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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release January 6, 1998
                              PRESS BRIEFING
                              BY MIKE MCCURRY

The Briefing Room

1:27 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: And we're back. Well, we were doing fine on our Medicare story up until Buddy and Socks --

Q Socks is on Medicare?

Q Upstaging -- best laid plans.

MR. MCCURRY: I imagine there was a fair amount of interest. They've been rushing breathlessly in. All right, what else is going on?

Q You're on.

MR. MCCURRY: Technical difficulties here. No, we're ready, I'm just waiting for other people to come in. All right, anyone want to talk about anything besides Medicare? Medicare you're all happy with? Thank you to Secretary Shalala, Secretary Herman and Mr. Sperling.

Q What are the political prospects are for passing this this year?

MR. MCCURRY: I would find it hard to imagine that anyone would want to oppose something that is so clearly prudently designed and economical and in the best interests of these people who are clearly going to need that kind of coverage. I'll be interested to see if Republicans will make an argument against what is clearly a modest, but important, proposal.

Q Mike, the Post has a story today on Assistant Secretary of State Davidow.

MR. MCCURRY: A wonderful person, a wonderful Assistant Secretary --

Q A good Ambassador to Mexico?

MR. MCCURRY: The President has been interested in finding someone who would ably represent the interests of the United States government at a time in which we are building a very strong partnership with the government of Mexico. And, of course, Assistant Secretary Davidow has been involved in exactly that. And otherwise I'm not confirming that story. (Laughter.)

Q Is he afraid?

Q Will he be announcing soon his candidate for ambassador?

MR. MCCURRY: I expect the process, which is obviously very far along, will be completed shortly.

Q On Medicare, when you say you would be surprised to see -- hard to imagine anyone opposing this -- to what extent has the administration shopped this around or consulted with people on Capitol Hill about it?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there have been general discussions about how to address some of the gaffes that exist currently in access to health care. So the question of the near-elderly population has been one that's been identified for sometime and has been discussed on and off. I don't know that the particulars of what the President announced today had been directly shared with members, but there have been generic conversations about it. And I think now that we're in a position to give members more detailed description we hope that some of the initial assessments might be turned around.

Q And the plans for this would be legislation going up after State of the Union or with the federal budget? How would you --

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. Barry, do you know the answer? You weren't paying attention to the question, so you don't know the answer, do you?

MR. TOIV: I'd love to hear it repeated.

MR. MCCURRY: This is whether we're going to -- some of this gets folded into budget language, but otherwise we'll have to work with Congress for implementing legislation.

MR. TOIV: Yes. It will go up in the budget, though, with the proposal.

MR. MCCURRY: Some of this is included in the President's budget proposal. But my guess is because of some of the structure of this, they'll be implementing language that will have to be worked out jointly with Congress.

MR. TOIV: We could separately send up -- but I don't think they've decided that --

MR. MCCURRY: They didn't say whether they were separately doing that, though?

Q Which leaves us sort of up in the air as to where exactly --

MR. MCCURRY: Go find out whether we're going to send the legislative language or work it through the process.

Q He's not sending this week?

MR. MCCURRY: No, no, no. They're not really in session to receive anything.

Q The President tried to play it safe on the Davidow thing, picking a career person and doesn't want to run into a political --

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not confirming who he's picking. I think we're interested in getting someone who I said can ably represent the interests that we have with the government of Mexico and can continue the very strong partnership we have. And this President has used a combination of political appointees and career foreign policy professionals to represent our interests in different types of ambassadorial posts and sometimes --

Q Did you sound out Helms on this?

MR. MCCURRY: We have consulted with a variety of people on the Hill.

Q And he approves?

MR. MCCURRY: I'll let the Chairman speak for himself.

Q But you did ask him?

MR. MCCURRY: I would have to double-check specifically. I think we've had some staff level contact, but I don't know whether the Chairman, himself, was directly contacted.

Q On Davidow or --

MR. MCCURRY: On the question of the vacant ambassadorship. But given his interest, close interest in that matter, you can imagine that we probably had some staff level discussions at least.

Q I know you put out a written statement -- can you give us something on the reaction of the White House to the death of Sonny Bono?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think the President was deeply saddened by the news. He is someone who had been a refreshing voice here in Washington, someone who I think contributed to a little of the fun that we need to have in Washington from time to time and someone who will be sorely missed because he was an interesting person.

I think many people here in this room remember what was sort of his debut performance here in Washington when he spoke to the Salute to Washington dinner in 1995, which was I think the first public appearance he had after being elected to Congress. And it was safe to say that he sort of stole the evening and provided kind of a bemused commentary on Washington that is something that many of us appreciated -- I know the President did.

Q We're all for humor around here, if you've got any.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we try to provide some and we usually succeed when we not always intend it.

Q Will the President press for any project to be named after Sonny Bono?

MR. MCCURRY: I imagine that if that happens, it will happen down the road.

Q I hate to be the one to ask this question, but obviously the Buddy-Socks encounter didn't go so well. So will he turn to a professional animal trainer or what happens next?

MR. MCCURRY: When is Ambassador Ross coming back, do you know? (Laughter.) It looked to me like Socks felt its privacy had been invaded.

Q "Its."

MR. MCCURRY: I think its -- I think it is an it.

Q Who invaded it -- the President? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: The President has already indicated that he is interested in mediating household comity. And it clearly will require further effort.

Q Is Buddy going to become an it, as well?

MR. MCCURRY: No, Buddy is doing quite well as a he. (Laughter.) The New York Times compared balancing the budget to the fall of the Berlin Wall. We've expanded Medicare and I get to do Socks and Buddy. (Laughter.)

Q Do you like that analogy?

MR. MCCURRY: I think in some respects the effort made to restore America's leadership role in the world economy has consequences almost as significant as the end of totalitarian communism, yes. I think the impact that the turn around in the U.S. has had since 1993 and the positioning we have in the global economy is in some ways every bit as important as the geopolitical struggle against communists. I think it is, in fact, defining the position the United States has in this world in this new era in which we live, and then built on the fundamentals of fiscal discipline and an open and free trade policy and the kinds of macroeconomic policies and fiscal policies that this President has pursued.

Q Some Republicans on Capitol Hill are apparently threatening to slow down judicial nominees, a couple in particular --

MR. MCCURRY: Threatening? I think they started it some time ago, did they not?

Q I think they're renewing their threats to slow down congressional nominees, this time over the whole Ira Magaziner business.

MR. MCCURRY: I think they need to walk across the street a pay a visit to Chief Justice Rehnquist.

Q But on the whole Ira Magaziner business they're complaining that the President wouldn't sever his relations with Ira, and also that the administration refused to pay the plaintiff's bills as --

MR. MCCURRY: I think they are looking for, pardon the expression, a cat fight. Look, they will continue to find things that they can have partisan political fights about. I don't think that will affect the serious work that needs to occur and the serious business addressed by the Chief Justice that we need a federal bench that's occupied and at work so that we can erase the backlog of cases is a very serious matter.

And I think that if they will attempt to, for whatever frivolous political reasons, to delay nominations, they will encounter increasingly an independent third branch of the judiciary that's very frustrated with the performance of this Senate. And I think Chairman Hatch still has some accounting to do for himself. But, more importantly, his caucus has a significant amount of accounting to do for the problems that they've caused for all Americans by their failure to move ahead swiftly on nominations that are pending -- some pending now for 18 months.

Q No change on the position of paying the legal fees for people --

MR. MCCURRY: That's been addressed and the episode is over as far as the White House is concerned.

Q Do you have a replacement for Lanny Davis, and do you have any new options for a legal defense fund build-up again?

MR. MCCURRY: No and no. We've got some excellent candidates interested in that position that Chuck Ruff and others here at the White House are interviewing. And the President's legal counsel is continuing to explore the President's request on issues related to what efforts can be made with respect to the legal expenses.

Q -- child care event, can you tell us about it?

MR. MCCURRY: Tomorrow the President, following on the work that was done at the White House Conference on Child Care, will have some important things to say about a new initiative we can make that will help Americans contend with the cost of child care and the quality of child care provided in America and in very direct ways it will follow on the work that the First Lady, the President, others did in connection with the White House Conference.

Q This is new spending, right?

MR. MCCURRY: We'll explain all of it tomorrow.

Q Along the lines of proposals for benefits expansion, is the President planning to forward a proposal to provide incentives for small business to provide 401(k) plans --

MR. MCCURRY: The President has already during his presidency made expansion of pension coverage an important feature of the tax policies that we've pursued. And I think the President is interested in looking at ways that we can expand pension coverage -- maybe not necessarily always in the area of defined contribution plans. I think there are other ways in which we can find methods of enhancing the retirement income security of Americans, particularly as we look ahead to the retirement of the baby boom generation. I think the President will have a number of ideas in expanding employer-based private pension coverage that will be of interest as we get later in the month.

Q Mike, is there a federal role for setting child care quality standards or does is that to be left to the states?

MR. MCCURRY: I think it's -- let me defer that until tomorrow. It will be more appropriate to talk at greater length about that tomorrow.

Q Mike, does the President plan to bring in commentators, academics, et cetera, as he has in past years, to discuss the state of the country as he prepares for the State of the Union?

MR. MCCURRY: I think he has already solicited ideas, contributions, thinking from a number of people. And as we get closer to the State of the Union, we will be giving you a little more flavor of that. It's a little too early to be doing State of the Union previews at this point.

Q Mike, the Treasury agents that were injured during the President's vacation -- do you have an update on their status?

MR. MCCURRY: My understand is that two of the Customs agents that were injured have now been treated and released. There is one that remains in very serious condition. The President has been asked to kept apprised of his situation. His thoughts and prayers are with the family of that agent at this time.

Q Could you repeat what you said in the gaggle about the President's general reaction to Speaker Gingrich's GOP agenda?

MR. MCCURRY: The President felt that it was a thoughtful and serious effort to address a number of the issues that the President also is wrestling with as he defines his view of the American future as we look ahead into the 21st century. Of course, the President would have some specific disagreements with some of the things the Speaker had to say.

But in general, in both identifying some of the issues that need the attention of lawmakers and policymakers here in town, and then also in the sense that in a provocative way the Speaker addressed issues relevant to the American future, the President applauds the thinking and the effort that went into the Speaker's address. In fact, I think he felt it was somewhat under reported, but it becomes the basis of a good, healthy, constructive debate as we look ahead into next year. And in many ways that debate will be joined as the President articulates his own views on some of those subjects in the State of the Union and in the budget message.

Q Mike, is it constructive for the DNC to send --

MR. MCCURRY: The other thing, by the way, I said earlier was -- and I think the President believes this, is that there is -- the tone of that speech indicates that there is a real prospect for some bipartisan cooperation early in this election year so that both the Congress and the President can point to results of working together as they move through the rest of the calendar year.

Q What do you guys think of the DNC sending out a press release criticizing Speaker Gingrich --

MR. MCCURRY: The RNC sends out press releases criticizing the President all the time. Political parties continue to do their work.

Q Yes, but you were saying they're praising him and saying this is a good thing --

MR. MCCURRY: I've made it very clear there would be some specific things that we would disagree with the Speaker about. And I think it's proper that political parties have their disagreements.

Q Like what? Tax cuts?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, he said a lot of things about -- a lot of specific things about taxation and some things about the philosophical construct of from whence derives the power of government that I thought were curious. Some of us were talking about that earlier.

Q How about of an impact did Gingrich's call to the President to present a balanced budget have on the President's eventual decision yesterday to announce that he is going to have the balanced budget?

MR. MCCURRY: Not a great deal because I think, as we indicated to you yesterday and today, the decisions that the President made going into formulating his budget had to do with what are the needs that need to be addressed, what are the requirements of government, what are the things that we can properly do using the limited resources of a government that's functioning in a prudent, common-sense way for the American people. And having made those decisions, then you calculate what the economic impact and the revenue and spending will be. And happily it ends up being a balanced budget in FY '99. But I think the decisions driving the policymaking were first and foremost in the President's mind and the calculations and the accounting came in a secondary way.

Q Is the Social Security commission idea of Speaker Gingrich's -- do you guys think it's a good idea?

MR. MCCURRY: You've heard various people in the administration address that already. There are a number of ways in which we might find the right bipartisan process to address long-term issues related to Social Security. I think the constructive thing is that the Speaker indicated that the window is open now in the calendar for which there can be that kind of bipartisan work to find common solutions. I think the President agrees with that and thinks that in the spirit they need to pursue the right way and the right mechanism for getting down to the serious work of addressing those long-term issues.

Q Mike, just generally speaking, what are the President's biggest concerns about this child care area?

MR. MCCURRY: We're going to do a lot on that tomorrow. And I think I've given you enough to tee up the event for tomorrow.

Q Not really.

MR. MCCURRY: Then go back to the White House Conference transcript. We spent a whole day on that subject. And I think all the issues are identified in the response the President will make to a number of the areas that we covered at the White House Conference will be clear tomorrow.

Q Another quickie on Congressman Bono, since there's a lot of interest throughout the country. Will the White House send anybody to the funeral?

MR. MCCURRY: I think we, at this time, are waiting for further word on what the arrangements will be.

Q On the Medicare commission, is the holdup the insistence by Speaker Gingrich that there be no tax increases as a means of paying for --

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware that that is specifically the disagreement. I think that they're talking -- that the White House has been talking with the leadership on the Hill about who might best be in a position to serve in that capacity of Chairman and who else might be able to bring leadership to the work of the Commission.

Q Is Senator Breaux still --

MR. MCCURRY: He's been widely reported and we have widely acknowledged that he is a candidate that we think highly of in that capacity.

Q Considering the tone that you noticed from Speaker Gingrich yesterday, will the President approach this new budget season and State of the Union with any different approach toward the Speaker -- more cooperative, more joint effort in trying to get some of the specifics of the administration done?

MR. MCCURRY: Not more or less cooperative than we've been in the past. I think that when we have worked with the Speaker and certainly with Majority Leader Lott, we've done enormously important things for the American people -- balancing the budget being one of them. But there will be a lot of opportunities, we believe, to work with the Speaker in the coming year. And when we have the opportunity to work together, we can produce results that everyone, Republican and Democrat, can be proud of. When we choose to have our political fights that define what the shape of the American future can be we will try to do that in the tones that ought to be respectful. And those of us who transgress from time to time will suffer the consequences.

Q Have the dates for the President's foreign trips upcoming this spring been set?

MR. MCCURRY: No. We are in consultations. I think we're honing in on what the travel schedule will look like.

Q The first trip will be Africa?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not announcing any foreign travel today.

Q Just when do you think he'll start working again with the Speaker on fast track?

MR. MCCURRY: I think we've already had some conversations with the leadership. I'm not certain whether the President and the Speaker had an opportunity to directly discuss that. I wouldn't be surprised if they did.

Q Are you hopeful that will pass this year?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes. Given the enormous importance that free and open trade plays to the fundamental strength of this economy, and the more Americans understand that the good, strong, health economy that we have now is in part due to the free trade policies that this administration has pursued, I think the more the case can be made that we need to pursue with that free trade negotiating authority for the President.

Q Mike, I'll follow that up with, are you going to pick up any votes because of this health care proposal you've made today, on fast track?

MR. MCCURRY: I can't --

Q -- for dislocated workers?

MR. MCCURRY: I can't say for certain that's true, but I think the concerns expressed by some members of Congress about people who are in a period of dislocation when it comes to changes in the economy will certainly take some comfort from a proposal that will help make access to health care more available for exactly that kind of worker.

Q Will the administration aggressively push to try to get fast track passed by the meeting in Santiago, Chile?

MR. MCCURRY: I think we will certainly push to try to address it. Whether or not we can achieve passage by then is not clear.

Q Do you still figure you're about six votes short?

MR. MCCURRY: I think the number has changed. It will depend on what kind of vehicle we attempt to pursue and whether or not there is a climate for pursuing that as we look ahead on the year.

Q Thank you very much.

MR. MCCURRY: Oh, on Medicare?

MR. TOIV: -- broad outline will go up on the budget and the legislative language will be worked out with the Congress.

MR. MCCURRY: Barry reports the broad outlines of the approach the President recommended today on Medicare will be included in the budget document. The specific legislative language will have to be developed, obviously, in further consultation with the Republican Congress. Thank you.

END 1:47 P.M. EST