THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:10 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to our briefing today. Let me advise you of the following: the Foreign Minister of Poland, the Foreign Minister of Hungary, and the Deputy Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic will meet at 3:00 p.m. today with the National Security Advisor, Mr. Berger, and I believe will go to the stakeout probably around 3:30 p.m., 3:40 p.m., in that neighborhood. So you know that obviously they will review the progress that they are making in their conversations with NATO as they consider the invitation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to join said organization. And Mr. Berger will review some of those discussions that have been occurring and the work that we are doing here to educate the American public and to explain what the merits of an enlarged NATO would be for the security interests of the people of the United States.
Q Are they appearing before the Hill?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. They are here -- actually, are here, and it's a good -- the good things they are doing, they're going to be up on the Hill talking to various members of foreign relation connected committees in both the House and the Senate. I think Strobe Talbott is putting a dinner together for them at the State Department as well. So they'll be actively engaged in pressing the arguments they see for their own membership and why they think and why many in Central Europe think an expanded NATO will contribute to security and stability on the continent.
Q Do you have a halfway specific timetable yet for Senate ratification, when you would ask the Senate to really get going on that?
MR. MCCURRY: No. I know that there is a North Atlantic Council meeting that usually occurs in Brussels in mid December, and the general discussion -- that's when the accession discussions would occur and the point of submitting the document to the Senate would occur then sometime beyond that. So at the earliest, conceivably, next year. But it would be after the formal accession documents are signed by the North Atlantic ministers, and that would not happen until December. It's usually December 15, 16, in that neighborhood.
Q So it would be the first half of '98?
MR. MCCURRY: It would be in 1998, yes.
Q Mike, can you explain maybe a little better than Gene the problems that the White House has with the IRS overhaul -- they plan to have a presidential review board? Gene said that it's a recipe for special interest. In fact, the President gets to pick everybody on it.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe -- I don't think that's correct. That's only some -- the White House picks only some members. But they must be drawn from private sector representatives who clearly would have matters pending before the Internal Revenue Service, which is whereupon the conflict arrises. But I think Gene's comments reflect our point of view. And for much greater discussion of that I'd steer you to the Treasury Department because they've both testified on it, Secretary Rubin has spoken to it, and there's a lot available on their specific critique.
Q Is this at all a turf war between Congress and you all on who should be doing the reforms on IRS?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I think it's more a question of how you can best modernize and make more efficient that agency, and it's the view of the Treasury Secretary that the department has done a considerable amount, is aware of the shortcomings that exist, and is in a good position to address the shortcomings without the type of overhaul that's been suggested on the Hill.
Q On that point, does the President propose anything to address the problem of a system that is based on a 10,000-page tax code?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we've always suggested that we look for ways to simplify the tax code and make the burden of paying taxes easier. We have done a lot through the promotion of electronic filing, through easing the regulations and the explanation of regulations that exist to make the tax system easier on taxpayers. Most taxpayers in this country use the short form; most are able to complete the process of submitting their documents in a pretty easy fashion. And we will continue to look for ways to simplify.
But remember, there are a lot of things that are in the tax code because they encourage things that as a matter of federal policy we want to encourage -- home ownership, for example. You could make the tax code easier by taking away the home mortgage interest deduction. I don't know that that would represent good housing policy, and I don't know whether that's what members of Congress who are advocating so-called flat taxation or rewriting, ripping up the IRS code and throwing it away -- what about charitable deductions, encouraging people to be philanthropic? There are a lot of things in the tax code that, by creation and by design, encourage behavior that as a matter of policy lawmakers and executive branches have traditionally encouraged.
Q Mike, what, if any, concerns do you have about the questions of confidence and credibility that the IRS faces now because of these hearings and because of the actions that follow these hearings?
MR. MCCURRY: I think what Mr. Sperling said earlier, some of the testimony was deeply troubling. The White House thought the very swift action by the Department was appropriate and the President has indicated he expects Secretary Rubin to be fully engaged in addressing any shortcomings that exist.
Q When do you think you'll have the regulations on food imports? Fruits and vegetables.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the White House indicated last week that the administration is considering addressing ways in which we can bring greater security to what is one of the safest food safety and inspection systems anywhere in the world. And I expect later this week we'll have some things to say -- we'll address the question of how we can make imported fruits and vegetables as secure as meat and poultry products. Not just imports, it's also a directive to domestic manufacturers that will give them greater guidelines and greater confidence in the integrity of their own manufacturing processes.
Q Mike, a French oil company, TOTAL, signed yesterday a contract with Iran to explore an offshore gas field in Iran. Is it a violation of the so-called -- law, and is the White House in favor of sanctions against --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we're certainly aware of reports about that contract and have been following very closely the whole South Pars project, the whole development of that oil field. We have very strict requirements on the Iran and Libya sanctions act and we will fully administer the law. I'm not prepared to make an announcement, but it's safe to assume that those who are responsible for implementing that law have followed this transaction carefully and our argument against the proposed investment is very well-known and very well-known to both the company and the government of France. And that's that the proceeds that develop from oil and gas exploration are used in Iran's unrelenting support, state-sponsored support of terrorism.
Q Mike, the CEO of TOTAL said that he has the backing of the EU and they've checked with them before. Is it something that can influence your decision before setting down sanctions?
MR. MCCURRY: That the EU somehow or other grants support for it? No, our law is very clear and the requirements under the sanctions act are clear, and we'll have to administer the law.
Q What kind of contact do you have with the French government over this?
MR. MCCURRY: I'd have to check at the State Department. I know that this has been addressed in bilateral exchanges that we've had with them and even at higher levels. But the State Department can tell you more.
Q Mike, The Washington Post has a major story today on the connection between the Colombian drug cartel and the Russian crime syndicate. What is the reaction of the White House?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'm constrained on what I can say based on exactly what we know because some of that information available to us is available in a way that we can't freely discuss. But at the same time, have you not heard President Clinton over and over again address some of the major challenges that exist in the post-Cold War era -- chief among them being international drug trafficking, the operation of international crime syndicates? A great deal of work this administration has done has been aimed at developing more coherent structures in the international community to deal with transnational threats like international drug trafficking and international crime. And our response will continue along the lines of the work that we've already done to address the connections.
But suffice to say, we have pointed out the connections that do exist between those who are involved in illegal drug trafficking and it has been widely reported from time to time that there have been connections made between representatives of the Colombia cartels and some of the organized crime figures in the Russian Federation.
Q Has the U.S. talked to Moscow about it?
MR. MCCURRY: We have not only talked with the Russian Federation on that, but, as you recall, President Yeltsin and President Clinton have actually set up structures to allow our law enforcement agencies to work together to address these kinds of concerns. And a great deal of work is being done. Some of the information that comes to us about the connections that exist in part arise because we watch this activity very closely.
Q Back on food safety. Critics of NAFTA and fast track maintain that there's basically irreconcilable conflict between food safety on the one hand and trade liberalization on the other to the extent that we open our doors to foreign products, mainly Mexican foreign products, we endanger American consumers because the safety screening is not as thorough and rigorous as it is in this country. Is the administration satisfied that no such peril exists in expanding trade, that you're not loosening --
MR. MCCURRY: We reject the arguments of those that say you cannot continue to have the world-class safety and health standards that exist and simultaneously promote free and open trade that increases the economic wealth of the American people. You can have both, and this administration I think, in so many ways, has proven that with the work that we've done related to food safety and health.
Q Let me just follow up on that. Are you saying that if there are supicions on this side of the border that some strawberries may be contaminated, or what have you, that you have sufficient tools or that you're not handicapped on the NAFTA that you can bar entry of these suspect products?
MR. MCCURRY: We have tools and a good inspection system available. We think there are some ways that that can be strengthened, but it's not appropriate to cite one particular case -- for example, strawberries -- because I don't think there's been any conclusion drawn as to what was the nature of the outbreak in that particular case. But we do acknowledge that we can have more tools available to ensure the integrity of the food supply.
At the same time, we don't see that as an issue related to international trade. That's related to the health and safety of the American people. It's a public health issue. It's not a question related to trade.
Q Dr. John Hope Franklin was spotted walking into the White House today. Who is he meeting with, and what will the President be discussing tomorrow when he meets with the Race Advisory Board?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not sure exactly who he's meeting with. I assume he's here meeting with Judy Winston and getting prepared for the Race Advisory Board meeting that occurs tomorrow. Presumably, he's meeting with some of the President's senior advisors here on the White House staff, too, as they prepare for the meeting tomorrow.
The President is looking forward to the meeting that he will have with the Advisory Board and following very closely the entire program that they will have tomorrow at their meeting over at the Mayflower. The President knows has been at least preliminarily briefed on some of what will happen tomorrow. There will be a report from Dr. Franklin on the work of the Advisory Board to date, a report from the Executive Director, Ms. Winston, who will talk about the staffing and some of the work that the staff of the board has been doing.
The President -- the discussion the President and Vice President will have will focus on the values and ideals that unite and strengthen Americans, a subject that the President has addressed extensively. He had a brief opportunity to see some of the members of the board at the conclusion of the ceremonies in Little Rock and wants to amplify on that discussion tomorrow. And then the board, in the afternoon, will have a series of presentations by some academic specialists that cover attitudes about race in America, some of what we know about demographics and how the demographic composition of the country will change in coming decades, and some presentations on just attitudes about race in America. But we'll be putting out a lot more on who is participating and that sort of thing tomorrow.
Q How much of that would the President be privy to? Will he actually be --
MR. MCCURRY: He'll be there for about an hour for the roundtable discussion that he and the Vice President will participate in. And then, of course, he'll be getting a full report on their work and getting follow-up reports as we go along.
I expect he will have some announcements himself on some of the future work that will be undertaken as part of the race initiative and talk a little bit about some of the things the administration is doing. He might even have an announcement with respect to some of the things the administration does when it comes to civil rights enforcement in one particular area.
Q To what extent is he going to give them instructions on the direction he wants this initiative to go from here, especially with many people in the civil rights community saying that it appears to be stalled and doesn't have any direction?
MR. MCCURRY: He obviously takes issue with the idea it's stalled. It's very active and moving forward very swiftly and smartly. And he will give them some sense of things that he has heard or ideas that he has had, but there will be ample opportunity to review that tomorrow.
Q But, Mike, I talked with Dr. Franklin in Little Rock and he did say that the Race Advisory Board has kind of slowed down just a wee bit and the dialogue really hasn't come full circle as of yet. What is the White House saying on that?
MR. MCCURRY: The dialogue is underway and the President has been a part of it just in recent days himself; Dr. Franklin has been a part of it. I think we're satisfied that there is a great deal of attention being given to the subject. So I would have to find out more of what he meant in particular.
Q The Department of State, with an unusual written statement for the first time says that there are additional Greek-Turkish territorial disputes beyond the Aegean and refuses to revoke it and to name some. Since this statement, Mr. McCurry, created the confusion in Athens and satisfaction in Ankara, could you please comment what this is all about if you know anything?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that Secretary of State Albright is in a better position to address that. She has had good meetings with both Foreign Minister Cem and Foreign Minister Pangalos. There have been commentary by both of those parties, some of it rather extraordinary, that might have been misinterpreted in one capital or another. But our role is that of an even broker, and we have listened carefully to both sides. Both sides have acknowledged that they have disputes that extend beyond the territorial disputes in the Aegean -- Cyprus, for example -- and we are encouraging them to continue a very active dialogue in the spirit of two NATO allies who ought to be able to amicably resolve differences.
Q Do you have any knowledge that Cyprus has obtained finally any Russian missiles --
MR. MCCURRY: We have only described the SA-10 transaction that had been widely reported as one that could lead to possible introduction of sophisticated weaponry. I don't believe we have any information to suggest that any systems, fully operable systems, have been delivered.
Q And what is the position of the decision of the Turkish government to proceed for preemptive strikes?
MR. MCCURRY: There have been some things said about the nature of the response that would be given if there were there introduction of this type of weaponry in Cyprus. That's one reason among many why the United States has suggested that such sophisticated weaponry has no place in an area in which we are actively working to limit tension. We look negatively on things that would increase tension and have publicly said so. We've been working with all the parties on Cyprus to try to ease tensions, create an environment in which we can work together and try to move their dialogue forward. But the current situation on Cyprus is such that the introduction of that type of weaponry would be seriously troubling to the United States.
Q The last one. The British newspaper, Observer, published an extensive story present Greece today as a country of international terrorism. Since your country has cooperated with Greece to fight terror, I would like you to comment on this.
MR. MCCURRY: We do not share that view. We consider Greece to be a close ally, a country with which we have extraordinarily positive relations, and there is no suggestion in the annual report of the State Department patterns of global terrorism that would corroborate any suggestion that Greece is a state sponsor of terrorism.
Q Bruce Reed announced this morning that there was going to be a meeting here at the White House between congressional leaders and the President on tobacco on Wednesday.
MR. MCCURRY: Good, so I don't have to do it. (Laughter.)
Q Can you tell us who is going to be there?
MR. MCCURRY: They're still working up the list, right? I can't tell you that. No, Mr. Reed said more than I know on the subject already.
Q Mike, it has been one week now since the President met with the Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan in New York at the U.N., and also the President's upcoming visit to India and Pakistan, I believe is in February. So after his meetings with the -- leaders, what is the reaction? And also, what is the outcome about his visit --
MR. MCCURRY: He was greatly encouraged by his meetings with both leaders. He sees within South Asia the opportunity for reconciliation for a dialogue that will allow both governments to address the disagreements they have, particularly on the disputed territory of Kashmir. There have been some hopeful things suggested by both governments in the aftermath of that meeting and the United States government, at the urging of the President, will closely follow and attempt to encourage both governments to continue a dialogue that might help them address some of the fundamental questions that have caused tension between the two governments for so many years.
Q How about his visit to India and Pakistan? What do you think -- is he taking any questions from the U.N. meetings --
MR. MCCURRY: He had a much better sense as a result of those meetings of the types of issues that would define the agenda when he does go. He expressed to both leaders his enthusiasm about having an opportunity to make this visit, but I think he gathered from these meetings the issues that will be much more precisely on the agenda, but also got a sense of the kinds of things that we could do in the intervening months to address the opportunities for bilateral dialogue that exists between the governments of Pakistan and india.
Q One more different issue. Tomorrow is the last day or the deadline for the 245-I Immigration Act of 1996 and millions are waiting, illegally working or living in this country, but -- is the deadline going to be extended, or what is the future of those people?
MR. MCCURRY: We certainly hope that it will be extended. We strongly support an extension of the 245-I provision which allows people to obtain some clarity on their legal status. While they must pay a penalty, at least they have some clarity on their legal status while any appropriate immigration action is pending. We are encouraged that there is an active move on the Hill now to insert that language and what -- Commerce, State, Justice -- where --
MR. TOIV: There is a brief extension in the CR.
MR. MCCURRY: There is some discussion of putting an extension in the continuing resolution that would be passed which would give Congress some time to address that issue at greater length and the administration is working with supporters of that extension on the Hill to see if we can't get it achieved.
Q What's the deadline, tomorrow?
MR. MCCURRY: The 30th, correct.
Q Mike, on the fast track legislation, does the President agree with some of the supporters on the Hill that it should be passed this year or else might be dead?
MR. MCCURRY: The President is of the strong view that we should move ahead on that legislation this year. It's important for Congress to take the issue up to give the President that authority that he needs and they should do it before they go home for the holidays. If negotiating free trade arrangements that will open up markets to U.S. goods and services is one of the central, fundamental building blocks of the economic performance the American people have enjoyed for the last four and a half years, part of which we were discussing earlier here today, and that we need to continue to keep those markets open and actively open those markets, and the President wants that authority this year.
Q What do you see as the chances for this happening?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it's clearly going to take a lot of hard work, and we've known that for some time and we've been doing that hard work.
Q At one point, you had said that you wanted at least one House to vote on it before he took the South American trip. I think the Ways and Means Committee doesn't mark up until October 8th. Is he disappointed that he won't go to South America with even one vote?
MR. MCCURRY: He would prefer to see the authority given to him sooner rather than later, but the fact that the committees are actively moving on the bill marking up is encouraging to us. He's going to get a lot more than you're all getting here, probably. (Laughter.)
Q Mike, the Census Bureau reported income today showed that the household median income, despite the gain in '96, is still lower than it was in 1989. Why was the announcement today greeted as good news when we still haven't made up -- when households haven't even made up all that they've lost since the peak during the Bush administration?
MR. MCCURRY: Look, we had a long, lengthy briefing earlier for all of the good reasons to greet this report, particularly with respect to the poverty figures and others. I can't do any better than Dr. Yellen and Mr. Sperling did earlier.
Q Mike, has the President talked to Ickes at all about these phone calls that Ickes said he recalls him making? Did you try to jog his memory? Has there been any attempt to find out what he was talking about?
MR. MCCURRY: Not to my knowledge, no.
Q Do you know why --
MR. MCCURRY: It's an immaterial question and probably not worth the time and effort.
Q Try hypnosis.
MR. MCCURRY: That's right.
Q This issue of tax simplification, given that the Tax Relief Act that the President signed has over 800 changes in the Internal Revenue Code in it and in light of all of the frustration expressed by taxpayers, is the White House considering any revisiting of that law to simplify it in any way?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll stick with the answers I gave earlier on that.
Q Is it an immaterial question because you say the phone calls were legitimate?
MR. MCCURRY: For all the reasons -- Mr. Davis can tell you more about the interpretation of the law that the Counsel's Office has.
Q So you're not ever answering any questions regarding phone calls?
MR. MCCURRY: It's just that we've answered those questions and the President has answered -- he's said what he has to say on it, as he told you earlier.
Q Has the President asked for an explanation of the role of the Egyptian government in handing over that former Libyan official to Libya some years ago?
MR. MCCURRY: There have been conversations government to government on that and a request received at the highest levels for further information.
Q Mike, on 245-I, you said we hope it will be extended. Are you speaking of a temporary, three-week extension you talked about, or at a more permanent basis? Because three weeks won't solve the problem.
MR. MCCURRY: Both. We want the inclusion in the continuing resolution where it's going to be considered now, and then we want some way in the long-term for INS to be able to address case by case individual situations that need sort of care and attention.
Q Is the President sorry he signed that bill?
MR. MCCURRY: The immigration reform bill? Well, we've had some preferences of things that should have been in the bill that weren't in the bill, as you know, but we needed -- the broader parameters of the legislation the President clearly supported.
Q Do you have a preview of the President's farewell to General Shalikashvili?
MR. MCCURRY: It will be poignant and will -- (laughter) -- it will be heartfelt and it will add to -- the General, we were teasing some of his staff earlier today, he's been on a great farewell tour, richly deserved, himself. And I know the President will speak both personally and then acknowledge the superior qualities he's brought to that position as the nation's number one soldier. And certainly, the transfer of command to General Shelton will be one that will carry on that tradition. But the President has a special fondness for General Shalikashvili, having worked with him in so many different ways over the last four and a half years, and I think he's going to miss him a great deal.
He's going to -- they've talked a lot about how he's going to enjoy his retirement. It's going to be a very active one, as you probably know.
Q I want to go back, Mike, on the economic figures, despite the briefing. The question is really rather simple and it goes to the President having simplified the statistics. The President says the statistics show income inequality has been halted because, I guess, the bottom 20 percent income rise is 8 percent, the top 20 percent is about 5. Of course, that 5 is on a much larger figure, so the rich continue getting richer. Is that a fair thing for the President to say when the implication is that the rich are no longer getting richer when, in fact, the reality is --
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President would say it this way. After rising for 20 years, income inequality has stayed constant over the last three years. In 1996, incomes rose at all points in the income distribution on an after-tax basis. And while the real income of the American household at the lowest percentile, the 20th percentile, stagnated last year on a before-tax basis, it increased 3.3 percent on an after-tax basis, from $7,927 in 1995 to $8,263 in 1996.
The point if you go through some of the written material you have you could probably get, so I don't have to read it here.
Q But it increased -- if I may follow -- on a much smaller income, so that in reality the rich did get richer. They got -- because their smaller percentage increased on a much larger figure.
MR. MCCURRY: I think the point is this, that everyone's incomes rose in that same time.
Q Yes, but there are still below the peak they were in 1989.
MR. MCCURRY: Okay, well, why don't you -- if you didn't get a chance to ask Mr. Sperling a question earlier, why don't you give him a phone call.
Q On campaign finance reform, given a lot of the opposition coming out on the McCain-Feingold, are you going to just stick with supporting that legislation or are you going to start coming up with your own --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we've supported the efforts that both sponsors have made in the Senate and the companion sponsors in the House to try to get speedier access to that. They've done some things -- we've ended up with a bill that doesn't necessarily include everything we'd want to see in campaign finance reform, but they made some adjustments based on their assessment of what's likely to get fast action in the House and the Senate, and we support what they're doing, because it continues the central elements of reform that are necessary to reform the campaign finance laws.
Q The critics say that you're just focusing on this now because you want to divert attention from the Reno --
MR. MCCURRY: We've been working on this for the entire -- I mean, one way or another, we've been working on political reform the entire time Bill Clinton has been President. We've been working on reform of our campaign finance laws since the President and Newt Gingrich shook hands on it before the Speaker walked away from that deal. And one way or another, we've been pressing that long before any of these current matters were in the news. So I just -- that's not accurate to say that that's the case.
Q Mike, would the White House support campaign finance if an amendment was added that would restrict the use of union membership dues for campaign donations?
MR. MCCURRY: We'd have to look at it. There's a point at which you are defeating the rights of individual people to participate in the process if you structure that measure wrong. But remember, unions are already giving up a great deal on campaign finance reform legislation now supported by the President, because one of their principal means of supporting the political efforts, at least of the Democratic Party, has been in so-called non-federal soft contributions, and that would be barred under this legislation. So they are already giving up one of the principal means by which they've supported the Democratic Party over the years. And one would think that might be sufficient for those that think that their role needs to be diminished.
And one would ask, should corporations not be allowed to make contributions because -- unless they're individual shareholders that voted approval at shareholder meetings. You could apply the same type of test to sources of corporate support, too, and I think thereby gum up the process of campaign finance reform.
What this is about is to attach a killer amendment to this legislation. And it's quite clear, now, from the comments that the Majority Leader has made and that Speaker Gingrich has made that they just don't want to pass campaign finance reform. That's abundantly clear now. So, of course, they're looking for ways of attaching these so-called killer amendments on the legislation so it won't go anywhere.
Q Is there anything else the President's planning on doing to keep -- he said that the most important thing is to keep the spotlight on this issue?
MR. MCCURRY: I think we will continue to find ways, as we did today, to address it, and we've been trying each day, almost, to find some way of keeping the heat on Congress, and we'll continue to look for ways to do that, sure.
Q The President said earlier today that the Speaker was trying to deflect tension from his opposition to McCain-Feingold by attacking him over the weekend, but he used really, extraordinarily strong language. He accused the campaign of systematically breaking the law, suggested the President was trying to undermine the Constitution.
MR. MCCURRY: Right, well, a lecture on ethics from Newt Gingrich would strike many Americans as oxymoronic to begin with. But it's clear that the sharpness of the language, the personal nature of the language was because they are feeling the heat. The American people want campaign finance reform, and only shrill arguments would divert attention. So he resorted to what probably all he had left, which was sort of absurd, but if he can substantiate all that he said, then he should go visit the Justice Department and talk to them.
Q On what do you base the assertion that American people want campaign finance reform?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, because they -- it's nothing quantifiable. It's just the sense that people certainly are aware of the abuses of the system and they want to know whether someone's going to do anything about it. I think they probably suspect that nothing is going to happen, so they don't register this as being foremost among their concerns. And it's easy to understand. I don't think most people walk around worrying about how politicians are going to get money to pay for their campaigns. So it's not necessarily a front and center issue for them, but if you asked them generically, would you like to see our campaign laws reformed or improved, they'd say, sure. And I think that people long ago concluded that's what needs to happen here, so they want the Congress to get on with it.
Q Thank you.
MR. MCCURRY: Thank you.
END 1:44 P.M. EDT