THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Briefing Room
1:17 P.M. EDT
MR. SIEWERT: First of all, as you can see, this is David Stockwell's last White House briefing. As you all know, David is an Army Lieutenant Colonel. We borrowed him from the Army about a year ago to be one of our spokesmen at the National Security Council.
COLONEL STOCKWELL: Hooah!
In addition to being a public affairs officer, he is also a cavalryman, and his armor branch has tapped him to be the Deputy Commander of the famed 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the Black Horse Cav, that serves as the opposing force at the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. The opposing force at Fort Irwin, or OPFOR, as the Army calls it, provides the competition for Army units that rotate out to the desert for critical training that helps the Army maintain its world-class readiness.
As you read in the paper yesterday, David will once again get to don black beret, get sand in his boots, and engage in a different kind of combat than the type that occurs in this briefing room. (Laughter.) We wish him well. We'll have cake in the office after the briefing is over. (Applause.) Thank you, and good luck.
He is a nice person.
Q We all get berets, too?
MR. SIEWERT: You may. Black berets. That is it in terms of formal announcements from this podium. (Laughter.) But I would be happy to take your questions.
Q A readout yet on the Bangladesh visit, specifically the extradition treaty?
MR. SIEWERT: No. The meeting is ongoing as we speak. As you know, the President invited the Prime Minister during his visit to Bangladesh, the first American visit ever, to come to Washington. We're grateful that she was able to arrange her schedule because of the unusual, extraordinary demands on the President this week, and she was able to extend her stay by a day so that the President could go to Norfolk and attend the ceremony there.
She will also be seeing Secretary Richardson while she's here, the Attorney General, Acting Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, and Acting Secretary of Defense DeLeon, while in Washington. But we'll arrange some sort of readout after that meeting. We're still working out some of the details on that.
Q Jake, is there a limit on the length of another CR that the President's willing to sign?
MR. SIEWERT: I think that we have told Congress that we don't think the current system is working very well. These week-long extensions don't seem to have sped up the pace of the work that Congress is doing on the budget. They haven't paid any more attention to what they need to do on the budget, what they need to do on education, what they need to do on minimum wage. So we are looking at shorter and shorter time frames. I think after this CR, which I think will go through next week, early next week, I think we'll be looking at -- we'll take it one day at a time.
Q Jake, I know the President's going up this afternoon to kind of spur things on, but what's your explanation as to why the budget process feels so dead right now?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think that question is best put to leaders on the Hill, who I read in the paper today are spending most of their time reading novels and kicking around their districts rather than finishing up their work. The President doesn't understand why anyone would want to go ahead and campaign -- go home and campaign when they have nothing that they've accomplished this year. They ought to stay in Washington, get their work done, start funding some of the education priorities that we've outlined, and start doing some of the critical work that's been languishing all year, like school -- improving school construction efforts, raising the minimum wage, enacting a real patients' bill of rights, and doing something on prescription drugs.
But that question's best addressed to the leaders of Congress, who have adopted a somewhat lackadaisical style here at the very end of the fiscal year.
Q So your half of the equation -- I mean, couldn't you be doing --
MR. SIEWERT: We put a budget up in February, very detailed, explained exactly what we'd like to get done. We met our obligations under every deadline that we ever do. And that budget's been up there literally since February. The President spelled out in great detail what he wanted done this year, and we've talked about it endlessly. We don't write the laws. They write the laws, and they have an obligation to finish their budget up. We've given them extensions. Now we're midway through a month into the new fiscal year, and they still have only passed a smattering of the bills that were due this year.
Q How many are left?
MR. SIEWERT: I think we've signed four now, and we have a couple -- we have another that we're prepared to sign next week. But they literally have not done half the work that's required for this fiscal year.
Q Is it possible to get it done by election day?
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, we certainly think so. There's no reason why they couldn't get it done. They could have gotten it done last month.
Q You say you want to get things done, but isn't the President going up today actually, in fact, going to polarize things even more? I mean, what they say is, you guys aren't compromising at all.
MR. SIEWERT: They actually have moved some way towards the administration position on certain issues. But at the same time, they seem to have found new money, without funding key priorities. We're not interested in money for money sake. There's a lot of spending in there that we think, frankly, is wasteful, it's dedicated to particular members' projects and not dedicated towards programs that are proven that are effective -- programs like reducing class size, programs like school construction funds, that we think would be more effective in improving education. We don't need to see a lot of new spending just for the sake of spending money. What we'd like to see is spending on effective programs.
Now, we've been perfectly clear on what we'd like to see come out of the budget, and the Republicans have to bear some of the responsibility for not recognizing earlier on that they were going to have to compromise and meet us halfway. Earlier in this year they passed bills that, frankly, bear no relation to the bills they're working on now that were purely symbolic. And so now at the 11th, or really the 13th hour, they're coming to us and saying, well, we'd like to resolve some of these differences. But it's been a long time coming and there are still a lot of real negotiating that can be done so that we can get balls that we can sign.
Q What are some of the compromises that you gave? What are some of the big compromises that you guys --
MR. SIEWERT: Frankly, we're signing an agricultural bill that we have some deep reservations about. But it's late in the year. We think farmers need the help that this bill provides. They met some of the requirements that we laid out, they put in some of the money on food safety. But that bill is flawed, it's deeply flawed. But the President's going to sign it because farmers need that money, ranchers need that money. We need to do something about some of the crises that's gripped farm country in the last couple years.
But there are things in that bill that are, at worse, missed opportunities or in some cases, a step backwards on Cuba. We don't think that the provision in there -- our people to people contact, is a smart one. We think that the provision to lift some of the embargo on the food to Cuba frankly could have been stronger. And there's more pork in some of these bills than we would like to see before we sign some of them.
But we've signed some bills and will continue to sign some bills that we think aren't perfect, but we're not going to compromise on core priorities like school construction, like the class size effort, like the COPS program and like some of the environmental programs that we've asked for.
Q When is he signing the agricultural bill? Today?
MR. SIEWERT: We haven't received it yet. It just passed the Senate last night and it hasn't been sent up, so we haven't been able to make the judgment on when we would sign that.
Q The President has shown complete reservations on this Cuban provision. The Cuban government itself, Fidel Castro is marching the streets of Havana protesting, and the President said without the financing of the U.S. banks --
MR. SIEWERT: Even Republicans, who support that bill, like Senator Roberts from Kansas, who want to see more agricultural exports to Cuba, have indicated that this bill is only a start, and not a particularly good one at that, and they're hoping to fix it in years to come.
The financing provisions are too cumbersome for smaller farms, and we don't think it does quite enough to help farmers that could benefit from exporting food to Cuba and to other countries and around the world. It's not a perfect provision, but on balance that bill has a lot of other good things in it that we think are worthwhile, and we're going to sign that bill.
But we don't think that it's a step forward to create a bill that purports to lift some sanctions and doesn't really provide the mechanism for American farmers or ranchers to sell their goods in Cuba.
Q If it weren't for the power, the political power of the Cuban American community, would the President want to go all the way and change the relationship with this anachronistic regime?
MR. SIEWERT: We have -- our policy on Cuba is unchanged. We continue to support some effort to reach out to the people of Cuba, but we don't want to do anything that would enhance the power of a regime that threatens its own people, that represses its own people and I think the President's been perfectly clear on that.
Q Does he feel that way on principle or --
MR. SIEWERT: Yes.
Q Not political expediency.
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, on principle.
Q Do you think lifting the embargo will be beneficial for Castro, not for the Cuban people?
MR. SIEWERT: We're not certain that there will be much improved agricultural exports from the United States under this. Obviously, those are decisions that people in the marketplace will make about whether or not they think that they can arrange the financing under the provisions in this law that could actually help them export food to Cuba.
But the financing mechanism is pretty cumbersome for smaller farmers; it may be that the larger conglomerates that are interested in making sales to Cuba can find a way to see those sales go through. But we think that if you're going to try to do something that we think is worthwhile on improving exports to Cuba, you ought to do it in a way that actually makes sense and is effective.
Q What's the President sense of compliance by each party with the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement, and is he in touch with any of them?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't believe that he's made any additional calls today. I mean, there's no doubt that the past several weeks have left emotions very raw and a lot of tension on both sides in the situation that remains very volatile as we can see today.
As I said this morning, no one should expect to see total calm restored in the short term, but we recognize that both sides have taken some steps to implement the agreement at Sharm. They've both issued statements calling for an end to the violence. The Gaza Airport has been reopened and some of the internal closures between Palestinian controlled areas have been lifted, along with some of the international passageways between Gaza and Egypt and the West Bank and Jordan have been reopened.
There have been some trilateral security meetings that potentially could bear some fruit in restoring some calm in the area. But this is going to be a day-by-day process, and we expect both sides to remain vigilant in complying with the agreement and taking further concrete measures to implement it.
Q What about this Russia-Iran arms agreement? Some senators say that you haven't provided them with information that they've requested.
MR. SIEWERT: This is the allegations that are being --
Q -- Al Gore --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, there's an implication that this is a secret agreement. That's simply not true. We distributed a fact sheet to reporters on the ground at the time in 1995. We also briefed the House International Relations Committee at the time. So if members of Congress have some problem with their briefings, they ought to look to themselves. I mean, we offered a briefing, the briefing was provided by some of the relevant parties there. And I think there's no doubt that some of these hearings right now are more about the election season than about the real substance here.
Q Jake, coming back to Bangladesh, the Prime Minister met with Attorney General Janet Reno this morning. Now, what she's asking the United States government to deport three retired -- military officers, the killers of her father and the founder of Bangladesh. Number one. Number two, she's also asking the President to make all the illegal Bangladeshans in this country legal.
MR. SIEWERT: Well, as I said, this meeting is still ongoing. We'll provide some sort of briefing afterwards. On the extradition issue, we have indicated an interest in putting a treaty in place that could govern those kind of requests. I don't want to comment on the individual cases, but we've asked them for some information, and that's just recently been provided to the Department of Justice. So I expect the Department of Justice will work with the government of Bangladesh on such a treaty, so we can put that in place. That's something the President said in March that he was willing to do.
Q Jake, something from earlier this morning. The grass-roots groups that went to the polls for President Clinton in years past in full force don't seem to be as strong in their convictions to go to the polls for Vice President Gore November 7th. What is President Clinton planning on doing to get the black vote out, the Latino vote out, the Asian American vote out, the grass-roots vote out? What is he planning on doing?
MR. SIEWERT: I think you can expect to see the President out and about between now and the election. We've already been, as you know, to many of the so-called battleground states. We've been in Florida recently; we've been in Pennsylvania recently; we've been in some states that are pretty hard-fought this year, like Washington state, and others. We've been to New Jersey, and we've been doing some events that -- obviously, we've been doing some fundraising events, but we've also done -- the President's been to some events that are meant to energize core Democratic voters. We did some in Florida, some in Seattle recently where he met with ministers and talked to them about the importance of voting this year.
But I think you'll see more. I think you'll see the President around the country, not just doing fundraising -- it's kind of late in the year to do that -- but as the election approaches, I think he'll be doing more work to energize voters and remind them of the importance and what's at stake here. And what's at stake, for those of you who have seen some of these debates, it could not be more clear. We have a choice between a candidate who understands the importance of doing something about racial profiling, who understands the importance of putting members -- justices on the Supreme Court that are committed to civil rights, understands the importance frankly of affirmative action, and you have another candidate who didn't seem to understand exactly what affirmative action is or what it does the other night in the debate.
Q But Jake, a follow-up to that. Clearly, a couple of years ago, President Clinton went to a black church in Baltimore. The church got in trouble because the President talked about going out to the polls. It was state versus church, and they got in trouble for tax purposes. And you don't see that this year. He went out to make a full-fledged effort to get the African American vote then. What's happening now --
MR. SIEWERT: We actually met -- I'll run through the schedule with you later, if you want -- but we've met with ministers in Washington state just this past weekend; we've met with ministers in Michigan; we've met with a lot of people who make a difference in these elections. And the President had a very large rally in Jacksonville, Florida, when he was there recently, to energize voters, and I think you'll see more of that in the days to come.
We're talking to the Vice President's campaign, we're talking to the Senate and congressional campaigns, and we're making some final decisions now about the President's schedule. And we'll let you know when we have those, but I think you can expect to see the President talking to Democrats about the importance of voting in this election.
Q Jake, why is it that three weeks before the election, the President's roll still is not clear, that you're still talking to the campaign about what it is --
MR. SIEWERT: No, I think his role is clear. I think what's not clear is where exactly it will be. But that's an assessment that campaigns always make at the end about where the President can make a difference, where you want to spend your time and your resources. And that's, frankly, something that, one, you want to keep a slight element of surprise about, to the extent we can do that around here, and two, you want to be able to make sure that your resources are being -- your time and money is being spent in a place that are more beneficial to all the campaign -- candidates that are running.
Q What exactly is his role as the White House sees it?
MR. SIEWERT: I think the President is indispensable in laying out the differences between the Democrats that are running for Congress, for Senate, and for the presidency, and the different policies they espouse, and frankly, the policies that are being espoused by the Republican presidential nominee and a lot of his -- a lot of people running for congressional campaigns.
But the President is going to go out and talk to Democrats, but talk to the people of America about the importance of continuing to make progress on the economy, on welfare reform, on crime, on all the issues that he's been focused on over the last eight years. And I think you'll see a lot of them. Pack your bags, get ready.
Q Why is it, Jake, that the President has only done a single campaign rally with the Vice President since the convention?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think the President will play a role in energizing Democrats, but frankly, every campaign usually tries to spread out its resources to hit as many different places as they can, to put different people in different places so that you can echo and reinforce the message that the front-runner -- the presidential candidate is putting out there.
Q Jake, is the President at all worried about getting out the vote --
MR. SIEWERT: No, we're focused on it, though. I mean, we're always focused on ensuring that we have the strongest possible Democratic turnout.
Q The rally that was in Jacksonville that day, was that more a rally for Corrine Brown than for Vice President Gore?
MR. SIEWERT: I think it's very hard to distinguish those things. I mean, if you heard the President's speech, he talked a lot about the Vice President's vision for America, what Al Gore wants to do in moving the country forward. And if you listened to the speech he gave in Denver, frankly, the speech he gave in Seattle over the weekend, which was to a large group, those were about the importance of the issues that the Vice President, as leader of the party, as leader of the ticket, as top of the ticket this year, where he wants to take the country and how he wants to move the country forward. And that's -- I've heard a lot of these speeches and that's the focus of what the President usually talks about in these --
Q The actual events themselves --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we structure our events a lot of times in a way that makes sense for whatever candidates requested us to come into the state. But we have more requests than we can honor and we're making judgments now about which requests we meet and which requests we meet and which requests we don't meet, and who, frankly, will pay for the President to travel, because those are, as you know, complicated issues that are heavily litigated by campaign lawyers and the like.
Q -- is it explicitly cast as an event to campaign for the Vice President --
MR. SIEWERT: I think that if you talk to -- I'm not the expert on this, but if you talk to a campaign election lawyer, someone who spends a lot of time worrying about finances, you tend to have -- they tend to want the President or other people to go out and campaign for the Democratic ticket. That makes it a little bit easier for the Democratic campaign committees to pick up the tab and not take money away from -- the Vice President probably wants to use some of that money on advertising. But that's better put to the DNC and others.
Q You're three weeks out from the elections. Vice President Gore and George W. Bush are in a toss-up. Wouldn't it be a serious thought for the President to step in to help him? Is the President a hindrance or a help at this point, three weeks out with this toss-up?
MR. SIEWERT: The President has been out on the campaign trail. You're welcome to join us out there, April, anytime you want. (Laughter.) And he's been talking to voters about why they should vote, and this is no great mystery, why he thinks Al Gore should be the next President of the United States, and why --
Q -- together.
MR. SIEWERT: Well, that's because you make decisions about where to go and you want to spread your resources around a little bit and make sure everyone is not in the same place at the same time. Frankly, it's a little bit better for the President to be in Seattle one day while the Vice President is in Michigan.
Q In light of all the demonstrations in many of the Arab capitals, and a lot of the anti-American sentiment that is exhibited over the last week or so, does the President now consider his having pointed publicly to Arafat as the reason for Camp David having failed been a mistake now, given that everybody knew at that time and it's obvious now that Arafat did not want to compromise over the issue of Jerusalem an this was an issue not only of importance for Palestinians, but also the entire Arab world -- so that the U.S., at that point, became something different than an honest broker?
MR. SIEWERT: I think -- look, there's no doubt that the negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh proved that the President continues to play an important role as honest broker. So a lot of really criticism before he went to that summit from people who said that the President has no role to play anymore -- and, if anything, his willingness to talk to everyone, to talk to all sides there and to be heard by them cannot be disputed now that that summit is over.
And, frankly, I'm not aware of any reassessment of the effort we made at Camp David to try to narrow differences between the parties. The President has said himself that we made real progress on those issues, and both sides recognize that we're never closer to a final agreement than we were at the end of that. We've expressed some disappointment that we weren't able to reach a final agreement there, but the President gave you a pretty frank and honest assessment of where he thought the talks had gone after that, and I think that he felt that that was important.
Q The issue of pinpointing Arafat -- I mean, prior to that, it was considered that there would be no comment --
MR. SIEWERT: In Sharm el-Sheikh, there was a considerable willingness on the part of King Abdullah, President Mubarak and Chairman Arafat to meet with the President to try to work through these issues, to try to restore calm in the areas. And you would have to ask them, but obviously, they considered him eminently worthwhile. They considered their time well-spent to sit down with the President and try to hammer out some of the differences they had here.
Q Jake, there is an interview out the President did with The Advocate Magazine, in which he seems to suggest there is some parallel between what he went through during the impeachment and the travails that many gay and lesbian people face on a daily basis. Does the President think that's a strong parallel? Are the two things --
MR. SIEWERT: I haven't asked him. I actually didn't -- I saw the interview; I think the President was simply expressing the point of view that, as occasionally said to you, that he feels that he got some pretty rough treatment around here over the last couple of years, some of it well-deserved, as he said, result of his own personal mistakes, but he probably understands the same sort of -- some, but not all, of the treatment that gays and lesbians occasionally get.
Q The President has until October 30th to sign the Treasury-postal bill. Is there any plan in the White House to hold off action on that until you see what a final tax cut package looks like.
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know about plan, but I think John Podesta said the other day that we take a look at progress that Congress has made on all sorts of fronts -- on the budget, on the minimum wage, on other fronts before we make a final judgment and how we treat that bill.
Q Why are they linked?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, because they, frankly, have added some stuff on to that bill, like the telephone tax, which we're willing to support, but is not our top priority. We want to see what other kind of action they're willing to take before we sign that particular bill. And we want to look at the budget and the work that Congress has done in its entirety, not in a piecemeal way.
While we've been willing, as I said, to sign some bills, that we would -- that we don't necessarily think are perfect. We want to make a judgment on that particular bill, looking at the bigger picture -- looking at what they've done on school construction, for instance, on other tax breaks that we think are important before we sign one tax provision that was attached to one appropriations bill.
Q Then you might not sign that if there isn't enough action --
MR. SIEWERT: That's a real possibility. But that's something that we're going to assess when we see the entirety of the work Congress has done this year.
Q The present position of significant narcotics traffickers centered in Colombia -- we were waiting to have also the name of Mexican companies. Do you know why the President didn't make this time the announcement of this?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't, but I'll check on that and get back to you.
Q What kind of action would they have to take? I mean, would it have to be --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we've made pretty clear -- we sent a letter up on that particular bill that we'd like to see action on new markets tax legislation, we'd like to see action on the school construction tax incentives, we'd like to see action on the minimum wage. We don't understand why they've placed such a heavy priority on certain tax provisions, and such low priority on others that would be of more benefit to American families.
Q Is it and-or?
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, I think we'll make a judgment looking at the entire picture, not looking at one particular bill.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MR. SIEWERT: Thank you.
END 1:44 P.M. EDT