THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
2:20 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Well, happy Monday.
Q Is it?
MR. MCCURRY: Sure. What do you want to talk about?
MR. MCCURRY: Because this session of Congress is almost over, obviously.
Q Mike, does the President feel he has to pay off on the deals he made to win votes, even though the vote didn't happen?
MR. MCCURRY: In the process of working hard to try to get fast track, the President and others in the administration met one by one with a lot of members of Congress. And we heard concerns that they raised or ideas that they had or subjects they brought to the table, and where we could, where we honorably could, we attempted to address those concerns. And I'm sure that any commitments that we made we'll continue to pursue. If we said we would look into something or pursue something or try to help a member with a particular problem, I'm sure we will do that, regardless of whether there's a vote anytime soon or regardless of whether the individual member ended up indicating they would support or not support the President's views on fast track. That's the honest thing to do, and we'll do it.
Q Some members of Congress make it sound as though the President gave away the store or at least was willing to do that.
MR. MCCURRY: Mark, I noticed most of those comments came from people who were very publicly identified as being strong opponents of fast track. So I'd take some of that with a grain of salt. Did we try to work with individual members and get into what their concerns were or address some of their individual issues? Of course, and we did a lot of that here and did a lot of it publicly, I think.
Q He has no illusions of getting a vote before January, does he?
MR. MCCURRY: The President is going to continue to pursue with Congress ways in which we can get the tools necessary to open up markets overseas. that's a fundamental pillar of the strength of this economy and we need to continue to build it and nurture it. He described for you earlier today what the current climate is on the Hill. It doesn't look like that's going to change in the matter of the coming days, and I don't think this Congress is going to be around that much longer. But we, obviously, will wait and see what happens and we'll be open to, at any appropriate time, trying to come back to the House and see if we can't get the President the authority he needs.
Q Mike, he was suggesting this morning that he would try to pretty much go back to square one and fashion the kind of bill that you ended up not doing when you started fast track -- in other words, something that was a little more tilted to the labor and environmental side. Are you getting signs from the Republicans in the business community that they would be willing to move more in that direction now that this approach has failed, or is that just some kind of hypothetical thing he was talking about?
MR. MCCURRY: That will all have to be assessed in coming days, and we'll remain in close contact with the Hill on questions like that. Certainly, those who support it and strongly supported fast track authority have now seen that it's not possible to produce the kind of coalition that can move it at this time. And I think everyone will look to see if there isn't some way that you can move it sometime in the near future.
Q Right, but you're saying he would be open to bringing this back up at a time that is appropriate. That's different than saying he's going to work to reforge --
MR. MCCURRY: He will certainly work to gain the authority he needs to negotiate agreements that will continue the economic progress that we build upon free and open trade. Of course, he'll do that.
Q Mike, earlier in the process, Commerce Secretary Daley, he was quoted publicly, I think Erskine Bowles had also said, look, this is either going to happen in 1997 or the political realities are such that we can't pass this in an election year; it's '97 or never. Why is that not valid still?
MR. MCCURRY: That may end up being valid, but on the other hand, it may be true that as this debate winds down now, more people think about what the fundamentals of free and open trade have meant for the overall strength of the economy. We've had an amazing year in terms of the productivity and growth of the macroeconomy and that is built, most economists believe, in part on the work that we've done to open up markets overseas for U.S. goods and services. I think members of Congress will reflect on that. In the Senate we clearly have got a bipartisan majority, a majority of Democrats in the Senate who support free trade; they're ready and willing to go ahead. We have a problem, a particular, peculiar problem in the House of Representatives, and we will see if we can't address that and change attitudes.
Q If the economy were to soften in the next four to six months, would you be able to use that as an argument for passing fast track next year?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, John, depending on what the underlying data tells you about the reason for the softening. I mean, we don't project that now; our projections are pretty clearly in the direction of good, steady, moderate growth with low rates of inflation and low rates of unemployment, and we have seen nothing that changes our economic forecast. In fact, as you know, if you keep an eye on the blue chip indicators, there is some strengthening of their optimism about the future of the economy, and we'll just have to see what happens. But we're not anticipating that.
Q And you don't think the defeat of fast track will change that?
MR. MCCURRY: The practical effect of not negotiating those agreements don't kick in in that time period. What the immediate, short-term impact of any decisions made by Congress, that's just like trying to predict what the markets are going to do.
Q Mike, would you try to go ahead and negotiate trade deals with Chile or other countries in Latin America without this authority?
MR. MCCURRY: We will continue to do the hard work of breaking down barriers and opening foreign markets to U.S. goods and services. Fast track is a vital tool to have to do that. That's why we want it, that's why we believe we will get it. But we will have to continue to do that work.
And, look, the future of this world economy is quite clear; it's going to become more interdependent, it's going to rely more on U.S. engagement overseas being a part of the growing economic opportunities that present themselves overseas. We're not going to pull up the drawbridge and isolate ourselves from the changes that are occurring in the world economy. It would be foolish to do that. It would put people out of work, it would lower prosperity here in the United States, and in the end, no Congress is going to want the President to make that kind of decision and fail to have the tools necessary to continue to make opportunities for the United States to compete.
Q Did you really mean to say this morning that Republicans were to blame, responsible for the failure --
MR. MCCURRY: I did not say that. I said that we clearly didn't generate enough votes on the Democratic side, but we were very honest with the Republican leadership all the way through this process exactly where we were and what our vote count was, so they knew where we were and they knew what was going to be required of them if there was to be a majority to pass it.
The President, for a very good reason, credited Speaker Gingrich for the hard work he did to try to produce those votes and to try to prevent the impasse that developed. But at the end of the day, having failed to find the votes on the Democratic side, the only place left to look was on the Republican side and the only place we could have gone to get those two dozen or so votes that were tied up in the family planning issue was to have compromised a principle. And the President made it clear in the course of the last couple of days that we would not be able to do that and that's when the opportunity to get that magic number fell apart.
Q Can I just follow up? How much bad blood is there now between the President and his senior advisors on the one hand and the Democrats who opposed him bitterly on the other side?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's no bitterness on our part. They fought -- look, this in the end came down to principle, and the President fought for fast track trade authority because it was the right thing, he believed, as a matter of principle to get so that we could continue the hard work of growing in the world economy.
There were Democrats in the House that on principle believed that that's too dangerous in this changing world economy for their constituents and the people that they represent. There were people in the House of Representatives on the Republican side who as a matter of principle stood fast on a matter related to international family planning funding. So at the end, everyone stood on principle and we were not able to put together a coalition on this particular issue.
I don't think you can ever be bitter or ever consider yourself defeated when you lose on a matter of principle, which is what happened to us in this case. But I think at the end of the day we also have to look for other ways to press forward.
Q You're saying everyone stood on principle -- how does that square with the President's assertion that if this had been a secret ballot it would have passed?
MR. MCCURRY: The President believes that there are lots of different -- he addressed this yesterday and I don't really need to repeat it -- but he believes there are a lot of pressures that buffeted members of Congress. And he believes that a number of those things, if it was a straight question of only what's good for our economy and people were left to vote solely on that criteria, I think he thinks he would have won.
But that's not the way Washington works. Everyone in this room understands that. And there were other pressures that come to bear and members have to factor those considerations in, as well as do what is as a matter of economic policy, the right thing to do.
Q But ordinarily, a President should be able to command loyalty from people within his own party or make an appeal to the prestige of the presidency to overcome --
MR. MCCURRY: I would say in the Senate, we did; in the House, we weren't able to.
Q This is a follow-up on Steve's question. Do you think it's possible to go out and negotiate a free trade deal, something as complex as that, with Chile at this point, without fast track?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it's much harder to do.
Q Mike, what does it say about the ideological direction of the Democratic Party that the President could not command even a third of his own --
MR. MCCURRY: Again, in the Senate we had a majority of Democrats who stand with the President. If you look around this country, a majority of Democrats nationally support the President's views on free and open trade. If you look at governors and the elected leaders at the local level whose communities and local economies depend on export-driven economic activity, the President has the support of his party.
We have a peculiar problem in the House of Representatives; not a sufficient number support the President's views. It was that way with NAFTA, it's this way on fast track, and the problem is isolated for the most part in the House. But I don't read broad, philosophical constructs from the fact that in the House of Representatives, the President couldn't get a majority of his party to support them. Everywhere else we look, we can see that support.
Q The President said this morning that opponents of this bringing up labor and environment issues, that that was a good thing. Is there any thinking at this point about to what extent this bill is going to have to be recrafted to get support, and would it probably include more in the way of labor and environmental --
MR. MCCURRY: That's pretty much what Mara asked earlier, and we are going to have to figure out how we move ahead. We don't have the answer for you yet about how that will work, but clearly, we are determined to continue working on it.
Q Is it fair to say this time around the President would like to have sponsored a bill that would have included these environmental job concerns that alienated liberal Democrats on the Hill, but he couldn't do it because he had to tell the Democrats, I'm sorry, it's a Republican Congress, we've got to go with the Republican bill?
MR. MCCURRY: It's fair in saying that in drafting that legislation -- you all remember the hard work we did to try to get a bill that would have the best-possible opportunity of achieving that consensus -- there were very hard lines drawn by the Republican Caucus in both the House and the Senate. And they had to do with attachments to the bill related to subjects other than trade. And I think that's well-known. Whether that now, in the environment we're in, people rethink that a little bit on the Republican side, you really will have to ask them. But it might, in fact, change the environment.
I think in the long run, what argues most for giving the President the opportunity to use this authority is the fact that the economy is strong; one of the elements of that strong economy is free and open trade, and most Americans want to see the kind of continued economic progress that they've enjoyed for the last four and a half years.
Q Mike, in regards to Chile, is there any thought of doing a Chile-only bill with Representative Gephardt --
MR. MCCURRY: At this point I'm not going to speculate about where we go from here. We obviously are going to have to continue to assess that as we talk to others.
Q Is the visit of the Mexican President related to the NAFTA and so forth?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's a long agenda that I detailed the other day of which our trading and commercial relationships will be a part of it, of course.
Q You also said that the White House would continue to look into concerns that were expressed by members of Congress. But what about specific commitments that were made by the White House, say, to have a Cabinet Secretary appear somewhere or for a specific project? Are those still on specific commitments --
MR. MCCURRY: We will be good to our word to the degree that those kinds of issues were addressed during this fight. We're not going to go back and undo things that we pledged that we would do.
Q What kind of timetable do you foresee as you kind of regroup and think about how to move forward? Do you think this will happen early next year or late next year?
MR. MCCURRY: The President said early today it will happen at the appropriate time.
Q Mike, do you have any more details on the problems with the First Lady's plane last night?
MR. MCCURRY: No, but the public affairs shop at the Air Force has put out a pretty detailed accounting of the problem they had.
Q Has the trip been rescheduled now?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe they're scheduled to depart later today, sometime this afternoon.
Q How about that person who came into the White House?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. You have to ask Secret Service public affairs about that.
Q Mike, the United States has so far been fairly vague as to what we specifically want from the U.N. Security Council in the way of a resolution. The President said it should be strong and unambiguous. What does that specifically mean?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they've just got done briefing over at the State Department where they've gone into more detail about one of the things they'd do. One of the things they will do -- and first and foremost, we do want a clear, unambiguous statement of condemnation from the Security Council, and we want it made clear to the government of Iraq that they cannot continue to thwart the inspections that allow us to understand better what Iraq's intentions are with respect to weapons of mass destruction. That's very clear, and we believe we have strong support for that kind of resolution.
Beyond that, some of the sanctions that have been considered in the past and not adopted by the international community in the past are things that the Security Council may wish to turn to again now, as they've just said over at the State Department. I think that's --
Q Can you just lay them out?
MR. MCCURRY: The 1134 sanctions package that was discussed about two and a half week ago at the Security Council, including travel restrictions on --
Q Are you saying that any resolution that the Security Council passes has to specifically use the word "condemns"?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I'm saying that it has to make clear that the action of the Iraqi government in thwarting the inspections is unacceptable, and the language will be drafted and worked on by our diplomats up there.
Q The incident with Mrs. Clinton's plane has focused attention on the aging nature of the fleet that the Clintons fly and other top White House people fly, and I wonder if they have any concerns about the safety and age of the planes.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, remember as a result of the Jackson Hole incident, a very broad-based review done of VIP aircraft that are flown by the Air Force for various principals in the United States government. Those reviews pointed to the very high quality that goes into protecting high officials in our government. Those planes, the 707s are not the same planes that were made 30 years ago by Boeing. They have been largely completely rebuilt, retrofitted and they are maintained in a very high standard way. And they have low air miles, by and large, because they don't fly the way a commercial airliner would fly day after day, hour after hour. So there's a high degree of confidence in both maintenance and the integrity of the flying force. And I'm not aware that there's anything suggests -- I mean, having just reviewed this fairly recently, I'm not aware that there is any suggesting that there's any cause for undue concern.
Q Mike, does the United States believe that there should be a timetable or a deadline included in a U.N. resolution?
MR. MCCURRY: We've made it pretty clear what we're looking for in the U.N. I think the rest of that will be covered up at the U.N. as the Security Council deliberates this afternoon.
Q Right, but can you just answer the question --
MR. MCCURRY: No, I'm not going to -- we want to see compliance immediately, if not sooner, by Saddam Hussein, with the requirements that exist currently in U.N. Security Council resolutions. I think one way or another the Security Council will insist upon that and then we will see what happens if we do or do not get the kind of compliance we're asking for.
Q Mike, travel restrictions has struck some as a fairly flaccid response to the extent of Saddam's provocations over the last couple of weeks.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that is just but one tool that will exist if he fails to comply. Turn it around and look at it from the other way -- what we are looking for is something, some indication that those inspections can continue. If they do not continue I think that the Security Council is going to remain very heavily involved with the matter.
Q Mike, are you able to go on record about -- Togo West, the Veterans Affairs --
MR. MCCURRY: No, he's highly thought of around here. His name has surfaced; I wouldn't deny that there's a reason why it surfaced. But I'm not aware that we plan to make any announcement with respect to that anytime in the immediate future.
Q Tariq Aziz told reporters up in New York that if the weapons inspection team simply dropped any Americans, they could resume their work, that the Americans were all simply spies for the CIA, et cetera. Why not just take the Americans out and let the weapons inspection teams go on?
MR. MCCURRY: The United Nations will determine the composition of those inspection team, not the government of Iraq. The government of Iraq is in a very poor position to suggest to the world how those inspection regimes ought to be constituted, since they have failed to comply with any of them and, indeed, have thwarted the ability of some of those inspection monitors to do their work. So, with all due respect to Mr. Aziz, he ought to butt out because it's not his place to suggest to anybody how those inspection teams should be constituted.
Q Do you have any more word on administration plans to combat the Oregon assisted suicide law?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry, I don't, but maybe one of the gentlemen down here can help you afterwards.
Q On the nomination of Bill Lann Lee, you seem to be at kind of loggerheads with -- judiciary chairman. I wonder, is there anything the White House can do to try to break that impasse? Or what do you intend to do?
MR. MCCURRY: No, we're going to continue to press his case hard and go to people who we believe are very supportive of such a highly qualified nominee and see if they can't help us make the case that we ought to free up the nomination and get him on to confirmation. The President has spoken to this at several occasions in the last couple of days and we sense that there is a growing sense of frustration that some in the Senate would insist on their peculiar philosophical view as a precondition for confirming a nominee to President Bill Clinton's sub-Cabinet. So I think that those arguments as we make them and as pressure builds, hopefully, on members of the Senate, there will be some reason or some hope that they might back down.
Q If that doesn't work, would the President make a recess appointment?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm just not going to speculate on that.
Q Over the weekend, the President announced several initiatives dealing with Gulf War illnesses, and -- establishment of some comprehensive health care -- system. When do you envision that actually being established and legislation to ensure that it would continue in future administrations?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. P.J., do you know the answer to that?
COLONEL CROWLEY: I think they're going to come back with some recommendations, specific recommendations by the Cabinet within 45 days. Some of the members of the advisory group are being vetted now.
MR. MCCURRY: Some of the members, or the planned membership of that advisory board that former Senator Rudman will chair will try to develop within the next several months some recommendations specifically addressing that. But it's clear that the President would like to move ahead next year on some of the recommendations that he took up.
Q Mike, the Speaker and the President did talk this morning, right? Is there a brief readout of that?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that you received the results of that on the lawn. They talked, they had a good conversation. The President thanked the Speaker for the hard work he did. I want to make very, very clear the Speaker worked tirelessly to try to break the logjam that existed on his side, just as the President did trying to round up votes on our side. And we have nothing but compliments for the way the leadership worked in this fight. They did everything that they indicated to the White House they would do. I think that they pursued in good faith the effort to round up the votes that would be necessary for passage.
Q Mike, the President talked earlier at the hate crimes conference about Bill Lann Lee and asking Congress to --the Senate to maybe skip the recommendation and go straight to the fore. Is that truly something that he really expects could happen?
MR. MCCURRY: The President certainly hopes that that will happen and believes that sufficient pressure can grow to make it happen.
Q We were told on Friday there would be specific initiatives that the White House would come forward with today with regard to hate crimes at this conference. Can you summarize what those are?
MR. MCCURRY: They're available in written form. They deal with the constitution in each U.S. attorney's office across the country, a special force that will deal with hate crimes and coordinate the efforts of state, local and federal law enforcement officials. There are some other things the President announced in the course of his presentation today, but I think -- save everyone the time, we've got a good handout on that.
Q Mike, in Washington, people are always alert to any sign that a second-term President's influence may be waning or that the lame duck phase of the presidency may have begun. What can you say to rebut people who might be of that notion?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't think you need to be on the lookout for that. If you look back at this year and the extraordinary success we've had in doing those things the President outlined in the State of the Union address in January. If you go through that, that's a good place to begin that kind of review.
What are the things that we outlined that we would work on this year and made progress on? In virtually every single case, we've made substantial progress and we are now winding up the first session of this current Congress with a number of significant achievements in the area of education. And we are certainly continuing to codify an historic balanced budget agreement that reflects the ability as President to lead an agenda through Congress on a range of issues, from reading to education standards, to the ability to produce a productive work force in the future. We've made substantial gains as this current session of Congress winds up.
So I think I'd look beyond the single issue that is in the news today and look more broadly at all of the things we've done in the last weeks of this session of Congress to get the true indicator.
Q So are you saying that the President's prestige hasn't been dented at all by this --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't think it helps to go through an effort like this and come up short. But at the same time, we've got plenty of work to do, a lot of work that will be on the agenda and the ability to kind of press forward, continue to shape the agenda is something that we don't have any doubt will be within the capacity of the President and the administration.
Q But, Mike, the President said a few days ago he was pulling out all of the stops on this, and certainly he did. You had half the Cabinet up on the Hill lobbying for five days, and you turned exactly one vote.
MR. MCCURRY: We turned a lot more votes than that, but we didn't get the necessary amount; you're right.
Q Doesn't this represent --
MR. MCCURRY: I concede the point.
Q Doesn't this represent a turning point for this administration, its relationship with Congress and --
MR. MCCURRY: No, it doesn't --
Q -- this relationship with Congress and the fact they won't be able to make progress --
MR. MCCURRY: Look, we've got more work to do and in a year from now, we'll be talking about the wins and losses in 1998. And at the end of 1999, we'll be talking about all the stuff that we've been able to get through Congress in that year. You can write the story; it lasts about one day and then you move on.
Q Mike, in terms of moving on, I mean, in the past when you've suffered big defeats like this you have tried to kind of minimize them and go forward. Now, is that what you want to do with fast track, or do you feel that the April meeting in Chile is kind of yet another major deadline, because without authority then you cannot negotiate a new treaty --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, in practical terms in trade we've got a lot of different things on the agenda of the trade office, the USTR, and a lot of international discussions that are going to occur.
We have, coming up in two weeks, the trade will be an important element of the President's discussions at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit that will occur in Canada. So it's going to be on the agenda. We would have wished to have had a vote today. We didn't get it, but life goes on.
Q But are you minimizing the importance of fast track as part of the President's legislative --
MR. MCCURRY: No. I said earlier that it's a very vital tool and that we need to have it.
Q If the President is committed to filling the Civil Rights post at Justice with someone who reflects his view on affirmative action --
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, his view and not Orrin Hatch's view.
Q Right. Then why wouldn't it be a recess appointment?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not speculating on that. I already answered that.
Q Going back to the lame duck thing, whether the man in office is Bill Clinton, Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan or whoever, anybody who has a second term, is it fair to say it's harder to get things done in a second term than it is in first term because the fear factor has subsided?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not enough of a presidential historian, but if you look back on second terms, a lot of them have had principal achievements occur towards the end, and towards the beginning. I was reading an article not long ago in a scholarly journal on exactly that point
This President has a very ambitious agenda for his second term. We've got a lot of work to do. He addressed much of that, by the way, in the interview he did on television yesterday. And that work is going to continue and I think the President is fairly confident that there will be more successes than not to celebrate as we go ahead in the next three years.
Q When does the President plan on signing the FDA bill?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it just has passed, and I don't even know that it's been received down here. He certainly is well delighted and that's another example of a place where bipartisan work has produced a significant reform that is going to be good for American consumers and it's going to be one of the things that we can point to and that the Congress can point to as being one of the successes achieved during this session. But we will do that sometime soon, just as we will probably do something public when we sign the Labor-HHS appropriations bill.
Q So it will be a public event?
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't doubt that.
Q If the labor unions told Democrats that there would be retaliation against them if they voted against their position on fast track, and if the President's position is there is no bitterness, no retaliation, and everything is fine, what's the incentive for these Democrats to stand up with the President?
MR. MCCURRY: Because they would be a part of a growing economy that's going to produce jobs and higher incomes for their constituents, which is not a bad success to point to when you go back home and tell your constituents what you've been up to. Those members who failed to support the President's point of view on that won't be able to point to this strong economy and say that I'm one of those who supported a central element of the strategy that got this economy to where it is -- free and open trade. And they will pay a price for that, probably.
Q You said that there was no bad blood between the President and House Democrats who voted against him. What about between the President and Dick Gephardt, who went head to head with Clinton and beat him?
MR. MCCURRY: He's a very effective leader in the House, and I think the President thinks he would make a very good Speaker.
Q Does the President seek the Speaker's help in trying to change the mind of the anti-abortion Republicans?
MR. MCCURRY: They are pretty well dug in on their point of view, and that was a factor in the outcome of the fast track debate. But I think the President understands the principle that they are standing on. He just strongly and violently disagrees with them on it. But that is a debate that is age-old now in this Congress, and it's very difficult to resolve an impasse over something that people -- positions that people take as a matter of moral conscience.
Q Mike, does he think that reflects poorly on Gingrich? I mean, clearly abortion wasn't one of the early conditions that Republicans were putting on their votes; it only happened later. Gingrich wasn't able to stop that.
Q It came down to being a factor, but that is an issue that is incendiary within the Republican Caucus in the House. And we recognize that. I don't think we fault the Speaker for not being able to bridge that gap on that issue in the last several hours.
Q Gingrich says the count that he gave the President -- when he talked about being five to seven votes short -- that assumed that you would get the anti-abortion folks into the tent with some kind of a language and that you would still come up short. So Gingrich's people are disputing the President's claim that it came down to this --
MR. MCCURRY: If it had come that close, I think we probably could have gotten over the mark, but we didn't come that close.
Q Mike, Gephardt is about to move his own fast track bill forward. Will the President sign off on that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we'll have to see what's in it.
Anything else? Okay, thank you.
END 2:49 P.M. EST