THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Briefing Room
1:23 P.M. EST
MR. SIEWERT: Good afternoon. You've all been following the conference closely? Okay. I have nothing to start with, so I'll be happy to entertain your questions.
Q Tell us about the Podesta phone call with his counterpart in the Bush team.
MR. SIEWERT: John had a good conversation, a cordial conversation with Mr. Card, who Governor Bush has designated to serve as his Chief of Staff for his transition. Last night they finally reached each other. John offered to meet with him and offered to meet with either the Vice President's transition staff or separately, whatever their choice was. And we will wait to hear back from them, and then we'll be happy to arrange such a meeting to give them an overview of where we are in the transition and what we hope to do going forward.
Q What about the Berger briefings for Bush?
MR. SIEWERT: As I said yesterday at the podium, we are happy to provide more regular briefings. John Podesta offered regular briefings to Mr. Card yesterday.
Q Daily briefings?
MR. SIEWERT: Daily briefings, yes. Sandy Berger is following up with Condi Rice today. So the CIA would provide the kinds of briefings that are provided after the convention to Governor Bush. And those are the kinds of briefings that the Vice President receives today.
Q Are they written briefings, Jake?
MR. SIEWERT: For security -- a lot of the specific details will be worked out between Sandy Berger and Governor Bush's security -- national security team. But I'm not going to get in to the whos, whys, wheres, whens for a host of security reasons.
Q So did they say that they want the daily briefings?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, they agreed that they would appreciate those updates. This has been done for administrations going back all the way to -- at least to President Truman, the CIA has provided this sort of service. They provide it after the convention to the nominee of the opposing party, or of both parties. And in this case, given the unusual circumstances, this hasn't started until now, but with the encouragement of the Vice President, John Podesta made that offer yesterday, and they are following up today to set those up.
Q Have you heard anything more back from the Department of Justice on their interpretation of the transition law and whether its different from what you have?
MR. SIEWERT: We have received an advisory -- we've received the advise, essentially, that they have provided, and I think I went through it yesterday in some detail. Some of you asked about the --
Q You said you were waiting for --
MR. SIEWERT: But we're actually waiting for a formal written opinion from them on what the Presidential Transition Act entails. But I thin the legislative history makes pretty clear that if there's any doubt in the mind of the GSA Administrator, that they should not move forward and no money should be expended. In fact, I'll just quote from the Congressional Record briefly from 1963. This very issue was raised. Someone said, well, if the GSA administrator were to give such help to someone who was in a position in a close election, it might give them a psychological advantage. And the author of the legislation, Dante Facell, said, no, that is exactly what is not intended by this. And he said, if there's any doubt in his mind, and if he cannot or does not designate the apparently successful candidate, then the act is inoperative. You cannot do anything, there will be no services provided, and no money expended.
So that's very clear in the Congressional Record. They actually spent a fair amount of time discussing the possibility of a close election, and a decision by the GSA administrator to provide such services as proving a crucial edge to someone who is claiming to have won the election. And they make perfectly clear that if there's any doubt, taxpayer money shouldn't be dispensed because it would create -- might create some sort of an edge for one candidate or the other.
But, in any case, the law, the statutory language, for those of you who looked at it, is very clear. And if you go back and look at the legislative history, it's also very clear that the decision to provide this aid shouldn't be made when there's any doubt in the mind of the GSA administrator.
Q Do you intend to release a more detailed --
MR. SIEWERT: I'll talk to -- I don't see an particular reason why we couldn't at least make you familiar with the general thrust of that opinion by the Office of Legal Counsel, but I haven't heard back from the lawyers about whether it would be possible. In any case, we don't have a final written draft yet.
Q Given your interpretation of that, of that language regarding that act, is the Bush campaign, in fact, trying to get --
MR. SIEWERT: It's not my interpretation. It is something provided by the legal counsel. And as I said, those of you who have been reporting on this should probably -- it would be best to go back and take a look at the actual language and the language of the legislative history, because this has been portrayed in the media in large sense as some sort of decision that we've made here. In reality, there's a law governing this. I think anyone who is familiar with transitions, as the Bush people are, as the Gore people are, can take a look at that law and see what it says for themselves.
Q Given that emphasis on not wanting to give an unfair edge to one party or another in a contested election --
MR. SIEWERT: Again, that's not my emphasis, that's something that was raised by Congress who passed this law and something that they decided.
Q Do you feel the Bush campaign is seeking an unfair advantage by --
MR. SIEWERT: I'm not in a position to make any judgment. I'm just saying that this was an issue that was raised when the statute was debated, and answered in the floor debate.
Q Well, is there any possibility still of what the President raised yesterday of having the funding for both candidates --
MR. SIEWERT: That is actually one of the specific questions we put to the Department of Justice, and they said that that was something that was specifically contemplated again by Congress and rejected.
Q Will there be a GSA administrator after Friday? David Barram --
MR. SIEWERT: David Barram told the White House Chief of Staff yesterday that he planned to stay through the 15th.
Q Did Andy Card specifically ask for this, the access to the GSA facility and the money, during his conversation with --
MR. SIEWERT: Not that I'm aware of. They discussed the security briefings, they discussed the possibility of a meeting. But I don't think that this specific issue came up. It may have come up, but I'm not sure that it did in any -- I think they know what our point of view --
Q Has the Chief of Staff had a similar conversation with Roy Neel this morning?
MR. SIEWERT: I know he's tried to reach him. I'm not sure if they've actually touched base, but I think you can expect he'll be in contact with him.
Q Was Barram asked to stay on longer?
MR. SIEWERT: No. He told us that he would.
Q And the reason that he gave?
MR. SIEWERT: I think you should ask him, but I think he probably feels like it's as important a time as a GSA administrator has ever had to stay in the job.
Q So the Bush people and the Gore people will be getting the exact same daily briefing on security issues every day, right?
MR. SIEWERT: You should maybe check with the CIA on exactly what the hows and wherefors are on that. I said I would not get into the specifics for security reasons here. But they will certainly get the same briefings that have been provided for administrations since the Truman era, according to --
Q Gore gets some kind of briefing a day anyway, doesn't he, some written thing?
MR. SIEWERT: Sure. I mean, as you know, different Presidents choose to receive this information in different ways. Some Presidents have gotten their daily intelligence briefing orally, some have done it on paper. And that's largely issues that have been just historically decided by the President, what they prefer.
Q Since the convention, Sandy has, on occasion, called the Bush representative to inform that person about ongoing developments, international policy and military policy, has he not?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes. Sandy has been in contact, I think usually with Condi Rice about security matters when they arise and he feels it's appropriate.
Q These daily briefings will start tomorrow, is that right?
MR. SIEWERT: We're still working out the specific details, but they've accepted the offer to have them.
Q Jake, what is your reaction to the Canadian election? Is there any envy that Chretien has three terms? (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: Is that final, or have the absentee ballots from Florida come in yet? I think the President considers Jean Chretien a very good friend and is pleased with won't work that we've done together with our -- one of our closest allies and our largest trading partner. And obviously, the Canadian people have recognized the tremendous record that Jean Chretien has accomplished in his two terms as Prime Minister. And the President looks forward to talking to him later this afternoon -- they have a call scheduled -- and he will inherit the President's title as the longest-serving leader in the Western democratic nations in January, at some point. He started in '93, as the President did.
Q Jake, in quoting Dante Facell, do you find any particular harmonic convergence that the voice from the dead from the Congress, articulating how transition works, comes from a politician who cut his teeth, of all places, in Miami Dade County?
MR. SIEWERT: Miami Dade County. No. I noted that this morning, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Mr. Facell's work. But, no, I had no knowledge until this morning that Mr. Facell was the author of this legislation. But it's obviously something that he took a great deal of personal pride in.
Q Jake, question on -- earlier we had a conference on diplomacy and culture in the East Room. Could you please find out why India is one of the oldest cultures on this Earth and also largest film-producing countries in the world and exporting around the world, but India was not represented in the audience or on the panel? There were several U.S. ambassadors overseas here and even though -- U.S. Ambassador to India or Indian Ambassador to the U.S. were also not in the audience.
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I'll check. I'm not -- I'll check. It may well be that they were invited and couldn't attend, but I will check on that. We certainly appreciate the distinct contribution that India has played to world culture. And the President noted that many times when he was visiting the sub-continent.
Q Also, this conference, how will this play a role as far as the U.N. and UNESCO is concerned?
MR. SIEWERT: Let me check on that.
Q Jake, on the budget, what do you expect when Congress gets back next week? Do you have -- you sign one-day CRs, or any meetings scheduled at this point this week or next week?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we've met internally to discuss how to proceed, and we certainly hope that when Congress returns we can at least focus on the achievable -- on an education budget, on some of the key funding measures that are before Congress, where there's a great deal of bipartisan agreement. We think there's no reason at all why we couldn't memorialize the largely bipartisan agreement on education that we were hammering out before they left town.
There are obviously some very difficult issues that prove very divisive, and made it difficult to wrap up before we left. And we may need to set some of those aside in order to achieve consensus before we leave. But I don't think we've met yet with the Republican leadership, although we've had some discussions with Democrats. They haven't come back to town yet.
As to CRs, I don't think we've made any determination, but we'll consult with them. We'll be as flexible as we can be on how to let them achieve the work that they want to achieve in that one week or two weeks or however many days they think it will take to wrap up.
Q Jake, has the President been fully briefed on the failure of the Kyoto meeting in the Hague to try to reach a consensus on the global warming treaty issues, and does he see a method to push forward or reconvene or do anything on that front?
MR. SIEWERT: He certainly received an update. I don't know about a full briefing. And as you know, he was in contact during the talks with some of the parties that were involved. I know he spoke to Prime Minister Blair and a couple of the other key players in that.
Our delegation worked very hard to reach a deal and we thought that we had the basis of an agreement worked out with the EU. Unfortunately, they backed away from that deal. We're not in the business here of assigning blame for that, but we thought that we had hammered out a good-faith compromise. And Under Secretary Loy's closing statements speaks for where we think we should go from here.
Q Jake, are you aware of the story circulating in New York that the President might want to consider running for mayor after he leaves the White House? (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: He already has the second toughest job in American politics, so why would he want the first? (Laughter.)
Q Is that a "no"?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, that's a "no." (Laughter.) It's also a New York pander, in case you were wondering -- in that business here. I have no idea.
Q Did you actually ask about that?
MR. SIEWERT: No. But I'm sure he'll find it amusing.
Q Jake, finally, can you update on this problem of terrorism? State Department officials and also some high-level officials for the White House have been meeting the Taliban on the future of bringing Osama bin Laden to justice in this country.
MR. SIEWERT: That's something that we've been pursuing for some time. I'm not aware of anything new, but, obviously, we're intent upon bringing him to justice and we're always working on that. Most of that work, for obvious reasons, is not best discussed from this podium, but best discussed privately with law enforcement officials in the region.
Q Did the President watch the Vice President's speech last night? And, if so, have you had a chance to talk to him about his reaction or has he spoken to the Vice President about it?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't think he's spoken to him today, but I'll check on that. I know he saw it; I don't know if he saw it live or not.
Q Did you talk to him about it?
MR. SIEWERT: Briefly.
Q What was his reaction?
MR. SIEWERT: I won't characterize it, but I think he thinks the Vice President did a terrific job laying out the case. As you know, the President said yesterday that --
Q But that's not his characterization, that's your description of what you think he thought?
MR. SIEWERT: Exactly. (Laughter.) Two very, very controversial questions.
Q Back to the CRs for a second. You mentioned one two-week period for getting work done. Is that the outside limit?
MR. SIEWERT: That's, I think, the kind of framework that congressional leaders have been talking about, about coming back and trying to wrap it up under a week or two. But as I said, they're not back in town yet, we haven't sat down in any sustained way and discussed this with them. The President talked to them before he went to Vietnam and Brunei, agreed to extend the CR until December, which seemed like a reasonable time frame. And when they get back into town next week, there's a new member orientation, as well, we'll have a chance to sit down with them and discuss it in greater detail.
Q Jake, did his order on ergonomics remove that as a bone of contention with Congress to try to reach final resolution?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, that's a rule that we thought was worth pushing. But in terms of whether Congress thinks that it's off the table, I mean, I'll leave that to them to discuss. We told them for some time that we're intent upon moving towards a final rule. We've now put that rule in place. It may change the debate a little bit. I assume that those who oppose that rule will continue to find ways to undo it.
Q Is it your understanding that the President would refuse to sign a CR to the end of his term in office?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think that we -- I don't see any real reason to get into that now because Congress has indicated an intention to come back and work. And that's what we hope they do, that's what we expect they'll do, and that's what we'll certainly urge them to do.
Q Is the President at least open to that idea?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I think there's no particular reason why the work of today should be put off until tomorrow. I mean, there is a cost to putting off work until next year. It means that rather than have a robust education budget that provides new Pell grants, new student loans, more education funding for students today, we essentially punt on a decision and leave a lot of people without those benefits. And that's -- it's really not an acceptable choice. I mean, there's a lot that's achievable. We've reached bipartisan agreement on much of the education budget and there's no reason why we can't do it when they get back.
But we're already two months in the fiscal year. And what that means essentially is that for a lot of the programs that are being run around education, that the funding is flat-lined over last year, which is actually a real decline in the value of student loans, of Pell grants and a lot of other education funding when you factor in inflation. So there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to take the reasonable increases that were contemplated by both parties before we left and memorialize those into law.
Q As far as focusing on the achievable, are you defining that then as limiting it just to the appropriations bills?
MR. SIEWERT: No, we're willing to work on the Medicare piece as well, certainly; and tax pieces where there's bipartisan consensus. There is a bipartisan consensus, for instance, on the importance of alleviating some of the harm that's been done by overly strict measures in the Balanced Budget Act, and there's no reason why we couldn't hammer out some of those differences. So we think that's worth working on.
We also think that certain of the tax credits and tax cuts are relatively uncontroversial and could be worked through in pretty short order.
Q When do you think it could be wrapped up then, Jake?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, that depends on the pace that Congress sets for itself. But they've said they want to come back and try to do this work in very quick order, in a week or so. It may take longer, it may take less. But we're willing to provide whatever assistance is necessary to get it done quickly.
Q What portions of that $240 billion tax cut package do you think could be achievable in short order?
MR. SIEWERT: I guess that depends in large part on Congress' mood when it returns.
END 1:42 P.M. EST