THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:12 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: I want to start off -- a friend of mine from one of the auto companies called and told me that when the President meets with the auto executives tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. -- it will be 5:30 p.m. Helen, that was your question earlier -- with the Chairman and President of General Motors, Chairman and President and CEO of Chrysler, and President and CEO of Ford, the auto executives are particularly keen on talking to the President about global climate change, and I had forgotten that was one of the initial purposes that we wanted to have this meeting. So I'm sure that that will be a key part of the agenda.
I had indicated earlier that trade issues might dominate. I think they may come up, but I think the President will certainly want to hear them out on the subject of global climate change.
Q Does he expect to change their minds?
MR. MCCURRY: No, and I don't think they expect to change his mind, but I think that they want to make some points that they've been making both on the Hill and some of their public advocacy on the issue. And I think the President thinks it's important to hear them out on the issue.
Q On tobacco, Speaker Gingrich is talking about a common decision document, a joint administration-Congress bill.
MR. MCCURRY: Decision tree, as he put it.
Q Do you see a joint bill being developed?
MR. MCCURRY: There was good discussion at the meeting -- first of all, the President was very encouraged by the positive and productive tone of the meeting today. The President opened by saying the bipartisan process that we used to reach a historic agreement on the balanced budget is the kind of thing that ought to be useful in thinking through a complicated issue like how do we achieve our public health objectives with respect to teen smoking.
And on that point I would say there was general consensus around the table. Now, there was a lot of question about tactically at this point how useful would legislative language be, do you start considering some of these issues separately or move them on separate tracks, or do you see how everything hangs together. I think the Speaker made it very clear that he believes one element of this settlement affects other elements of the settlement, and I think as a general proposition the administration probably shares that view.
But while there wasn't necessarily complete consensus, the notion that you would begin structuring some timetable on how you reach certain decisions that lead you to the legislative language you need to implement this settlement was an important product of the meeting. Another product of the meeting was an agreement between the President and the leadership that we would structure some type of process in the next several weeks to really set up the mechanism that we use to move to legislation so that it could be considered early next year.
So I think it was with all respects, a very productive meeting. They didn't settle any of the big issues or attempt to in the meeting because there are some disagreements around the table even amongst members of the Senate and the House and members of the same party in some cases, and certainly some disagreements with the administration about how you address certain issues, but I think there's a real agreement among the people participating in that meeting that they need to move, and move swiftly, on this issue and take advantage of the momentum that's occurred.
Q Is there agreement on the issue of capping lawyers' fees?
MR. MCCURRY: No. I think they know that they want -- it was important clearly for the Speaker and others to raise that point. I think they know how we feel on that and that's clearly going to be one area in which there has to be a lot of work back and forth. But I think there is certainly a willingness on our part to explore all the features that are necessary to get to a settlement.
Q What is the White House position on lawyers' fees in the tobacco agreement?
MR. MCCURRY: That was not one of the critical principles that the President addressed in setting it forth. That's a subject we'd have to work with Congress on and address.
Q How about tax increases?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, again, there's not -- there was some discussion about the utility of moving towards a price increase that achieves the public health objective as a tax incident versus doing it as some type of program that would be structured to generate revenues from the industry that would go into a variety of programs. And that's not an issue that the President has addressed in his principles.
We've talked more about what the economic impact of the penalties provision of this settlement would be, that's where you get the $1.50 estimate of what the cost over the decade would be in terms of a price per pack of cigarettes. But that's, again, an area in which I don't think there's agreement at this point; it would be one that they would have to look at more carefully.
Q Is the President opposed to moving pieces of this at a time? There had been talk about moving the FDA part of it, regulation part of it first.
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President made it clear today that as a practical, logistic matter they need to move ahead on all elements of a proposed settlement simultaneously and that there are different jurisdictional questions that arise. There may be different staggering or sequencing of when committees consider things. I think Senator Kennedy made the point that Congress does that on complicated pieces of legislation all the time. They sequence the committee consideration of various elements, so there may be some agreement to tackle the issue that way.
But I think that as a general proposition, all of these things sort of fit together. And as a political matter, building support for an agreement, it's important for people from rural tobacco-growing states to know if there is going to be the kind of assistance for tobacco farmers the President has suggested is necessary. They need to know that before they can consider some of the other elements of the package. So I think just as a practical matter, it will have to kind of move ahead as one package.
Q There were some members who expressed the concern that by moving too slowly you might end up losing the deal. Would you not agree to move piece by piece if it --
MR. MCCURRY: I think one clear outcome of this meeting is that we won't be moving slowly.
Q Well, they were saying by processing -- sorry, a follow-up -- they were saying by getting down and focusing on working groups that that was already making you move slowly.
MR. MCCURRY: I think there was an agreement that they need to move quickly and move in a bipartisan way and recognize, given the complexity of this issue, that it will take time for Congress to address it. But I don't think anyone suggested that there should be any delay in consideration. I mean, as a practical matter, they're not going to do it between now and the adjournment this year, but everyone agreed there was a great deal of work that can be done in the next three months so that Congress can move swiftly into consideration of this issue next year.
Q On the penalty issue, did Secretary Shalala's testimony last week of giving company by company penalties come up at today's meeting and was that intended --
MR. MCCURRY: No, that did not come up.
Q You were talking about the next few weeks starting a process -- Speaker suggested a working group like the budget -- is that what you're talking about?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. I think the model -- as I said, the President specifically referenced the process that led to the balanced budget agreement. And I think as you heard the Speaker say, that was useful, having that kind of working group would be appropriate in the administration's view. We'll have to figure out who actually sits on it or how they accomplish that. But Mr. Bowles was designated by the President to follow up with the leadership and structure that process.
Q So there was agreement that that's the process --
MR. MCCURRY: Right. I mean, not specific individuals, nor who on the congressional side would participate, but certainly agreement that they would move quickly to set up the process.
Q Back to the automakers meeting -- will Secretary Rubin be participating in the meeting? And you mentioned that trade may come up. Is that something the President is going to bring up or is that something you expect the automakers to bring up? And is that a reference to the whole issue of Japan --
MR. MCCURRY: No, I just think that certainly, one, the President will reference the success we've had in opening up foreign markets to U.S. automakers. It will come up in that sense. I don't think it's going to dominate any of the discussion. And, no, the Secretary of the Treasury is not scheduled to participate.
Q The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform came out with a study yesterday saying to abolish -- one of their suggestions to abolish the INS. What's the White House position on that?
MR. MCCURRY: The President -- we issued a statement from the President yesterday and he expressed some concern about that provision, but we can get you a copy of the statement that we put out.
Q Paula Jones and her spokeswoman have announced today new legal counsel for Paula Jones and the fact that part of her legal defense is going to be bankrolled by a conservative think tank. Do you have any reaction to that?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't think that's particularly surprising, but as to who she selects for legal representation, that's a matter for her to decide and then that individual would work with Mr. Bennett, and to Mr. Bennett I refer further questions.
Q But why do you think it's not surprising? What's not surprising?
MR. MCCURRY: Just not surprising.
Q Do you have a readout on the Crown Prince's drop-by?
MR. MCCURRY: The President very much appreciated the opportunity to visit with the Crown Prince. The Crown Prince was carrying a personal message from His Majesty The King, discussing recent developments in the region, particularly concerning the peace process. The message focused particularly on Jordan's role in active support of the peace process, for which the President is grateful, and the President took the opportunity to express his gratitude to the Crown Prince.
Q Mike, what about surprising that Paula Jones is being bankrolled by conservatives?
MR. MCCURRY: That's all I'm going to say on it.
Q I understand that the President will be coming over to Virginia soon. Has he been keeping with the issues in the governor's race there? Does he have anything to --
MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to -- do you guys know that schedule?
MR. LOCKHART: Saturday evening, Beyer dinner. That's all --
MR. MCCURRY: I didn't even know that. Yes, we've been keeping up on all those issues. Have I? Unsadly not. (Laughter.) I can tell you what's going on in my neighborhood in Montgomery County, though.
Q Do you know anything about the Jordanians prevailing upon the President to ask Netanyahu what the poison was?
MR. MCCURRY: We have an active diplomacy in that region of the world and seek to learn and understand things, but sometimes we can't comment on what, if anything, we know.
MR. MCCURRY: I haven't answered the question. (Laughter.)
Q On the IRS reform, does the administration plan to advance an enhanced Taxpayer Bill of Rights, and is that what this internal review is all about in terms of --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they're looking at a number of ideas. We've always said we're interested in ways that we can make the administration of the tax laws more efficient and more customer-friendly for the taxpayer. But we've also suggested that we're interesting ways in which the tax code itself could be simplified and reformed. And we've got a lot of different ideas churning through Treasury, and I think they all have to meet a simple test: Do they contribute to our overall effort to encourage fiscal discipline and keep us on the track to the balanced budget, and are they premised on those things that would make the tax system both progressive and fair? That's been our test all along and that process of review will be ongoing, and Treasury can give you reams of paper that tell you a lot about it, but don't indicate what any decisions might be.
Q But to specifically do this as a remedy to the congressional hearing that came up last week, the excesses in the hearing that were revealed last week?
MR. MCCURRY: The remedy to the congressional hearings is to address some of those abuses that clearly were astonishing and not by any means acceptable. And those are -- you've heard from now the IRS, the Treasury Secretary -- they're moving already to address that. That's the response to the hearing.
Q Right. Will that mean legislation in the form of an additional Taxpayer Bill of Rights?
MR. MCCURRY: There are many, many ideas. Whether or not they take the form of legislation or not will be determined by a review of the Treasury Department, working with the National Economic Council here.
Q Mr. Gingrich came out again saying that he felt strongly about the citizen oversight board. Is the White House moving at all on its position on that? And, number two, he quoted numbers saying that even on that board there was a 15-2 vote that shows a lot of Democrats supported them, and that there are Democrats who have been critical of the White House, saying the White House has not done enough for tax code reform, particularly.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we fought for and signed the Taxpayer Bill of Rights legislation that the President signed. We have instituted the modernization board. We've taken a lot of administrative reform steps that the IRS was discussing even just yesterday. But there continues to have to be an effort to work with Congress to address any shortcomings that exist and to get the right kind of result, which is what we're all after. We're after an agency that works, that has the confidence of the American people, that results in people being able to pay their taxes in a timely way, and with some certainty that they're going to do it in a system that respects the taxpayer.
Q But there's even members of the Democratic Party who support flat taxes. I mean, is there --
MR. MCCURRY: There are members of the Democratic Party who support any number of range of tax reform ideas. Whether any of them go anywhere remains to be seen.
Q Mike, is the President going to have any sort of statement or communication to the Promise Keepers, and is he going to observe any of the proceedings on Saturday?
MR. MCCURRY: Not that I've heard of, but if that changes I'll let you know.
Q Mike, speaking of Democrats, Republican leaders are still claiming the President is not doing enough to deliver Democratic votes for fast track.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe they can still say that, given that we got a 19-1 vote out of the Senate Finance Committee, which the President warmly welcomed. The President applauds the Finance Committee for successfully reporting out this compromise legislation. He's particularly grateful to Chairman Roth and to Senator Moynihan for the work that they did in crafting a bipartisan bill that achieves the objective the President seeks. We now look forward to working with the Senate leadership to get Senate passage.
We're going to continue our hard work in the House on the bill. Ambassador Barshefsky has taken some advantage of the momentum created by the vote in the Senate committee today to be up in the House working with members of the Ways and Means Committee to build on some support and to get the President the authority he needs to tear down trade barriers that exist so that we can continue to compete in the global economy. So this has been a productive day, and I don't think anyone can fault the White House or the work we've been doing up on the Hill since we took a very important step forward today.
Q Mike do you have any comment on Israel now looking again at keeping this kid over there, this Silver Spring --
MR. MCCURRY: We are having to rely very carefully on the Justice Department to put forward views, and they had a statement yesterday on it. I'll just have to fall into line behind that.
Q I'm sorry, one point. Mr. Gingrich talked about going to taxpayers and trying to come up with a plan to completely overhaul the whole tax code, possibly by May. Would the White House support overhauling the whole tax code?
MR. MCCURRY: That really wasn't a focus of the meeting we had today, and I'm sure we'll have other opportunities to talk to the Speaker on that subject. That didn't come up in the meeting today.
Q But would you be willing to talk about that now, overhauling the whole tax code?
MR. MCCURRY: We have set forth our views numerous times through the Treasury Secretary on that question, and I'd refer you back to what the Treasury Secretary has testified to in the past.
Q You said you wanted -- the White House wants to keep the tax code progressive and fair. How does one do that?
MR. MCCURRY: By measuring the tax consequences of various provisions in the code and what the overall effect is on the various quintiles and what the -- what the guys in the green eye shades over at Treasury, all the stuff they noodle around on all the time.
Q Is progressivity the opposite of fairness when you charge -- when different groups of people pay different rates, different groups of citizens?
MR. MCCURRY: Progressivity is the definition of fairness and has been for a long time when it comes to the tax code.
Q Some might disagree with that.
MR. MCCURRY: There are some that do disagree with that. But there's been some consensus on that point for a long time in American history.
Okay, we're stretching here today. Did someone give you guys the signal like this? (Laughter.) We're not filling any air time.
Q Put the bag back on. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I was doing a better job when I had the bag on, wasn't I.
Q Is the White House comfortable with the call for the Supreme Court to rule on sampling and whether it meets the constitutional --
MR. MCCURRY: Not at all. Not at all, because as the Congressional Research Service pointed out today, it's very unlikely there could be any ruling prior to the dry run of the census that occurs next year. I mean, we are very quickly heading in the direction of asking the U.S. taxpayers to spend $4 billion for a census that won't be worth a darn because it won't be accurate. And any expert will tell you that it won't be accurate unless they use some statistical sampling method to achieve a more accurate count. So why would the Congress ask the American people to spend billions of dollars for a census that won't be worth anything?
It's a very troubling development, but, of course, we still hope that common sense will prevail and that the experts who tell us what we need to do so we get an accurate count of the American people will have some sway on the Hill and will get a census provision that makes sense.
Q Is the White House ready to accept a 90-day review for Vice President Gore? And if it is, is it also willing to accept a 90-day review for the President?
MR. MCCURRY: The Attorney General has made no decision, to my knowledge, to that, so it's really within her province.
Q Is that a recommendation from --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know whether that's true or -- I mean, you'd have to ask Justice whether that's true. I don't know, myself, whether that's true.
Q Does the White House object to moving on to the 90 day --
MR. MCCURRY: There are some advantages to a 30-day -- or a 90-day review, a three-month review period, because you can begin to look at the law and people can present facts so we could dispose of these matters. But that's -- really, again, an opportunity for us to comment on that really doesn't arise until the Attorney General makes a decision.
Q The weathermen, what's the --
MR. MCCURRY: They're here, they're having a great time. Weatherpersons, I believe, since I believe some are of the other gender.
Q The point of bringing them in?
MR. MCCURRY: The point of bringing them in is to help them understand the long-term trends that affect the matters they report on to their audiences every single day, and then to make it possible, hopefully, for them to educate a much wider audience about something that's going to affect all of us, one way or another, as we look ahead in decades ahead.
The effects of long-term global climate change will be as consequential as whether or not it's going to rain tomorrow or whether or not we're going to face thunderstorms or snowstorms. It has some direct impact on what weather forecasters report to their audiences.
Q Already, do you think?
MR. MCCURRY: There are some scientists that suggest there has been some weather -- climate effects already. weather changes and climate effects as a result of the warming that we've seen already.
Q Do you think when they're allowed or encouraged to broadcast from the lawn, that that will tend to make them pass along, shall we say, the White House point of view on what ought to be done?
MR. MCCURRY: No, because they're not -- again, most of what they're getting today is scientific data and expert testimony. They'll get a little bit of time coming up shortly for the President to talk about our approach on the issue. I don't think they're going to go educate their audiences about the way we're negotiating this issue going into Kyoto. That's not the point of this. The point of this is so they can tell their audiences more about what scientists agree are the long-term climate consequences of greenhouse emissions. And that's a technical subject, and I think that most of these folks seem equipped to be able to handle that and report that. Most of the folks in this room report out on the same lawn, and after all, the American people own that lawn, so we're putting it to good use.
Q Back on the 30-day, 90-day -- is it the expectation that the -- are you resigned to the fact that's it's going to go into 90 days?
MR. MCCURRY: If it's -- it would not be unreasonable if the Attorney General wanted to take some additional time to review what the law is. That's not unreasonable to assume she might do that. But again, we're not in a position to comment on what she's going to have to review and decide herself.
Q Mike, you suggested a moment ago that going into the 90 days would be beneficial to the White House point of view. How does that help the White House? What would you be able to do in those 90 days?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not a lawyer, but you could talk to lawyers who can explain to you, you can do more in that three-month period in the presentation of facts and other things than you can do in this initial 30-day phase. But you can -- some of our Counsel's folk can help you understand that better than I can probably.
Q Mike, did you see any of the weather broadcasts this morning from the lawn? And what did you think of them?
MR. MCCURRY: I saw a very energetic Katie McGinty talking about climate change. That's about all I saw, because otherwise we were in meetings.
Q Mike, why should people care if it's going to rain tomorrow or the next day because of global warming? Isn't it the government's responsibility to decide they want to weigh in and change the way that the emissions are emitted, and it's your problem more than it is some guy watching TV?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it affects -- I mean, it could potentially affect all Americans and the solutions could conceivably affect all Americans. And depending on what kind of approach you take to deal with the question of greenhouse gas emissions, there are consequences probably for every American. But the point is that there are dramatic consequences for Americans in terms of the change in weather, the change in patterns of biological growth and the consequences for airborne diseases.
We have seen -- there has been some experts suggesting already that it increases the likelihood of contact with infectious diseases that are airborne. I mean, there are numerous consequences, a lot of which the folks that are here today have been briefed about over at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and we thank them for helping us today.
Q Then, Mike, why could not people see today as a public relations ploy?
MR. MCCURRY: You know, if you guys want to call it public relations, you can. I think it's a good service to these people to give them an opportunity to learn more on the issue. We try to do that for people in this room sometimes and you're not usually as receptive, so we go find some other audiences to talk to. (Laughter.) We can arrange, though -- we can have the same group come in and brief here. That's a good idea? We've tried that a couple of times before.
Q Can you explain why you're not going to make your position on global warming -- I mean, in terms of the specifics of the emissions reductions -- public? Because it seems to me --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, because it's a negotiation. It's an international negotiation and you don't normally stand out and say, here's the cards we're holding, or say, here, you want to see them?
Q You did that in the summer. They said 20 percent by 2010.
MR. MCCURRY: That's the -- the EU said that. We checked with them recently.
Q I'm saying in negotiations people do publicly let other people know what their position is.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, as part of a negotiation. I don't rule out that we might, as part of our negotiation at one point, turn over a card and flash it, okay?
Q Mike, given the content of the average happy talk, local weather forecast and the stuff that's built in, like is it going to rain tomorrow and traffic flow and things like that, do you really expect you're going to have these guys explain the rather complex physics of global warming to their audience?
MR. MCCURRY: As a matter of fact, yes. I think a lot of the anecdotal comments we're getting today from the people that are here is that they appreciated being treated as something other than airheads. (Laughter.) And a lot of them are getting into the subject and many of them I think are very enthusiastic. And some of them -- my understanding, some of them are actually going to go out and report stories. And I think many of them are as qualified as many of the people that report on matters here from the White House day in and day out. In fact, maybe some of them will be sitting in these seats as a result of the fine job they do here. (Laughter.)
Q You said we're not --
MR. MCCURRY: No, but it's a serious matter. I think that this is a serious subject. It does have effect on the matters that they report to their audiences. Now, as a practical matter many of these forecasters have got to liven up their presentations every night, but maybe they can make the subject of global warming a little more lively for their audiences. That would be good.
Q How do you thank this man? (Laughter.)
Q Last night the First Lady was talking a little bit about the empty nest and saying, joking that she'd accept a dinner invitation from anyone. How's the President coping with the empty nest?
MR. MCCURRY: He seems to be doing all right. He talked a little bit about rattling around the place, but they actually I think have been enjoying getting used to their new life and their new routine. Obviously, they miss their daughter tremendously, but she's having a great time as near as I can tell and I think the Clintons are enjoying their --
MR. MCCURRY: "Freedom," Helen Thomas said. Maybe that's not the right word. But I think they're coping, and coping well.
Q Any thoughts on the appropriateness of the Stanford Daily firing it's columnist?
MR. MCCURRY: That's a high matter of journalistic principle that I would rather see debated in the Columbia Journalism Review than here.
Yes. Are we done? Good. We're over.
END 1:40 P.M. EDT