THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:37 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: All right, let us begin today's daily briefing here at the White House. I will start with a statement from the President that some of you have already heard if you've paid attention to the work being done in Senate to try to dislodge campaign finance reform. The President, in a statement today, calls on Congress to enact bipartisan campaign finance reform legislation.
As the President says, I said that delay could be the death of reform. I urged Congress to move forward quickly in my State of the Union Address. I strongly support the decision by Senators McCain and Feingold to bring campaign finance reform legislation to the floor of Congress in September for a vote. The problems with the role of money in presidential and congressional elections are plain. To make sure that ordinary citizens have the loudest voice in our democracy, we must act to change the campaign finance laws -- the President says in a written statement we are issuing at this moment, which goes on in some greater detail, recounting the President's efforts to enact bipartisan campaign finance reform.
Q But, Mike, there is only, to the best of my knowledge, two Republicans who have joined Senator McCain in supporting this legislation.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they are bringing the legislation to the floor in September, that's their intent. They believe, based on the hard work that they've done, that they can get support. And the President believes that the public discussion of the shortcomings in the 1996 campaign have amply pointed out the need for campaign finance reform, and we ought to get on to that debate now, having clearly made plain that we need reform in the system.
Q So does the President seriously believe that it's possible to enact campaign finance reform this year?
MR. MCCURRY: The President seriously believes the American people want it and that they have been given ample reason to see why it is necessary. And he believes public pressure and the kind of pressure he hopes to bring by supporting the efforts that Senators McCain and Feingold are making will help to change the environment on Capitol Hill so we can move legislation forward.
Q In that same vein, does the President seriously believe that the nomination of Mr. Weld to be Ambassador to Mexico has a prayer? I mean, Mr. Weld is apparently seeking to meet with Senator Helms, perhaps believing that he can change his mind.
MR. MCCURRY: The President believes in the divine power of prayer. (Laughter.)
Q As I'm sure does the Senator, but is there any realistic expectation -- even Weld's aides don't hold out much hope here.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. Well, I think that, again, almost analogous to campaign finance reform, that sometimes the public debate around a controversy changes the environment for consideration of that controversy by the Congress. And clearly in this case, the President hopes that strong presentations by Governor Weld and public debate and commentary on the nomination itself will change the way in which some Senators view it.
Now, we are encouraged by the support that's emerging on the Republican side in the Senate for Governor Weld. Governor Weld will be here later on today to talk to senior White House officials and prepare for some of his courtesy calls up on Capitol Hill tomorrow. So he's working hard at it; we're working hard at it. The President will be in a position to work hard on it as well and we'll see if we can get him confirmed.
Q But if I can just follow, there's only one Senator whose mind has to be changed here.
MR. MCCURRY: You know, let's challenge that assumption. The President is the nation's chief foreign policy making officer, and there is a long history of showing some deference to the President's role as the elected chief of the nation's foreign policy making apparatus. The Senate, in the Constitution, is given the right to advice and consent. The Constitution does not grant to one individual Senator the right to stand in the way of the prerogatives of a President to name foreign emissaries on behalf of the American people.
And I think that question, the premise of that question, is substantially flawed constitutionally and it should be flawed politically as well -- not that it's a bad question.
Q But practically, is it a realistic obstacle?
MR. MCCURRY: Practically, we think there is strong -- look, if Bill Weld were on the Senate floor today, he would be confirmed overwhelmingly, and so how is it that one Senator can stand in the way of that? Now, as Secretary Albright has said today, we have worked very well with Chairman Helms. We show the deference to a committee chairman that the Executive Branch should show to a committee chairman, and by and large, he has worked very amicably with the Department, with the White House.
They cleared some 20 ambassadorial nominations just in the last several hours, I believe. So we understand that they are cooperative. But again, on this nomination, there is a difference. We will fight for this nominee, and we'll try to fight fairly.
Q You made the case that constitutionally he shouldn't be able to, but I'm really saying, practically, doesn't he get to block it or kill it?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's a good -- we maybe should test practical reality here.
Q Mike, do you hope to avoid a confirmation hearing or discharge it from the committee, the nomination from the committee? How do you hope to get around this?
MR. MCCURRY: We hope to build public support for a nominee that is clearly superbly qualified, and in doing so, change the circumstances in which the Senate might conduct its advice and consent function.
Q Would the President speak to Senator Helms himself on this matter?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has instructed the Secretary of State to do so; she has. I think the results have been what you've seen -- (laughter) -- or not seen.
Q Would you say the President is glad or thinks that the public debate would change the dynamics of this confirmation. Does he intend to actually engage in that debate himself?
MR. MCCURRY: I think, as he has in other nomination fights, he's prepared to, yes -- at the appropriate time, clearly not at a time that Congress is getting ready to recess for the balance of the month of August, but in the fall there will be ample opportunity to do so.
Q Mike, back on campaign finance, Senator Daschle told reporters today he just didn't see a groundswell for this.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's again, you know, then let's go create one.
Q And how is the President going to do that?
MR. MCCURRY: We just are trying to today. We're trying to help Senators McCain and Feingold, speaking publicly to it, having the President speak to it, as he has, and continue to do those things we are doing around the edges of the fight for the legislation to do what we can to advance campaign finance reform -- such as the things we've done before the Federal Elections Commission, some of the other steps we've taken to promote free television time for candidates, to continue that effort.
Q Mike, Richard Jewell is on the Hill today, still angry that he hasn't received a public apology from Louis Freeh or anyone else in Justice or the administration. Does the President feel that Louis Freeh should apologize?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President believes that's a matter between Mr. Freeh and Mr. Jewell -- or the FBI, the Justice Department and Mr. Jewell.
Q He doesn't believe an apology should be issued at all?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that's up to the Justice Department and Mr. Jewell.
Q Mike, back on campaign finance reform for a second. Is the President going to make other public statements or go out and make speeches around the country to build up this groundswell?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we'll continue to do the kinds of things that we are doing today, clearly. The President will speak publicly to it. Remember that he asked former Vice President Mondale and former Senator Kassebaum to be active. They have been. They have been finding important ways to advance the debate. They solicited last week strong letters of support from former Presidents of the United States. We'll continue that kind of activity.
We've been trying to find every couple of days or at least every couple of weeks some opportunity to bring the issue back in the public eye, and we hope that some of the discussions that have been occurring before the Senate Government Affairs Committee will remind the American people of the importance of moving to what is the logical conclusion of that inquiry, which is campaign finance reform.
Q Mike, with regard to the tax cut bill, the administration still hasn't issued any distribution tables, but Citizens for Tax Justice has. And they --
MR. MCCURRY: Now, how did they get that done? That's an impressive piece of work --
Q Well, Dick Gephardt is using --
MR. MCCURRY: -- since the Treasury Department is still trying to figure out what's in the bill.
Q If I may finish question, Dick Gephardt is already using their figures and there are some liberals in your own party on the Hill who are giving credence to these distribution tables. They're saying that the richest 20 percent will get 70 percent of the benefits and that the richest 5 percent will get almost half the tax cut. Now, that doesn't track what the President all during the negotiations said he wanted to see, which was to get two-thirds of the benefits to the middle 60 percent. Can you shed some light on where these benefits are going to go?
MR. MCCURRY: The beginning of that long question had the relevant information. The Treasury Department has not completed its distributional analysis of the bill. There is no way that we know of that any outside group, including Citizens for Tax Justice, could do a distributional analysis of this bill. There is absolutely no question that the President's work to insist on targeted tax relief for education benefits will help provide more of the benefit of tax relief in this bill to the middle income, the 60 percent in the middle that were the focus of the President's efforts. We've acknowledged that we had to extend to the Republicans some of the things they wanted in this bill -- the estate tax reform and a capital gains tax relief.
And we've said all along, throughout this entire debate, that that, of necessity, skews part of the benefit of the tax bill to the upper income. But that's what the Republicans insisted on in order to get a bill. We insisted on some things that we think shifted the benefit of the bill in the direction of the lower and middle income. And that's the arrangement we ended up with.
Q Are you confident that the bulk of the tax cuts will go to the middle income, as the President said?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm confident that the Treasury Department will be able to give you a good distributional analysis of the bill when they complete one. There's no way you could provide that kind of accurate analysis on this bill yesterday when they say they completed that analysis --
Q But how can you ask members of Congress today, tomorrow, and Friday to vote for this thing without having such basic information?
MR. MCCURRY: They are getting that basic information during the course of the debate that's occurring on the floor. Watch the floor, a lot of them are -- groups like this are chiming in in favor and against the bill. The Center for National Priorities -- for Budgetary Policy and Priorities, that sometimes speaks to these issues from the same philosophical premise as Citizens for Tax Justice, has been very supportive of the bill.
So there are different people chiming in on the debate. There's a good, active, vigorous public debate. We believe the President's efforts resulted in bringing more of the benefits from the tax relief portion of this bill in line with those that he believes needed to have the target of tax relief, and that's the middle income.
Q The House members, though, today complained -- there were Democrats on the House floor complaining that they had no time to read this bill, it was delivered at 3:14 in the morning, and there are no copies of it. There are some people who wanted 10 hours to read the bill. Why does it have to move so fast?
MR. MCCURRY: That is a question for people who run the trains in Congress to answer. We are not the conductors of their business up there. They set their timetables and they have their schedule for debate and we don't tell them how to do their business.
At the same time, there are not many voices that we've heard speaking against the fundamental proposition in this bill, which is that we are balancing the budget, we're doing so in a way that better targets relief on those who need it. We're doing so in a way that is consistent with the President's economic strategy of not only deficit reduction, but investing in people for the future and doing so in a way that will help stimulate further economic growth in the future.
So I know there are voices of dissent on the right, on the left; we've heard mostly strong words of support from both sides of the aisle, from strong majorities in both parties, in both Houses of Congress for the agreement.
Q But what's the concept of reading the legislation before you vote on it?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think I'm in favor. (Laughter.)
Q Is the President threatening to veto the tax plan if it includes the Coverdell amendment on school vouchers?
MR. MCCURRY: He pointed out his strong objections and that is not included in the agreement.
Q But if it's added later, he would veto?
MR. MCCURRY: It's not going to be added. The President would have strongly opposed any effort, as he always has, any effort to take taxpayer funds or public -- or tax preferences or subsidies and use them to subsidize private education. That's long been his view. That's been his view on vouchers. And this opposition to the Coverdell amendment was consistent with those long-standing views.
Q Mike, on the bombing in Jerusalem today, does the U.S. know of any group or individual who has claimed responsibility?
MR. MCCURRY: We're aware there have been some reports of claims, but to my knowledge the United States government has not made any definitive judgment nor do I believe we've received any word from the Israeli government on their assessment.
Q And what about any Americans? Were any Americans killed or injured in the blasts?
MR. MCCURRY: We are still working through with the Israeli government to answer that question. I'm not aware of any at this point.
Q Could I just have one follow-up? Criticism of the administration's Middle East policy over the past six months has been that it's neglected the problem by not sending a high-level emissary like Madeleine Albright, or the President directly getting involved. And a lot of former ambassadors signed a letter -- or commissioned a statement from the Council on Foreign Relations a few weeks ago that you may have seen saying that the policy of incrementalism has failed and that Clinton himself has to organize a new set or principles. What do you say to those critics who say that this terrorist action could have been predictable, given what they claim is the lack of U.S. leadership in the peace process?
MR. MCCURRY: There is a lot in there that I'd like to take on. First of all, the President himself told you in so many words that he has been directly personally involved. He has been involved in ways that may not necessarily be publicly transparent to those who follow developments in the Middle East peace process, but he has been quite actively personally engaged, as has been the Secretary of State. But we've been conducting our diplomacy in the way that we think will make it most effective.
And remember, the whole reason that we announced yesterday that Ambassador Ross was going there is because there has been -- there had been the positive development of an announcement that the interim committees would resume their work on some of the interim declaration issues. It is most likely, in our view, precisely because we had a glimmer of hope that the terrorists have struck, because they are enemies of peace and they are the ones who have been systematic and relentless in their attempt to destroy this process, which is why we have been equally, if not more, systematic and relentless in our pursuit of negotiation and encouraging the parties to have the dialogue that will resolve their issues. We will continue to do that. The President will continue the same level of activity he's had for these many months and months, because it's been extensive. And we hope there will be results.
Q So there's no coincidence, the terrorist incident today and the fact that the peace process seemed to be getting some traction?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't speak to or understand the motives of those who are irrational and crazy, but there may have been, that's possible. And we've seen that in the past. We've had horrible moments like this in the past, and we've had days like this in this process. And we no doubt will in the future.
But that doesn't mean that we do anything differently than what we have done all along, which is to patiently, persistently, and with a great deal of determination encourage the process that clearly the majority of Arabs, Jews, Palestinians want to see bring peace to their troubled land.
Q Mike, a follow-up. What is your hope about Dennis Ross, when he will bring that initiative back to Israel --
MR. MCCURRY: He is prepared to go at the point at which he can be most useful to the parties themselves. At a moment of tragedy in which the Israelis will be burying the dead, it's not appropriate for him to go, but an appropriate time, soon, he will go.
Q Mike, can you explain -- I mean, you obviously have decided that you didn't think it was productive to have Madeleine Albright go to the Middle East across this time period. Can you explain some of the thinking about that, because given how much Warren Christopher went --
MR. MCCURRY: I think I already did. We conduct our diplomacy in the way we think it will be most effective. There are a variety of ways in which we use efforts by people at different levels to encourage the parties to make progress, and we'll continue to do that. How we do that and what our thinking is, I'm not going to elaborate on other than to say that we have many tools, they are used appropriately, publicly when they need to be. But the personal commitment of the Secretary and the President is quite clear and quite strong, and their activity is quite real and has shaped what we hope would be an effort to build on some of the momentum that we were starting to see.
Q Mike, if I could follow. This bombing increases the already likely impact on the legislation governing assistance to the Palestinian Authority, that it will expire. Are you worried that once that legislation expires, that the administration will lose a very valuable way to negotiate by being able to have contacts straight with the PLO? What's the impact of all that and how do you see that working out?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act has been a necessary ingredient of our effort to promote peace. I can't factually accept the premise of your question today. I can't say that there is some reason why the tragic events today might necessarily be connected to that event because that would be putting me in a position of drawing certain conclusions about the sponsorship or knowledge of or details of that that we don't have at this point. Hypothetically I'm not going to answer.
Q Mike, did I hear you correctly as saying that the terrorists struck today because your policy was succeeding in the Middle East?
MR. MCCURRY: That terrorists have struck throughout the long history of the Middle East peace process because they are trying to destroy a process bringing peace. And we don't know the rationale or motive for today's attack, probably never will. But we know that consistently in time the object of the terrorists has been to destroy a process that is the alternative and the antidote to the very goals and objectives they claim to espouse for themselves, which is to take matters in their own hands.
Q Was this a big setback to your policy? Does this really set back the --
MR. MCCURRY: Look, as I just said earlier, we have had moments like this. We work through them. We share the pain and grief of the parties as they struggle to understand and cope with the events that they see. But we've had other days in which we celebrate the victories and the successes of a process that's brought extraordinary change to that region. And we will fight hard and continue our efforts for those kinds of days, even as we endure the tragedy of a day like this.
Q Could you elaborate a little bit on the President's plans for Block Island?
MR. MCCURRY: No. I don't even know if he's going yet.
Q Is there any chance the President will stop by to see Weld when he's here today?
MR. MCCURRY: We'll let you know if he does.
Q Another question on Coverdell. I just got handed some wire copy that says that the President specifically, in a conversation with Trent Lott and Gingrich last night, told them that he would veto it.
MR. MCCURRY: I think we put out the President's letter. We told Senator Lott and the Speaker that -- in working out the final agreement, I strongly oppose the Coverdell amendment; I would veto any tax package that would undermine public education by providing tax benefits for private and parochial school expenses.
We had some of our team on the Hill until about 10:30 p.m. last night, working through what we would euphemistically describe as drafting issues.
Q Did the President personally call the Speaker last night to deliver that?
MR. MCCURRY: He called the Speaker after that message had been delivered, but mostly to compliment the Speaker on the work that had been done to clean up the remaining issues on the bill so it could go to final consideration today.
Q Did he mention Coverdell in the conversation?
MR. MCCURRY: It was in the past tense at that point.
Q If I could follow on what he's asking, you came away from last night's meeting feeling confident that the Coverdell amendment would not end up in the legislation?
MR. MCCURRY: It's not in the legislation that's being considered now.
Q It's being considered, but you felt confident after the meeting that it would not be a part of the legislation?
MR. MCCURRY: It's not being considered unless he offers it as a separate amendment. It will be opposed by the -- it will be made clear by the conferees that it's not part of the final agreement reached by the negotiators.
Q Mike, Mr. Bowles yesterday said that one of the President's priorities was trying to get this parity with NAFTA for the CBI countries into the legislation. He seems to be running into problems.
MR. MCCURRY: That's going to take some more work. That may require work later this year.
Q As it stands, it won't be on this bill, or --
MR. MCCURRY: They're continuing their discussions, but it doesn't look like it's going to -- yes, they're still working on it, but we haven't heard of any successful outcome to the efforts we've made to include some of the initiative provisions in the final agreement.
Q Republican leaders have also indicated that they don't consider the tax cut legislation the last round and that they would be submitting more tax cuts next year. Does the administration consider this the final round?
MR. MCCURRY: It took a lot of hard work to get to this point. I don't think we're thinking that far ahead, but it will be quite some time before another major tax bill comes along most likely. I think anyone on the Hill will tell you that, too.
Q Mike, would the President consider Bob Dole for chairman of the Medicare Commission?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sure he would. I haven't asked him and would want to check with him before I answered it, but I'm sure he would. He's got great respect and affection for him. I don't have any clue as to whether former Senator Dole would be interested in that assignment.
I don't think they've ever -- to my knowledge they've never talked about that, but I know in the hypothetical I think he would.
Q Dole served on the Greenspan Commission in '83 and --
MR. MCCURRY: As my boss at the time, Senator Moynihan, did as well, so I'm very familiar with that.
Q He would be acceptable?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not naming him. The President hasn't even begun to consider who he will -- does he appoint or -- who does the eight in the eight?
Q Well, the President and the leadership --
MR. MCCURRY: Leo, I gave you enough that you can write out and do a good spec story on it. I'm not going to do any more on it. (Laughter.)
Q Mike, in going to Fort AP Hill tonight, why would the President choose to address an organization that has a policy of discrimination against atheists and homosexuals?
MR. MCCURRY: He's talking to the Boy Scouts of America. (Laughter.)
Q Right, exactly.
MR. MCCURRY: Did you have a bad run-in with the Boy Scouts of America? (Laughter.)
Q Actually not, I was a Boy Scout myself.
Q It's the Boy Scouts. It's a Boy Scout Jamboree. I think the President --
Q Well, does the President have a position on their policy?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has a position in favor of the Boy Scouts of America, as has every other President that has visited with the Boy Scouts when they have their Jamborees.
Q Was the President himself a Boy Scout?
MR. MCCURRY: He was a Cub Scout, I believe, a Cub Scout.
Q That's it? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: What? He was in the band and stuff. He did other stuff.
Q He gave up Boy Scouting for the band or --
MR. MCCURRY: He did the band. I think he gave up the Boy Scouts for politics probably.
Q I just want to make sure I understand your Caribbean answer.
MR. MCCURRY: No, I can't. I'm not going to do -- check with these guys afterwards on that. I did all I know on that.
Q Are you still continuing --
MR. MCCURRY: I did everything I know on that, which wasn't much obviously. (Laughter.)
Okay, anyone else? Leo?
Q Yes, one other question on the availability or non-availability of these distribution tables. Are you saying it's a question of logistical difficulty over at Treasury that they --
MR. MCCURRY: No, Leo, they were still writing this bill at 10:30 p.m. last night. I think they're still writing it right now.
Q But the tax bill --
MR. MCCURRY: The tax bill hasn't even been filed. It's going to be filed at 3:00 p.m. today and Treasury is going to work hard to try to do the distributional tables on it. They can't -- they have to do those tables -- you have to do that analysis against real legislative language. You can't do it against hypothetical things, which is why some of these outside groups are -- they tried hard, but they can't necessarily get it accurate. So we've got to do an accurate analysis. And we'll do it when we can do it.
Q -- and isn't it a fact that Treasury has a far better database and more computers in the system for tax --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, but they also have to be absolutely accurate, and they can only be absolutely accurate in doing those distributional tables when they analyze specific language, which is not available -- won't be available until later today.
I mean, they're working on it -- they've started -- as they work through the bill, they start to run their -- presumably, run their stuff through whatever computers and gizmos they've got over there.
Q Do you expect some tables later today?
MR. MCCURRY: I think you should contact the Treasury Department.
Q Given that the President knew Charlie Trie in Little Rock, has he had any reaction to the testimony yesterday about all the foreign money --
MR. MCCURRY: I gave that at the top of the briefing.
Okay. Thank you.
Q You did?
MR. MCCURRY: Sure. I did. It all adds up to a case for campaign finance reform which I made for you.
Q Did he have any reaction?
MR. MCCURRY: His reaction is that it's time to move on with campaign finance reform, as the testimony has made abundantly clear, as I said earlier -- as I did in fact say earlier.
MR. MCCURRY: Tomorrow is Thursday.
Q A health care event?
MR. MCCURRY: We're not doing that.
MR. TOIV: No, the health care event is no longer on tomorrow. That's been postponed.
MR. MCCURRY: What are we doing tomorrow? Anyone know?
Q What is on tomorrow?
MR. TOIV: No real public schedule at the moment. No public schedule at the moment.
MR. MCCURRY: Thank you.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:07 P.M. EDT