember, that's lost productivity, that's absenteeism from work, that's a whole variety of measures that go into getting that figure. Now, that has declined markedly since the late 1970s, as General McCaffrey said.

Violent crime associated with drugs has also declined, but it's taken on a new complexity, and has become more violent and has become more associated with gang warfare, and there are aspects of that crime that are certainly more troubling than some aspects of the violent crime we saw in the 1970s.

That's all very well catalogued, by the way, by the FBI annually in their annual report on criminal statistics. But it's really the nature of the crime that has become, in some respects, more violent, and that is a source of concern.

Q What happens now to your pledge to cut the White House staff 25 percent below the previous administration?

MR. MCCURRY: We believe that with the resources that will be available to General McCaffrey we're confident we'll be able to continue to adhere to that pledge. And we intend to honor of the commitment.

Q In other words, you're going to have more people work here for him?

MR. MCCURRY: We have met the 25 percent staffing goal, and we can accommodate the increase in staff as it occurs over time and stay within the President's 25 percent cut pledge.

Q Do you expect any meetings with Panetta and Republican leaders today or early tomorrow?

MR. MCCURRY: Mr. Panetta was on the Hill this morning to meet with the coalition group, the moderate conservative Democratic members in the House and I'm not aware that he's had any subsequent conversations today.

Q Mike, can I ask another McCaffrey question? He said the federal government is not going to solve this drug problem, it's going to be solved by school teachers, and I think he said coaches and police officers. Is there going to be a new, dramatically different plan to be drawn, has that plan already been drawn to approach this in a wholly different way?

MR. MCCURRY: You can tell from General McCaffrey's presentation that he's going to bring an enormous amount of energy and creativity to the job. But I believe he looked upon the model of leadership being one that you've seen the President used most recently with respect to the decision by media executives to label television programming, with respect to some of the other things that the President has done. It's not only government programs or spending, or some new initiative that reaches out and solves problems. It's sometimes leadership, from the bully pulpit of the presidency on down to those like General McCaffrey who will have responsibility for certain aspects of solving a problem. And there's a great deal that government can do as we do the type of work we'll do tomorrow at this conference and as we pursue the kind of efforts that the General described.

Q So he sees himself kind of like the surgeon general?

MR. MCCURRY: He very clearly will have -- the surgeon general is sort of the nation's chief public health office and we're talking about public health problems within the province of drug strategies and drug control policy. One of the charges of the director of that office is to be the administration's chief spokesman on matters related to drug policy.

Obviously, from the presentation you just had from General McCaffrey, he will be a very able and capable spokesperson.

Q So that's what you see as his main role, the --

MR. MCCURRY: Oh, not at all. Not at all. He also has, as he made pretty clear, responsibility as a Cabinet-level officer for addressing the work of a wide range of Cabinet agencies with responsibility to this area. And I think he was pretty direct with you in saying he's already made the rounds of those agencies, and his influence will be felt, and the empowerment he has been given by the President will assuredly be felt, too.

Q Just to follow up, Wendell asked him, what's your measure of success and he really didn't say. What does the President think is the criteria by which his efforts should be judged?

MR. MCCURRY: The President believes the criteria for success is a marked improvement in the condition that children face in this country, and as you work through adult years the incidence of drug use on decline, and the incidence of violence and crime associated with drug use on decline steadily. Eradication can't necessarily be a goal because it's going to be impossible to achieve.

But to use the General's very apt metaphor, if we're talking about a cancer, we're looking for the right kind of treatment that ameliorates the problem. Maybe someday there will even be a cure.

Q How will the State Department's country report on China change the administration's China policy?

MR. MCCURRY: It does not change our China policy. We continue to press vigorously our human rights concern and concerns in our bilateral dialogue with the People's Republic, including the high level exchanges that will begin tonight.

Q Why is the administration's trade policy with China acceptable when it is not moderating its human rights abuses and, at the same time, other countries with similar policies with Iran are unacceptable because they're not moderating Iran's support for terrorism?

MR. MCCURRY: The fallacy of the question reveals itself. The comparison of Iran to the People's Republic is a very inapt comparison. Iran is a pariah state in a very volatile region of the world in which there are enormous security concerns that directly affect U.S. vital strategic interests. China is a very large, growing important source of commerce in a region in which the United States has strong security and economic interests. And the nature of the regimes are different, the nature of their practices are different. And, most importantly, as we've seen and witnessed in recent days, one key difference is Iran's state sponsorship of terrorism. That's why they are on our terrorism list.

So to equate those two governments and to suggest there's any similarity in the policies that we should pursue with respect to economic issues doesn't make a lot of sense.

Q If I could follow that, however, you've got Iran afoul of us not only for human rights purposes, but for proliferation concerns, and a very direct threat right now with Taiwan. And, yet, our policies appear to be having no effect on any of those things.

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that that's necessarily an accurate barometer. We have got a broad wide-ranging relationship with China in which there are clearly differences that have to be effectively managed. That's exactly what we're doing by having the kinds of exchange of views that we have with the People's Republic, and that we will continue to have. And when it comes to proliferation, human rights, our trade concerns, we'll continue to press very vigorously the interests of the United States government. But there is no comparison of the nature of the different relationship we have between the People's Republic and Iran.

Q Mike, one of the points in the program that was presented after the bombing in Jerusalem was encouraging other countries to continue their aid to the reconstruction of the Palestinian areas -- or at least a corollary of that program. Has there been anything happening on that? Are people -- is the money going in for reconstruction? And, secondly, the President was going to speak to Senator Dole regarding that issue. Has he spoken with him and are they on the same wavelength on that?

MR. MCCURRY: He did speak to Senator Dole, and he did have an opportunity to talk about some of the steps he took with respect to Israel. You'll have to ask Senator Dole whether the President was convincing.

On the first matter, you can hear more on this from USAID, but the program of support for economic reconstruction and for economic development in the territories is ongoing. It's one of the things that the United States has put a particular focus on in the aftermath of these terrorist incidents.

We have encouraged all of those in the international community who participate -- and, remember, we have strong support all across the G-7, whether it's our European allies or the government of Japan and others, who support the Middle East peace process by making those types of economic investments for the future of the Palestinian people. We have encouraged all governments to redouble their efforts to focus that aid on the Palestinian people.

There clearly will be a time now where they will pay a price for the result of the terror of groups like Hamas. And we are trying to make sure that the Palestinian people continue to understand and believe that the path of peace is the right one because it leads to better quality of life for them. But we are going to have to endure what is obviously a very rough patch in the road right now.

Q When the President meets with King Hussein tomorrow, will he press the King to have Jordan rid itself of Hamas leaders?

MR. MCCURRY: That general subject will likely come up. The nature of Hamas activity in the region and what type of Hamas presence there are in a variety of countries has been a source of concern to the United States, and we have expressed that concern directly to governments in recent days.

Q What's the game plan for the meeting with King Hussein tomorrow?

MR. MCCURRY: We'll have to tell you later. I don't know -- come in here to have some type of dialogue on -- what time are they going to meet?

It's a morning meeting tomorrow, and we'll give you an updated scheduled later. And there will be some type of pool encounter with them.

Q When would the President like to sign the Cuba legislation? Have you asked that it be rushed down here after the House passes it today, or do you not anticipate it today?

MR. MCCURRY: It will be signed in some appropriate fashion when we get it. And I don't believe they've have had final action on it. The President does intend to sign it, and we will sign it appropriately once we receive it.

Q Will he go to Miami to do that?

MR. MCCURRY: I believe he plans to do it here at the White House.

Q Does the U.S. feel that Hamas' political wing is as dissociated from the violence as, say, Sinn Fein is from the IRA's?

MR. MCCURRY: The treatment of that general subject can be found in our most recent annual report on the nature of terrorist organizations around the world. The entry on Hamas will tell you that it is a very fractured organization. There are splinter groups within the more militant side, the paramilitary side of Hamas, within the political structures -- I guess sort of the governing authority of Hamas, there are a variety of different factions. It's not clear to us entirely what type of command and control the political entities within Hamas have over their militant wings. In fact, there's some evidence even their militant wings have been at odds with each other. That's one of the things that makes this a very dangerous situation, because the nature of Hamas itself is fractured.

Why? Because they have been losing support rapidly among the Palestinian people, as the Palestinian people see the rewards and the fruits of peace. The support that had once existed for Hamas is no longer there, which is one of the reasons why, as an organization, as an entity, there has been a greater cleavage developing between those who are moderate and those who espoused terror.

But you can get a lot more on that general subject by contacting the State Department.

Q The past week's events in Israel obviously are on the agenda tomorrow morning with the King, and the overall Mideast peace process. Is there anything else in particular that you know of that's on there, that might have been on there before events affected the agenda? Did he have anything in particular that he wanted to bring up --

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, they've got some issues related to F-16 sales and the status of the peace process generally, Jordan's growing collaboration with Israel when it comes to matters of commerce, their regional activities. We have a very broad-gauge dialogue with the government of Jordan on those issues. Obviously, the terrorist incidents will focus that aspect of this, but there will be other bilateral concerns addressed, as well.

Q Was the focus of the Panetta meeting with the coalition members on a broader balanced budget package?

MR. MCCURRY: It was -- that was addressed. Also, how do we get through the FY '96 agenda, and what can we do right now to break any stalemate that exists as we look ahead to the expiration of the Continuing Resolution on March 15th. Those were the general parameters, but you might be able to get more from Mr. Panetta's office.

Thank you.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 2:03 P.M. EST