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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release August 21, 1996
                          PRESS BRIEFING BY
                            MIKE MCCURRY

The Briefing Room

1:23 P.M. EDT

MR. MCCURRY: What do you guys want to talk about today?

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the White House. Here's our daily briefing.

Q Boris Yeltsin.

MR. MCCURRY: Yes. Boris Yeltsin, the President of the Russian Federation. Next question.

Q Still?

Q Send any message to the President?

MR. MCCURRY: The President has been deeply concerned about the escalation of the fighting in and around Grozny. If you'll recall, last week there had been an effort, I believe it was the OSCE's assistance group that has been organizing an effort for mediation between the parties, and we were encouraged both by their attempts to arrange and implement a cease-fire, and now discouraged by reports of a resumption of fighting that could endanger the very fragile dialogue that was begun last week.

We've also been concerned about reports of threats of use of force against Grozny that could endanger the lives of tens of thousands of civilians. The belief of the United States government is that this cycle of violence must come to an end because prolonged fighting is only going to endanger civilians. The humanitarian situation there is very difficult. And again, we have continued to call on all the parties to minimize the conflict, to return to the kinds of discussions that could bring the conflict to an end.

We are encouraged by the presence of Mr. Lebev in Chechnya. The President has sent a communication to President Yeltsin reflecting the concern that we have expressed repeatedly to the Russian government, and we hope there will soon be an end to the conflict.

Q Have you heard back yet?

MR. MCCURRY: We have not had a response. The message just went out, I believe, overnight.

Q An expression of concern?

MR. MCCURRY: Expression of concern and reflecting much of the concern that I just relayed.

Q Does the President still think that Mr. Yeltsin is still fully in control of what's happening in Russia?

MR. MCCURRY: It's not the position of the United States government to judge how internal functionings of other governments work. We maintain routine diplomatic contact with the Russian Federation and we communication both with the Russian President and directly with the Russian Prime Minister.

Q Are there some concern about the balance of power in Russia and Mr. Yeltsin's grip on power?

MR. MCCURRY: It is not my position here to comment on internal political workings of the Russian government. We maintain proper routine diplomatic contact at a variety of levels with the Russian Federation. We are in regular contact at high levels through our embassy in Moscow. Ambassador Pickering has been fully engaged, and that is the proper way in which the United States government would do business with the government of the Russian Federation.

Q Mike, just to follow up on a different angle, obviously, different questions about President Yeltsin's health lately -- is there an assessment -- what's the assessment from the United States government about his health in terms of his ability to govern?

MR. MCCURRY: Our assessment is based on the information that we have available that has been communicated publicly by the Russian Federation. He has indicated a desire to take some vacation time after a strenuous campaign period. That doesn't seem to be too unusual. One might hope that the American President would do likewise.

Q Isn't that getting a little threadbare? He's been on vacation for more than a month and so forth. I mean, how long can we go along with that?

MR. MCCURRY: It's not my business to speculate what a proper length of vacation is for a foreign leader. The important thing is the United States government has regular channels of communication with high levels of the Russian government, and those channels of communication remain open and allow us to transact the business that our government does with their government.

Q As you understand it, is Yeltsin still in control?

MR. MCCURRY: We have not heard anything to indicate otherwise.

Q Will you be releasing a copy of the cable to Yeltsin?


Q Mr. Barbour said this morning that the bill being signed this afternoon is one Mr. Clinton has opposed all along and pretended not to have. Is Mr. Barbour correct in that, and if not --

MR. MCCURRY: No, he must just be in a kind of a daze of confusing after his convention. So when he gets his feet back on the ground maybe he'll be a reliable commentator on policy.

The President -- one thing I think everyone understands is his deep commitment to health care reform. He wrote a letter to Speaker Gingrich and to then Majority Leader Dole in December of 1994, encouraging the Congress to take step-by-step measures that would move us along the road to health care reform and, certainly, this is a very positive step. This is an important measure in terms of portability. The President will describe the reasons why the bill is a good one and a good start on the types of things we need to do.

The President does have other proposals, as well. In his budget is a funding measure to help unemployed people have some assistance to maintain health care coverage. And this is a problem that the President plans to continue working on and a reason why the President hopes that he might have four more years to continue the progress that we see today with this signing.

Q Mike, the President did at one time, however, in the State of the Union address under different political circumstances indicate he would not accept any kind of a piecemeal, step-by-step approach to health care reform. Would it be fair to characterize the change on that as one made at the end of 1994 as an accommodation to the new political realities?

MR. MCCURRY: That's fair to say. I think it's important also to note that in his most recent State of the Union address, the one this past January, he specifically encouraged Congress to move forward on the Kassebaum-Kennedy legislation. In fact, Senator Kennedy credited the President with a very important jolt of momentum by making that public appeal.

Q Is it fair to say, though, that it was simply an adjustment to new political reality that caused him to change his mind about it?

MR. MCCURRY: I think it's an adjustment to the reality that we were facing a Republican Congress. The President desired to continue working on health care reform and that this was the way in which it was most likely that we would achieve the success that the President will celebrate with a bipartisan group of members of Congress today.

Q There was a concern expressed at the time, expressed by him and by the First Lady, that in important respects partial reform of this kind was worse than none because of the balances required in the system and so forth. What changed his mind on the substance of the issue?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, they have done things in this bill with respect to portability, with administrative reforms that will strengthen the health care system. It's leaving unaddressed several major problems. First of all, dropped from this bill was a mental health parity measure that the President was concerned about, but, most important, the lack of coverage for those who are uninsured remains a critical problem that will need to be addressed. And the President will never lose sight of the objective of continuing to work on ways in which we can cover those who are not uncovered.

Q Will there be a proposal to that effect between now and the end of the year, or early next year sometime if he's reelected?

MR. MCCURRY: Not likely, although, as I said, we do have a proposal that would expand access to health care insurance by addressing the needs of those who are uninsured in periods in which they're unemployed. Now, that's the kind of thing that we believe we can work on. Again, it's consistent with what the President had outlined to the Republican leaders in December of 1994, an incremental approach that would allow us to continue to work on health care reform.

Q Mike, there's also concern within the industry, the insurance industry, and among some of the consumer groups, that without some kind of caps that this portability could, in fact, drive up not only insurance costs, but premiums. Is the President prepared to try to pursue that at some point?

MR. MCCURRY: There are always those kinds of complaints from the private sector and this administration certainly knows how the private sector addresses some of those types of contemplated changes in the health care insurance system.

It's also true that having access to health care during periods of transition might increase worker productivity, and it might make either for a more stable work force or a more fluid work force, thus helping the private sector remain efficient and competitive. I mean, there are lots of different ways to measure the effects of that.

What we have pledged to do is to make sure we address the concerns raised by the private sector. That, indeed, has been done in the course of working on this legislation. And we will continue, as we continue the process of reforming health care in the United States, to take into account the needs of the provider community, the insurance community, certainly the private sector that provides the bulk of health care insurance for the American people through employer-provided health care benefits.

Q So, at this point, is it a cart before the horse kind of thing, until it's actually determined what effect this has on premium costs or health insurance costs for either individuals or companies?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there are specific provisions in here that we think, in fact, are going to ease health care cost increases because of the ease of administration, some of the standardization measures they're doing in terms of making claims. We think this bill is one that improves the provision of health care, improves the confidence the American people will have in health care insurance when they need it -- in that sense, lend stability that we believe over time has a deinflating factor in the sector.

Q Is the President working on a plan to ease access to the home mortgage interest deduction, or will that be part of the -- one of the proposals he announces on his way to or at the convention?

MR. MCCURRY: As I said yesterday, we are looking to make news next week, and if I say so now it won't be news then.

Q Mike, there are 50 or 100 people outside protesting the fact that mental health coverage was dropped from the bill. Does the President have a plan, a proposal of his own to make to try and deal with that?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we had an important plan, in that sense. It was the Domenici-Wellstone provision that was in this. But we've heard -- the group that's outside is one that we've had correspondence with. In fact, they wrote to him advising him they would be out there today to continue to hold before the Congress the need to address the concerns of those who are mentally ill and who need coverage.

Q How come they're demonstrating here and not down on the Hill then?

MR. MCCURRY: That's because you're here and not on the Hill. Nobody on the Hill today. They want to attract -- I can quote from the letter -- they applauded the President's work on this; they sent him congratulations for this incremental step forward and the letter that they have sent to the President is signed "with deepest respect" by the executive director of the organization.

Q What does the President think of former Senator Dole's response that the minimum wage should have been higher?

MR. MCCURRY: Should have been higher?

Q Higher.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, he had an opportunity when he was serving in the United States Senate to move the legislation forward -- and if I gather correctly, spoke negatively about the measure itself. So I find that a surprising statement.

Q The Japanese are threatening retaliation over this aviation issue. What is the deadline here?

MR. MCCURRY: On the civil aviation talks, do you know? Can I ask you to check? There is a very good -- the Assistant Secretary for Economic Affairs over at the State Department did a briefing, I believe, Friday. I just read it on Friday. It was a good review of that subject. I don't know if there is a specific trigger on timing, but they've had -- they did a good briefing, I believe, at the end of last week on the subject.

Q Mike, how does the President reconcile his distaste for some elements of the welfare reform bill that he's going to sign tomorrow with the decision to go ahead and sign it?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the thing the President has focused most on since making the decision to sign the legislation is how we make sure this welfare reform is successful. That would require a very strong effort at implementing the act, at making sure that as welfare dependents make the transition to work, the work is there. So, naturally, his focus has been on those things that we could do to continue the strong job creating aspects of the economy -- the national economic -- but how we can target job creation to areas in which there are high concentrations of welfare dependents.

Some of the ideas that you will hear him talk about next week deal directly with that -- what can we do in economically-distressed areas to stimulate the provision of employment or training opportunities so that the promise of making that transition becomes a real one for those who are currently on welfare. A lot of work towards that end; the President has been meeting with advisors today on that very subject and he understands that his responsibility accepting a bill that is somewhat less than perfect is now to do the best job we can of implementation.

Q Well, Mike, just to follow up on that -- will there be as much fanfare for the ceremony tomorrow as there has been for the one today and the one --

MR. MCCURRY: We've got, I hope, an exciting bill-signing ceremony scheduled for 11:00 a.m. tomorrow in the Rose Garden with a number of those members of Congress who have worked on welfare reform. We concentrated on bringing to the White House those who have really demonstrated a commitment to the bipartisan efforts at welfare reform that you saw associated with -- for example, the Breaux-Chafee group, the Castle-Tanner group in the House. We also, I suspect, will have some people who are directly affected by the legislation and who know that we can successfully make welfare reform work as we make work requirements and child care provision part of the future of those who have been formerly dependent.

Q You talked about the future job creation here, but what about the parts that he doesn't like about -- that hit legal immigrants? Does he see any remedies on that?

MR. MCCURRY: He has specifically said, and I expect him to say tomorrow that he will continue to press for changes in the specific aspects of the bill that he found objectionable and that he expressed dissatisfaction with at the time he announced his decision. We understand we have to continue to work with Congress to address those areas, and he will, obviously, press hard to do so.

Q Mike, is Clay Shaw invited tomorrow?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. I'd have to check.

Q Please.

MR. MCCURRY: I'd have to check. I would assume so because he's been one of the leading advocates -- yes. In fact, he's one of the -- we're still in the process of contacting people; he's one of those already -- there's a handful already confirmed to attend and he's confirmed and he plans to attend.

Q At the time he announced he was going to sign the welfare reform bill he recognized that he had some rifts with some of his closest allies. What conversations has he had with people like Marian Wright Edelman and others on welfare reform and has he healed those wounds, so to speak?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, if wounded, they are the ones that can describe the process of healing better than we can. But he does understand he has a responsibility to reach out to those who disagree with this decision. He has been doing so; I won't catalogue all the conversations he's had, but has been in contact with those that he wants to work with as we make this welfare reform measure effective and as we make it successful. Those types of conversations, as you can well imagine, have been ongoing and will continue to be ongoing as we work with all of those who have to be a part of making sure that welfare reform is a success.

Q Is he going to announce a tax credit or a tax break for companies that hire former welfare recipients?

MR. MCCURRY: If we make news next week along those lines, he will make it, not me.

Q It won't be tomorrow then?

Q The question is tomorrow. Is he going to be making --

MR. MCCURRY: I would not expect him to get too deeply into that tomorrow. Tomorrow is a celebration of doing something historic, reforming welfare as we know it, and the outlining how we move ahead to make sure that that is successful. I well imagine that he will have specific ideas that he begins to share next week because this is, to be candid, very much a part of the work that we will need to do over the coming years. We are not going to implement a major transformation in social policy between now and the end of this year, so clearly, this would be work that would fall on his shoulders if he is reelected by the American people. And I think he wants to share with the American people how he would propose moving ahead on welfare reform during a second term if he is given a second term.

Q But, Mike, so all of these things that he wants to press ahead for to correct the legal immigrant problems, none of that can happen until next year? You're talking about legislative remedies, right?

MR. MCCURRY: In the two areas he has specific concern requiring legislative remedies, it's doubtful to the White House that that would be considered by this Congress. That would be something that, if reelected, he would plan to place before the next Congress.

Q Right, but what about is there anything short-term that he can do without legislation?

MR. MCCURRY: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

Q Is the burden on cities and counties that have to take up --

MR. MCCURRY: There is an enormously complex series of decisions that will have to be made by the Department of Health and Human Services in contact with state welfare agencies, and they are working very hard, indeed now, to fashion the type of regulations that will make implementation of the welfare reform act a successful implementation.

At the President's direction, Mr. Panetta has established a task force here that is made up of affected agencies and a variety of people here at the White House, principally under the Domestic Policy Council with, obviously, input from the National Economic Council. And that very hard work to make sure that welfare reform is a success is well underway.

Q What is the reaction to the photograph in The New York Post today of the President and the First Lady with a guy who was supposed to have been in jail on various charges?

MR. MCCURRY: I hadn't seen it and didn't know about it.

Q Mike, as far as the announcements next week, I can understand you don't want to get into the substance, but has the President made a decision on which target tax plans he wants to go with, or are these things still in play?

MR. MCCURRY: Nothing left in that turnip, so don't squeeze it. I'm not going to give up the President's speech for next week now.

Q Senator Dole either already has or is about to once again ask the President to release his medical records.

MR. MCCURRY: Yes. What's that about? (Laughter.)

Q The President has traditionally released summaries, notes from his doctors. They've not released a detailed --

MR. MCCURRY: I went back and looked at the transcript of the briefing I did May 24th and I gave a, I thought, pretty comprehensive readout on all of the tests that the President took, including specific test results at that time. I can go through some of those again if you would like, or the Dole campaign was kind enough to provide me with specific questions. I'm more inclined to respond to you on those than I am to them.

Q Well, what they're asking is that you release the actual records of the tests, the actual documentation, not you telling us what the results are, but giving us the actual records.

MR. MCCURRY: Do you want me to just --

Q What's the resistance, anyway? Why not just do it?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, I have no problem to do it. I just don't to be in a position every time they decide they want to ask a question that we respond to them. Are you interested in the questions that they've posed and would you like the answers?

Q I'm interested in that, but I would also like --

MR. MCCURRY: Would the Associated Press like that?

Q I would also like to have exactly what the Dole campaign has turned over, and that is the complete medical records of the President.

MR. MCCURRY: I'll talk to the doctor about that, but I can give you the test results that they are interested in. They wanted to know what his hemoglobin count was; the answer is 16.1. That's well within the range normal for someone in the President's position and the value normally associated -- the normal level would be 14 to 18. They want to know what his white blood cell count was; the answer is 5.8, and that's well within the normal range, 4 to 11. They wanted to know what the President's platelet count was; the answer is 250,000 -- well within the range of normal, 150,000 to 450,000. They wanted to know what the President's SGOT reading was -- I think that is a liver function test, if I understand correctly; the answer is 42, well within the normal range of 17 to 49. They were kind enough to send these questions over to me, and I assume to you as well.

Q Did they literally sent them to you?


Q What are they hinting at?

MR. MCCURRY: So that's -- Mr. Andrew Weinstein at the communications staff, you just got your answer. (Laughter.)

Q Way to go, Andrew.

Q What are they hinting at? Do they think the President is hiding something?

MR. MCCURRY: I think they want to talk about age, I guess. I guess they want to talk about age, or they're trying to deal with the age issue. I don't know what they're doing.

Q Do you want to talk about age?

MR. MCCURRY: No. The President's 50; I think everyone knows that because he just celebrated his birthday.

Q What about releasing the actual records? It has been done before.

MR. MCCURRY: I will talk to Dr. Mariano about that. I obviously got these results from here and I'm quite certain that they are accurate test results, but I'll talk to her about that, if you want a piece of paper that has those same numbers on it.

Q Why would that be her decision and not the President's?

MR. MCCURRY: Say again?

Q Is that her decision to release them?

MR. MCCURRY: Because she is the President's physician and has the right to talk to her patient whether they want to put that documentation out.

Q That would be the President's decision.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, it should be a decision they make together. I think it's proper. But I hope there's no one who challenges the accuracy of the results I just reported.

Q I think what the implication of the Dole campaign and other Republicans -- the implication is that the American public should know if he's hiding something about his health --

MR. MCCURRY: He's not. They can be fully confident that he is a healthy, 50-year-old white male who just demonstrated that, among other ways, by hiking many of you into the ground in Wyoming.

Q Yes, but you could put this all to rest simply by releasing the medical records.

MR. MCCURRY: Look, the principal indicators -- ask any physician -- if you want me -- you don't want to go through this again. Do you want to go through this again?

Q Just do it. Just do it. I mean, it's so easy.

MR. MCCURRY: All right, I'll just do it. The President's performance on his treadmill test was 15 minutes at a speed of 5.5 miles per hour at a 20 percent grade, according to the Bruce protocol. You all know his weight at the time of his physical, May 24th; he weighed in at 216. He now leads you to believe that it's less than that, and it probably -- it is. I have no reason to doubt that. His total cholesterol count dropped from 203 last year to 191 this year. The two component parts of that were both within normal ranges. I don't have those numbers here, although I did have them here on May 24th. His pulse was recorded at 55, with a blood pressure of 126/70. And as the President's doctor reported, excellent overall health.

Q I think, Mike, all these questions aim at, and it is my understanding from our own medical reporter, who I think has covered something like four or five presidencies --

MR. MCCURRY: Your own medical reporter -- I offered the opportunity to have an interview with Dr. Mariano and he didn't take us up on the offer.

Q Well, I don't know anything about that. But it's my understanding that the Clinton administration and President Clinton, personally, has not released standard documentation that other past Presidents have released.

MR. MCCURRY: I'll check on that. I did not believe that to be true, and I believe that -- I was told that the briefing I did May 24th was a more thorough accounting of test results for an annual physical than had been given here before. I'll check if that's not true or if there's additional documentation we want to provide. I don't see any reason not to do so, given the President's overall health. There is nothing there that is surprising and nothing there, as I indicated with some of those test results, that's outside the bell curve of normal.

Q Yesterday you expressed some concern the President had about the increase in teenage drug use. Specifically, what does the administration want to do to lower that drug use and will there be a comprehensive plan released before the election?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there is a comprehensive national drug control strategy that Barry McCaffrey and Secretary Shalala talked about yesterday. There are five elements to it. First and foremost is to discourage and do everything necessary to discourage drug use among young people.

One of the things that the President intends to do is to continue to fight for the budgets that he has placed before Congress that would do a great deal, in our opinion, to discourage and treat drug use among young people. But that -- it is not only a federal program and a federal effort that will get that necessary work done, it has to be done by parents, by teachers, by community leaders, by leaders of religious faith to come together to discourage any type of addictive behavior by young people.

That goes to tobacco use, which this President has worked on, which we believe is connected to substance abuse efforts. And, obviously, it extends to the drug control strategy that the President is implementing. There's not a need for a new announcement or a new proposal because we have a comprehensive national drug control strategy underway that's being implemented and we believe being implemented effectively.

Q Mike, is the President doing anything tomorrow to mark the release of his book?

MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware of, no.

Q Signing copies here?

Q No book signing?

MR. MCCURRY: No. In fact, if I understand correctly -- is it available? I don't even know. I had not talked to the publisher about it. Is it available at bookstores tomorrow? I know that some news organizations have been given copies.

Q I think it's shipped to bookstores tomorrow.

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, I'm not -- I was told initially that it was not going to be available in bookstores probably until sometime over the weekend. You all want autographed copies, clearly?

Q Yes.

Q Sure.

Q Is Mrs. Clinton going to be outside?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, she plans to be.

All right. We will see you at this historic bill signing ceremony coming up.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:50 P.M. EDT