THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY The Briefing Room
2:50 P.M. EDT
Q Not a lot of interest today.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's good. All right, we'll dispense with this in short order then. Anybody got anything for today?
First of all, before I start, on behalf of the President and the White House Press Office staff, and other members of the White House staff, thank you to you and your association for an enjoyable dinner Saturday night. We appreciate your hospitality. Had a good time. Thank you to all of you.
Q The new President, Mr. Powell, is here.
MR. MCCURRY: And thank you to Mr. McQuillan, who looks like he took the day off. But Mr. McQuillan and the board members are to be congratulated for a very splendid evening of entertainment.
Q Did the President enjoy himself?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, he had a good time. Enjoyed himself.
Q Last January, when the First Lady -- January, I guess, '97, when she testified before the grand jury, the White House was happy to say that she answered all the questions that were put before her. Can you say that when -- on Saturday, when she took a deposition, did she answer all the questions or did she reserve any --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, she was not appearing before a grand jury, but at the same time, I am not familiar with the proceeding that she underwent on Saturday. So you'd have to direct that question to her attorney, Mr. Kendall. My guess is he's probably not going to comment beyond the statement that was already made.
Q Well, do you know if she asserted any privilege?
MR. MCCURRY: I do not know. Do not know.
Yes, sir. It's a slow day, so you're on. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you. Mr. McCurry, in your professional analysis of media impact on the presidency, do you believe that Saturday nights booing and heckling of Ms. Jones and the standing ovation for the President has as much impact as Sunday morning's Broder column, "Don't Write Off Character," Doonesbury's column on "Arkansas Ladies," and Elizabeth Ward Grason's confession?
MR. MCCURRY: I have absolutely no idea. I'm not familiar with the circumstances.
Q I mean you do analyze the --
MR. MCCURRY: I wasn't there Saturday night when Ms. Jones arrived, so I am not familiar with --
Q You read the paper on Sunday.
MR. MCCURRY: I barely did, but I didn't -- (laughter.)
Q Mike, the President and the administration are coming out against this bilingual referendum in California. What effect do you think the President's opposition to that will have on the voters on June 2nd, and what does the President plan to do while he's in California to raise that issue --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, several points on that. It is rare, as you all know, for the White House to take a position on a ballot initiative that presents itself at a state level. We have done so on rare occasions, when the President and White House deems the issue of such significance that it could have an impact on overall national policy. We've done that, frankly, in some cases with respect to measures on the ballot in California because California, as our nation's largest state, does very often serve a trend-setting function, just as we did on Proposition 209, where the President both spoke against and campaigned against that measure.
The Department of Education, who made the recommendation to the President on the initiative, felt that it is important to take the posture that with bilingual education, we need to help those who are English-language deficient make the transition into all-English environments, which is the purpose of the bilingual education programs that the federal government supports. There's some reason to believe that federal bilingual education programs are at some risk because of measures pending in Congress that would cut funding for those programs.
We recommend, as some of you know, a slight increase --about a 17-percent increase in current funding levels in our FY '99 budget proposal. They are designed principally to help local school districts and state education agencies hire teachers who are proficient in helping foreign language students learn English, or at least improve their English language skills. And those programs we believe are important.
They're important because local communities and states need to make decisions about how to help their affected populations make this transition. And you cannot adopt either nationally or statewide in a state as large as California a one-size-fits-all conclusion. So for all those reasons, and because of the value of these programs in helping people get into learning situations in which they could use English as the President believes they should, as their principal tool for learning, the President is concerned about the impact of that state ballot initiative.
Q What will the President do, then, to do better than he did when he came out against 187?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we understand the public sentiment in California and one can easily say we are flying in the face of whatever the conventional wisdom is in California about the popularity of that measure. At the same time, the President thinks you can make a good argument that communities need to make these decisions based on what's best for their public school population and that trying to adopt a single model of how this should work is not useful.
In any event, the President will proceed with the measures that have been outlined by the Department of Education today, believing that students who -- language needs some skills in English language proficiency over a period of three years ought to be able to graduate out of those programs and into settings in which they use English as their learning language.
Q Mike, last week the message in the Rose Garden was that the House Republicans seemed to be mouthpieces for tobacco, and today it was a much more bipartisan emphasis. Why the shift in tone?
MR. MCCURRY: I think we made the point sufficiently that we need more bipartisanship and less catering to the preferences of the industry. And I think that we see on Capitol Hill -- maybe not yet in the ranks of the leadership of the Republican majority, but certainly in the ranks of the Republican caucus -- a great willingness to work with the President to adopt comprehensive tobacco legislation.
We continued extensive consultations on Capitol Hill with the Majority Leader, the Speaker and a range of other members on the other side of the aisle who we think will be critical in helping the administration and Democrats who are supportive of this legislation move forward with a truly historic piece of legislation, and we remain optimistic we can get the job done. Certainly, the statistics from the Surgeon General's report today give us yet more evidence of why we need to do so.
Q Mike, there seems to be a problem still -- on another subject -- there still seems to be a problem of General McCaffrey and the Congressional Black Caucus. Is the President going to be like a big father and sit both sides down -- they're fighting like children over this needle exchange -- is he planning on sitting them down anytime soon to talk it out?
MR. MCCURRY: He asked the Chief of Staff to make sure that we keep things orderly and the Chief of Staff has had a good conversation with General McCaffrey last week, and we expect that we can go about the business of building support. I know that there were some things said today, but I think that was by way of trying to explain what some of the controversy was about last week. And we believe it's possible for those who believe in protecting kids, especially minority kids, from the dangers of drugs and, as we were talking about today, from the dangers of other addictive substances, that we can all work together towards a common goal and a common strategy.
Q Those two groups seem to have to work together closely, and for them to have that kind of friction, and you have pretty much the whole body of the CBC saying "McCaffrey, leave, step down now." Isn't that a pretty bad reflection on McCaffrey --
MR. MCCURRY: I've heard Congresswoman Waters -- she was very careful to explain that she had endorsed a recommendation that was made by Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. We have said, here's why we think General McCaffrey is providing very valuable and important leadership and we think all these sides can come together to work on the things that they clearly all believe need to be done. They have some disagreements as to tactics, but we think we can work through those and we think we can continue to have an effective working relationship both with the Caucus and with all of its members.
Q Mike, you said the White House has been working with the Majority Leader in the Senate. Today he said that all you've offered on the tobacco bill is lots of rhetoric, lots of talk, and no real courage, in terms of what should be done. Can you respond to that and will the White House promote its --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I can easily respond to that. It's impossible to name any other President of the United States of America who has been as forthcoming and demonstrated as much leadership when it comes to the issue of tobacco.
This is the President who took on the tobacco lobby, took on this issue, began the process of asserting a federal regulatory role, took on the political costs of saying no to the interests that for so long were dominant here in Washington. I believe the Majority Leader, it's safe to say, recognizes that. We're at a point now where the legislation requires some deft handling on the part of the White House; that's what we're doing.
The Chief of Staff has worked very closely with the Majority Leader himself. More importantly, he's worked closely with the chief Senate sponsor of the legislation, Senator McCain, to talk about the specific ways in which we can move this legislation forward, as Senator McCain, himself, indicated this weekend. So we're very much involved in the work now of bringing this legislation to what we think is a very good and likelihood of passage.
And remember that at the moment the Republican leadership in Congress has elected to be outside that process. So the fact that they're taking a few shots is not too surprising to us, but we're going to continue to work in a bipartisan way to try to build support necessary to pass the bill.
Q Do you envision anytime in the near-term where the President would lay down specifics, or is the plan still to stick with the broad principles and let the legislative process --
MR. MCCURRY: We are working with those who are now moving this legislation through the legislative process, dealing in very specific ways in which we can both improve, from our perspective, the Senate committee-passed version of the bill and then move it on through the full Senate and hopefully to the House.
Q I mean publicly, though.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we're making progress doing what we're doing, which is consulting closely with the chief sponsors, working on specific legislative provisions in a fairly technical way. And I think we have no complaints about the ways in which the administration views have been reflected in some of the work that's being done on the Hill. So what we're doing, the process that we have now is working.
Q Mike, in opening Senate debate on NATO expansion, Senator Helms said today that the ratification resolution will contain a condition that the administration has accepted that Russia will have neither a voice, nor a veto in NATO affairs, and that the joint Russia-NATO council will not have a consultative role with Moscow, but will nearly inform the Russians of decisions taken by NATO. Now, this goes counter to what the President has said all along that the Russians would have a voice. How do you square these three things?
MR. MCCURRY: We see those provisions as being directly consistent with what the White House stated in May of 1997, when we first announced the charter. We said at the time that even under the foreseen charter arrangement between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Russian Federation, NATO would retain its full prerogatives, and while Russia will work closely with NATO, it will not work within NATO.
The Founding Act of the Council itself makes clear that Russia has no veto over Alliance decisions, and NATO retains the right to act independently when it so chooses. Our view is that if it's reflected in the Senate consideration of the instrument of ratification, that that is consistent with what the administration has identified as the purposes of the partnership.
Q Wait a minute. At the time and since then, while the administration has made it clear and NATO has made it clear that Russia was not going to get a veto, nevertheless, Russia was going to get a voice through the joint partnership council to discuss ahead of time with NATO decisions that NATO might take. And Senator Helms' point in terms of the condition that is attached to the ratification resolution is that Russia now won't even get to a point of discussing with NATO about its interest in European security.
MR. MCCURRY: Our views of that condition is consistent with Section IV of the Founding Act of the joint NATO-Russian Federation Council. It is not meant to supercede what already occurs through the Partnership for Peace program, a fact which pre-dates the discussion of NATO expansion through the North Atlantic Coordination Council, the NACC, which was long the vehicle for that type of consultation.
There have even been, as you know, important military-to-military consultations with the Russian Federation as we have engaged in some joint deployments -- witness Russian participation in the deployment in Bosnia. So the degree to which there is consultation and conversation on those types of issues, of course, that's all consistent with what we already take to be the mechanism for collaboration and coordination under the Founding Act.
Q Well, did Senator Helms misspeak?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he's making it clear that the condition that the Senate will apparently insist upon is consistent -- we will take the view that it is consistent with exactly what we've said are the full prerogatives that NATO retains and must retain as a treaty alliance.
Q What do you know about the Russians helping India with missile technology?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, all we have established, since we watch these matters extraordinarily carefully, is that we have made no determination at this point that any cooperation that we've detected is a violation of MTCR guidelines -- Mission Technology Control Regime guidelines. We watch that very carefully. As you know, there are sanctions that arise when we see any type of export activity that is in controvention of MTCR guidelines, and we have not made that determination or finding, nor have we imposed any sanctions.
Q Have you discussed the issue?
MR. MCCURRY: We have had very high-level conversations with the Russian Federation reflecting a broad range of our proliferation concerns, and this matter in particular has been discussed.
Q With the Supreme Court taking up the line item veto issue today, is the President having any second thoughts to the way it's actually being implemented? Is he disappointed, is he happy, is he surprised at some of the ways it's actually working out?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I think he's satisfied that he's protected American taxpayers from over a billion dollars worth of wasteful spending, and done so in a way that is constitutional. And that was so argued by the Solicitor General today.
Q Did the President have a role in the drafting of the arguments that were made on behalf of defending the line item veto?
MR. MCCURRY: To my knowledge, there have been some conversation between the Justice Department and the Counsel's Office about the nature of the briefs that are filed. Today, of course, was just an oral argument consistent with those briefs. But as to the detail of law, I don't know if the President has been that actively involved. Part of the discussion today, as you know, in front of the court was about judicial standing, and I think the President probably elected not to be that involved in the detail of that conversation. But certainly the broad constitutional principle, which is the constitutionality of the line item veto similar to what many governors including when he was governor of Arkansas, and the executive power they have, I think he's familiar with those arguments to be sure.
Q Mike, the Ohio Democratic Party recently filed suit against the Federal Election Commission and it's arguing, as I understand it, that it has no authority, the FEC has no authority to regulate soft money when the state parties are involved. Is that a breakaway action by the Ohio party, or does the President support what the party is doing?
MR. MCCURRY: No, we take a contrary view, as you know, because we have petitioned the Federal Election Commission to take that regulatory stance and to prohibit nonfederal funds. But state parties, by their bylaws of the Democratic National Committee, can act independently on an issue of that nature.
Q With Richard Butler releasing his report on Iraq's compliance with the weapons inspections, is the administration prepared to take some steps to ease the sanctions against Iraq?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have been very skeptical about sanctions relief lacking the full compliance that we expect from the government of Iraq, growing out to the post-Gulf War-U.N. Security Council resolutions. There's one narrow area involving nuclear weapons programs that have been reviewed carefully by the International Atomic Energy Agency; we're recommending that the IAEA continue to work carefully to determine whether there's been full compliance. And part of that, as you know, involves the availability of facilities for inspections at the request of both the IAEA and the U.N. Special Commission when it involves other weapons of mass destruction programs. But aside from that one narrow area, we think that the conditions that would be necessary for broad-based sanctions relief don't present themselves because Saddam Hussein has not fully complied with the requirements the international community placed on him.
Q -- sanctions relief then?
MR. MCCURRY: We have been very skeptical and dubious about the case for sanctions relief.
Q So, in other words, they have to comply on everything before there's any easing of sanctions, or can there be some piecemeal compliance and piecemeal easing of the sanctions?
Q I identified one narrow area, where there's been discussion about adjusting the file in one of the four areas, and that's nuclear weapons program, but nothing sufficient to make a case for overall sanctions relief.
Q Mike, when was the last time the President was in direct contact with any of the parties in the Middle East, any of the leaders?
MR. MCCURRY: I'd have to check. I recall one time fairly recently. But, of course, the Vice President will be in a position to see them later this week when we have our special -- his special envoy, Ambassador Ross, is in the region meeting with the parties now and reporting directly on his conversations. And we await the outcome of the meetings that we previously announced on May 4th that the Secretary of State will be having.
Q Are you saying that the Gore trip goes beyond just the ceremonial niceties of this anniversary that's coming up?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think given the process itself and the arguments we're making to the parties about the need for them to really focus on some serious decisions that have to be taken at this point, it does go beyond ceremony. Although he will not -- the work the Vice President will do will be consistent with what we hope the purpose and outcome of the May 4th meetings will be.
Q At what point, Mike, does the President personally once again get involved?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, this President has never been reluctant to play a direct role in this process when there's a reason to believe that we can achieve a significant outcome. There's no reason at this moment to believe that. But that's one of the reasons why we are pressing the parties hard to make the kinds of decisions that need to be made if we're going to move ahead on the four-part agenda that we've identified, and make progress on the other kinds of multilateral economic issues that have been a part of the discussions that others, including the European Union, have had with the parties.
Q Is it felt that the Canadian Prime Minister's visit to Cuba today is helpful or hurtful to the cause of human rights in Cuba? And perhaps you can characterize your earlier reaction to Castro's remarks comparing the embargo to genocide.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we believe that Prime Minister Chretien's visit will ultimately be helpful, because one thing that he will surely do is to remind Fidel Castro of the insistent desire of the international community to see peaceful change occur in Cuba, to see respect for human rights and democracy.
Now we have, as you know, a disagreement as to tactics with the government of Canada, but no disagreement, whatsoever, as to what we want history to write, which is the chapter of change that needs to come and come soon to Cuba so that the people of Cuba can enjoy the freedoms, the liberties, the economic prosperity that we believe will flow naturally from democracy and from market institutions, which are woefully lacking in Cuba and have been for quite some time.
A measure of how out of step Fidel Castro is with the truth of history is this astonishing argument he made about genocide, which in no way, shape, or form can you make with any degree of logic. You can make an easy argument, which is command and control economics matched with totalitarian political forums have ruined the lives of millions and millions of people in this world. In most places in this world, the yoke of communism has been thrown off. And, unfortunately, in the Americas, Cuba is the lone remaining country that has not chosen to be on the right side of history.
Q Mr. McCurry, it's my understanding -- and I know you'll correct me if I'm inaccurate -- that the President is a close friend of Baltimore's Mayor Schmoke. Is that correct?
MR. MCCURRY: He's a valued ally of the President. I don't know -- friends -- I'm sure he would consider the Mayor a friend.
Q Well, will the President support the Mayor in his well-publicized and furious battle with the Governor. And does your affirmation that General McCaffrey is a valuable and important part of leadership repudiate Delegate Norton's description of him as, "a skunk"?
MR. MCCURRY: The President, often, even with friends, can have disagreements as to things they might do or say.
Q You said this morning you'd say some more about the IRS probe.
MR. MCCURRY: I was awaiting the outline of the steps that the Treasury has now made. I can't add much to what they have already said at Treasury about some of the things they're going to do. Commissioner Rossotti I think has been very forthcoming in addressing what they believe are the need to ensure the integrity of the Criminal Investigations Division. And the White House is supportive of what Treasury has indicated they're going to do with respect to some of the practices they will now examine more carefully.
Q Mike, with respect to Maryland, is it a disagreement or has he just taken no position on that?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe he's taken a position in what is a dispute between Democrats who see things differently.
Q Any administration reaction to the killing of the bishop in Guatemala?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that the State Department was doing something on that. We can check -- NSC can check with you and see if -- my understanding is they were going to issue something.
Q Mike, it wasn't quite clear from your answer to Stu's earlier question on bilingual -- when the President is in California this weekend, will he speak out publicly against that ballot initiative?
MR. MCCURRY: There is some discussion about how the President could reiterate things that Secretary Riley said today. Whether or not he does so when he's in California remains to be seen at this point. I wouldn't rule it out.
Q Mike, at an appeals court hearing a couple of weeks ago, White House lawyers said that you were trying to redact information so the press could get some information on the executive privilege dispute. It's now been about five weeks since the first hearing -- or, actually, the last hearing took place on that subject. Do you have any update for us on how the effort to parse that information so we can get some of it?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't. You may want to check with Mr. Kennedy. I was not aware that the court had rendered any ruling on the motion that was argued at that point. If they have, that would be news to me. But you may want to check with Mr. Kennedy further.
Q Mike, Senator Hatch and other Republicans have said for a comprehensive tobacco bill to be workable there has to be some degree of industry cooperation -- the advertising provisions are not challenged. Is there any sympathy here at the White House at all for that argument?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. I mean, I think that's not an ill-begotten argument. I mean, in order for this program to work and to protect kids, the active cooperation of the industry it would be far preferable from their defiance in courts. We've said that much the same with respect to the issue of FDA regulation, where we've always indicated that we'd prefer to see an environment in which the industry accepted its responsibilities under the program envisioned as opposed to seeing it challenged endlessly in court, as they challenged the truth that we now have seen revealed for years and years and years.
Q But isn't the White House really going in the opposite direction by seeking to strengthen the McCain bill which they oppose, and also lambasting people for being in bed with the industry?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we make a reasoned judgment that given the kind of support we think exists in the Congress reflecting the will of the American people, that this industry, which has evidenced such a pathetic record over time, would see it in its interests to change course and to do something to help protect kids from what we know is the number one leading cause of endangerment to the health of children, to all Americans.
So our view is that the industry is going to want to get with this program and that as we build sufficient, strong bipartisan support for legislation, they may do some rethinking and recalibration on where they've been on some of these issues.
Q That's what your strategy is, to wait for them to come back to the bill they've walked away from?
MR. MCCURRY: No, no, manifestly not. We're proceeding full speed ahead with the bill and continue to work hard on --
Q I understand that, but are you doing anything to try and obtain their cooperation in advance so that they don't challenge the marketing restrictions?
MR. MCCURRY: We think that may have a very powerful effect, if the industry sees that that's the direction it's going, that an effort to put a roadblock up in front of the bill is to no avail, that they may wish at some point to change course and see if they can't be a part of the solution.
Q Mike, Japan's finance ministry has reprimanded about 112 of its officials, including its top minister for international affairs. Does the White House -- given the fact that the Ministry of Finance is the organization that controls Japan's economy, is this a cause for concern of the administration?
MR. MCCURRY: When the President recently addressed the status and health of the Japanese economy, he did so at some length. He talked about the important role that bureaucracies play in being supportive of programs articulated by governments. You know what we have said about the stimulus package that's been unveiled by the Prime Minister. I think you know what the President said about the functioning role that the powerful ministries play within the Japanese government. I think I'd refer you to what the President has already said on the record as being indicative of what his concern is.
Q Could you talk about what he would be willing to support in terms of bilingual education?
MR. MCCURRY: We did a little bit of that already. As the Department of Education indicated today, we see three years as being a useful general role model of -- general model of the amount of time it ought to take someone who is language deficient in English to move through the kinds of bilingual education programs that exist at the local level and move into settings in which they can use English as their primary learning language.
And our role will be to continue to support those programs that we think are valuable and critical in helping children learn the English language skills they need to be successful in school.
Q Is the President doing anything tomorrow other than going to New York for that fundraiser? And he makes a statement on Thursday -- can you shed any light about that?
MR. MCCURRY: Tomorrow we are considering a statement on a domestic matter here in Washington, before he goes up to New York. I'm not aware that he's planning anything else in connection with his New York schedule tomorrow.
On Thursday, I can't shed anything on his plans for a public statement yet, but we should be able to let you know by Wednesday or so.
Q Can you give us a hint?
Q So if you would let us know a day ahead --
MR. MCCURRY: Protecting the long-term retirement income security of the American people.
Q Mike, can you talk a little bit about the timing of the Treasury Department's announcement of its IRS probe? Is it an attempt to deflect attention from or preempt this week's --
MR. MCCURRY: Depends on whether it works or not. I don't know. (Laughter.) No, I think there's been an ongoing effort at the Treasury Department and at the Internal Revenue Service, particularly since the arrival of the new commissioner, to address these shortcomings at the IRS, and they're moving aggressively to correct the deficiencies and to make sure that they have a customer-friendly, taxpayer-friendly Internal Revenue Service. And the fact that they would want to talk about that before what are likely to be incendiary hearings on Capitol Hill is no surprise.
There has been some concern that our allies on the Hill have been expressing about the form and substance of those hearings, and I'll leave that debate for those on Capitol Hill. But I think it's an equally important -- or it makes more important the argument to remind people of all the work the administration is already doing to improve the IRS.
Q How worried is the President about the recent rash of shootings by students, and what can be done about it?
MR. MCCURRY: Very concerned. And as you know, he, after the Jonesboro incident, had asked a group of experts to come together. They had a session here the other day that pointed to some of the things that communities need to do to avert the kinds of incidents that tragically we saw again over the weekend.
So the President believes that we need to think very long and hard about what experts can tell us, what science tells us, what sociologists can tell us about the cause, the root cause, of some of these incidents, and to see if there is anything that suggests itself in a role that leaders can play or that government can play.
But it's very clear that we also need to see more involvement by communities and parents in addressing what perhaps are some of the underlying causes of what are now just seen to be isolated events.
Q Were there any recommendations at that meeting the other day?
MR. MCCURRY: There were some ideas that are not -- it would be moving them to far forward to say that they were recommendations -- some ideas that grow out of that conversation that need to be worked further. And the President instructed some of those participating to do additional work to see if they might lead to some specific policy recommendations. It was not a decision-making meeting; it was more of an informational meeting. But some work is going to result as a byproduct of the conversation that they had.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
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