View Header


Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 12, 1997
                         PRESS BRIEFING BY 
                            MIKE MCCURRY

The Briefing Room

1:40 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: The end of the week.

Q Is the President going to name a civil rights Attorney General on Monday?

MR. MCCURRY: The President hasn't made any final decision on that because the President would prefer to see him confirmed. The President believes that Bill Lann Lee is certainly the right person to be the head of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department and wants him in that job because he is the right person for the job. But far preferable would be to see the United States Senate confirm him. And we've gone back and made a request for a fair vote on the nomination, and until the President is absolutely convinced that Bill Lann Lee won't get a fair vote I imagine he won't have anything further to say. I don't rule out he may say something on it on Monday.

Q Does he have any new hope?

Q What? Excuse me -- what?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't rule out that he might say something on it on Monday. But on the other hand, I don't think he's made a decision at this point.

Q Does he have any new hope? I mean, has he been given any kind of encouragement?

MR. MCCURRY: He hasn't been given any encouragement.

Q Mike, there are sources on the Hill saying that the White House has actually begun making courtesy calls to advise them that a decision has been made.

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know how that could happen because the President hasn't made a decision to move ahead with a recess appointment at this point.

Q Is that the process, though, that you would notify Lott in advance, and other people?

MR. MCCURRY: We've had conversations with the Majority Leader, it's pretty obvious. I think the Majority Leader ought to explain why Bill Lann Lee doesn't deserve a fair vote in the Senate. We're convinced that if he had a fair vote in the Senate he would be confirmed.

Q Well, Mike, is a fair vote a vote that does not include a filibuster?

MR. MCCURRY: A vote is a vote. A filibuster is a filibuster.

Q Well, I mean, that's part of the Senate rules. I'm asking you if you're asking them to waive that.

MR. MCCURRY: We're just asking them to confirm the guy because the position needs to be filled.

Q Well, now, does he fear retaliation?

MR. MCCURRY: We're not even at the point where they're even willing to entertain filibusters, let alone votes.

Q Does the President fear a lot of retaliation on the upcoming agenda?

MR. MCCURRY: No, because he doesn't imagine that the Republican leadership of the Congress is that lame-brained. (Laughter.)

Q Is Monday a deadline, Mike?

MR. MCCURRY: No. Not necessarily.

Q Well, do you think he possibly could come to a conclusion over the weekend --

Q Explain why it would be lame-brained.

MR. MCCURRY: Because the American people would look and say, the President had this perfectly qualified guy he wanted to be head of the Civil Rights Division. The President tried every which way to get the Senate to take it up. They made it clear they weren't going to consider someone because they want to change affirmative action laws and they don't want a guy there to enforce laws that are already on the books with respect to affirmative action. So the President went ahead, perfectly appropriately, perfectly constitutionally, exactly like his predecessors, put the guy in the job. And so, therefore, they are going to extract great retaliation on the President and the program and get all out of joint -- I think the American people would say what silliness and what stupidity. So that's why it would be lame-brained.

Q This has become a charade, because you have been giving us the same story for two weeks.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we've been trying to get the Senate to wise up, Helen. We're trying to give them a chance to do the right thing, as opposed to doing the stupid thing.

Q Have you been able to shore up any public support for --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's been a lot of public support for Bill Lann Lee around the country, the groups that have been supportive of him and his nomination have been very active. I think it's correct to say that they've been putting some heat on Republican members of the Senate, as we think it's proper that they should.

Q Have any Republican members of the Senate indicated that they're going to change their position as a result of that pressure?

MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware of. Many of them privately have said that they think that they've been put in a very uncomfortable spot by their leadership.

Q Mike, do you think calling them stupid, lame-brained and silly is going to have any positive impact? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: No. I said that would be -- that was a hypothetical question, I gave hypothetical answer. (Laughter.) I said it would be lame-brained and stupid for them to extract a lot of retaliation on the President. I mean, that's not behavior that the American people would find becoming. Maybe that's a more gentle way of saying it. (Laughter.)

Q What you've been saying, does it have any resonance in the country at all?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, it does, as a matter of fact. People -- when they hear Bill Lann Lee as he was on national television this morning saying that he wants to enforce the law -- that's all he wants to do, and he's perfectly qualified to do so, and he is a person of extraordinary personal commitment and someone with a very compelling personal story that speaks to his commitment. What he wants to do is enforce the law on the books. And they see the guy and they say, well, what's wrong with that. What is wrong with that?

Q They also wonder why the President doesn't use the power he has to put him in that job.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'm not saying that he won't at some point.

Q Mike, when you talk about the President's constitutional prerogatives -- the Senate has, in effect, rejected him by not giving committee approval. So why isn't that final, and being final, why not just make a recess appointment now?

MR. MCCURRY: Because in Article II, advice and consent doesn't mean that individual senators can block consideration because they don't like the political philosophy of the nominee sent forward by the President. The constitutional balances are pretty clear that the President is the one who gets to nominate. They don't get to just flat out reject; they get to advise and consent.

Q -- individual senator like Jesse Helms and Weld, this is -- the fact that you don't have a majority on the committee, isn't that --

MR. MCCURRY: The committee has never voted.

Q Because you didn't have a majority on there.

MR. MCCURRY: They haven't voted because it's quite clear that the committee is going to take action that will prevent the nomination from going to the floor, and the floor it's pretty clear that the votes are there.

Q You have a constitutional right to be on the floor? If they do due process and you lose in committee on a fair up-and-down vote, isn't the process served?

MR. MCCURRY: That hasn't happened.

Q Mike, is the fact that if you name him now he could only serve to the end of '98, but if you wait until next year he could serve to the end of '99 -- is that the reason for delay?

MR. MCCURRY: No, from what I've heard that has been effectively ruled out. There was some speculation that that was true, but I haven't heard anyone confirm that that actually is true.

Q How long can he serve?

Q If he were appointed next Monday, how long could he serve?

MR. MCCURRY: I believe until the end of the next session of Congress, as it sits, whenever that -- sometime presumably towards the end of 1998.

Q Can I ask you a political question in this area? The President is going to bat for Lee. He has provided a pretty ringing defense of Colin Powell style affirmative action. He's undertaken this race initiative around the country over the next six months or so. What is the long-term political effort, do you think, of the President staking out support in these areas of the Democratic Party?

MR. MCCURRY: I have no -- I wouldn't want to predict. I would hope there would be a positive impact because the President believes it's the right thing to do and he obviously hopes that doing what he believes is the right thing to do would generate political support for him and his program. But I think he's doing it because it's the right thing to do, first and foremost.

Q Is he also trying to appease the liberal wing of his party?

MR. MCCURRY: No, he's trying to get a good, qualified person into the job of Civil Rights Division head at the Justice Department because it's important that laws on the books be effectively enforced.

Q Does this go beyond the specifics of the Lee nomination? There are so many nominations that have been held up, dozens of judges -- is the White House essentially saying with this one, that's it, enough is enough?

MR. MCCURRY: THere's a temptation to say that, but I think it would be more the President that would say that. And we have said to the leadership of the Senate that the Constitution is designed to work so that the nation's business can move forward and it is not -- the nomination and confirmation process has never, in our history, been a surrogate for the political disagreements that we legitimately have.

There has been, in fact, some deference shown to a President even when there's been a Democratic Congress and a Republican President, that the President is entitled to pick and choose the people with whom he would like to carry out the executive responsibilities of our government. So I think there's been a shift now in that presumed accommodation in the way we do government around here and it is troubling and the President, I think, has indicated his concern to the Majority Leader, among others.

Q If I could follow up, to use a term from another administration, I mean, is this effectively a line in the sand here?

MR. MCCURRY: No, because there will be other nominations and there will be other nomination battles and, frankly, the Senate will no doubt confirm nominees, too. Some Senate committees did reasonably good job before going out for the recess of confirming some of the President's nominees.

Q Aren't a lot of federal judgeships being held up and would be held up even further?

MR. MCCURRY: There have been a number held up, but they've also moved from time to time to clear that calendar and confirm them. And there should be a working process that allows nominations to go forward. Our point is, nomination fights should not be surrogates for disagreements on policy issues, like affirmative action, which is the case here.

Q Mike, the argument that you just made about the deference that's normally been afforded to Presidents, that's precisely the argument that Senator Byrd and Senator Hatch made in their letters to you, that Presidents have afforded a deference to the Senate and you're the ones who are threatening to go around the deference normally afforded to the Senate.

Q Senator Bryd is a good enough constitutional historian that he understands that that argument is upside down with the kind of action we've seen this past year with respect to some of the President's nominations. These are philosophical disagreements with the President. They are not principle disagreements with the qualities of a nomination sent to the Senate for advice and consent.

Q Well, Mike, I think the last time a Republican President tried this, I think it was Byrd himself who held up like 5,700 appointments. I mean, he knows very well what the Senate can do if they feel like it.

MR. MCCURRY: I didn't dispute his authority or his expertise; I just said his argument is wrong.

Q Well as you pointed out yourself, when you look at this dispute, fairly or unfairly, affirmative action is at the heart of it. And you've got the President with this year-long race initiative and yet sort of trying to push affirmative action into the background. You're going to have the President meeting with the critics of affirmative action, but not in open session. Why, in the course of this 12-month period, can't the President find the time to at least stage one open, thorough, constructive debate on affirmative action? I don't mean that he's got to debate Ward Connerly, but --

MR. MCCURRY: He may very well, and he probably will.

Q Do you know when?

MR. MCCURRY: No, I don't.

Q It's not going to be next week, right?

MR. MCCURRY: No, we're going to have -- that will be a session that's informal, designed to have a dialogue. It will be one in which we'll arrange coverage, but it will not be in the town hall format of the previous one. But I don't rule out that we might do that on that topic at some point next year.

Q I happened to see Henry Cisneros coming in here on Tuesday. Why would he have been here?

MR. MCCURRY: I didn't know he had been here, and we're checking, Connie. I was not aware he had been here.

Q What does the White House know about Russian President Boris Yeltsin's health? Is there any reason to believe he's critically ill?

MR. MCCURRY: He's sick, and they've said so. Apparently it's a holiday in Russia today, so there is no one around to deny the rumors that you're all actively pursuing. But we don't have any information indicating that it's true.

Q What do you know about his health?

MR. MCCURRY: We have seen the statements made by the Russian government and by the President's spokesman, and we evaluate those and assess those, and are not aware of anything that leads us to believe that they are incorrect.

Q But you only have public information? You have no other information that --

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to talk about what kind of information we have.

Q WTO --

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard anything more. I would keep very closely tied to the USTR and the Commerce Department because they'll give you updates on that as the afternoon goes on.

Q Does the President have any reaction, or do you have additional White House reaction to comments a staff member of the Race Initiative made in Dallas yesterday?

MR. MCCURRY: Not beyond what we've already indicated.

Q The financial crisis in South Korea has worsened markedly this week, in large part for two reasons: one, they won't implement the IMF reforms, and two, they made some less than honest statements about their currency reserves and their short-term debt. In light of that, is the U.S. concerned about how they're handling the crisis and do you have any plans to push them down the road toward the IMF?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, without sharing your assessment phrase in your question, we obviously have concerns about the financial situation. That's why we have worked together with the IMF to develop the facility that's available. That's why we believe that the Republic of Korea should move promptly to implement aspects of the arrangement it has made with the IMF. But we are watching the situation closely.

Q Mike, three years ago, when we had the Mexico peso crisis, the President took the leave in the G-7 to use the IMF to set up a kind of global early warning system and to have greater transparency in financial markets to avoid a repeat of that. And all of a sudden we're in a meltdown in Asia, South Korea, et cetera. What went wrong with the preventive mechanism that led to all kinds of self-congratulatory comments of the last two or three G-7 summits.

MR. MCCURRY: Exactly that mechanism and those facilities have been the basis of the work the IMF has done with respect to Indonesia, Thailand and some of the other actions that they've taken. But the reason for the fluctuations in Asian markets go well beyond monitoring decisions made by the G-7.

Q Well, wait a minute. The whole idea after the Mexican peso crisis and the G-7 was to avoid further meltdowns --

MR. MCCURRY: Leo, it was also to avoid the situation which the United States had to be the sole provider of credit in situations like that and that that's the position that we've been in now as a result of that work that we did within the G-7.

Q Does the President at Birmingham at the next G-7 plan to review this whole process and perhaps recommend stronger preventative measures in the future?

MR. MCCURRY: I imagine that market and financial market stability will continue to be a feature of the discussions that they have at the G-7/G-8. And I imagine the situation as it's developed in Asia this past year will be something that the leaders will want to discuss.

Q How much of a toll have all these fundraisers and travels had on the President? He spoke yesterday in Miami of being one of the oldest baby-boomers and part of a -- he felt near-elderly. He said --

MR. MCCURRY: He's younger than you, though, right, Terry?

Q Younger.

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, he is younger than you.

Q He said recently it's been an exhausting week and a killer of a week. Has all this taken a toll on him?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't think so. The President, you saw him throughout last year during a campaign year campaign tirelessly and relentlessly. And his schedule, while it's been active, it's been not nearly as active as last year. But he's worked hard and he works hard always at his job and he works hard whatever's on the schedule.

Q Does he ever complain about the pace of the travel or the demands that are put on him?

MR. MCCURRY: Not generally, because he generally is the one who adds things to the schedule to keep the kind of frenetic pace that he maintains.

Q But on the way to Denver he was the one who said that you guys are the ones who keep adding stuff on to his schedule and he wanted a break.

MR. MCCURRY: No, he was complaining about the fact we always lock him in the hotel rooms and don't let him go out and see foreign countries when he's there, and we keep him going to meetings when he'd like to be out seeing the sights and visiting with people.

Q The Miami Herald is reporting today, speaking of Miami, that the head of the Cuban interest section and the CIA analyst had a meeting with a senior Cuban official and took some kind of a message that maybe the U.S. is willing to change its policy.

MR. MCCURRY: It's not unusual that they have working level sessions from time to time. But there was no message carried and no indication of any change in our fundamental policy, which is defined by the Cuban Democracy Act and by the steps that we have taken to bring pressure to bear on Cuba to change its form of government, something that the President believes must happen if Cuba is ever to get on the right side of history. There's been no indication of any change in that meeting in our underlying policy.

Q I'm going to take another quick stab at South Korea. Is the U.S. satisfied with the pace of reform in South Korea at this point?

MR. MCCURRY: I think the United States believes it's very important for the Republic of Korea to quickly implement those arrangements it has made with the IMF. There should be no delay in that.

Q Mike, on the WTO negotiations, you said stick close to the USTR. Do you expect an announcement to come out of there or out of Geneva or --

MR. MCCURRY: No, it will probably come from Geneva or -- most likely from -- the negotiation is in Geneva and our folks here are following it very carefully, closely.

Q In '95 the U.S. nixed a deal by walking away from it and refusing to agree. Is that possible that they might do it again?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not in Geneva, I can't update you on the status of the negotiations.

Q Can I ask you, since Mr. Lawrence has been moved from Arlington, what is the White House position? Have you determined if he should have been buried in Arlington and will you continue with that inquiry?

MR. MCCURRY: We're not examining that question. The State Department is examining a set of questions and they've, I think, largely completed their work. And if there's any review of burial guidelines for Arlington National Cemetery, you might want to contact the Department of the Army. I'm not aware that we're doing that kind of review work here.

Q But will you be making public the results of the review into his statements about his record?

MR. MCCURRY: I believe that's the State Department's intent today.

Q Do you feel that it was appropriate that he was dug up?

MR. MCCURRY: I think we've already expressed ourselves on that.

Q Do you think there was a mistake that he was ever named ambassador?

MR. MCCURRY: I think the State Department is going to be addressing the question of the vetting process in the examination of his credentials.

Q Going back to Bill Lann Lee for a second, your comments make it sound as though you do think he is going to make a recess appointment. Why the delay? Why wait until Monday?

MR. MCCURRY: We spent about 20 minutes on that already. I think I made myself clear.

Q But you didn't explain why not now.

MR. MCCURRY: I said, we have made another effort to see if we can't get the kind of vote that he deserves in the Senate. And until the President is absolutely convinced that that's not going to happen, he's going to avoid making any final decision, although I think it's reasonably clear what we're doing.

Q When was that effort made, Mike?

Q This is like the longest drum roll in history.

MR. MCCURRY: We've been in contact on and off with the Majority Leader.

Q Is the President planning to do anything this weekend, talk to Lott?

MR. MCCURRY: We've been working the issue.

Q Is it fair to say that this is last effort you're going to make on this?

MR. MCCURRY: I think that's most likely, yes.

Q Is there some new approach in this effort that makes it different from past efforts?

MR. MCCURRY: It comes in the aftermath of what we think has been a good effort this past week to make the public argument about why the Senate should conduct itself under regular order and take up this nomination and consider the credentials of a very qualified nominee. We've made, I think, a very strong effort this week to make the argument publicly. We hope that has had some impact on senators who might express themselves to their leadership. And we'll see what happens.

Q Do you have any reason to believe that there is flexibility?


Q Is it fair to say, just to be clear, is this a process that's ongoing?

MR. MCCURRY: Maybe because the people we are trying to affect are rather inflexible at times.

Q But is this an ongoing effort even as we speak?

MR. MCCURRY: Sure. We've got groups out there that have been working -- I think Mr. Lee plans to continue to speak out.

Q So what will the President or his staff be doing over the next 48 hours to make this determination? Are you going to be talking to Trent Lott? Will you be talking to other senators?

MR. MCCURRY: If we need to, we will, sure.

Q So if they don't decide to have a vote, then you will definitely make your recess at the press conference on Monday?

MR. MCCURRY: We have press conferences so the President can make news, so don't expect me standing here in front of a press conference to make news that maybe, if the President wants to make, he would choose to make. I mean, I think that's kind of self-evident.

Q But is he going to do it on Monday? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: No, because I don't believe you're as dense as you're acting. (Laughter.)

Q You're the only one carrying the ball.

Q This afternoon's meeting with the Asian Americans -- what kind of --

MR. MCCURRY: He is doing -- he's going to meet with leaders of the Asian American community as one of his continuing series of outreach meetings. We've had a number of these now, and it's an opportunity for the President to talk about issues that arise sometimes in the context of his Race Initiative, but also other issues that are important to some of the community leaders that he's been meeting with. He's got a budget --

Q Like what?

Q Bill Lann Lee?

MR. MCCURRY: Bill Lann Lee, that could very well be one.

Q Why not have coverage of it then?

MR. MCCURRY: There is, there is. You've got a pooler in there.

Q Oh, but wait a minute. It's just a print pooler. (Laughter.)

Q Hey, hey! (Laughter.) Bite your tongue.

MR. MCCURRY: We're trying something -- without opening these up for coverage, which I think would change the nature of the very good dialogue we have, we're going to try opening it up for some coverage and see if it works. The President has sort of insisted that we do that.

Q Mike -- if he was non-Chinese do you think the nomination would have gone through?

MR. MCCURRY: I think that's a question better put to members of the Senate who are blocking his nomination.

Q Is there a meeting here today on WTO on the financial agreement --

MR. MCCURRY: We have been following the negotiations closely, and so there have been a lot of conference calls and some discussions here reflecting on what's happening in Geneva, and then discussions with our counterparts at other agencie

Q You started to mention the budget. Are there meetings on the budget today?

MR. MCCURRY: The President is having some meetings on the budget. He has met with his foreign policy team today. He will have lunch with the Vice President. And then he hosts holiday receptions tonight -- since I didn't gaggle today.

Q Henry Cisneros troubles are the latest in a string of investigations, indictments, convictions. Does the President think that he still has the most ethical administration in history, as he said he was going to try to have at the outset of the administration?


Okay, anything else?

Q You don't think that these reflect badly on that?

MR. MCCURRY: I think that the climate in Washington has clearly changed, and the standards that are used by some may have changed as well.

Q -- Cisneros is just a victim of --

Q -- should not be the standard? What do you mean?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'm aware of one conviction -- am I missing one?

Q I'm sorry, I meant indictments.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I hope you're not equating indictments and convictions.

Q Mike, I'd like to take a stab at that question from the opposite angle. The prosecutor looking into Cisneros has indicted the brother-in-law of Henry Cisneros's mistress, and now two aides who he brought to Texas with him. Does the President have any misgivings about the special counsel statute that he signed?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't think it would be proper for me to say anything on that subject. I accept the wisdom of The Washington Post editorial advice to me the other day.

Anything else?

Q Radio address, week ahead.

MR. MCCURRY: Week ahead? Ready for the week ahead, no last questions? Okay.

The live radio address tomorrow, the subject will be Medicare fraud and abuse. Saturday night the President will attend an Arkansas DNC related dinner with a lot of his friends and supporters; Sunday evening the annual performance of Christmas in Washington at the National Building Museum. Monday he meets with Prime Minister Ahern of Ireland in the morning, and then our press conference in the afternoon and the receptions in the evening.

Tuesday, National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology awards that the President will make to a number of people. The list of winners was released back in April, so we've got that if you need it. Actually, that address will have some substantive things the President will say on science and technology. It will be up to judge newsworthiness. I don't think he's announcing any major new proposals, but I think it will be a fairly substantive address on the role that science and technology plays in some of the overall strategies that the President has for dealing with economic change and the changes the world is undergoing as we think ahead to the next century.

Wednesday, t
he President will confer the Congressional Space Medal of Honor posthumously on the two Apollo I astronauts who died in 1967 who were never so honored. Gus Grissom had been honored by Jimmy Carter in 1978, but Lt. Colonel Ed White and Roger Chaffee will receive that special designation on Wednesday. That will be at 11:30 a.m. -- oh, I'm sorry, 10:00 a.m., not 11:30 a.m. -- 10:00 a.m.

On Thursday, the President will read The Christmas Story to the kids, the way he does every year. And on Friday the President will award the Malcolm Baldrige Quality awards at 11:00 a.m. at the Sheraton Washington Hotel and then will conduct the meeting with conservative voices on the subject of affirmative action that we talked about earlier in the afternoon. He'll also have a working visit with Prime Minister Yilmaz of Turkey that day.

Q Will there be a transcript?

Q Any working visit with the dog?

MR. MCCURRY: The dog -- I don't have a dog update.

Q What kind of coverage is of the conservative voices?

MR. MCCURRY: I think we're going to see about having a print pooler there.

Q On affirmative action --

MR. MCCURRY: Barry does point out these are people who have been outspoken in the debate, not necessarily people who have argued a particular perspective on affirmative action. As you've seen from the list, there's kind of a wide range of viewpoints there.

Q Would it be possible even to consider a photo op at the top, for a few minutes at the top?

MR. MCCURRY: I'll consider that, sure.

Q Any other participants yet?

MR. MCCURRY: Have we put out the list? I thought we put out the list.

MR. TOIV: We can give you the list.

Q Of congressional?

MR. TOIV: Not congressional yet. We're still working on that.

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard anything further about others.

Q Mike, I'm still not sure, will you have a transcript of the remarks at the affirmative action meeting?

MR. MCCURRY: We'll have a print pooler there. I don't believe we've planned to do a full transcript of it.

Q And will the print pooler be allowed there for the entire duration?

MR. MCCURRY: That's my understanding.

Q So why not put out a transcript?

MR. MCCURRY: I'll think about that.

Q Tomorrow, is the President announcing new regulatory action in the Medicare fraud area?

MR. MCCURRY: He's got announcements related to Medicare fraud, correct. I had not heard -- you may want to check with Barry on that. I hadn't heard that there was any new major news coming in that.

Where are we on Medicare chairman?

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard. Still working it, but not anywhere closer, Leo.


END 2:12 P.M. EST