THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:50 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Hi. Welcome to the White House daily press briefing. Let me start with a couple of news items. I think -- we had a delay, as I'm sure you know and as I apologize for, so you could hear from the participants in the tobacco discussions and from Secretary Shalala and Mr. Reed. And I understand that they probably sufficiently addressed your questions on their deliberations. So I'll start with a phone call the President made today to the new Prime Minister of Ireland, Bertie Ahern, who the President wanted to congratulate, first and foremost, for his recent election victory, but also the President called so he could establish a personal relationship with the Prime Minister as he had with Prime Minister Bruton.
In Northern Ireland peace process the President has found that as we try to use our offices to support the work done by the government of the United Kingdom and the government of the Republic of Ireland, it's helpful to have that personal one-on-one contact. The President and the new Prime Minister had exchanged correspondence since the Prime Minister took office, June 26, but this was a good opportunity for them to reestablish contact.
The President actually met the new Prime Minister in Dublin in 1995, so that they had made personal acquaintance before, but had a very warm chat. They clearly reviewed the current efforts by both the Irish government and by the British government to move the Northern Ireland peace talks into a more substantive phase, ideally with the participation of Sinn Fein based on an unequivocal cease-fire, but absent that at the moment, they reviewed ways in which talks at this very critical and delicate time might move forward so the promise of peace could become real for the people of Northern Ireland.
They agreed that they would remain in contact. The President offered to continue to do everything that we can do to be helpful to the parties and the Prime Minister expressed his gratitude both for the call and for the President's ongoing effort to support the peace process itself.
Q Are there any plans for Ahern to come over here and meet the President?
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't get any report that they had reviewed that, but we look forward to having ongoing contact with the Taoseach. I wouldn't rule out the prospect of seeing him at some appropriate point. There is an annual occasion here, of course, when the Prime Minister is here, but given the delicacy and the importance of the process at this point, I wouldn't rule out a meeting sooner than that.
Q And with the violence continuing -- a young lady died today in a hospital after being shot -- do you feel that there will come a time when you have to draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough, that you're not going to continue contacts with --
MR. MCCURRY: I think we've drawn that line in the sand a long time ago by saying that we hold no quarter for those who espouse violence as a way to pursue their aims and objectives, that the only pathway to the type of future that the people of Ireland desperately want is through reconciliation and through the type of peace talks that the President has done a great deal to advance, that the two governments have done a great deal to advance, and that those parties committed to peace have done a great deal to advance. We stand with those parties and those individuals who are on the side of peace and are interested in peace and we'll continue our program of active contact to try to encourage all to come to the peace table. But the requirements to sit at that table are well-known to the parties.
Q -- protested to the British government the use of plastic bullets in the riot control that's been used over the last couple of weeks. How does the White House feel about the use of plastic bullets?
MR. MCCURRY: We are not in a position to second-guess the decisions that have been made by the Royal Ulster Constabulary as they've had to carry out their responsibilities for law enforcement, so we don't prejudge the techniques they've used, we don't believe we're in a position to render judgment.
Q Mike, new subject. Weld -- is the White House looking for a different ambassadorial post for Governor Weld?
MR. MCCURRY: The White House continues to believe he would be an excellent ambassador to Mexico.
Q But is it also looking for other posts --
MR. MCCURRY: The White House continues to believe he would be an excellent ambassador to Mexico, and we --
Q What are you waiting for?
MR. MCCURRY: -- continue to understand the reality of the advise and consent process in the Senate, and we're attempting to reconcile the two.
Q How are you doing? Are you getting any closer?
MR. MCCURRY: Not as near as I can tell. (Laughter.)
Q Mike, you're not saying no to the suggestion that there might be some other post in line for him, if the Mexican --
MR. MCCURRY: Not giving up that ghost at the moment.
Q On this question of ambassadorships, why the delay in terms of getting these posts filled?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that there's been a delay. We have 17 nominations pending in front of the Senate now, several dozen more than in the final stages of being prepared to be sent to the Hill. The process by which we clear an ambassadorial appointment so we satisfy the rigorous examination that the Senate requires and that you require of people who are posted abroad is quite extensive and it requires a great deal of work done in the case of an ambassador by the State Department since they do a lot of the background work on individual nominees, and that process has been going forward. We have nominations pending, and the President's made all the decisions about posts to be filled and we've got various nominations in the final process of being finalized for both announcement and for nomination.
Q What's the political stumbling block?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it's been well reported what the stumbling block is with respect to Governor Weld.
Q Did you ever finally understand exactly what Helms's problem -- what's the root of it?
MR. MCCURRY: He has a number of concerns and he is Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and he can, himself, describe what those concerns are.
Q When do you think this will be resolved?
MR. MCCURRY: Eventually. (Laughter.)
Q At one time, you had the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, speaking to Senator Helms on the Weld nomination. Is there anyone else involved in speaking with him?
MR. MCCURRY: I think a number of people have been helpful in trying to have everyone understand each other better. Senator John Kerrey has been extremely helpful to the administration, others on the committee have been helpful, but the Secretary of State has been helpful, but at the end of the day, the advice and consent process is the advice and consent process and we'll just have to see what the President's parameters are within the structure of what the Constitution requires.
Q Mike, historically, friends and -- like, for example, big donors have been given ambassadorships. Does the White House still think that in these sort of charged times, that's still appropriate, or is there a different outlook?
MR. MCCURRY: There is nothing about a political contribution that ought to disqualify someone from service, but neither should that be the basis for someone receiving an appointment. By and large, the bulk of the appointments that have been made by the President are career foreign service officers; most of those you've seen announced to this point reflect that. But there are some percentage of ambassadorial appointments that have been and most likely always be political appointees.
Q Mike, has Governor Weld indicated that he'd be interested in any other post?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to speculate on what he might be interested in. At the moment, he's interested in and we're interested in seeing if he can't be ambassador to Mexico.
Q Does the President think that he would make a good ambassador to India?
MR. MCCURRY: The President thinks that he would make an excellent ambassador.
Q At what point, though, Mike, do you give up the ghost?
MR. MCCURRY: Eventually, as I said. I'm not going to be more specific than that.
Q What is eventually?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to be more specific. Let's go on to something else.
Q Speaking of nominations, what's the status of the joint chief of staff position?
MR. MCCURRY: It's unfilled. (Laughter.) And General Joulwan* has gone off to a wonderful retirement and a well-deserved one, and Secretary Cohen has reported to those of your colleagues who cover him that he's nearing the final stages of a recommendation to the President.
Q He's not passed it on to the White House?
MR. MCCURRY: He's had certainly good discussions with the White House, and I believe even good discussions with the President, but he has not formally presented a recommendation at this point.
Q Do you know when he'll do that?
MR. MCCURRY: Soon.
Q This week?
Q Senator Thompson this morning said that a British citizen had offered to pay $100,000 -- had made a $100,000 contribution to the DNC in 1995 in exchange for a meeting with an NSC official. Do you know if such a meeting took place?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think our Counsel's Office has been working that question and I think if you get in contact with them they've been able to piece together some information and I think they'll be able to satisfy you.
Q What role within the White House during the campaign year did the Political Office have in passing requests on to the National Security Council for meetings with campaign donors?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, not an extensive one, as near as I can determine, but they certainly could pass on a recommendation and that could be considered properly by anyone. Very frequently at the White House, people will refer someone who may or may not have something interesting to say to someone else on the staff; that happens as a matter of routine. I don't believe there was much extensive referral of that nature, but I imagine a lot of that will be developed during the course of hearings.
Q In the case of Eric Hotung and his wife coming in to see Sandy Berger in October of '95, who decided that was an appropriate --
MR. MCCURRY: As I just said earlier, I think if you contact our Counsel's Office they can walk through that. I'm not prepared to do that in any great length right now.
Q Former Senator Dole just returned Bosnia. Was that conditioned at all on -- did President Clinton ask him to go to Bosnia? Did they talk beforehand about what Dole might do?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know the answer to that, Warren.
They may have talked about it, because the President has encouraged Senator Dole to remain active and to continue to be active. And I'll have to check or you may want to check at the State Department. Routinely, as a courtesy, we would have extended him a briefing if he had wanted one prior to going, so we may have had some knowledge of his trip.
Was he part of the delegation that Senator Lott was on?
Q Do you have any reaction to what he had to say at the press conference today?
MR. MCCURRY: I think we have, more or less, underscored some of the same points that the Majority Leader made today -- there needs to be much more work done to implement the civilian aspects of the Dayton Accords. There are some areas in which progress has been lacking, other areas in which there has been more satisfactory progress, but the Majority Leader is right, that we all need to work much harder between now and next June to fulfill the commitments that have been made by the parties and to make sure that the parties are in a position to accept and use effectively the resources that have been extended by the international community.
Q What did the President hope to accomplish today by saying there would be dire effects, it would be a great mistake to retaliate?
MR. MCCURRY: His message was quite clear, and I don't think anyone that the message was intended for will have trouble understanding it.
Q The message was intended not only as a warning to the Serbs, but a warning to the American public that things are getting riskier in Bosnia?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it was intended for those. The question was about the prospects of reprisals for the legitimate work being done by the SFOR multinational force in Bosnia, and I think the message probably has been received by the intended audience.
Q Mike, what's the status of the decision on continuing the current policy on companies, businesses that do business in Cuba? Does he have an imminent decision on that?
MR. MCCURRY: I think you're asking what -- we're up very close to a deadline that is required under the Helms-Burton Act for extension of certain provisions under the act. That's being reviewed by the President's senior foreign policy advisors, they are finalizing a recommendation to the President.
MS. LUZZATTO: He has the recommendation.
MR. MCCURRY: He has now received that recommendation and he will act on it by the deadline, July 16th.
Q And is this a definite, he gets to do this six months at a time forever and ever?
MR. MCCURRY: The act has six month reviews, specified, but for the duration of the act, I think -- I'm not sure how -- I think for the duration of the act.
Q -- the recommendation is the same as the previous one?
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't want to speak for the President before he makes a decision.
Q So you say he has the recommendation?
MR. MCCURRY: That's right.
Q He has the recommendation?
MR. MCCURRY: I guess he must have received it today, because --
MS. LUZZATTO: He has the recommendation as of midnight.
MR. MCCURRY: He's got the recommendation now.
Q I'm asking if the recommendation --
MR. MCCURRY: He has until midnight tonight to act upon it.
Q Tonight or tomorrow night?
MR. MCCURRY: On the 15th. If he acts on it today, we'll report it to you.
Q So can we assume that the recommendation was the same, not that the decision will be the same?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that's probably a safe recommendation, but I don't want to prejudge the announcement by the President of the decision.
Q Two questions on "Contact." Have you heard back from the producers and do you have any opinion on journalists taking parts in movies?
MR. MCCURRY: No, and no. Other than the public comment that apparently has been issued by the studio.
Q Mike, we've heard from the members of Congress after they met with the President. I wondered if you could give us sort of his assessment, and particularly, it seemed to me that the Republicans were very edgy when we asked them about the earned income tax credit issue. They almost didn't want to refer to it, and I wondered why that was and what that was all about.
MR. MCCURRY: The President would concur with what the Republican leaders said. It was an excellent meeting, they really got directly into the issue that are going to have to be resolved. I think Senator Don Nickles summed it up pretty well. He said in order for this to be a successful effort, it's going to have to come out being a win-win situation, meaning that the President and Democrats on the Hill on the one side and the Republican Majority in Congress are going to have to be able to point to things that they consider to be pluses in their column and I think that was a sensible observation.
So the searches for those things that both sides consider important and how both sides' needs can be addressed -- and there was a lot of very candid conversation about that that the President appreciated. There was a great deal of conversation about the earned income tax credit. I think you know from the Vice President's presentation last week and from what the President said how strongly we feel about those lower income working families that we think need the kind of tax relief that the President has set forth in his tax bill and there was good discussion about that and what the tradeoffs are if you extend that type of assistance to folks that are -- working people who are at the lower end of the income earning scale, there has to be some tradeoffs, and we acknowledge that that's true.
Q They talked a lot about the fact that they felt there was a lot of fraud in that particular thing.
MR. MCCURRY: That's a point that some senators have made and the Treasury Department has rebutted some of that, but there is no question that the great bulk of that benefit assists the lowest income people who are working and struggling to make it on their own without relying on public assistance to stay in the work force, and the Treasury Department can tell you more about what we believe to be instances --
Q So could you promise to crack down and they could say okay?
MR. MCCURRY: We have been working very hard to eliminate any problems with that program. In fact, the structure of the tax relief that we would extend in our concept of tax proposal for working families incorporates some of the changes that the Treasury Department is attempting to make in the EITC program.
Q Can you describe what was said about indexing on both sides?
MR. MCCURRY: There was not a lot of discussion of that issue. I think there was more the question of capital gains tax relief itself, the importance that the Republican Majority attaches to that, their belief that that was going to have to be part of the final structure of a tax bill. The President, in one way or another, has acknowledged that by incorporating some aspects of capital gains tax relief into what he's suggested as a proposal that bridges the differences between the sides. But indexing remains something that in our view that adds considerably to the size of the deficit in the out-years, even beyond the five-year window, and that's going to be a real problem for the President. He's made that pretty clear. They didn't have a real extensive discussion of that in this meeting.
Q But they didn't say anything about whether they would be willing to do --
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't describe it as a session which they attempted to negotiate all of these differences. I think both sides laid out what they were concerned about, what they considered to be the most important features of an overall bill, and they talked a little bit about how they will try to reconcile those differences as they move forward.
Q Just one more question on this. When Senator Lott was leaving, he said he was sure that a 20-percent capital gains tax rate, including for the top earners, would be in the final deal.
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sure that he said that. (Laughter.)
Q Is there any reason to believe from the President that that will be the case?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that we would, in turn, say that we're sure that there are certain things related to education assistance, and to helping people fund the 13th- and 14th-year school education relief for those with families with children, that we're sure that those things will be in the bill, too.
Q Well, let me ask you, then, a different way. Can the President imagine a tax bill that meets his criteria and the values that he talks about all the time that includes a 20-percent tax cut for the top earners?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to try to negotiate or write a bill right here and now. I think it's clear there will be a capital gains provision in the bill, I think the President has set forth a very good, sensible idea of how he would address that to the exclusion that we've proposed on capital gains taxation, and it's going to be up to those who actually write a tax bill to do it.
Q Is the President open to a modest increase in the net amount of the tax cut in the bill if it would allow you to get the earned income tax stacking that you want and allow you to give them 20 percent without indexing? Would you agree with them to go up from 85 --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know how you do the math on it.
MR TOIV: -- fundamental change in the budget.
Q Moving the $85 billion up to, say $90 billion?
MR. MCCURRY: The $85 billion that was, several times by some of the Republican leaders, said was a figure that they considered very, very important, along with balancing the budget by the year 2002, and I think you would have to, in a sense -- tax relief and a firm commitment to a balanced budget by a date-certain are very important elements, both to the President and to the Republican leadership. I'm not sure how you could adjust the overall agreement in that fashion.
Q Did they talk about means testing, and if so, did they talk about how that would be administered, which seems to be one of the big hang-ups?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, yes.
Q Can you give us a sense of what that conversation was and what some --
MR. MCCURRY: I mean, it wasn't extensive. They just talked about the different problems that exist with trying to create a new structure within the Department of Health and Human Services to collect the premium, if you're means-testing the premium, and the cost associated with creating some new bureaucracy within HHS versus the ability to provide additional premium relief if you keep it within the 1040 form.
Q Is the IRS -- do you think, as far as the House is concerned, the IRS is the place that would be --
MR. MCCURRY: I think within some parts of the House there's a real problem with that. That's going to be one of the issues that they have to work hard on.
Q -- means testing just generally --
MR. MCCURRY: On the other side of the equation, the whole concept of means testing causes a number of our Democratic allies a great deal of concern, too -- and some Republicans, right.
Q Mike, there's a provision in the House tax proposal that would render almost all graduate school scholarships taxable. Is the White House -- is that consistent with the President's view on education and expanding --
MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to look into that one. I'm not familiar with that provision.
Q What do you think about Archer's calculations in terms of counting the tobacco tax as far as off-setting, and counting the earned income tax credit as welfare spending rather than a tax cut?
MR. MCCURRY: We have a fundamental disagreement with that, and you've heard us before on that. We believe it is providing tax relief to those folks who are at the low end of the income earning scale who pay considerable taxes for Social Security and for Medicare already, not to be able to get the full benefit of the child care credit and the earned income tax credit. Those are exactly the families that we ought to be helping in the time we're trying to move people away from welfare and public dependency and into the work, we need to reward work. And we think that benefit ought to apply to those people who are lower down on the income scale.
Q One Democrat suggested that the Republicans had indicated there was some middle ground on the earned income tax credit.
MR. MCCURRY: I think they believe there is a middle ground, and certainly the White House is willing to work to see if there is such middle ground.
Q Well, what kind of middle ground are we talking about?
MR. MCCURRY: Again, I'm not going to write the bill here or --
Q No, but did you get a sense of what middle ground they were identifying?
MR. MCCURRY: It was hard to see how they will bridge that difference, but there may be a way to do it, and it at least seemed the attitude was that we had to make an effort to try, and I think that was shared on all sides of the equation.
Q You were talking about trade-offs a minute ago, if you, in fact, got the money back there where you wanted it. What are the trade-offs?
MR. MCCURRY: Trade-offs is if you give some money to some people, other people aren't going to get money. I mean, it's pretty obvious.
Q But where do you think it would come from?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't predict right now.
Q On the child tax credit, might that middle ground be in the Senate version --
MR. MCCURRY: No, they didn't attempt in this meeting to get into the kind of detail that your questions would suggest, so I'm not going to try to answer those questions.
Q What is the White House view of the Senate version?
Q How close do you think they are to an agreement?
MR. MCCURRY: I think they've got a ways to go. I think that everyone seems determined to try to do it and do it quickly enough so that they can continue the schedule that the Majority Leader has indicated, the Speaker has indicated, that certainly some of the Democrats would like to pursue, but it's going to take a lot of hard work and they're going to have to first of all define some process they can use to do that. There was some discussion about maybe defining some smaller groups that can work on specific aspects of the tax bill. That might be useful. Certainly, the Treasury Secretary will remain very involved in working through with the Hill tax committees -- how you would structure a bill.
Q Mike, since today's meeting between Bruce Reed and Donna Shalala and the tobacco industry lawyers was not a negotiating session, were there particular questions the President wanted answered about the agreement? Did he get them answered? And what were they?
MR. MCCURRY: My understanding is that there was good discussion about some of those points. We've got some concerns the President has expressed directly. We have some that have been raised particularly about the incentives for compliance with any proposed settlement in the form of penalties that would exist if the terms of the settlement were not adhered to, and we had some specific questions about that. They had a good discussion, I think as probably Reed and Shalala indicated.
Q I'm sorry -- which means that -- you say you have concerns about it, but you also have concerns about the FDA regulations stuff. There were parts of the agreement that he didn't understand about the incentives, or you wanted the industry's understanding of how it -- what it meant or --
MR. MCCURRY: I think maybe a little bit of both of that. Some of it, I think, needed clarification because the intent was not entirely clear, and some that we were more interested in the industry's thinking on aspects of the proposed settlement.
Q And these relate to the penalties specifically and not the FDA regulations?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we were interested in the industry's view of their view of the jurisdiction question as well. We asked -- the conversation, as I understand it about all those areas, but I think probably Reed and Shalala can be more helpful to you.
Q After the meeting, Bruce Reed did say that -- FDA authority issue, there might be some other areas that the administration would want to strengthen.
MR. MCCURRY: That's just -- I think just as I indicated.
Q -- penalty area, there is a question of responsibility particularly on --
MR. MCCURRY: I think there was good discussion of issues like that today.
Q If I could ask one more question about that. Various news reports have made reference to the President's comments about a black market in normal strength cigarettes if the FDA were to ban or substantially reduce the level of nicotine in U.S. cigarettes. But it's my understanding that that was one of the White House concerns all along, that there not be a black market created, and that for that reason, White House officials thought it was in the best interest of the government, of the society as a whole that reducing the level of nicotine not create such a black market. Is that, in fact, the case?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not sure I understood that question in its entirety, but I think it sounds right. (Laughter.)
Q Are other governors coming in to talk about health care today with somebody other than the President?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I know. I think Governor Hunt may be here with the Grower's Group tomorrow, I believe.
Q OMB traditionally puts out a review about this time. Has it officially decided to delay it?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I know. I think we are continuing to discuss that issue with the Hill -- that's my understanding. May even have further discussion with them even today on that.
Q Mike, there was a story in The Washington Post today that the Kuwaitis are thinking about buying howitzers from the Chinese and that Vice President Gore sent the Kuwaitis a letter. Besides that letter, is there anything the White House is doing to try and dissuade them from buying arms from the Chinese?
MR. MCCURRY: My guess is -- if I check further -- is they're probably going to raise it at different levels within our diplomacy, particularly through our embassy. But I'd have to check into that further. I didn't see anything reported on that. Generally, we most likely have expressed some concern and we do that both as an interested party and as a party that sees the value and utility of the coalition that defended Kuwait at a critical time in its history.
Q Will the administration send a representative to the congressional hearings next week on the Boeing-McDonnell Douglas merger?
MR. MCCURRY: My guess is they probably asked for an administration representative there. We have been most directly at the moment on that proposed merger following the deliberations the European Union is having on it that, my understanding is, continue at this point. But if asked to send an administration witness, I'm sure we would.
Q In the debate over the census and the issue of using sampling techniques, who decides what sampling techniques are used and what formula translates them into data?
MR. MCCURRY: I think if it were left to the Census Bureau, they have decided the way that technically they believe they can produce the most accurate census given the budget they have, I think ultimately this will be a question of appropriation and what Congress appropriates funding for, given any restrictions they place on that funding. I imagine it will be legislative language that will control in the end.
Q No, I'm not saying whether you use sampling or not. I mean, which sampling technique and formula do you use? Who decides that?
MR. MCCURRY: The experts at the Census Bureau, presumably. You may want to ask the Commerce Department if they can help you with that.
Okay, thank you.
END 2:19 P.M. EDT