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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 2, 2000
                      PRESS BRIEFING BY TELEPHONE
                      DOMESTIC POLICY BARBARA CHOW

2:40 P.M. EST

SECRETARY RILEY: Thank you. Let me make a brief statement, and then we'll get into -- Barbara, if she wants to make a statement, and then Q&A.

Congress is going to be returning to town next week. And I simply want to urge members, politics aside, to quickly pass a long overdue education budget. When Congress left town before election day, failing to finish some very important business, including a bipartisan budget agreement that has in it a record $7.9 billion in increased funding for education. This budget should have been finished September 30th and is now more than two months overdue.

Both Vice President Gore and Governor Bush campaigned on a strong pro-education agenda, so it really makes no sense to put aside a budget agreement that keeps American education from moving forward. I also hope when Congress returns to work it will move forward with this budget and go one step further and pass the school modernization tax legislation, which has some 231 members of Congress that have endorsed it, well over a majority.

Now, the bipartisan budget agreement, the discretionary budget, was postponed by Congress, and it includes new funding to move forward in reducing class size, increasing after-school opportunities, improving the quality -- helping to turn around low-performing schools, assist children with disabilities, and increase the access and funding for college, among a lot of other things.

And, as you know, at the very last minute, -- did not receive the support of the congressional leadership, and so this $7.9 billion in new funding for education is in jeopardy if the Congress fails to act on the fiscal year 2001 budget, jeopardizing increased funding for education for every community in America.

That's briefly my statement and we would be happy to respond to questions. Barbara, do you have --

MS. CHOW: No, I think we'll just take questions.

Q Secretary Riley, you're sounding like there is a possibility that the Senate will just do a -- or the Congress will do some kind of continuing resolution and get out of town. Is that your understanding of what would go on, and do you know whether the President would sign a continuing resolution that would just punt these issues over to the next Congress?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I don't want to make any inference that I have any information about what the Congress may or may not do. So I don't want to, certainly, give any indication that I do have that information. And I don't think that I can say in any way what the President will do. So I believe I'll have to not respond to those two issues. They're very important issues and I know everybody is going to be interested in them, including me. But I don't think that I can respond to them. I simply don't know.

Q So you have not gotten any assurances from the President that he would veto a CR?

SECRETARY RILEY: No, I have not.

Q Okay.

Q Sir, surely, as a matter of compromise, you can accept a bit less than $7.9-billion increase, right?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, Alan, it was an agreement, bipartisan, everybody had come together, so really, our feeling is that's on the table. All the parties, as far as I understood, agreed to it, and we think we should go forward with the budget exactly as it is.

Q But would you not accept a bit less as the price of finally locking in what would be a large increase, anyway?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I would take a look at anything that comes out of there. Our position is that it was an agreement. It's a good budget, it's very much a pro-education budget; both candidates who have gone to the American people supported strong support for education. We think that it would be a very clear statement to the American people that, yes, we understood what this campaign was about and we understand that education is important, and we're going to stick by the agreement. So I really think that is what ought to be before the Congress when they come back.

Q Mr. Secretary, is this issue, education funding, the one key overriding issue for the administration? If this is adopted, let's say, and nothing else is done -- patients' bill of rights -- would that be sufficient for the Clinton administration to declare it as the only thing out of the end of the session?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I might ask Barbara to comment on that. Don't ask me, because I will say yes. (Laughter.)

Q Okay -- Barbara?

MS. CHOW: Well, certainly, it is among the issues. I mean, there were a number of issues that were unresolved before Congress left. We have several departments that are in the same situation of no funding. So I can't tell you that -- there are so many different things kind of in the mix that, which one is kind of the top one. But it's certainly our highest legislative priority to try and get education funding up to these kind of levels.

Q Well, then, could you say what your two or three are that if Congress did those, you would be willing to declare victory and get out of town and wait for the next administration?

MS. CHOW: You know, again, I, myself, have sort of a different portfolio. So I can tell -- there are a number of things that are out there that were not completed before Congress left -- the tax bill, minimum wage, the BBRA bill, several different appropriations bills. Labor-H is obviously the biggest one, but the Commerce-Justice-State bill was not completed, and there was some sort of significant issues there dealing with immigration.

So there are kind of a lot of things that were not done in that last moment, and I guess at least I can't describe kind of the relative merits or demerits of each one of those.

Q I'm sorry to interject here, but you keep talking about both candidates, both of the presidential candidates campaigning on education. But George W. Bush specifically said that he did not embrace federal funding or federal intervention in school construction. Does that make it more difficult to make the case that this is what this election was about?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, of course in the budget itself is an issue dealing with school renovation and emergency repairs, and I don't think there's any real objection to that. The tax side, of course, where the budget -- which is not in the discretionary budget is where the construction, of course, issue lies -- the Johnson bill. And the only reason we would suggest that that be part of this is because a great majority of the Congress signed off on it, and they involved themselves in another tax measure earlier in their budget. So we think it is something that could be considered, but the renovation vision that is in this bill -- I don't think there's a big objection to that. And $1 billion is in the agreement.

Q Secretary Riley, Ms. Chow, I was curious if there is a timetable yet for meeting with congressional negotiators over the weekend or next week, and what sort of issues are likely to be on the table, if so?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I know my staff people have been meeting with people on the Hill all along, and continue to. As far as dealing with this issue here and what's going to be for them next week, no, we have not done any of that. Barbara, I don't know if you all want to --

MS. CHOW: No, there's -- I mean, obviously, Congress comes back, the CR expires on Tuesday at midnight. So prior to that time we'll have a better feel for exactly how we're going to engage. But right now we don't have anything at this moment.

Q Secretary Riley, of the education issues that are I guess most in doubt, some of the last of the increases -- Pell grants, GEAR UP and so forth, and some of the after-school programs -- which of those are most likely to come up, do you think, if there is disagreement?

SECRETARY RILEY: We think the whole package should come up, and that was what the agreement -- and all that has been -- you understand, that has been worked on and worked on and worked on and then the agreement was arrived at. So we don't think that we should get back into all of that, because the process called for this agreement.

So, of course, class size, the teacher quality issues, after-school, GEAR UP, the accountability issues, the school emergency, renovation issues, IDEA. Probably the biggest, major problem, one of the major problems will be in higher education.

Let me say just a word about that, because I think that gives you a good idea of what's going to happen. The Department, U.S. Department of Education, is the largest supplier of student financial aid -- what happened here, with, of course, the Congress calling for it, is the main thing that students rely on in order to afford college and not be running up an enormous debt. Pell grants, which is the basic part of that structure, were significantly increased with the agreement. It was to raise the maximum Pell grant from $3,300 a year to $3,800 a year, which is significant.

Five million people -- will be filing their financial aid forms starting in January, January 1. Really, the forms are out in hard copy now; they will be on the Web January 1. All that, that's going on now, will be doing on very strong for the next couple of months.

We then start processing those forms, and our report goes back to the colleges and universities, and I'm telling you, they start making awards really after February 1st. So we're looking at not just Pell, but the campus-based programs, similarly will be strained on the time frame. So I think you can see you're going to have 5 million people out there very confused, waiting to see how much is going to be available for Pell; that's just one example. So you can see how confusing that would be.

We really do need to get in here and get this thing resolved, and get it resolved quickly. It's unfinished congressional business. That's the reason that we're having this lame duck session. So I would hope the Congress would come in and complete the unfinished business and clear up all of these issues that will be left very confusing.

Q Mr. Secretary, how much of the 7.9 billion did the Pell grants and other college aid account for that could be a problem after January 1st?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, of course, I mentioned the 5 million people who will be compiling these forms, and, of course, all of the colleges and universities will be impacted. But the Pell grants, there's a difference of $1.4 billion.

Q So that's $1.4 billion of the $7.9 billion, right?

SECRETARY RILEY: That's right. Pell grants would be going from $7.6 billion, which is $3,300, a maximum grant, to $9.0 billion, which is $3,800 maximum grant. And that's a difference of $1.4 billion.

Q So, and if it's not passed then, it won't be clear when or if they will get this extra money, right?

SECRETARY RILEY: Absolutely. So it's in the middle of the process. I would mention this, too -- the same complication is out there for competitive grants, things like Europe, the after-school programs. You know, those are big programs that cause lots of people to be involved. We moved that whole time frame forward so we could make those awards by the end of May, and there's a lot to do before you make the awards, of course. But if we don't have anything to say until March, or whatever, it would just put that program very, very late -- school districts all around the country and the colleges, they need that time to prepare their work for summer school, also for the fall session. And this would put them way behind, in terms of making necessary preparations to handle these programs.

Q Secretary Riley, I'm wondering, from your discussions with lawmakers so far, specifically is the substantial increase slated for IDEA in jeopardy?

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, the IDEA has a significant increase in this bill. The agreement is this $1.7 billion more. In other words, IDEA funding now is around $6 billion -- increase it to $7.7 billion. So it is part of this agreement, and if the agreement was completed and finished, it would be -- and as you know, we are trying to move forward to reach the 40 percent number that was in the original bill, and we have a long way to go, but this is money that's out there in this agreement, $1.7 billion.

Q Sir, when you were making your opening remarks, I had trouble hearing part of what you said. You were making the point that both Gore and Bush want pro-education, have a pro-education agenda, so it doesn't make sense to do something that I couldn't hear.

SECRETARY RILEY: I made the point that both of them campaigned on a pro-education agenda, as you said, so it makes no sense -- a budget agreement that keeps American education moving forward.

Q Got you. Thanks.

Q Secretary Riley, I'm wondering, there has been some Republicans complaining that the Clinton administration poisoned the well when it issued this ergonomics rule. I wondered if you would comment on that.

SECRETARY RILEY: Well, I don't know. Maybe Barbara might want to comment. All I can say is this: It would be a real shame to set aside this very important education bill on -- that is unrelated to education. That really is troubling to me. But I know there are other things involved.

Barbara, do you want to --

MS. CHOW: Well, I guess all I would say with that is that we had planned this regulation -- literally, it's been under work for years now. There's -- hundreds of thousands of comments have been received on it. It's something that we had fully intended to do for quite some time. We did a proposal and then brought it final. So I don't know that we can be said to have poisoned the well on something that we had been planning on doing for a long, long time.

SECRETARY RILEY: All right, anything further?

Q Can I just ask you a quick question? Is there any way that there could be some pressure put on the leadership to what was agreed to what was negotiated before, especially in light of recent events?

SECRETARY RILEY: The question here is any pressure that we could put on the leadership to get some kind of reaction, and I really don't think that that pressure would come from me, necessarily, but I do think that it's important for me to let the American people to know what is at stake. And I think the President is going to do that in his radio address tomorrow. And then I certainly wanted to say it in this session with all of you today to let you know, so you can let people know what's at stake. I'll tell you it will be a very troublesome thing, a very confusing thing, a very unfortunate thing, as far as education's concerned, if this agreement is not followed through with and passed.

Thank you.

END 2:59 P.M. PST