THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT, SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE HASTERT, SENATOR LOTT, SENATOR DASCHLE AND CONGRESSMAN GEPHARDT AT BEGINNING OF BIPARTISAN LEADERSHIP MEETING The Cabinet Room
4:30 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: I'd like to make just a couple of brief remarks and then ask the Congressional leaders to speak. Let me, first of all, thank them for coming here, I'm looking forward to our meeting and to these last few weeks of working together before they adjourn for election season.
I'm hoping that we can resolve our differences over the budget, especially in the area of education -- and I made a more detailed statement about that earlier today. I'm also hoping that we can pass a patients' bill of rights and hate crimes legislation and a minimum wage agreement that will have some small business tax relief in it and perhaps some other things that I think there is bipartisan support for, like the long term care credit.
I hope that we can reach agreement on the New Markets legislation that passed the House overwhelmingly in a bipartisan fashion, and I think has big bipartisan support in the Senate. And I still have some hope we can reach agreement on this Medicare drug issue, and I'll keep working.
But the main thing is that we're here meeting and we'll see what we can do together and I think we ought to do just as much as we possibly can and I'm looking forward to the meeting.
SPEAKER HASTERT: Well, thank you, Mr. President. I think we're down here to find a fair middle ground and try to start to have some productivity and to finish up the season.
You know, I think we all agree we want to strengthen Social Security and Medicare, and we've worked to do that and made sure that those trust funds were secure. It's the first time in, I think, modern history that we haven't borrowed from those trust funds to run government.
We want to reduce taxes for those workers who want to save and we want to make sure that those small businesses that hire them get some tax breaks, as well as some guaranteed wages for those folks. And I think that's something that we can work on, and we just need to lay down our priorities and how we're going to do it.
Education is important. We all want to increase education. I think one of the things we want to do especially in education is make sure, at least from our side of this thing, is give some folks some choices, especially at the local level.
But one of the things that I think is pretty important -- you know, we came down here about 20 months ago and we talked about the surplus and we talked about setting aside a good part of the Social Security surplus and consequently, the Medicare surplus and locking it away and not spending it. I think one of our challenges -- and I hope you join with us -- we'd like to take at least 90 percent of the non-Social Security and Medicare surplus and lock away and make sure that we pay down the debt with it. And it's something that you've talked about, especially the tax -- future interests and those things. And I think we can do that and still have enough money to do the things that we talked about in priority.
So I hope we can get some agreement to work towards that end.
THE PRESIDENT: Senator Lott.
SENATOR LOTT: Well, Mr. President, I think it is important we have this meeting and find the fair middle ground the Speaker mentioned, that we can work together on.
I think in the Senate, of course, we need to complete action on the China trade bill, and we're making some progress on that. And Senator Daschle and I will be working with both sides to try to get an agreement to complete it this week or early next week.
I think we need to focus on providing the funds for the programs that the people are counting on. We've got agriculture, obviously; we've got a lot of disasters and agriculture needs. Now we're going to need additional funds for the fires; to provide the funding for education, defense. So I hope that we will focus early on how we can get through these funds for these important programs, the appropriations bills.
Beyond that, I think there are some other areas that we can work on. Obviously, I think that the pension and retirement programs -- you mentioned it -- we obviously think that's a high priority. We've got a defense authorization bill that would provide pay for increase to military personnel and also increased health benefits. So there are a number of areas like that that I think we can get done this year that would mean an awful lot to the people.
But I also think that one of the most important things we've done over the last couple of years is to start to pay down the national debt. And we have an opportunity this year to -- in the next fiscal year to have a real impact on that. I think that if we pay down 90 percent of our surplus on the national debt, that would still leave funds for the small business tax cuts, the retirement benefits, as well as some increased funding for things like education. And I think we can find a way to provide some prescription drugs for our seniors now. It will take a lot of work, but it's worth the effort.
So we're prepared to work on all of those and, hopefully, today will be the beginning of moving forward on all those.
THE PRESIDENT: Senator Daschle.
SENATOR DASCHLE: Mr. President, thank you for having us down. I think this is a very important moment. We've got a very limited amount of time left to do a lot of work and I agree, in large measure with what my Republican leadership colleagues have said.
I think we do have to put focus on paying off some of the debt this year. And I guess the question would be which of the tax cuts that have been proposed are now going to be taken off the table so we can accomplish that, because I do think if we're going to do it we've got to look at the balance that you've talked about on a number of occasions -- can we do all of what you proposed in a way that provides that balance.
I'm hopeful that we can show balance and show the kind of cooperation that is going to be required to address the minimum wage; to address meaningful education, especially smaller class size and the opportunity to ensure that we've got the teachers out there that need to do the job; prescription benefits and patients' bill of rights. They're all possible if we could just close the gap and finish our work. And I'm hopeful that this meeting will lead to it.
THE PRESIDENT: Mr. Gephardt.
CONGRESSMAN GEPHARDT: Thank you, Mr. President, for having us here. I think we can pay down the debt and take care of Social Security and Medicare if we can get the tax cuts focused on the people that need them, which are people in the middle class and I hope we can work that out.
The two issues that my constituents talk about the most are a prescription medicine program and Medicare. This is deeply desired by people all over the country. And I hope we can find a way to get it done this year.
The other one is the patients' bill of rights. If you're sick and you're not getting out of your HMO or your health insurance what you need, you need that now. So I really hope we can get that done this year.
Q Mr. President, is the 90 percent of the surplus set aside, is that acceptable for you? And given the proximity of the election and the major philosophical differences over a patients' bill of rights and how to do a drug benefit, any realistic chance in your view of getting that done?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me answer the two substantive questions, then I'll talk about the budget.
I think the -- we have honest differences over the Medicare drug issue and how to achieve it. Whether we can bridge them or not, I don't know, but we ought to try.
Secondly, on the patients' bill of rights, I think we're almost down to one issue -- one or two issues, and I think we could get a majority for a good bill if we really work at it. I think the chances of that are reasonably good still and I'm prepared to do everything I can to keep working on it.
Now, on the budget, let me say, I presented a budget back in January which saves 90 percent of the surplus for debt reduction. And, obviously, I agree with that. I think the most important thing is whether we're on a glide path to pay the debt off over the next 10 to 12 years, which is what I think we ought to do, because I think it will keep interest rates lower and that will save people money, that amounts to a huge tax cut. If you keep interest rates a point lower for a decade, that's $390 billion in lower mortgage payments alone. So I think that's important.
Whether we can do it this year or not depends upon what the various spending commitments are. I'd have to -- I've got to add them all up. Senator Lott mentioned some. We've got a pretty large bill on wild fires in the west that we have to pay. We have to see where the farmers are with the farm prices and what we're going to have to pay. We're back on a glide path toward increasing the defense budget and we've got to keep the pay up. The military expects to meet its recruitment bills this year and all major services for the first time in a few years, and it's in no small measure because the Congress voted to raise the pay.
So we've got to add all this up. Then we still have to decide which tax cuts we're going to be for and how much does that cost in this year. The most important thing is that over a five year period over a 10 year period, are we paying down enough of the debt to get the country out of debt by at least 2012. And I think if we can get a commitment to that, then we can work out the details in this budget year in a way that everybody can go home and say, well, this is what we did, I like this, I didn't like that, but we're still on the right path and we're going to get there. That's the most important thing.
Q Mr. President, is it time for a moratorium on the federal death penalty, in light of the racial disparity and the way it's administered?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first there was a racial disparity, then there is a rather astonishing geographic disparity, apparently -- which since we're supposed to have a uniform law of the land raises some questions.
I think it's important, first of all, for the Attorney General to be able to comment and make some kind of report and recommendation to me before I say anything else about that. I want to wait and hear from her and consult with others.
There has been no suggestion, as far as I know, that any of the cases where the convictions occurred were wrongly decided. That is, there has been no DNA type questions or ineffective assistance of counsel type questions raised. There has been a bill in the Senate that seeks to address those issues nationwide, which I think is a very good thing to do.
So I think if anyone like me, who supports capital punishment and has actually presided over executions, I think has an extra strong responsibility to make sure that there's nothing wrong with the process. And so I want to wait and hear from the Attorney General; but I don't think I should make a judgment one way or the other today based on just what I've read in the press, and that's really all I know right now.
Q Mr. President, have you decided not to send the Vietnam trade agreement to the Hill? And, if so, why not?
THE PRESIDENT: I do not believe that I have made that decision. Maybe someone in the administration has and you may know it and I don't. (Laughter.) Because last week I was occupied, as you know, at the United Nations with a whole wide range of issues.
To the best of my knowledge -- if I don't send it up there it'll be only because I believe that the Senate and the House couldn't deal with it at this time. And I don't believe there is substantial opposition to it, it's just a question of whether we can get it up on the calendar. But to the best of my knowledge, we haven't made a final decision on that.
Q Mr. President, this is your final time through this; some of these gentlemen will most likely all be here next year, although, some might like to be in different seats. (Laughter.) This is your last time through this. Any one thing that you want to come out of this budget fight with?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I'd like us to be faithful to the progress we've made since we really started working together. I mean, since 1996, we've had all -- every year we've had a fight with -- both sides have honestly said what they thought. And then at the end, we found a way to come together and pass a budget that was good for the American people.
And my overwhelming hope is that we'll do that again. And the only way to do that is we've got to take some of their ideas and they've got to take some of ours and maybe we'll come up with a third way. But what I always believe is that no matter how much progress we make, there will be enough honest differences for the people, for the voters to make a judgment at election time on whom they would choose for President, Vice President, Senate, Congress.
So what I'm just hoping is that we'll find a way to do what we've done ever since '96, and we'll find a way to do some things together that are quite important. And we have done some important things. We did welfare reform together, we did the Balanced Budget Act of '97 together, we did the child health insurance program together. We made some remarkable steps forward in education in '98 and '99. We had -- four years ago, this after-school program was a $1 million experiment, now there are 850,000 kids in after-school programs in America.
There was a study yesterday in the paper by the Urban Institute that said I think 4 million more children that go home alone after school, between the age of six and 12. This budget would put another 850,000 to a million of those kids in after-school programs.
So every year we've been able to do some things that are -- that every one of us, without regard to party, could be proud of. And we've kept this deficit coming down and now we've got a surplus and we're paying the debt off.
So that's my goal, that within that framework we'll just keep on trucking and we'll do the best we can and the American people will make their judgment in November and the country will go on and be just fine.
Q What do you think of the rat ads, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: I think you can deal with that one without my help. (Laughter.)
END 4:45 P.M. EDT