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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release January 5, 2000
                        REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
                   ON LEGISLATIVE PRIORITIES IN 2000

                        Outside the Oval Office

3:40 P.M. EST

THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. I just had a very good meeting with Senator Daschle and Congressman Gephardt about our legislative priorities for the coming year, and the unparalleled opportunity we now have to take actions that could benefit America for the rest of the new century.

This is truly a remarkable moment. Who would have thought seven years ago, when we had record budget deficits and high unemployment, that we would begin the new century with record surpluses, the lowest unemployment in 30 years, and next month the longest economic expansion in the history of the United States?

Never before have we enjoyed at once so much prosperity, social progress, and national self-confidence with so little internal crisis or external threat. Never have we had such an opportunity and, therefore, such a responsibility to address our long-term challenges, keeping our prosperity going by maintaining fiscal discipline and making America debt-free for the first time since 1835; the challenge of spreading our prosperity to people in places still left behind, helping parents to succeed at home and at work, preparing for the retirement of the baby boom generation, and most of all, meeting the challenge of giving all our children a world-class education.

President Kennedy once said, the time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining. Well, today, the sun is shining on America, and the roofs that need most fixing in America are the roofs of our nation's schools. Anyone who visits schools regularly as I have will not be surprised to learn that a third of all our schools need extensive repairs or replacement. I've been to schools not only with leaky roofs, but with window frames so old that if you try to power-wash the windows the glass would pop out; with electrical service so inadequate that if you plug a new computer into the wall, the circuit-breaker cuts out.

We can't expect our students to meet high academic standards if their schools don't even meet high building standards. We know that antiquated classrooms do get in the way of learning. One study found that students in high-quality school buildings did better on achievement tests than those in low-quality school buildings, even when both sets of students were from similar economic and social backgrounds.

That's why I'm pleased to announce today that in the budget my administration is preparing, I will call for a new initiative to repair, renovate and renew our nation's school buildings. First, my budget will offer a new program, funded at $1.3 billion in the first year, of grants and interest-free loans to help the nation's neediest school districts make urgent repairs on their schools. If we continue this over five years, we could renovate 41,000 schools.

Second, the budget will include, as it has in the past, a tax credit to help build or modernize 6,000 schools nationwide so we can take our children out of trailers and put them in modern classrooms.

Senator Daschle, Congressman Gephardt and I agree on the need to repair older classrooms and build new ones. We know it should be a top priority this year, and we intend to make it so. We also agree on other priorities as well -- a strong, enforceable patients' bill of rights, sensible gun safety legislation, the hate crimes prevention act, strengthening Social Security, modernizing Medicare with a voluntary prescription drug benefit and strengthening it, and raising the minimum wage.

We've seen bipartisan support for all these programs in Congress. We know that outside Washington, none of these are partisan issues. In the first days of the new millennium, there is a new sense of hope and renewal across our country. We can build on that spirit not just to make this a changing of the calendar, but to make it a changing of the times. Our New Year's resolution is to reach across party lines to help our children reach for the sky.

Now, I'd like to ask Senator Daschle and Congressman Gephardt to say a few words.

SENATOR DASCHLE: Thank you, Mr. President. This was a very good meeting. We are tremendously excited about the opportunities that exist right now to meet America's long-term challenges and about our plans to seize those opportunities. I'm particularly excited about the President's new proposal to help local communities fund urgent school renovations.

In communities all across America, students are trying to learn, and teachers are trying to teach, in old, rundown buildings. I visited one school in South Dakota where they have to move desks away from the windows every time the wind blows hard, in case the wind shatters the glass. I visited another school where they actually have to evacuate the building whenever the wind reaches 40 miles an hour. They have to send everyone home because the building could collapse.

And we're not alone. These kinds of things are happening all over America. Sixty percent of our nation's schools need at least one major repair -- 60 percent. I read an article recently in which a Republican governor said he visited schools in his state which were in worse conditions than schools he had visited as a Peace Corps volunteer in East Africa 30 years ago.

Experts tell us that a school building begins to deteriorate rapidly after 40 years -- kind of like people, I guess. The average school building in this country is now 42 years old. We need to start repairing America's schools now. The longer we put this problem off, the bigger it is going to get.

We won't tell communities what renovations to make to their schools, or how to make them; that's for them to decide. All we will do is provide them with interest-free loans and grants to do things like repair leaky roofs, reenforce crumbling walls, and make other emergency renovations.

In addition, as the President said, we will also continue to push this year for passage of our school modernization tax credit bond proposal. Fifty years ago, when the baby boomers were just starting school, our parents and grandparents undertook the greatest school construction program in our nation's history.

Surely, today, during the greatest economic expansion in our history, we can see to it that our children don't have to go to school in buildings that are over-crowded and are crumbling. Together our emergency school renovation program and our school modernization bond proposal will go a long way toward helping communities address the most critical facilities' needs.

We're also committed to working with each other and with our Republican colleagues on a broad array of other educational needs, including making our schools safer, helping communities create more and better school programs that deal with children after the hours that they learn, where children can get responsible adult supervision.

Finally, we need to address America's serious and growing teacher shortage. Over the last two years, under the President's 100,000 teacher initiative, we've helped put 30,000 new teachers in American classrooms. That's a good deal, but, frankly, it's just not enough.

All over the country, communities are struggling to fill teaching jobs. The way some school districts are doing that is by lowering requirements for teachers. This year there is an estimated 25,000 teachers working without proper training, some without even college degrees. Other districts are seeking special visa waivers to recruit teachers from foreign countries. At least one big district in the Southwest has asked parents to volunteer as substitute teachers. Can you imagine that? Parents used to get asked to bake cupcakes and coach softball. Now they're asked to teach.

Over the next 10 years, we're going to need more than 2 million more new teachers just to keep up with increasing student enrollments -- good, effective teacher training as an essential accountability measure. We need to know the people we're hiring to teach our children are qualified to teach.

That is why we have fought for and will continue to fight to help communities recruit and train qualified new teachers and support the good teachers who are already in the classroom.

One of the lessons I think this New Year brought home for many of us is that the future comes faster than we think. When I was in school, I couldn't imagine the year 2000; now, it's here. We know that the future is going to come even faster for today's children. That means we don't have any time to waste. We need to work together this year to make sure they get the education and skills they need in this new century.

Now, it is my pleasure to introduce my partner in Congress, Dick Gephardt.

CONGRESSMAN GEPHARDT: Thanks, Tom, and thank you, Mr. President, for having this meeting with us here today.

With the recent celebration of the New Year, it's worth reflecting on the blessings that we, as Americans, are enjoying. Americans are now experiencing more economic security than we've had in a generation, thanks to a strong economy that the American people have built, supported by the President's policies to balance the budget and pay down the national debt. But Americans still feel vulnerable in many areas of their lives. The President understands that we have to build on our achievements to make America even greater in the next century.

I applaud the President's proposal to repair America's school buildings. His initiative builds on the efforts that we made in the House last year to provide needed assistance to local governments to build new schools local districts need to educate our children for the challenges of the future.

As we begin to work on new approaches, we're still aware of how much of our agenda from last year is undone. This unfinished agenda was a casualty of last year's raw partisan politics. It is the agenda that advances the interest of every American family, that addresses their needs now and in the future. It includes a patients' bill of rights, strengthening the fiscal security of Social Security and Medicare, providing targeted tax relief for the middle class, an increase in the minimum wage, prescription drug coverage for senior citizens, gun safety legislation to protect our children, and new hate crimes legislation.

Last year, a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans ran into strong resistance when we tried to address these issues. We hope and pray that this year can be different. Medical decision-making needs to lie in the hands of HMO bureaucrats, but we need to fix the system. We need to once again pass the bipartisan patients' bill of rights and insist that it reaches the President's desk early this year so it can be signed. We will not allow Republican leaders to once again bury this critical reform in the committees.

Seniors on a fixed income today have to choose between medicine and food. Their generation gave us a strong economy and a free world; the least we owe them is to ensure that they can live their lives with a small measure of security by passing a prescription drug plan for all seniors.

And we have recommitted ourselves today in our meeting to shore up the fiscal foundation of Social Security and Medicare, to make sure that the bedrock of retirement security is there for this and future generations.

Despite this robust economy, millions of working families are struggling to make ends meet. We need to give them targeted tax cuts to put more money back into the hands of middle class Americans, and in an economy as strong as this, it's unforgivable that the minimum wage doesn't come close to providing a living wage for hardworking families.

Our children are also vulnerable to the epidemic of gun violence. We've seen too much senseless violence. Congress finally, in a bipartisan way, must stand up to the gun lobby and pass sensible gun safety legislation.

This meeting today reminded me that this year can be a year of action -- not a year of stalemate, not a year of standing still, not a year of waiting for the election to come. We've got to get started early, but we still have time to get the important bills passed before we get bogged down in the appropriations process and the election process.

We are ready to get down to business. This meeting, I think, makes clear that Tom Daschle, as leader in the Senate of the Democrats, myself as leader of the Democrats in the House, and this President -- we are, all three, committed to all of these issues, to getting them done as quickly as possible, and to reaching out a hand of bipartisan cooperation with our Republican friends to get these things done for America and to get them done in the year 2000.

Q Mr. President -- on that point, Mr. President, how convinced are you --

Q Can I ask you about the decision of the INS to return Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, the INS followed the law and the procedures and made the decision that they made after an exhaustive review of the facts. And I told you when we started this that I would do my best to keep this decision out of politics; we have done that. We have not been involved in it. And they, I'm convinced, followed the laws and the facts, did the best they could with the decision.

Q Mr. President, are you concerned that there may not be as much support within the Democratic Caucus as you'd like for your program? Since every issue that is passed is one less issue that can be used in an election to retake Congress.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, the short answer to your question is, no, because I think if you look at the progress we have made in the last three or four years, it has not weakened the Democrats. The people hire us to come to work here every day. We all draw a paycheck paid for by the taxpayers. And we came to Washington because we wanted to do things for America. I think that it does not hurt the cause of the Democratic Party to pass these reforms.

I think there will always be things that we disagree on that we won't be able to resolve; there will always be differences of opinion that will shape the coming election, and that is in the very nature of democracy. So I don't believe that it in any ways weakens the position of my party in the coming elections to do things that are good for America now.

Q With Social Security and Medicare, are you prepared in either your State of the Union or your budget to propose structural reforms, or, as you've indicated in the past, because of the political realities, the political danger of these issues, do you have to wait, get behind closed doors and walk out with Trent Lott and Hastert to announce it?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I think there is a process that has been established that will start in the Senate for dealing with Medicare next year. And I am very hopeful that it will produce an agreement there.

On Social Security, as I have repeatedly pointed out, there is one thing we could do that would take Social Security beyond the life of the baby boom generation, which is simply to dedicate the interest savings in the national debt from the Social Security surplus to the Social Security trust fund. If we just did that, a simple bill, we could take Social Security out beyond the life of the baby boom generation.

If we want to go to 75 years instead of 50, then the best way to do that is to continue the work I've tried to do last year -- you know, we had a big Social Security meeting, we had over 40 members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, over here at Blair House to talk about this, and I am prepared to meet with them and to work with them to try to work through this. And if there is a willingness to do it, I am certainly more than willing to do my part and to meet them halfway on it.

Q How often are you going to visit your new house?

Q Any advice for commuter couples? You are the most famous commuter couple now. (Laughter.) It's a fair question.

THE PRESIDENT: I don't think we've had enough experience to offer advice. But we're about to go up there and start moving stuff into our house. That's what we're going to do when we leave here.

Thank you very much.

END 4:00 P.M. EST