THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
4:05 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the White House press briefing room for today's daily briefing.
Q Mr. McCurry, is the President --
MR. MCCURRY: Wait a minute, Wolf. Do you want to ask a question? How about if I make an announcement first?
The National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake, is today announcing the appointment of Rear Admiral Paul E. Busick to the National Security Council staff. He'll be in charge of a new directorate on Gulf War illnesses, reflecting the high priority the President attaches to both the work of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses, which is in the process of finalizing its report after extensive and successful work on the issue. The President clearly wants to signal his intention to stay at the work of uncovering for all those who served in the Gulf the truth about the exposure or any exposure they may have had to substances that may have produced ill health effects. A longer statement following on that.
Q Mike --
MR. MCCURRY: Admiral Paul E. Busick, Rear Admiral Paul E. Busick, B-u-s-i-c-k. Paper -- we've got a little press release with more words of wisdom from me on that subject. I wanted to call that to your attention.
Mr. Blitzer, you were in the middle of a question when I interrupted.
Q When do you expect the President to make an announcement on whether the U.S. should be involved in helping the people in Zaire?
MR. MCCURRY: I expect the President to review the recommendations that come to him from his senior foreign policy advisors, and they are actively and urgently reviewing that question in consultation with other governments that are also deeply concerned about the humanitarian plight of refugees from East Rwanda who are now in Zaire or crossing back and forth between the border. And the President will clearly be consulting, as he indicated to members of Congress, with the congressional leadership about any unique role that the United States might have in a mission.
Again, the President always is concerned about the nature of any mission -- is it well defined, is it well coordinated, are there clear lines of authority with those who would participate in such a force. All of those questions are those being urgently reviewed, even at this moment.
Q So when do you think there will be a decision?
MR. MCCURRY: When there's good grounds to know that you've got the right decision in hand, and we don't have it yet.
Q What about the French criticism, Mike? Does that lend any urgency to the situation?
MR. MCCURRY: No. I mean, the French have a historic involvement in that continent, but the French are among many nations that are deeply concerned and worried and have been active in their diplomacy, as has been our government. We have devoted considerable work, including the consultations of a special envoy to the issue of how we can limit the fighting between people on both sides of the border. And that diplomatic work must continue, but the urgent question now facing the world community is what to do about the likelihood of a humanitarian catastrophe. And that is the one that the President's senior foreign policy advisors have been addressing.
Q Is there any sort of peacekeeping, peacemaking role, or would it simply -- would U.S. troops simply be involved in a humanitarian effort?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'm not speculating on what U.S. troops "might" do. There is a desire by the international community to assist those who have been doing a heroic effort of trying to provide humanitarian relief. The security situation right now for those who are involved in that effort has been in recent days desperate. There has been some indications that the situation might be opening up somewhat in the last 24 hours, but we continue to explore with others in the world community and through the United Nations, through UNACR and other effected agencies how best to address the humanitarian situation and also the underlying security concerns that have been there and have been the subject of considerable diplomacy over the last several months.
Q Is there some timetable that the President has asked his advisors to work against?
MR. MCCURRY: He's asked them to address the matter urgently and they are doing so.
Q Would you expect they would have some recommendations by the end of the day or tomorrow or --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to speculate. They will work it urgently.
Q Mike, what are the active involvements that are under consideration?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to detail for you what plans are being reviewed. There are those -- there are a number of governments that have suggested different configurations and types of missions, and some of those, frankly, are contradictory and they need to be resolved, reconciled, all of those countries that have an interest to participate need to put their efforts together and address the situation.
Q Would this be under the aegis of the U.N. or who or what?
MR. MCCURRY: UNACR is currently -- they are the U.N. humanitarian office -- High Commissioner of Refugees has been addressing it because there are a million-plus refugees now that have been affected by the fighting. So the U.N. has been playing a role and has been largely humanitarian. The suggestions that there be some type of security provided to that humanitarian relief effort has come principally from the French. There have been some suggestions from the Canadians that there is a way to structure the force. We have deliberated at the United Nations about how best to address the security needs of the humanitarian relief workers, and we are continuing to address that.
Q That's what this is about, is the security needs of humanitarian relief efforts?
MR. MCCURRY: The people who are going to provide -- the most urgent situation there is humanitarian. The likelihood of famine, cholera, dehydration -- that is clearly the most urgent and pressing concern. There are ways in which those providing relief believe they can address that, but they've been concerned about the ongoing fighting between the tribal factions there that jeopardizes the provision of that aid.
Q Mike, on the budget, did the President get any agreement from Gingrich and Lott to consider some early ideas on the budget so that you could expedite the process?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President made a very strong appeal for getting -- setting about the task of balancing the budget, in a sense, as he said earlier, picking up where we left off almost a year ago now where we had good discussions here at the White House that narrowed the differences and got us within certainly hair-splitting difference of a balanced budget by a date-certain.
The President suggested we need to pick up that work now and go to it again. The Congressional leaders I think accurately indicated that they said that, look, the President, his voice and his leadership needs to be compelling at this moment and the President's determined to offer that kind of leadership. In one fashion or in another, we will do it publicly, as the President has been doing it publicly, you saw him on that subject earlier today; but we also have to promulgate an FY '98 budget proposal which will embrace and embody those things the President has pointed to as the concrete specifics of a plan to balance the budget while providing tax relief, while investing in education, and making sure we address those priorities the President identified during the campaign season. That work will continue, the President believes, based on what he described as a very positive, constructive meeting, that there will be ample opportunity to work with the congressional leadership in accomplishing that objective.
Q Would you see that happening before the first of the year -- I mean, before the Congress convenes and before he actually has to submit the budget? Would he think of some early -- either another meeting like this, more informal discussions, staff level discussions?
MR. MCCURRY: Congressional leaders seem to be saying to the President today, we're looking to you to provide some leadership, to outline some ideas. The President is determined to do that. Indeed, he has done that, and if you go back to the proposals we have laid before all of you and laid before the congressional leadership, most of the serious objectives that would need to be the underpinning of a balanced budget agreement are in place. But we need to go back, refine those, both as far as advancing ideas before Congress, but also putting them in a formal proposal in the form of a budget submission for Fiscal Year 1998.
Q Would it be correct to say that, as this is presently conceived, you would deal with the FY '97 budget as one thing and the fiscal solvency of Medicare as a longer-term project to be dealt with later?
MR. MCCURRY: No. Within the proposal that we would advance as part of an FY '98 budget proposal would be those savings and the start of a track that would limit future spending on Medicare that would generate the types of savings the President has identified in the past. The Republican leadership also has indicated in past budget proposals that they have made public a desire to limit the increase in spending in Medicare and Medicaid in a fashion to generate savings. There's been a disagreement over the size of those savings, but it's a disagreement that in the President's opinion can be broached.
Q Was there any discussion in there of avoiding the hot hockey rhetoric that has accompanied the discussion of Medicare in the past?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I've heard from any of the key participants from our side. There was a desire to, in a sense, accept the verdict of the American people and to move forward.
The President said it best. He said, look, the American people have spoken. They gave me an oar, they gave them an oar. We're in the boat and we've got to be rowing in the same direction.
Q The President wants to pick up where you left off with the budget talks. Is there any chance that you would go back to this kind of extraordinary summitry kind of process to pick up where you left off? Or would it be more likely to be in the traditional -- propose a budget and go through the Hill process?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the opportunity to continue to work with the leadership in providing, in a sense, guidance or providing leadership to those who do the work at the congressional committee level was clearly in evidence today. There is an opportunity, the President believes, based on this meeting, to work with the congressional leadership to set out some priorities and send some signals and provide some guidance to those who will actually do the formal work of drafting the budget, writing the budget resolution, doing the appropriations and the authorizing work of the Congressional Budget Committees.
But at the same time, that process, as we've seen in the past, can get bogged down unless there's a clear mandate from the leadership of both the executive branch and the legislative branch. Today's meeting was an attempt to provide that kind of guidance and that kind of consensus. It certainly wasn't achieved today. We didn't believe it was necessarily going to be achieved today, but there was a spirit there that suggested that the bipartisan work of balancing the budget can proceed.
Q Mike, were you in there? Was it in the Oval or the Cabinet Room?
MR. MCCURRY: It was in the Oval.
Q And were you in the room?
MR. MCCURRY: I did not -- the Chief of Staff and Mr. Panetta and, at various points, Mr. Hilley and Budget Director Raines was there for a point, and Secretary of Treasury was there for a point.
Q This is a group of people that have had some interesting, you know, and pretty tense atmospherics in the past. Is your sense from the principals on your side that there was a mood of turning over a new leaf today or a bunch of ancient enmities on display or --
MR. MCCURRY: I would not at all disagree with the assessment given by the Speaker and by the Senate Majority Leader outside a short while ago. It was a meeting in which everyone recognized that there had been an election, it was time to move on, time to work together and do the work that the American people expect to see their government now do.
Q On campaign finance reform the President said at his press conference it really could be done lickety-split. But outside, the Speaker was saying that before any legislative action is taken he wants extensive fact-finding as to how much money was contributed during this cycle, not just by the parties and by the campaign, but outside forces, third parties, independent groups. And he was talking about a rather extensive investigative agenda before moving to legislation. Does that concern you folks?
MR. MCCURRY: I heard him say that. I did not hear him direct that -- address that and link that directly to campaign finance reform. I thought I heard him say that that needs to proceed and it's clear that it will. But that does not take away anything from the President's very strong argument which he explicitly referred to several times, that if we're serious about this issue and we know what the vehicle is, it's the McCain-Feingold legislation, and we ought to move on that expeditiously. That's what he told them. The ball is in their court on that now. We've indicated a willingness to stand with Senators McCain and Feingold and those who are going to introduce that measure in a modified form in this Congress, specifically to address the issue of foreign contributions, and so we're ready to go.
Q How does a new law become the remedy for violations of the old law?
MR. MCCURRY: It's to address the subject that the Speaker indicated that he wanted to talk, according to Leo's question.
Q You're saying you think that the President got the Speaker's agreement to support that law?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I'm saying that the President made the case to them that if we're serious about addressing these issues, the way to do it is through legislation that can move and can move rather quickly because it enjoys widespread bipartisan support.
Q But the point seemed to be that listening to the Speaker afterward -- and I think I had the same impression -- he seemed to say that what you needed -- he said you need something that applies to not just the candidates, but the whole process, he seemed to be signing off that.
MR. MCCURRY: The President would not dispute that. If McCain-Feingold does affect the entire process and affects the way in which politics in America is funded. And we need overhaul and reform of that system, which is what McCain-Feingold would accomplish.
Q Regardless of what Gingrich said outside, inside, did any of the Republican leaders give the President encouragement about a fairly speedy timetable to get campaign finance reform?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll let them speak for themselves, but I think their remarks privately reflected what they said publicly.
Q Mike, Ken Starr yesterday rejected the contention that he's partisan, said he's doing civic work and that the whole Whitewater probe would have been over sooner if people had cooperated. Two questions: Does the President still believe that Mr. Starr is partisan, and would the President care to urge everyone, including Susan McDougal, to be forthcoming?
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard a reaction to Mr. Starr's address by the President. I believe he asked a question with respect -- I mean, he asked -- I'm not sure that -- I'd have to go back and see if there is some place at which he ever said he was partisan. And I would agree that he left that impression, but I don't know that he ever said that point-blank. He sort of raised a question rhetorically. He asked a rhetorical question, if I recall correctly. And I don't know that we have any other particular reaction to Mr. Starr's remarks.
Q Mike, is the President's position still the same, and would the President, on Mr. Starr -- doe he still think it's obvious he's partisan?
MR. MCCURRY: Position on -- with what respect?
Q The, isn't it obvious that he's partisan.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. He asked a rhetorical question.
Q Come on, Mike. There's no doubt about what the point of that question, that rhetorical question was.
MR. MCCURRY: Would he still ask a rhetorical question today? I don't know the answer to that.
Q Does the President think Mr. Starr is partisan?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know.
Q Does the President care to urge people to cooperate in order to get it over with?
MR. MCCURRY: If I'm not mistaken, Mr. Starr raised no allegation in his remarks that anyone at the White House had not been cooperative. In fact, he was specifically asked that, and specifically declined to identify who he said was not being cooperative. So I don't know why that's a question I need to take here.
Q On the general issue of campaign finance and looking to events of the recent past, when does the White House intend to disclose who John Huang visited here at the White House and what exactly was discussed?
MR. MCCURRY: These are all matters that have been -- information about those matters have been requested by congressional committees and the White House Legal Counsel is in the process of preparing those answers appropriately for members of Congress. Our intent is to release that publicly when it is prepared to the satisfaction of those who have to submit it to congressional committees, and it's painstaking work and they're doing it as quickly as they can.
Q On the budget meeting, did you discuss any areas of common agreement on tax relief?
MR. MCCURRY: In the readouts I got from several participants, they did not, to my knowledge, address specific areas of tax relief.
Q And on Medicare, is it fair to say that there was no truce offered on how the White House will depict Republican Medicare cuts next year?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it was safe to say that the President stressed the areas of agreement. Both sides agree that there need to be savings from Medicare by slowing the rate of increase in spending for Medicare. Some of that is now happening because of market effects of declining medical costs, but they'll still be a need to generate additional savings in Medicare. The President's budget plan has long acknowledged that. The Republicans had budget savings in their plan that the President felt were so ample as to be precarious for elderly beneficiaries, and that above all else, they agreed they should set aside last year's argument and proceed to do next year's work.
Q So there's $124 billion in Medicare savings set aside?
MR. MCCURRY: You know the rough outline of our budget; I don't think that's changed. I mean, there will be some as we churn the numbers now in light of the fact we've lost a year; we'll be churning numbers and generating a budget proposal in February, but it's going to be roughly the same outline reflecting the same priorities.
Q What was the President trying to say this morning in regard to a balanced budget amendment? Was he indicating a shift in his position, or simply expressing some of the concerns that he previously held?
MR. MCCURRY: He has always told you and told the American people that he sees a great danger in writing national economic policy into the Constitution, and he has cited as an example in the past and did so today the question of what happens during a recession when you don't want to make matters worse by doing things that would have a national effect on demand, that might make a recession even deeper.
Q So he still opposes a balanced --
MR. MCCURRY: He favors balancing the budget and he spent most of an hour and 20 minute meeting today talking about how we can get the job of balancing the budget done.
Q But he still opposes an amendment?
Q But the amendment is --
MR. MCCURRY: That subject, by the way, did not come up in the meeting today.
Q I understand that, but I was talking about the --
Q He still thinks the amendment is fraught as a possibly gimmicky construct for a problem that's better addressed --
MR. MCCURRY: He thinks, as I said -- as he said earlier today and as I would repeat, that there's danger in trying to write national economic policy into the Constitution. We recognize the reality here. There may be a growing sentiment on the Hill to do that, but the President thinks first and foremost we ought to just do it. We ought to just write a balanced budget by a date certain; the elements are there, we know how to do it, they know how to do it. We could probably in fairly short order provide some serious momentum to the effort to actually balance the budget rather than just talking about it or talking about making it a constitutional imperative.
Q Wait a minute. So he still opposes a balanced budget amendment?
MR. MCCURRY: He today made it clear he favors a balanced budget, talked to Congress about how to do it. The question of an amendment didn't come up today.
Q I'm not talking about the congressional meeting.
MR. MCCURRY: The President's position -- and there's no pending constitutional amendment.
Q No, but he --
MR. MCCURRY: The President today raised some concerns about how you would structure an amendment. We don't know how they're going to structure an amendment proposal.
Q But, Mike, he did clearly seem to suggest today that his resistance to that had diminished, or that he might accept it or go along with it or acquiesce in it. Can you clarify that?
MR. MCCURRY: He clearly indicated today what he has indicated in the past, that there is great danger in attempting to write national economic policy into the Constitution in the form of an amendment.
Q I know that, Mike, but that doesn't --
MR. MCCURRY: And, Brit, it looks like they're going to do it. So the question is how they do it. And the President today said, let's make sure we do it in a fashion that doesn't make matters worse.
Q Because he said today, if the escape hatch is good, then we'll manage it the best way we can.
Q Right. That doesn't sound like --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's another way of saying as a practical matter if it passes and becomes the law of the land and the Constitution of the United States, we'll have to deal with it.
Q So he's not going to veto it?
MR. MCCURRY: They can't. He doesn't get -- that's the whole issue.
Q He can't.
Q He can't.
Q Sorry. (Laughter.)
Q But, Mike, it would have to be confirmed by the states, so --
Q Will he campaign against them if it doesn't --
MR. MCCURRY: He would clearly continue to oppose anything that would limit the ability of the United States to effectively manage our economic affairs in the midst of a recession. No question about that. But what he was saying today is, you know, let's show some common sense in addressing this question and, you know, the issue is the balanced budget, let's balance the budget. That's what he said today.
Q So it'd be fair to say that although it may have sounded to some of us like he resigned himself to it, that's not true?
MR. MCCURRY: It's fair to say today he expressed his long standing concerns on this. You're trying -- you won't pin me down on this, you can keep trying. (Laughter.)
Q That's fine. That's fair enough. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Brit, you know, sometimes you've just got to -- look, I haven't been out here in a while and I'm out of practice -- (laughter.)
Q A little candor goes a long way. (Laughter.)
Q Can you give us any --
Q Your shaping your battles today and if it's a reality and it's going to happen then he --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. Look, if we're going to spend energy on a balanced budget, let's balance the budget. And then let's -- you know, if they want to do a constitutional amendment, it would be a far more powerful act to consider once we've actually done the hard work of balancing the budget -- which the President indicated today he would do.
Q Do you have any transition updates for us, or any inaugural updates or any new appointments, anything?
MR. MCCURRY: If we have any, we'll probably do so at a later date, maybe tomorrow.
Q Mike, by your own admission, James Riady visited the White House dozens of times over the years of the Clinton administration, talking on many occasions about policy. Yet you said that they --
MR. MCCURRY: I never said on many occasions did they talk policy.
Q Talked on a number occasions.
MR. MCCURRY: I never said on a number of occasions.
Q Well, it's come out, talking about policy sometimes.
MR. MCCURRY: If you know that to be true; I don't know that to be true.
Q Well, by your own admission, James Riady has come to the White House --
MR. MCCURRY: By the President's own admission Friday he knows James Riady and has known him for a long time and has seen him on a number of occasions.
Q On dozen of occasions. Yet, you say when it comes to the Nobel Peace Prize winners from East Timor, that there are no plans for them to meet with President Clinton. Is it because they haven't made campaign contributions or that those who have don't want them here?
MR. MCCURRY: They've been -- Bishop Belo has been here at the White House, met with Tony Lake several times --
Q Has not met with President Clinton.
MR. MCCURRY: Has he got any plans to be here anytime soon?
Q Jose Ramos Horta is here in Washington this week.
MR. MCCURRY: Does Bishop Belo have any plans to be here? That's what I asked.
Q How about Jose Ramos Horta, the other Nobel Peace Prize winner?
MR. MCCURRY: I am not aware of any plans for the President to see him.
Q Why not? He just won the Nobel Peace Prize.
MR. MCCURRY: The President's got a big schedule and that's not one of the items that's on the schedule.
Q So he has no plans to meet with the Nobel Peace Prize winners. What about the questions this raises about --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, winners -- there are two different winners, and one is Bishop Belo.
Q Right. Does he have any plans to meet with Bishop Belo?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware he has any plans to be in Washington. We'll check for you further on that, though.
Q Jose Ramos Horta is in Washington. Why do you make a distinction between the two Peace Prize winners?
MR. MCCURRY: Because they are two different individuals, they have two different careers and two different ways of addressing what are the human rights concerns in East Timor that we strongly -- that concern us greatly.
Q Will President Clinton invite either to the White House to meet with them?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware that we will invite any, but I'm not aware that Bishop Belo has any plans to visit Washington.
Q -- meet with Jose Ramos Horta, who is in Washington?
MR. MCCURRY: The turnip is dry. (Laughter.)
Q A little bit more on this budget -- the pre-budget submission stuff. Does the President envision any further meetings either with the top legislative leaders, or staff-to-staff discussions that would precede his budget submission, sending signals --
MR. MCCURRY: We will continue to be actively engaged in consulting with the leadership. The President, based on today's meeting, may, in fact, want to have another opportunity to visit with him. I didn't hear anything to indicate they've set a time or a process for doing that, but it was a productive meeting and I imagine it's the kind of meeting the President would look forward to having again.
Q Senator Lott was pretty clear today about wanting to follow the regular order, as he calls it, the normal process. Was there something in the meeting that conflicted with that at all? Did he seem to change that --
MR. MCCURRY: No, no. I think they indicated that they need to see the President step forward and make some proposals that would address some of the issues that are on the table with respect to the budget. The President said he would do so, certainly do so within the context of regular order, but the President stressed -- we've got the ability to move this quickly, move the budget process forward quickly, rather than regular order -- unfortunately sometimes has meant delays and slipping the mandatory statutory deadlines. And there is no reason to do that in the President's view, given that both sides have got some things in common in their plans.
Q Well, may we be assured, Mike?
Q Did they give him encouragement that they would expedite it?
MR. MCCURRY: They did not indicate they were going to expedite consideration of the budget. There are some things that they might be willing to do that would look at their calendar and how they would address timing and sequencing, but I'll leave that for them to address.
Q Can we be assured, Mike, that we won't have a repeat of 1995 when the President introduced a budget that projected deficits of $200 billion in perpetuity and said let them do it, when asked why he did that?
MR. MCCURRY: The President made clear his intent with respect to balancing the budget and the priorities he attaches to elements of the budget as he campaigned for office, and his budget will reflect what he said to the American people he would do.
Q Mike, could you clarify the administration's position on supporting a Supreme Court ruling that terminally ill patients would not have constitutional rights to a doctor-assisted suicide?
MR. MCCURRY: I can only refer you to the brief that Walter Dellinger filed today -- the Amicus brief he filed on behalf of the administration. I haven't had an attempt to read the whole thing myself, but it's very well-argued, very well-reasoned. White House Legal Counsel had a chance to review and comment on the draft brief, and I'll leave it for the brief to speak for itself.
Q Do you think the President will name a new Secretary of State and/or Defense before he leaves for Hawaii?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it's possible, but not a guaranteed probable.
Q Has he personally interviewed any of the candidates this week?
MR. MCCURRY: He knows some of the -- he knows many of the candidates extremely well.
Q Well, maybe "interviewed" was the incorrect characterization. Has he talked to --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to speculate on who the President's talked to. I'll tell you that he's trying to -- as he said earlier today, he's attempting to fill that position. We've announced a vacancy with respect to Secretary of State. He's got a number of people in mind, some of which have appeared in print, some of whom have not. And the President hopes to make a decision soon, but he doesn't want to rush a decision on some artificial time line. If he can get it done prior to his departure overseas, he will do so.
Q Mike, Senator Floyd said that the President's FY '98 budget will contain a provision to create the Medicare bipartisan commission. A, is that so and, B, will the President rely on this five-year balanced budget plan on prospective recommendation of that commission, because in the past, the President said his own budget already provides enough savings to extend the solvency for a decade.
MR. MCCURRY: Two different questions, Leo, really. One is -- the issue of short-term solvency and pushing out the number of years that the Medicare Trust Fund would be solvent is an issue that will be reflected in the budget. There are savings within Medicare generated by the President's previous budget proposals --
Q And you don't need a commission for that?
MR. MCCURRY: -- and will be reflected in the '98 proposals that extend the solvency of the funds that are not -- there is no commission required there. There is an out-year 21st century problem when the baby boomers retire that we need to address, and we need to address it with respect to Social Security, too. The President has suggested on both Medicare and Social Security there may be utility in having a bipartisan commission to do some work. It's not safe to say that that idea was met with any great enthusiasm today. But the President will continue to work that idea and consult with Congressional leaders.
Q But the commission idea, as you perceive it, is not for dealing with issues that would be within the scope, the five year scope of next year's budget?
MR. MCCURRY: That's correct. We've got -- we will generate budget savings within Medicare similar to our past budget proposals on a five year tract that would extend the solvency of the fund in the short term.
Q But when you set up your budget, will the commission proposal be part of it, an integral part of the budget proposal as --
MR. MCCURRY: Say again?
Q When the President sends up his FY '98 budget, will the commission proposal be an integral part of that budget? Will he ask Congress, as part of the budget reconciliation bill, to create that commission?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that -- look, we consulted with the leadership of Congress on that question today and we'll continue to consult with them. I'm not going to speak to that issue until I know for sure whether's it's going to be in or not.
Q Wendell Ford came out and made basically what sounded like a flat statement that the commission idea would be in the budget. And we're just trying to verify that.
MR. MCCURRY: The President wants it to be in the budget and plans for it to be in the budget, but as I told you a moment ago, it was not met with wild enthusiasm today.
Q Mike, in the budget meeting, was there any discussion over a possible agreement between the White House and Congress over a set of economic assumptions or a so-called budget baseline?
MR. MCCURRY: There was some discussion about economic assumptions and how they're made and the technical merits of trying to avoid a situation that we had in '95-'96 where there became a dispute over who had better green eye shades. And we'll take a look at where we are on that.
I think the CBO assumptions or revisions are not due until late January. The OMB obviously has to proceed prior to that in order to submit a budget assessment. You all know what the assumptions are that we've been working on as we've revised our baseline assumptions. But there was a little bit of discussion. I'm not getting trapped into this fairly static debate about who's got better economists.
Q Could you shed a bit more light on what you just said about the Republicans not responding with great enthusiasm to the notion of creating the commission?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. Well, Leo, they -- I don't need to shed any light on what they've said. They've pretty much said it publicly.
Q That they are not gung-ho to go quickly?
MR. MCCURRY: No, on the issue of a bipartisan commission.
Q That's what I mean.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q On the budget, are there things that could be worked out between the White House and the Congressional leaders before the President's budget is submitted in February that would lay the groundwork for quick action afterwards? Are there --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, that's what -- the President thinks so. The President -- OMB, if we had -- let's just take a hypothetical. If we went back to where we were a year ago in the budget negotiations here and got a set of agreements in principle on certain key elements of the budget, the OMB would be prepared to write a budget around those principles.
Q Like, what? You mean like how much we want to save on Medicare?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I mean all the same things we are debating when we are here. We had non-defense, discretionary spending, entitlement spending, Medicare track, projected savings under -- what were the -- Barry, help me out. Yes, revenue -- I mean all the elements of a budget that were in the broad framework of the budget discussions that occurred here a year ago. And they were so close on them. The President's point is if you looked at the difference, they were very close in each of the central elements of that discussion. If you had agreement on those central elements, it would be a lot easier to write a budget that would move lickety-split through Congress.
Q They were so close that he was -- that they were extremists and you guys were making savings?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there were elements of that that would put the elderly in a precarious position, as the President argued.
Q I'm sorry, I missed the very top of this briefing, so excuse me if you answered this question then, but what was the reaction of the idea of laying out -- agreeing on a set of key assumptions?
MR. MCCURRY: It was sort of "You first, Alphonse." That was basically it. (Laughter.)
Q Mike, similarly, to follow up Leo's question, if their attitude about the commission is, why should we give you the cover of a commission when you've demagogued this issue to death and quite good effect against us --
MR. MCCURRY: No, that was not the -- that would not accurately reflect the tone of the meeting. They just said in as many words that they didn't detect a lot of enthusiasm within their caucus for that particular idea. However, of course, it was a matter of great concern how you address the issue of entitlement spending. And we need to be serious about this issue. You get the general drift?
Q Sounds like one of your briefings. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, very much like our daily gatherings here, yes.
Q Given that Mr. Panetta has taken the lead historically in negotiations with Republican leadership on budget matters and that his successor lacks his deep roots on the Hill, who do you expect to take the lead now?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I should point out, first, I forgot to mention him earlier, Erskine Bowles was of course at the meeting today with the congressional leaders. He is pretty skilled when it comes to negotiating, I assure you.
Q Does he have the stature and the --
MR. MCCURRY: And he has -- he certainly has that stature. He has the authority of the President of the United States, among other things. But we also have in Frank Raines an expert in the budget process. The President had already identified both Leon and Frank as being central contact points in deliberations about the FY '98 budget in terms of dealing with Congress. Erskine, I think, will play a key role in overseeing that process because that is indeed one of the things that the President sees as the principal challenge he faces in the second term -- to balance the budget for the American people the way the American people want the Congress and the President to balance the budget.
Q If Republicans indicated not much enthusiasm for this Medicare commission, is the President, in the spirit of bipartisanship, going to rethink whether that's a good way to go?
MR. MCCURRY: No, we just kind of, you know -- see if there's another way up the mountain at some point.
Q I mean, like something besides a bipartisan commission or --
MR. MCCURRY: Look, we're talking about how best to address the question of entitlement spending that will present a real problem for policymakers in the second decade of the 21st century unless we make some decisions today that are certainly going to be less difficult to make today than they will be a generation into the 21st century.
So the President retains an interest in addressing those long-term budget questions. They're never going to affect his own ability to balance the budget during the course of his own term or his successor's term. But it will really lay the framework for some understanding on social insurance programs that will make it possible for the current generation to have confidence in their own Social Security, their own health care arrangements for the future, and will make it certainly easier for the President's successors many, many, many years from now to be able to deal with the bedrock social safety net that the President believes ought to be maintained in place into the next century.
Q So he might do something other than a commission --
MR. MCCURRY: Look for other ways to skin a cat or something like that.
Q We're talking about Medicare Part B in that -- A is the Trust Fund and B is the long-term problem. Didn't he have some --
MR. MCCURRY: Sounds good to me. Whatever you say.
Q Did he have some proposals on that?
MR. MCCURRY: No, they did not get down into that level of policy wonkdom.
Q Mike, was there any talk, perhaps in a joking way, of line-item veto?
MR. MCCURRY: No, let me -- the things the President identified, I think they've already -- there were really sort of four things that he put on the agenda for discussion: Zaire, which I think some of the folks mentioned and we've covered that. The President did ask if there is any way that the Senate would see fit to expedite nominations that he would send forward. Senator Lott said that they had already done some thinking about how to address that, the question of new nominations, that he would go back and look at the calendar and visit that question. And, then, as we've already talked, balanced budget and campaign finance reform.
Q That means pre-Christmas hearings or something like that?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I wouldn't think -- I don't think Congress will be here until after.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MR. MCCURRY: Balanced budget, campaign finance reform, Zaire, expedite nominations.
THE PRESS: Thank you very much.
END 4:41 P.M. EST