THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:15 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Let me start today, ladies and gentlemen -- good afternoon to you all. Let me start with a piece of good news. This is one dear to my heart because I spent two years prior to being here with all of you talking on this subject frequently, but today, after months of technical preparations and discussions between U.S. energy experts and private U.S. companies, the canning operation on 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods at the facility in North Korea commenced under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
It's going to make the world a safer place. They're basically putting the spent fuel rods that are currently in a cooling pond in steel canisters and safeguarding them until such time as they're eventually moved from North Korea, and the way that happens is all stipulated to in the agreement that this administration reached in October of 1994 with the DPRK. Good news. It's going to make the world a safer place and solves what is arguably one of the most dangerous national security problems that this President faced when he came to office.
Q Have you found the North Koreans very cooperative in fulfilling the framework requirements?
MR. MCCURRY: They have been cooperative. They have adhered to the terms of the agreed framework, and they continue to allow IAEA safeguard supervision of the facility, which is all very encouraging.
Q Does this mean the crisis is over, Mike?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it was over arguably in October of 1994 when we reached the agreement that has been put in place. But the fact that that has proceeded satisfactorily and that along the way progress has been made is, as I say, very encouraging and has certainly reduced a very dangerous situation that threatened the Peninsula and threatened U.S. security interests in the region.
By the way, on that, there's a -- once again the White House calls on Congress to appropriate the very small amount of money -- we're only seeking I think $2.5 million to provide for the technical assistance that can accomplish the objectives in the framework. And we certainly hope the Congress will take quick action on that budget request.
I'd like to turn the podium over to Mr. David Johnson, Deputy White House Press Secretary, who will tell you a little more about the President's meeting with Chairman Arafat.
MR. JOHNSON: Good afternoon. As most of you probably already know, the President met with Chairman Arafat this afternoon -- excuse me, this morning for about 45 minutes in the Oval Office. This is the first time that Arafat has come to the White House outside of his attendance at the two signing ceremonies which took place before. He is here on a private visit associated with a conference sponsored by the Center for Middle East Peace and Reconciliation.
The President wanted to take the opportunity while Chairman Arafat was here on this private visit to meet with him to discuss several issues: principally to congratulate him on his success in changing the Palestinian Covenant, to talk about the progress in the Middle East peace process, to talk about security for all of the people of the Middle East, and to talk about the issues that confront Chairman Arafat in his efforts, along with ours and the world community's, to extend the economic benefits of peace to the Palestinian people.
But as others have said, the real significance of this meeting is that it, in fact, took place; that the extraordinary has become the routine in our work on the Middle East peace process.
The President opened the meeting underscoring privately as he had already done publicly with some of you, his appreciation for Arafat's successful effort to change the Palestinian Covenant. The President knew this had been even more difficult than he had envisaged when he made this commitment to the President to get this change made when he made this commitment at Sharm El-Sheikh because of the conditions in the region at the time the vote took place.
The President also reviewed progress in the peace process, especially the forthcoming talks on final status issues. He noted that, combined with Israel's keeping to the timetable on the turnover of Hebron to Palestinian control and the beginning of these talks on schedule was evidence of the good faith of the parties. The President told the Chairman that the United States would continue to be a reliable partner in the peace process, but that we would do so by standing by those who took risks for peace.
The President and the Chairman also reviewed the steps that have been taken to confront those who would use terror to try to undermine the peace process. The President expressed his appreciation for the steps that Chairman Arafat had taken, but pointed out that this effort was one that was going to require sustained vigilance.
A good deal of the discussion was taken up with the economic challenges that are faced by the Palestinian Authority, significantly by the loss of jobs and revenue due to the closings. The President underlined U.S. efforts to help ensure that those who took risks for peace enjoyed its economic benefits, and he went over the steps that we had taken -- that we had committed $500 million over five years at the pledging conference in '93, we had already disbursed $156 million of this, that we would stand by the remainder of our commitment and, moreover, we would work with others to try to get them to work on theirs.
One of the things we had done in this respect is three weeks ago in Brussels we had undertaken some concrete steps to help create significant short-term employment in the territories, along with the IBRD, the World Bank -- we'd work with them to accelerate some of their disbursements. And, you know, Mr. Wolfensohn will be going to the territories in the not too distant future and the Chairman is going to be meeting with him while he's here.
We've also worked with Israel to accelerate their tax payments to the Palestinian Authority, that they had already undertaken commitments to make. And we've begun to work with donors who are working on large infrastructure projects to accelerate the projects in order to create some jobs in the short-term. This is not going to make up for the entire shortfall, but we do believe it's going to make a significant difference.
I think it was a warm meeting, one that the President was very glad to have had an opportunity to have, and a significant amount of work was done. The Chairman left here and went over to the State Department where he had, I believe, an even lengthier meeting with the Secretary of State.
Q In the stake out area Chairman Arafat said, in Arabic, that he and the President had agreed to form some sort of a joint committee on some of these issues. Can you talk about that?
MR. JOHNSON: I think some of the work that the Secretary of State had done in the region during the past weeks and before has resulted in a decision to work together toward a more established mechanism for us to do business. That's one of the issues that was to be undertaken and discussed at the State Department after this meeting. There was not an extensive discussion of that, but it was mentioned in the meeting here.
Q Does the President support extradition of Abu Abbas and did that issue come up at the meeting?
MR. JOHNSON: That issue did not come up at the meeting. I understand it did come up at the meeting that the Secretary of State had. If I could make a couple of points about that -- the statute under which Abu Abbas would have been prosecuted, the statute of limitations on that expired before the Clinton administration came into the office. The administration's work on the terrorism bill has, however, established a basis to prosecute these types of crimes in the future and have a longer-running statute of limitations. I'm also given to understand that Italy has tried and convicted Abu Abbas and has an outstanding warrant for his arrest.
Q Did Arafat ask the U.S. for more money?
MR. JOHNSON: There was extensive conversation about what sort of things needed to be done in order to address the jobs problem in the territories, but that was concentrated on the efforts we were undertaking with our international partners, it was not directed toward any additional funds from the United States.
Q David, how do you see the meeting in the Oval from a symbolic point of view? Does it mark a new page in relations with Arafat? And secondly, following up on the earlier question, is he meeting with officials of the Ex-Im Bank about more money?
MR. JOHNSON: I'm not at all sure he is meeting with officials of the Ex-Im Bank. I know he is meeting with officials at the World Bank. In response to your first question, I think that the significance of this is that it makes the relationship that we have created with the Palestinian Authority something that is of a more routine nature. It is not something that just has exchanges at the time that we have significant signing agreements and worldwide attention here at the White House, but it's something that is done on a more routine basis.
Q What is the assessment of the prospects for the peace talks starting this weekend?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I think the President addressed that in his photo opportunity. It's something where we are hoping the parties can make progress, and we plan to stand by them, but we're not going to make predictions of any sort with respect to them.
Q What else, what more does the U.S. want the Palestinians to do?
MR. JOHNSON: With respect to?
Q With respect to continuing relations. What are we asking them for now?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, we are mostly working with them on trying to help them bring the fruits of peace to their own people. We are talking to them about further efforts that can be made in order to bring greater security and confront terror in the territories. There have been significant steps that have been made there. But there is some more work that can be done. There will be some talks on those issues during the time Chairman Arafat is here.
There is also some work that remains to be done on some of the elements of governance that the Palestinian Authority can undertake, which would enable private investors to be more rapidly and securely attracted to making job-creating investments in the territories.
Q David, do you know at what diplomatic level Arafat is received at the White House? At a ministerial level, or what would it be the equivalent of, since he is not a head of state?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, he is the head of the Palestinian Authority. I think it would be a unique level. (Laughter.)
Q And did the United States clear this invitation with the Israeli government before it was extended Chairman Arafat?
MR. JOHNSON: I'm unaware of any clearance at all.
Q Is there any sort of U.S. position on final status talks, other than that they should be held?
MR. JOHNSON: The one that the President articulated when you asked him that question this morning. (Laughter.)
Q You are doing really good, David.
Q Do you happen to know how long President Arafat will be in Washington? When does he leave?
MR. JOHNSON: I don't. I believe he is here through tomorrow.
Q David, on the final status talks, is there a message to Arafat from the administration not to go too fast, not to have pie-in-the-sky dreams about a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as the capital, that sort of -- what was the message there?
MR. JOHNSON: No, there wasn't a message of that sort. I think there is a recognition that these talks are not going to proceed like lightning. Things take time in the Middle East, and this is certainly not going to be any exception, and this may prove to be one of the ones that requires more work than normal. But I think what we were talking about today was getting them started, not getting them finished.
MR. MCCURRY: Thank you, David.
Q The President, if he has a chance to get a minimum wage passed in the next couple of months, is he willing to work with Republicans and put back together with a repeal of part of the gasoline tax?
MR. MCCURRY: The President is most interested in seeing that we get an agreement on a balanced budget. What he wants is to make certain that Congress does not walk away from the opportunity to lock in the types of savings and types of budget funding levels that will lead us to a balanced budget. And that's why, again, we call upon Majority Leader Dole and the Republican leadership of Congress to sit down and finish this very serious work of getting a balanced budget agreement.
That's the context in which people with ideas on taxes and tax relief for working Americans can come to the table. The President will come to the table with some ideas that he has in mind on providing tax relief to working Americans, making sure that they have got tax credits for child care, for education expenses, doing some of the things we have talked about to promote savings that would bring real relief, instantly, to working families and to taxpayers. Now, if the Senator has got some ideas on what he wants to do related to the gas tax, he should bring those to the table, and they ought to be negotiated as part of a balanced budget agreement.
As a much separate issue, one thing we can do right now is to pass a minimum wage increase. And I believe the Democrats in Congress are going to want to continue to press that objective, irrespective of how the balanced budget discussions go.
Q When will we hear the President's ideas?
Q -- yesterday seems to separate out the idea of an immediate gas tax rollback of the 4.3 cents ending January 1st of '77 -- separate that from the longer-term part of a budget deal. So minimum wage immediately and the immediate repeal -- do you think there is on way those two could go together?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's hard to separate out one discrete feature. I mean, we would ask the question, if you're going to separate out tax elements from the equation, does Senator Dole want to separate out the 10 cents that he added to the gas tax when he was leading the Senate Finance Committee and ranking member of the Finance Committee. I mean, we ought to deal with the Dole dime, as it's being called, before we worry about a couple of extra pennies added in 1993.
So first and foremost, we need to know what portion of the federal tax on gas are we talking about. Are we talking about Senator Dole's dime, or are we talking about other portions of it? And then, if we're separating out that question, that seems to be a fair question.
Q When are we going to hear about the President's ideas for tax relief, did you say? When was that?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has talked frequently about his ideas on tax relief. We've got a lot of them in our FY '97 budget proposal, and we'd like to get the Republican leadership of Congress to sit down with us so that we can really hammer out a seven-year balanced budget agreement that will give us a --
Q So you don't intend to go over this before he sits down with the Republicans, whenever that may be?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Congress will act. We have already acted, because we've given them a road map to a balanced budget and we'd like them to start down that destination now.
Q Are you definitively saying that the President would not sign a cut of 4.3 percent or whatever it is in the gas bill --
MR. MCCURRY: No, I'm very --
Q Excuse me -- against the minimum wage increase?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I was very cleverly turning the table on that question to go back to the issue of what are we doing about Senator Dole's tax increase.
Q So what's the answer?
Q What are you going to do -- do you have an answer for that question?
MR. MCCURRY: I think I said we'll have to wait and see what happens in the context of a balanced budget discussion. These are not -- this has a big revenue impact, everybody here knows that, that's going to affect our ability to get a balanced budget certain within the time period the President wants to see. So that's why it has to be considered within the context of how we're going to get a balanced budget.
Now, if it comes to the President separately, we'll have to look at it separately. But the first thing we want to do is to maintain the forward momentum on a deal to balance the budget in a time certain. And that's the forum in which these types of ideas ought to be considered.
Q Mike, on a more broad, philosophical plane, we all know since January, anyway, that the era of big government is over. But apparently the era of government activism is alive and well with the White House recently making efforts to affect the labor market with the minimum wage increase, the petroleum futures market, the cattle market. Is there a consistent philosophy behind this of using the powers of the presidency and the executive office to affect markets and --
MR. MCCURRY: There's a single consistent philosophy to our approach to economic policymaking. Markets work best, markets are affected by equations related to supply and demand, and that's the proper way for market outcomes to be decided by the American consumer. And the President has taken steps related to what he has as statutory authority to do something we had to do to connect in to the strategic petroleum reserve. The government does buy beef for the school lunch program. We do have acres set aside and a conservation program that can be opened up for grazing. But these are impacts at the margin in the equation between supply and demand and the market is a place where those decisions rightfully are made by consumers.
Q What about the labor market and the price of labor?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there are many things that affect the rates -- you could look at the whole body of labor law, whether it's pension protections, whether it's employee benefits, whether it's wage rates where there's a Fair Labor Standards Act in general, whether it's protections for worker safety and argue that any of those have an impact on the labor market.
But the important thing is that they protect American workers and they represent bipartisan consensus going back to at least the early 1970s on what protections workers deserve in the workplace, both for their physical safety and well being and for their economic security. And no change in the view there. And that represents, I think, some common sense thinking that both parties have embraced over the years.
Q What do you say to environmentalists who are mad about the grazing situation?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we understand their concerns about those acres that were set aside in the conservation program, but we're also facing some real hardship for those ranchers that are dealing with the short-term effects of low cattle prices and high feed prices.
Q The news about the intervention on beef prices broke rather late yesterday. Is there another commodity today that we might be warned about?
MR. MCCURRY: No, and these are -- Dr. Tyson, the Chair of the National Economic Council, indicated these are unrelated. They're two different commodities markets. And the reasons for presidential action in both cases were entirely separate.
Q Would these actions be taken if it wasn't an election year?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, it would be. We would be buying beef for the school lunch program. We do that every year, just as an --
Q Ahead of time, many months ahead of time?
MR. MCCURRY: And as to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, that's a matter that was started in its debate during the course of 1995, which, as you know, was not an election year.
Q Now, is this processed beef that you're buying?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't how they -- I don't know the forum in --
Q Have you bought actually heads of cattle?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know the forum in which they buy the beef for the school lunch program, but USDA could help you out.
Q On the SPR is the administration open to future sales from the SPR to raise revenue for deficit reduction, or do you see value in retaining it as a strategic reserve?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's called the strategic reserve for that reason. It was designed to protect against oil shocks that we experienced in the 1970s and has great utility with that respect. But as we've seen greater stability in the post-Cold War era, there have been some questions about how you can use that inventory, in this case for deficit reduction, which is a worthy goal. And the President used it for that purpose, but used it in a time when it might have some marginal impact in nudging the market in a certain direction.
Q So there might be future such sales --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any plans to request that kind of authority, and I haven't -- I've heard some discussion within Congress about whether or not they should pursue that goal. But I think we're more interested right now in seeing if we can find out what caused the recent spikes in oil and gas prices; what we think it is going to be the future of that market as we look ahead through the summer when Americans are going to be driving a lot more; and then what can we do about it both in policy terms; and then also, as you know, from the Justice Department whether there's anything that ought to be done in a legal sense after they look at that issue.
Q Has there been any contact with the oil companies to find out what's going on?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any that the White House has conducted. The Energy Department has been asked by the President to look into those issues, and the Justice Department indicated yesterday that they would be looking into those issues as well.
Q Was there a briefing at State after the Christopher-Arafat meeting?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, they were doing the -- going to cover that in their daily briefing this afternoon and put out the points covered in the Secretary's meeting.
Q Go back to the minimum wage. Is the administration opposed to the idea that's been floated recently of eliminating withholding taxes for people who are at the minimum wage level instead of raising the minimum wage?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not familiar enough with the issue. I'd have to check on that. I haven't heard any discussion of it at the White House, but we can check on it.
Q Because of the human rights abuses committed by the graduates of the School of the Americas -- the Army School of the Americas, including the rape and torture of Sister Ortiz across the street, who's protesting, Congressman Kennedy and others have called again today for closing that school down. What's the President's position on that?
MR. MCCURRY: I mean, I know of the allegations, and I know that they are looking into the circumstances involving Sister Ortiz. And we've said over and over again that we intend to get the facts on that and provide that directly to her. Whether or not there are people implicated associated with the school is one area that has to be covered in the review, and we'll be able to address that properly at the time that we can say something publicly about it.
Q Has he taken a position on that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have said some things from time to time on the school, the role that it plays in some of our military and military assistance programs with governments in this hemisphere. And I'm not aware of any change in that. But I'm certain that Congressman Joseph Kennedy -- we will certainly be interested in his argument and look at it in great detail.
Q Mike, I was sort of under the impression that the review of what happened to the Sister had been finished fairly recently, but was being held up for some reason. Do you know of any reason why it would be?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, only for this reason -- because we are looking at a number of cases involving Guatemala. You're familiar with the case of Ephraim Bamaca, Jennifer Harbury's deceased spouse. There are other cases -- the Michael DeVine case and others -- that are all part of the review that the President ordered the Intelligence Oversight Board to conduct, and they are in the process of finalizing that review and expect to have it done by mid-year. And because we are looking at those other cases and looking at a pattern of activities, we may, in fact -- I don't know if it is factually true, but they finished looking at her case in particular -- I thought that they still had some additional inquiries they were making related to her case. But they are all connected because it is part of the review that the President commissioned by the IOB of all the matters involving Guatemala.
Anything else? All right. Thank you all.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:39 P.M. EDT