THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY The Briefing Room
1:13 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the White House and our daily briefing. To the words that I proclaimed earlier today on the agreement between Russia and the International Monetary Fund on financing for Russia's program of economic recovery, I add these words from the President of the United States of America.
"I welcome the announcement this morning by Michel Camdessus, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, that he will recommend the new financing program for Russia to the Fund's executive board. This new program of Russian policy commitments and international financial support can provide a sound basis for increased stability and confidence. Strong implementation by the Russian government of these important reform measures is essential. I continue to believe that a partnership with a stable, democratic and prosperous Russia is a vital U.S. national interest."
Q Did he say that to you personally?
MR. MCCURRY: He very carefully checked these sentiments and expressed them. And we have, as you know, our government has very closely followed the deliberations between IMF officials and Russian economic officials and welcome this and the package of other measures that have been developed to provide support for the transformation occurring in Russia's economy.
Q Was the President stampeded into having a lunch with the Democratic leaders on the Hill because he's being criticized by the Republicans? He hasn't had a meeting of his own leadership for a long time.
MR. MCCURRY: That's just not true. They've been down here within the last couple of -- I'd say once every month, once every two months they are down here.
Q Once every month?
MR. MCCURRY: We are entering into a period now where the Congress has an opportunity to make some real progress on issues as wide-ranging as health care, education, quality of education, the funding that we need to protect some of the investments that have made a real difference in the economic growth we're enjoying here in America, and it's time for the Congress to get on with business. And they've got a very short period of time remaining.
They're going to spend a lot of time today talking about the things that we could do to make sure the Patient's Bill of Rights moves forward in this session, the Republicans lately coming to the view that we do need a federal approach that the President has been recommending for months now. We hope we can come to agreement on what the terms of that should be.
The President, by the way -- we're going to have a statement very shortly on Brazil today signing the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and that's a reminder to the Senate that they ought to get on with ratification of that at a time when the world needs to move forward.
Q Do you think in retrospect you were a little harsh on the Republicans this morning in your briefing, or do you stand by the statements you made?
MR. MCCURRY: Not harsh enough. (Laughter.)
Q I mean, to say that the Republican leadership is whining and is fooling around --
MR. MCCURRY: Was that too strong?
Q -- with the public's business.
MR. MCCURRY: Maybe that was too strong. I should have said that they have shown an interest in pinning on the President responsibility for the fact that they've made very little progress on things the American people expect them to move forward on. And at the same time, they drift off into debates that are at times tangential. And they have trouble kind of wrestling to the ground within their own caucus a common approach on issues like health care, like education, like things that I think the President has been urging them to consider for months and months now.
So we hope that this will be a productive period as they close out this session. It is always true that in an election year sometimes politics on both sides steps in to play a mischievous role in the legislative process. But it's also true that, as we saw in 1996, the approach of an election can have a concentrating effect on the minds of everyone here in Washington, encourage everyone to set aside partisan differences and make some real progress in the name of the American people. So we'll see which way it goes. And then we'll argue about who came out best in November.
Q What's realistic in what you'll get?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it's realistic to think that we can make some real improvements in health care, specifically through a Patient's Bill of Rights; that we can protect some of those things that are going to improve the quality of education in America -- some of these fights occurring in the context of the appropriations process; that we can head off any attempt to roll back environmental protection; that we can really make some progress on economic measures, for example, that would open and liberalize trade and that would provide the kind of funding we need to deal with these economic crises around the world we've talked about; and we could add to some of those things we've already done to protect America's role in the world -- for example, the enlargement of NATO.
So I think there's some reason to believe that this Congress is going to want to have some checklist of things they can point to as achievements, rather than a long laundry list of things that we're going to debate in the fall.
Q But not tobacco?
MR. MCCURRY: But to answer the question, whining about the President not being in town is not the way to make progress. First of all, he's got his fact wrong. Senator Lott yesterday said the President has been out of town 70 days this year; it may seem like that to those of us who traveled on some of those trips, but it's, at best, half that. So he just doesn't have his facts right, among other things.
Q Mike, if the Republicans come up with a patient's bill of rights that doesn't include the right to sue HMOs, is that something the President would reject? Is that a litmus test --
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to try to write what is an acceptable bill right now. That's a very important principle that protects consumers in America. But the President right now is talking with the Minority Leader of the Senate, Minority Leader of the House, and we'll see where they come out on the subject.
Q When is the next bipartisan congressional leadership meeting with the President?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's not one scheduled, but there's been often and regular contact with Senator Lott, with the staff of the Speaker. The President and the Speaker saw each other not too long ago. So there's ample opportunity to do business. And if they're serious about doing business, we're serious, too. And the President will be available and if there's some utility in sitting down and mapping out how we're going to use the time left productively, we will.
Q He doesn't plan to call them in --
MR. MCCURRY: I can't set a date for you right now, but I wouldn't rule it out if it appears that that would have some utility.
Q When's the last time he spoke with either Lott or Gingrich about the legislative agenda, not just the --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, his Chief of Staff talked to Majority Leader Lott on exactly that subject last week, and that was reported quickly to the President and the President -- I can't tell you -- he talks on and off by telephone to both the Speaker and the Majority Leader and he does not always apprise us when he's had those contacts. So I don't know when the last time was that they talked.
Q There's legislation pending in the House and Senate that would require parental consent for a minor to cross state lines to get an abortion. Does the President have a view on that legislation?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll check. I haven't -- we haven't seen that -- Barry says that we sent a letter on that subject, and we'll see if we can get it.
Q Is there an consideration being given in the White House to advocating a more limited tobacco bill, perhaps something that just addressed FDA?
MR. MCCURRY: No. We have very strong principles that relate to the public health policy the President wants to see put into law. Now, we have to be conscious of the discussions that state attorneys general are having on this subject and whatever prospects arise that they might reach some settlement with the industry. But our public health approach with respect to tobacco and kids goes well beyond FDA jurisdiction.
Q Mike, China over the weekend arrested another round of political dissidents. I'm wondering if the President has had any reaction and if this makes him rethink some of his statements about the current leadership, or not.
MR. MCCURRY: No. It reminds us of how important it is to continue to press the case for human rights exactly as the President did when he was in China. We did not tell you or tell anyone that we would see an overnight transformation of what is sometimes a repressive regime, see that transform miraculously into a flourishing democracy overnight. And we said that even during the trip that we knew that there would be continued instances in which we would have differences, and serious differences, with the government of China.
Now, we understand from reports that roughly half of those who have been detained because of their activity in connection with this opposition party have now been released, but that doesn't diminish our concern about those who are still incarcerated simply for expressing their beliefs freely, as they should have a right to do. But, look, this will be hard work and it will be work that we will continue and that we will not let up in making the argument that they need to open more fully to the universal declaration and the rights of all citizens.
Q A bunch of Silicon Valley companies have offered a compromise on the encryption. Can you tell me whether or not the administration supports their encryption --
MR. MCCURRY: I know we've been doing a lot of work on that subject, and last week some of you may have seen a step taken, I think, by the Commerce Department with respect to encryption. But I'll need to take that or maybe you can work with some of the folks down here and get a fuller answer.
Q On China, do the recent arrests give the President cause to regret his remarks at the Hong Kong press conference that Jiang is a reformer and that China has the right leadership at the right time?
MR. MCCURRY: No. Look, these are not snapshot assessments that change hourly with whatever the latest headline is. These are comments and beliefs about what the long-term future for China is going to be. And we think to the degree they continue to open to market economics, continue to see that hand-in-hand with a vibrant market economy goes the freedom of information and freedom of choice that goes into well-performing markets, that that inevitably lends -- or adds to the direction of political liberalization that we've seen. But there will be fits and starts as we go. We will just have to continue to make the case and make the case as strongly as the President did throughout his trip.
Q Mike, for the cameras, what was the White House reaction to the dramatic loss by the LDP in the Sunday elections in Japan yesterday?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the United States has a close, enduring relationship with Japan. A change in leadership does not alter the strong nature of the relationship or the strong sense of a close personal tie that the American people share with the people of Japan. We look forward to working with the new Japanese government. In the meantime, we are going to continue our consultations on things like the best venue, best time, best sequencing for a visit by the new Japanese Prime Minister.
But we also believe it is very important for the new government as it forms itself, to move quickly to implement concrete fiscal and banking measures to achieve strong domestic demand-led growth in Japan and to restore confidence in Japan's financial system. We believe, and the President believes, that a healthy Japanese economy is critical for the entire Asia region, but is critical to the global economy and thus to the people of the United States and the world as well.
Q Do you think the new government should implement permanent income tax cuts in that program?
MR. MCCURRY: We have long said that there should be a substantial commitment to fiscal stimulus. That can take the form of a permanent tax cut that is substantial in size. And we have so stated our belief that that would be in the best interests of the people of Japan and in the best interests of the regional and world economy.
Q Mike, the administration has put a lot of effort into talking with Prime Minister Hashimoto recently, even put up a $2 billion vote of confidence just three or four weeks ago. Is it now back to square one, or how do you maintain continuity with the new outfit?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, given the nature of Japan's governing structure, you're never back to square one. You're always dealing within a political environment that reflects the leadership choices made freely by the people of Japan, but you also deal with a government that has ministries and able technicians who continue by and large macroeconomic policies as they are set by each individual government.
So we'll continue to work with them, continue to press for the kinds of direction in their national economy that we have suggested time and time again.
Q Will he miss Hashimoto?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they've developed, as you know, a close personal relationship -- the Bill-Rhu relationship was one that was productive for both the people of the United States and the people of Japan. The President had high regard for the skills and the leadership and the political courage shown by Prime Minister Hashimoto. But he will equally look forward to working closely with his successor.
Q Mike, there's been speculation about how long Treasury Secretary Rubin will remain with the administration. Do you know, has the President discussed this at all with Rubin?
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't be surprised if they have discussed it. And I would doubt very much it would depart from the Secretary's observation that he plans to be here for some time.
Q Over the weekend, Senator Hatch said that if the President does not honor a subpoena if one is issued for his testimony, that would be an impeachable offense, which raises the question, has the President decided yet whether he will, one, voluntarily testify or, two, how he would handle a subpoena?
MR. MCCURRY: You know, those who are in the business of weekend shows during these beautiful summer weekends when most of us are out of doors and enjoying ourselves recognize that you have to spin a lot of webs on the Saturdays --
Q What's the answer?
MR. MCCURRY: The answer is it's entirely hypothetical. What's his name, the guy who is the PR guy for Starr says he doesn't know whether there's going to be a report, or they haven't reached a status of having a report. On the issue of testimony -- you all know that that's David Kendall's province to answer and --
Q Why? Why is not your province?
MR. MCCURRY: Because it's not -- the President is not being called, if I understand correctly, not being asked to appear in any official capacity as President.
Q Then has he not been invited to testify voluntarily?
MR. MCCURRY: The status of that you can get from Mr. Kendall.
Q But you're the Press Secretary.
MR. MCCURRY: I don't even keep track of it, frankly. Or you can ask Mr. Kennedy.
Q Well, one thing that would certainly be an area for Mr. Ruff is whether or not -- the constitutional question of whether or not a President can be subpoenaed. In other words, can a subpoena be enforced against a President? What's the White House Counsel's view of that?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know if he has a view and I don't know whether the President's been subpoenaed. I don't know whether it's an issue that at this point is moot.
Q But it's something he might reasonably have been expected to have explored, at this point, don't you think?
Q Yes, wouldn't Ruff have researched that? I mean, this is --
MR. MCCURRY: Check and see. Ask Mr. Kennedy if it's been researched; I have no idea.
Q Mike, is the administration concerned about the ongoing GM strike?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, and the Secretary of Labor has been monitoring it. We've had contact with both sides to determine their posture in the talks. There had been some speculation that they might, following their summer recess period, go back to some serious bargaining over the weekend -- and that has not happened. I believe that we concur in the assessment of the Secretary of Labor that it's time for both sides to sit down and try to amicably resolve their differences, consistent with what are clearly their collective bargaining rights under federal labor law.
Q Mike, back on the subpoenas, can you confirm what's-his-name's statement that the President has been invited six times?
MR. MCCURRY: I do not know. I can't -- and you all have worked with Jim Kennedy on that subject and you know he's a more reliable source of information than I am. I haven't checked in on that subject in quite some time.
Q Does he answer the questions that are put to him?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. You all would know better than I do.
Q Would he come out and brief publicly?
MR. MCCURRY: No, but I'm sure he'd be available if you wanted to -- I know some of you need to have him available on camera, I'm sure he'd be willing to do that for those of you he enjoys working with. (Laughter.)
Q I have a question on Congress. Gephardt has called this a "do nothing" Congress. Do you agree with that assessment?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's done some things, but they've been little things, and they've avoided some of the real issues that I think occupy the minds of Americans when they think about their futures and they think about the concerns they have. We have a lot of concern about health care arrangements and how people are going to pay for taking care of people who are sick in their families, or sick parents. There is a lot of concern about the quality of our schools, the size of classrooms. All the things that the President has addressed before and I think the American people would appreciate seeing their leaders in Washington get on with those subjects.
Q Is there an update on Kosovo, from the standpoint of the negotiation?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's been a great deal of work done by Ambassador Holbrooke, as you know, to try to find a way in which we can develop structures that would lead to some genuine mediation. There's a preference -- the concern has been while clearly we are keeping pressure on Serbia and keeping pressure, properly, on Milosevic, that within the Kosovo Albanians who have made some progress militarily recently there is less identifiable structures for mediation.
And I think that until both sides see that their long-term opportunities are better defined by negotiation and by peaceful reconciliation than by fighting, it's going to be difficult to make a lot of progress. But we're going to continue the effort to try, of course.
Q There's been a lot of momentum on both sides of the aisle building for this idea of private savings accounts for Social Security. Has the President warmed to that idea at all? There was one report out that he would consider it. Is that --
MR. MCCURRY: He is not warm to the idea of privatization wholesale by developing private accounts. Now, he has also said, as we look at long-term solutions for Social Security, you cannot take out of the equation an idea like introducing an element of privatization or allowing portions of trust funds to be privately invested in whatever percentages or whatever shape they have -- ideas like Senator Moynihan, among others, have introduced. We have to keep an open mind as the work of coming to consensus on a long-term solution develops. But he has for practical purposes, I think it would be accurate to say, ruled out privatization.
Q How about the idea of Pomeroy's to set up a Federal Reserve-type structure that might invest a portion of the accounts?
MR. MCCURRY: We have said there are a lot of ideas that were going to -- flow out of this series of fora that we're having with the AARP and the Concord Coalition that will lead in to the White House Conference on Social Security in December, and that will form the basis for a genuine bipartisan consensus that we hope will be in a position to be acted upon early next year. But we're not embracing individual ideas or approaches or ruling them out while we let the debate blossom.
Q Can you fill in any of the holes in the President's schedule this week -- Wednesday and Thursday in particular?
MR. MCCURRY: He's doing the Y2K. He's doing a Y2K event tomorrow. And we're doing a Patient's Bill of Rights statement on Wednesday. Thursday is still up in the air. So the answer is, no, I can't really fill it in all that well.
Q Well, Mike, on the Patient's Bill of Rights, I mean, he has had many, many events where he urged Congress to pass this. What's different about what he's going to do this week?
MR. MCCURRY: Because they're coming around now to thinking that they should get in the act and introduce a bill.
Q So he's going to have specific comments on their bill?
MR. MCCURRY: You know, it's a good time, since they're -- well, they haven't introduced it -- they haven't come forward with an approach yet; they've started talking about it. But we can -- we're in a position to maybe influence how they come out on some of those questions.
Q Can you -- I mean, I tried this earlier, but can you tell us -- he certainly is aware of the basic structure of their proposal and the things that it doesn't include that the one he likes does. He gave them some pretty important principles for tobacco to guide them before they had come out with a bill. Why won't he do the same on this?
MR. MCCURRY: I was trying to avoid having to do it, but I guess I have to do it. Here are some things that he will stress. One -- and some of the shortcomings that we've seen in the Republican approach, or what we've heard about the Republican approach so far. One, we're concerned that it does not at this point appear to guarantee a right to see a specialist, which is really important to people, particularly cancer victims, others who have got to have access to a specialist when they need it.
Second, there needs to be a ban on financial incentives to reward physicians for prescribing less care. There can't be built in to insurance scheme something that encourages doctors, in effect, to sort of hold back on recommending treatment plans that they think might be effective --
Q That doesn't mean your against capitization entirely?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that's a different issue. The capitization question that comes up --
Q Because there is a financial incentive there to give minimum care.
MR. MCCURRY: That's true. And I think that we have had some -- we have raised some issues with respect to that. I was trying to avoid doing this because some of you, I know, have already talked to Chris Jennings. But we can maybe get him down in advance of the event Wednesday I talked about.
But third, there need to be continuity of care provisions to ensure that once you choose your doctor you can keep that doctor throughout the course of treatment.
Fourth, there need to be remedies through litigation that are real, reliable, and enforceable. And there is a lot of room for discussion about how you would do that, but we still think that that has to be available to individual health care consumers.
And then they are talking about a lot of things with respect to medical savings accounts and other things that predictably, from a Republican Congress, they might want to add in to a bill like this, that we would consider in the poison pill variety. So that's, in general -- we've shared a lot of that with those on the Hill, and we hope we can work through some of those problems as we try to write a bill.
Q Mike, on Y2K, some critics have said that the administration has been slow getting off the mark on that. What do you say to that?
MR. MCCURRY: The purpose of the event tomorrow is to give a thorough report on where we are. There are some agencies that clearly have done a very good job and others that are behind the mark. And I think by pointing out what we're doing and what progress we're making in the federal public sector side, we can also encourage the private sector to respond with the same degree of urgency.
Q On the Bill of Rights, do you have any language preventing the health maintenance from raising their fees so dramatically that nobody can afford them, because that's one of their arguments.
MR. MCCURRY: No, there is not a cost control feature in that, but the overall thrust of a lot of what they're trying to do is keep within the structure of market responses things that protect citizens and encourage best practices. Some of those -- we acknowledge that some of those will have a very minimal impact, but the estimated impact is I think like an increase of maybe $2 a month in the typical premium for a typical family. That's the cost borne by them. I think the employer would bear an additional several dollars amount per month. But it's not an exorbitant cost to get the kind of protections that we believe are embedded in the Bill of Rights.
Q Just to be clear, are MSAs and any expansion of that specifically a poison pill?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we put in the poison pill category, and we understand that there is strong sentiment for it. In the form it currently has been suggested to be in, we would label it a poison pill.
Q Mike, in the category of things Congress hasn't done, IMF funding -- has that been a handicap as the U.S. tries to push for greater funding for Russia and a bigger relief package when the United States Congress itself hasn't approved it?
MR. MCCURRY: It's been a concern at the IMF and with other international financial institutions, that they have not seen the kind of strong response from our Congress that they would want to see as they enter into a delicate period of balancing out a lot of conflicting needs and regional economies. So it hasn't handicapped our ability to go and make the arguments and to participate in the discussions about structuring the right kind of programs for Russia or for other Asian economies, but it certainly is not the best environment to be in. The best environment would be one in which there is strong bipartisan support for the work that the international lending agencies are doing.
Q Well, is there some point where this becomes a real crisis, where the IMF literally will not be able to come to the aid of these countries? I mean, at what point does it become a real --
MR. MCCURRY: Sure, it could conceivably come to that. It hasn't come to that point yet, but it could conceivably. And we would hope for overall improvements in the economic conditions to allow those countries that need international assistance so we wouldn't reach that point.
Q Did it constrain the environment in which the IMF considered the Russia package over the last few days?
MR. MCCURRY: You'd have to ask World Bank officials and IMF officials that. I'm not aware that it constrained them, but it certainly -- they have to keep their eye on the dollar figures that are out there and what their best guess is as to the facilities they're going to need to draw on as the year goes on. There's no question, though, that they're going to need to replenish those funds and make new arrangements for borrowing, and that our Congress is going to have to step up to the plate.
Q Is there anything more the administration is doing this week to get the IMF package approved, using the Russia example maybe as a --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we've been working the issue vigorously on the Hill and will continue to do so.
Q But it doesn't appear to be doing any good.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we'll see. Congress -- they keep -- I think they've woken up to the fact that they've only got a handful of days left in this session, so I wouldn't doubt that their attitude may start changing on some things that they know are time sensitive and urgent and that really are a question of whether they're going to get business done or not.
Q Also, on Patient's Bill of Rights, I might not have caught it all -- you said there needs to be remedies. Do you mean specifically by that that there needs to be a right to sue HMOs?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there needs to be things that protect those who have got legitimate grievances that they want to bring against health care providers and insurers that they feel have not handled their specific cases fairly. And that traditionally has been through litigation. I'm not going to try to write liability provision right now.
Q When the President extended certain of these rights to people who get their health care through the federal government, remedies through litigation was not one of them; is that correct?
MR. MCCURRY: I thought it was.
Q It was?
MR. MCCURRY: I'd have to go back and check.
Q Any chance that the President might call Congress back into session if he doesn't get all he wants?
MR. MCCURRY: Sure. I mean, chance -- (laughter.) One in 100 -- I don't know.
Q Is that under active consideration?
MR. MCCURRY: What's under active -- all right, enough of that.
END 1:40 P.M. EDT