THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
3:35 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Thank you to my colleagues for warming up the audience here.
Q The Senate reaction -- what have you got on that reaction?
MR. MCCURRY: I've got an announcement first of major import. No news. Good news. Good news. The arrival on this planet of Ryan Federico Pena, born today at 8:55 a.m. Little Ryan weighing seven pounds, six ounces, and Secretary Pena and his wife, Ellen Hart Pena are doing well, and Secretary Pena is taking time off, taking advantage of the Family Medical and Leave Act.
Q What's his first name?
MR. MCCURRY: Ryan. Ryan Federico Pena.
Q How long does is he taking?
MR. MCCURRY: The White House and the President and all of us wish the family well and the new young son. He'll take two days. I think he's entitled to more under the Family Medical Leave Act. He can take -- two days is better than no days.
What did you ask me?
Q Tax. Senate tax plan -- reaction.
MR. MCCURRY: They're too high, they need to be lower.
MR. MCCURRY: They've got a long ways to go. The Senate is going to be doing a lot of work. You heard the President say earlier today that we're seeing some things develop in the markup of the tax bill that are positive -- certainly, the bipartisan work being done on the child health provision the President endorsed earlier today as a positive thing. But we remain concerned that some of the direction of the bill is heading in the wrong direction -- too much in the benefit of Senator Roth's marked skews towards the highest income. And we think the benefits of tax relief ought to be focused on low and middle income. But there is a long ways to go and lots of different iterations of this discussion before they get to a final conference report.
Q Do the Democrats have a unified position yet?
MR. MCCURRY: They're coalescing around some things. I think there is a lot of support on the Democratic side of the committee for the compromise child health measure that was talked about earlier today, and they've got some ideas on other subjects where they've got positions in common, but they'll be contributing ideas and ultimately beginning to work with their House counterparts to fashion a bill that will be suitable to the President.
Q So you like Roth but you only like it in comparison to the House version?
MR. MCCURRY: There are some things that are good about Roth and some things that are not so good about Roth, some things that are better in his version and in the House mark, some things that are not as good. I think everyone knows what they are. We prefer Roth's approach to the House approach on things like the child credit, because the provision in Archer's bill that would have penalized six million families who pay for child care is not in the Roth bill. There's no indexing of capital gains in the Roth bill, which is really one of those things that would explode the out-year costs of the tax bill, which is something the Speaker and the Majority Leader specifically said to the President would not be done, pursuant to the balanced budget agreement. But on the other hand, the provisions on education, tax relief, probably not as good in Senator Roth's bill.
So we will work to fashion a bill that's suitable, providing administration input and we look forward to passage at the end of the day of measures that the President can sign.
Q Mike, the Senate voted today on State Department authorization bill and I wonder if you could comment on two aspects. One, the administration's new relationship with Senator Helms that this exemplifies, and whether you see the bill as a portend or a foundation for further bipartisanship on foreign policy.
MR. MCCURRY: There are certainly many attractive things about the legislation the administration supports. I want to stop well short of giving a blanket endorsement of this bill because there are certain things that we're going to have to work with Congress on. We appreciate the hard work that Chairman Helms brought to the task. It was certainly a stupendous effort by Senator Biden to reflect some of the concerns the administration had. But they've got some additional distance to go on some provisions that specifically concern the White House.
There is, within this legislation, some aspects that we believe micromanage certain aspects of foreign policy making. We're going to work to make our views clearly known on that in addition to the statement of administration policy we made yesterday on it. But on balance, there is an effort to try and work through some of these issues to accommodate points of view. We knew going into this debate that there were going to be certain restrictions placed on commitment by the United States government to retire our debt obligations at the United Nations, and the President I think believes on balance that some of those restrictions are useful and important because they will lead to reform at the United Nations. And that's an objective this administration has. It's clearly a clear objective of Chairman Helms. And we can work together on things like that.
But there are other places where sometimes bipartisan support is hard to find in foreign policy. We just have been talking about one in which there are encouraging signs. This African initiative, I think, will be -- will reflect a real bipartisan approach. But we still have other issues at other times where we beg to differ.
Q The provisions that you say concern you -- as I understand it, the bill now goes to conference. Do you still have an opportunity then, do you feel, of improving the bill or might you have to swallow those restrictions?
MR. MCCURRY: We think there are opportunities within the conference setting to deal with some of the issues of greatest concern to the administration. It's not clear that we'll be able to resolve all of those or reconcile all of those, but we'll see. And we'll press hard for the kinds of changes the President wants to see made.
Q Mike, talking about bipartisan, can you tell us about how Jack Kemp came to be among the invited guests today? Was it anybody in particular's idea?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. Anyone know? I'll have to check for you, Peter. He has been very outspoken on those issues, obviously, and has had some real concern. But I'll have to check further to see who specifically had --
Q Mike, do you have any comment on Senator Leahy's land mines legislation? He says 58 senators are now on board. Is the White House ready to join him in this effort to ban land mines?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we long ago joined Senator Leahy because he has been a tireless proponent of dealing with antipersonnel land mines and dealing with the horrible destruction that they cause, especially for children the world over. We have a disagreement as to tactics. We think that in order to be effective, a land mine ban is going to have to be comprehensive and global. And we believe the way to get that is in Geneva at the Conference on Disarmament.
We've never -- we think it's useful to go ahead with the so-called Ottawa Process in Canada with which we can try to negotiate with countries that are interested in an immediate ban. But in the long run, for this to be truly effective as a global regime, we're going to have to have countries like China and Russia participating. They are not present in the Ottawa Process. So we remain convinced that we are on the right track in terms of how to achieve the objective that we share with Senator Leahy.
Q Will we sign on with Ottawa?
MR. MCCURRY: We've said we see that as a complementary process, and we will continue to monitor that, but we think that an effective global regime has to be written in a venue like the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.
Q Why can't you do both?
MR. MCCURRY: You can pursue both, but you won't get a global regime in Canada because there are countries not participating in the Ottawa process that would be a necessary to have a truly global solution to this problem.
Q But how does that square with our stand on the Chemical Weapons Treaty where the administration, of course, pushed to have that ratified, even though a number of countries known to be promoting chemical weapons have no intention of signing? Isn't this the opposite approach now on land mines?
MR. MCCURRY: It's a different approach on a different type of issue. The regime with Chemical Weapons Convention was an already ratified international instrument. It was already a negotiated international instrument that needed ratification, so the question was ratification. We're back at square one on a global land mine regime that we need to negotiate the document in the first instance.
Q Mike, I wanted to revisit a question of a few weeks ago I brought up about the Mike Espy case, which you deferred at the time because it was under seal, but the Court has now unsealed the executive privilege issue. It's basically the same question I asked then. How does the White House reconcile its statement in '94 that it would comply with subpoenas with a pretty concerted effort to exert executive privilege in the case of some subpoenas?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, as the Court's opinion today has demonstrated by strongly reaffirming the President's constitutional right to protect confidential communications both directly with the President and among his senior advisors, there were issues important to the institution of the presidency that went well beyond the question of whether or not there would be cooperation with the Office of Independent Counsel. And I suggest you all read the opinion very, very closely because it details the level of cooperation that did exist, the document production that did exist, the whole process that was used in this case to examine the question of what was the necessity of a compelling production. And in fact, as the Circuit Court looked at these questions, the legal reasoning that was used by the White House was very strongly affirmed.
Q Does that mean, though, that you're saying that complying with subpoenas, to fully comply is really a relative term?
MR. MCCURRY: No, it's not relative, and that's an artificial construct. In any courtroom in this country, questions of privilege are dealt with all the time. That's a common issue, and there are things that, rightfully, to protect the institution of the presidency remain confidential because they are necessary for the functioning not only of this White House, but for future White Houses. There are privileges that are needed not only by Bill Clinton to conduct his constitutional duties, but future presidents will need, and there are times in which those constitutional obligations have to be defended and argued in court.
But at the same time, as the opinion makes clear and as you can see for yourself, there can continue to be the kind of production that allows prosecutors to go ahead. If prosecutors as demonstrated in this case feel they need additional material, they have what the court has now called a very heavy burden imposed on them when they're seeking access to confidential documents to demonstrate that they are necessary for production. And I think the test would seem to make sense, and the Circuit Court has now remanded back to the District Court the issue so this test can be applied in the case of individual documents. And that's -- it's entirely proper and consistent with what the White House argued in the case.
Q But as it's retested again in the District Court using those new criteria, will the White House continue to say that it is complying?
MR. MCCURRY: Absolutely, because they are and the documents they are protecting, as the opinion demonstrates, are those that are properly privileged to begin with.
Q So, basically, you're saying there is no contradiction to be saying we will comply with this subpoena and asserting executive privilege to fight some of those --
MR. MCCURRY: Right, and the prosecutor has to overcome the burden -- or has to pass the heavy burden placed upon him to demonstrate why those confidential communications are necessary for the prosecution. And I think the White House would say that that's as it ought be.
Q The White House supposedly refuses to intervene to try to resolve the tobacco dispute. Is that true?
MR. MCCURRY: We have not intervened at any point in the process. We have monitored the discussions the parties are having and we hope that they will result in what the President wants to see happen, an agreement that would implement the public health policy objective that he has. But they have to reach that agreement and we have to be satisfied that we'll actually meet the test the President has put forward and that will require some process of examination on our part. But it's hard for us to evaluate something that's not concrete and substantive in nature.
Q But if both sides have asked you to come in and close this deal, why not do that?
MR. MCCURRY: Because we're not a party to the negotiation and we never have been. And we've all along indicated here's what our needs are. Our needs are something that would move quickly as possible to the public health objective the President has articulated ever since we announced our initiative. And they know that and this no doubt will lead them to try extra hard on those remaining issues which there are apparently only a few which they lack agreement.
Q One of the things that the Attorneys General are clearly concerned about is that they do a deal on punitive damages and then the White House pulls the rug out from under them and says, oops, that was a bad idea for you to do that. So they're clearly looking for some guidance from you to say, does this work, does this not work.
MR. MCCURRY: I think if you question the Attorneys General on that, they'll say that they've gotten some guidance on that question from the White House. The issue is whether or not at the end of the day they're going to be able to reach any agreement with the parties, and we can't write that agreement for them. They may get to a point where they're just not going to get an agreement on that one specific issue.
Q What guidance have they got from the White House?
MR. MCCURRY: We have just said, look, our views on tort reform are pretty well-known. We're looking for something that would achieve the public health objective and something that would overcome any limit on the ability of plaintiffs to seek punitive damages. I mean, that would be an extraordinary departure from what normally we would think an individual citizen has a right to have access to and it would have to be in exchange for something that was truly important in meeting the public health objective the President has articulated.
Q -- over any limit on the plaintiff's right to sue? Right now there are no limits. They're talking about putting limits on.
MR. MCCURRY: Right. I said to overcome any limit on that it would have to be in exchange for something that would be extraordinarily helpful in meeting the public health objective. And the parties know that and they haven't been able to arrive at any formula that works.
Q Mike, that doesn't really answer the question, though. Because you're saying to them, if what I'm taking is correct, you're saying, you figure out whether you think it's a good deal whether the trade-offs you're making are wise, and then we'll review it. And what they're saying is, help us, help us say is this a good trade-off.
MR. MCCURRY: They're saying a lot more than that. I'm not going to try to make their argument for them.
Q Why would you need to review it after the fact if Bruce is already keeping in touch and knows sort of blow by blow what's happening?
MR. MCCURRY: Look, think about the length of time it took for us just to promulgate the rule, the analysis, the extensive study that went into it took a great deal of time. And there would, no doubt, be those who would object to or oppose any proposed settlement as it made its way through Congress and to the President, and there would need to be a good, substantial analysis that said that this was in the best interest of America's public health.
Q What does Bruce do at this point in the process, if not keep in touch with --
MR. MCCURRY: He listens to where they are and gets a sense of how close they are to an agreement and how far away they are from an agreement.
Q But without knowing the substance of the agreement?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, he knows the substance of their discussion, but there is no agreement at this point so you can't know the substance of the agreement.
Q What if the parties came to the White House and said, this is as far as -- here's the trade-offs we've made on these two issues, and if we don't get any clear guidance from the White House that this would be acceptable to you, then the talks will collapse? What do you do in that situation?
MR. MCCURRY: They may get -- I doubt they'll get to that point. They may get to a point where they say, this is the best that we're going to be able to do on this issue and we're interested in what your analysis is.
Q And you would give the analysis before there was actually a final announced deal?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there wouldn't be a deal in that case. They would say, this is as good as we're going to do and we've got one issue that's outstanding and here are a variety of ways that we might be able to resolve it.
Q In other words, you might -- are you saying that you might do this analysis of a not completed deal, an incomplete deal? Because my understanding was you were waiting for them to present you with something.
MR. MCCURRY: Look, there are any hundreds or millions of items that could be in an agreement that may end up at a place where they don't have the specific question to address. We'll just have to see what happens.
Q Mike, can I just clarify one point? Did you say that if the benefits to the American people -- namely, stopping children from smoking -- are good enough, the White House would support a deal that would limit the punitive damages that the tobacco industry --
MR. MCCURRY: I was very careful not to say that and I won't say that because that's not where we are right now. We're going to have to look at what all the -- in any negotiated settlement of this nature, there are lots of different trade-offs and lots of different issues. That's the way parties reconcile differences when they negotiate. And we have to look at the total package and what's involved. There's not a direct, one-for-one exchange; but there may, in fact, be some very positive things in any proposed settlement that gets this nation quicker to the day in which we're discouraging kids from smoking, and the industry might be willing to do a lot of different things to get to that point. And we'd have to take a look at what are they and what are the trade-offs that go in the other direction that involve whatever issues are related to --
Q If they're really --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to -- I can't write the deal for you.
Q No, I don't want you to write the deal, but if those trade-offs are really excellent and the benefits to children and the American people are really terrific, better than you can imagine -- (laughter) -- in exchange for that, would you be willing to accept a limit to the damages from tobacco?
MR. MCCURRY: We'd have to take a look at exactly how it's written and what it says.
Q Would such a limit be constitutional?
MR. MCCURRY: Sure, I mean, that's been the case in which liability limits have been placed in the past in other similar types of public health issues.
Q Are you still planning to follow the lead, or at least take extremely seriously the verdict that the public health community renders on whatever --
MR. MCCURRY: I think that will be very important, and we have made clear to everyone that the reaction to those who have been tireless in their advocacy of the public health interests of the American people will be very much on our minds.
Q And just one other question about this. Can the President imagine a deal that would both meet his objectives and also, when it's announced, boost the stock of the tobacco companies? (Laughter.) No, I mean, is that -- is something that is good for the tobacco companies' bottom line also --
MR. MCCURRY: It's a wildly hypothetical question that leads to speculative activity in the market -- two good reasons not to respond.
Q Do you have a clear position on criminal liability? Any limits in that sense?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware that criminal liability has been an issue. I thought they were talking about civil damages. But I'm not familiar enough with the details.
Q Just to follow up on Mara's question. How important is it to the President that this be an accomplishment maybe that he brings to the country? This would be a pretty big deal for him.
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, I think the President feels strongly, if not passionately, about the issue, and I think if we could avoid protracted litigation on the proposed rule that's been put forward by the Food and Drug Administration that leads us sooner to the day in which we are accomplishing the President's public health object -- reducing smoking by young people, preventing them from the danger of tobacco use -- he would have to look long and hard at that deal. And indeed that's one of the reasons why we have so actively monitored the discussions that are underway, because they present the possibility of getting us sooner to the day we have the public health policy in place that the President advocates.
But we recognize we may not get there and we may have to continue to pursue the regulatory path that we put forward because in the end of the day the parties themselves may not be able to reach agreement.
Q Mike, one thing that's a little bit confusing about this -- you said from that podium that the President's blessing on this deal would be the single most important factor to getting it through Congress, or at least you couldn't imagine something getting through Congress that he didn't bless.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I haven't said -- the parties themselves have said that, I don't need to say that. They say that themselves.
Q But you don't disagree with that.
MR. MCCURRY: I think that's almost obvious.
Q That's pretty obvious, okay. Then that gets to the next question: Why, if he is the single most important factor, wouldn't he be in there trying to shape a deal, since the only deal that can get through Congress is one that he likes? Why not try to get the one he wants?
MR. MCCURRY: Because we already did that work. We put forward the public health objective and policy that must be in place for the President to be satisfied. We did that work in August of 1995 when we began the rule-making process leading to the promulgation of the rule itself, so that it was clear and has been clear to the parties exactly what will be the outcome at the end of the day, we believe, of the rule-making process that's underway. We did shape this agreement, and that's exactly why these parties are probably continuing their dialogue.
Q Because if you're going to say that you're nervous about blessing something in advance that might look, after it's been out in public for a couple of weeks, like it fell out --
MR. MCCURRY: No, we're simply not going to bless something that we haven't seen.
Q As close as this deal seems to be right now --
MR. MCCURRY: Or as far away as it may be, as it is right now.
Q -- the White House is willing -- and all the good public policy objectives that you think might come out of it, the White House is willing to walk away and not step in at this juncture if it meant not having a deal?
MR. MCCURRY: We wouldn't be walking away from anything, having not been a participant in the negotiations at the outset.
Q Well, why not become a participant to make sure that these parties come together and reach a deal that would meet your criteria?
MR. MCCURRY: We've encouraged them to continue their discussions, and they have. And I think there are powerful reasons on both sides why they have done that, and some of them have a lot to do with what the President has put forward publicly.
Q One of the Attorneys General told us today that they thought that the President was being unpresidential at this juncture, that he was stepping back away from this at a time where they very much need him to step into it and perhaps save a process from falling apart. So why not?
MR. MCCURRY: Look, that's an unfortunate characterization. I doubt that reflects the real sentiments of many of the Attorneys General participating in the process. By and large, they appreciate the support and leadership they've had from the President on this issue. They know where his mind and heart is on this issue. They know that they wouldn't be at that table as close as they are to a settlement without the work that he's done on the issue.
Q But that wasn't the question.
MR. MCCURRY: The question was about stepping into it, which is something I don't think we're going to do.
Q Let me follow up, then, Mike, if I can. If it was important enough for the President to step into the baseball strike, why not important enough to step in and resolve this --
Q Because that was a big mistake. (Laughter.)
Q -- and resolve this?
MR. MCCURRY: Because children don't die as a result of going to major league baseball games, Wolf, among other things.
Q But that's the point.
Q Then it is even more important.
MR. MCCURRY: There's a difference in magnitude of the issues.
Q Wouldn't that be more imperative? Wouldn't that be the reason it would be more --
MR. MCCURRY: You're missing the point I made just a moment ago. We, in a sense, entered into this when the President stepped forward and went ahead with rule-making, because that's there and it will remain there. And the parties know that it's there as the outcome failing any kind of -- and that's a very important inducement for them to continue their dialogue.
Q Change of subject?
MR. MCCURRY: Please. (Laughter.)
Q On the ozone rule that's put out by EPA, how close are we on that? I understand that there are some compromise deals being cut already and that Erskine Bowles has participated in the --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any "compromise" deals. I know that they are continuing a very careful review of the rule-making process and the OMB continues its review of the issue, working very closely with the other agencies that have been directly participating, and they are, no doubt, getting closer to the finish of that process. I don't know how close.
Q Do you have a readout on the President's meeting with Bishop Belo?
MR. MCCURRY: I do. They had a good discussion of issues related to human rights, specifically in Indonesia. And the President expressed his interest in peace and reconciliation for the people of East Timor and our willingness to continue to raise issues with respect to human rights and our discussions with people in the region, specifically with the government of Indonesia.
They met for about -- I guess the Bishop met for about 45 minutes with Sandy Berger. The President dropped by for about 15 minutes. And they also discussed other issues of interest to both the President and the Bishop; a very cordial meeting.
Q Why did he decide to meet with the Bishop and not with the gentleman who shares the Nobel Peace Prize with the Bishop when he visited last month?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think we were out of the country when he was here last month, if I'm not mistaken.
Q On another subject. The Republicans are reintroducing the antiaffirmative action legislation. Is there anything in particular the President plans to do to stop it? And does he have any thoughts about the fact that they're reintroducing it after quite a long lull?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President addressed his general views on the subject of affirmative action in his speech on Saturday and I think eloquently made the case of why that needs to be a tool that is continued at the government's disposal as we deal with discrimination that is still evident in our society.
We have not solved problems related to discrimination in the workplace, and sometimes one wonders whether those who advocate abolishing affirmative action understand that clearly. But we will continue respectfully to disagree with them. I think everyone knows the administration's position on the Hatch-Kennedy bill last year, and it was subject to a veto threat. And no doubt as we see the final version of this legislation, if it is the same, it will be so again.
Q One other question -- do you have a readout on the meeting with the Macedonian President?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. They met for about -- the only thing I didn't have was time. I think they met for about a half an hour, approximately, a half-hour or so. The President welcomed -- they discussed a wide range of bilateral regional issues. The President noted that the FYROM is a model of stability in a very turbulent region of the world -- the FYROM being the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The President praised President Giligorov for his statesmanship in resolving differences with neighbors and in promoting ethnic tolerance at home.
As President Giligorov I believe told some of you, they discussed at length the U.S. presence as part of the U.N. Preventive Deployment Force that is in Macedonia, the importance it places in creating stability along Macedonia's borders. President Giligorov expressed his gratitude for the continued U.S. participation in that U.N. mission. And the two leaders also reviewed the overall security situation in the South Balkans and participation of the FYROM in NATO's Partnership for Peace program. They also talked about bilateral issues, talked about the general security situation in the Balkans.
Q One quick follow-up -- there were protesters outside demonstrating against what they said -- they said there was no free media, no democracy in Macedonia. What's the administration's position on democratic reform there?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there is -- we have expressed our concerns to the government in the past about the need to nurture and develop and strengthen democratic institutions there. On balance, they have been working through a lot of those issues, as have other contiguous parts of what used to be Yugoslavia. It's certainly safe to say that in the FYROM the progress towards those objectives has been greater than elsewhere in the former Yugoslav Republican -- or some other places in former Yugoslavia. They do have some things that they need to work on, and we have addressed those from time to time.
If you look at the most recent State Department human rights report, there is a further discussion of that and I'll save you the rest.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MR. MCCURRY: You're all welcome.
Q On East Timor, one last question. President Soeharto said that he would not be pressured by developed countries on the issue of human rights. What leverage does the Clinton administration have in Indonesia, given the controversies and whether or not the President is going to go ahead and use any leverage he does have?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have raised -- we recently, at the U.N. Conference in Geneva, raised our concerns about Indonesia and received, we think, a strong degree of support within the international community. Indonesia as a strong and growing economy in the Asia Pacific region looks to its engagement with other like-minded nations and the international concern expressed about human rights issues or workers' rights issue or East Timor specifically is certainly of notice and is noted by the government of Indonesia and we believe has an impact.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 4:05 P.M. EDT