THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Briefing Room
11:40 A.M. EST
MR. SIEWERT: A couple of quick updates and then I'll take your questions. As you know, the President met with the members of the Republican and Democratic leadership of Congress yesterday, had a good meeting, lasted about an hour and a half in the Oval Office. The President went through a discussion of the major remaining issues: appropriations, immigration, taxes, Medicaid, Medicare. I think all sides are willing to discuss how we best move forward, how we can wrap up some of the unfinished business, and everyone pledged to use the next couple of days to discuss with their own team, their own side, how we can pull together agreements and get things wrapped up within the week.
We agreed to sign a continuing resolution that would keep the government agencies that have not yet received final funding functioning through midnight Thursday, and both sides are conferring with their caucuses today. John Podesta has been on the Hill to talk to the Democrats, and we will regroup shortly as early as tomorrow. No final decisions were made in that meeting, but it was a productive one and one that we're following up on even today.
On the trip Friday, I told you yesterday this would be the first of a series of speeches that the President will make, take an opportunity to talk about where America has been over the last eight years, the kinds of strategic decisions we made and where we'll go in the future.
The trip at the University of Nebraska at Kearney on Friday will specifically focus on foreign policy. And the President will address the role that America has played in the world over the last several years and the principles that have guided his administration's foreign policy path we should take in the future.
I expect that speech will be discussing how a foreign policy for the global age was shaped in this administration and how the kind of principles that guided that foreign policy can help shape future decisions that America will make about its role in the world.
He obviously, speaking from the heartland, the President will talk about the importance of America remaining engaged in the world and the importance that the decisions that we make here in the United States have throughout the world and beyond our borders.
Q Did he meet with Gore today?
MR. SIEWERT: No. The Vice President has been at his house this morning. He may come by this afternoon. I expect him to be here sometime this afternoon, but they don't have anything planned. As I said before, they occasionally drop in on each other, and that may happen. We'll let you know if it does.
Yesterday, the transition team met as well, on Monday for about 45 minutes in the Roosevelt Room. That meeting was chaired by Deputy Chief of Staff Maria Echaveste and attended by representatives from GSA, OPM, FBI, other agencies. The agencies were able to provide an update on the progress they've made preparing for the transition and those efforts are well underway and we are on track.
The group plans to meet again in two weeks. On background checks, specifically, the FBI continues to work with both teams to make sure they understand what kind of material they need to prepare and how they can move forward and process their application for background checks in a timely manner. We are working through Counsel's Office and expect memoranda of understanding to be signed with both teams shortly so that the FBI can begin receiving and processing applications by the end of this week for either transition team.
Q What do you mean "on track" in terms of transition? What has to be done?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we are preparing briefing materials for the new --
Q From all the agencies?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, from all the agencies around the government. We are also working with the FBI and the Department of Justice to begin a parallel process of receiving and beginning the FBI background checks that enable people to get the security clearances they need to do their jobs.
Q Are names submitted?
MR. SIEWERT: No. We are working on finalizing a memorandum of understanding between each transition team and the Department of Justice, so that those can begin as early as this week, by the end of this week. And then finally, on disbursement of funds, we are limited in what we can do there, because of the GSA, in consultation with Justice, has concluded that the Presidential Transition Act does not allow us to proceed by giving funds to both camps. If Congress wants to explore changing that, that's certainly something that we're willing to do. In fact, the President has made clear that he thought that was a better course of action, but one that was prevented by the clear intent of the statute, and Congress has deliberations on that.
Q That would only be if someone conceded that that could be the --
MR. SIEWERT: We'd need to see some more clarity. The law of Congress was very clear when it passed that law that we couldn't disburse funds to just one campaign while the outcome of the election was in any way in doubt.
Q In what respect, Jake, is the election still in doubt from a White House point of view? What has to happen that hasn't happened?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't think it's really from our point of view, but I think that both sides have made it clear that they are going to be before the Florida Supreme Court, litigating a number of issues, and many people see that as an effort to resolve some of the issues that were left unresolved by the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court sent that case back to the Florida Supreme Court, and asked them to reconsider what they had done. So, given that the highest court in the land has spoken on that, there obviously needs to be some more work done before the Florida Supreme Court. At the same time, there was a case yesterday decided, well-known to all of you, that is also -- seems to be on its way to the Florida Supreme Court. So, there's clearly another round of action at the Florida Supreme Court, and we will wait, like the rest of you, to hear the outcome of that.
Q Does the White House consider that the last round, the very last --
MR. SIEWERT: It's not really for us to decide. These are issues that are being litigated by both teams and they are making the decisions on this and making their case; we think that's appropriate.
Q The GSA is part of your administration. It does take its cues, at least, from the White House as it considers whether or not we have reached clarity on the new president.
MR. SIEWERT: It think they are governed by a statute that provides -- and they received a thorough look at that statute from the Department of Justice, from the office of legal counsel there, which makes pretty clear that at this point, they have no option but to -- not to disburse the taxpayer money.
At the same time, if Congress were willing to -- this could be relatively easily addressed -- I know there is a lot of concern in Congress about the statute, but it's a law that Congress passed. If they want to revisit that, we're willing to explore a way in which we could provide funds to both campaigns; but, unfortunately, the law that's on the books today doesn't allow that.
Q But do you need one side to do a formal concession? Do you need the electors to meet on the 18th? What is the formal --
MR. SIEWERT: We're not -- I'm not going to address all those hypotheticals here from this podium. I'm not in the best position to bring this to closure here. There is obviously litigation underway, and I don't think it's appropriate while this litigation is underway, something that the U.S. Supreme Court envisioned, for me to try to forejudge -- prejudge what the outcome of all that will be.
Q But is there anything in the statute which would guide that?
MR. SIEWERT: We've had a pretty extensive discussion of this statute here. It makes pretty clear from the floor debate that if there is any doubt about the outcome of the election, that the money is not to be disbursed.
Q Jake, any reaction to Chairman Greenspan's speech from the White House? He says, in periods of transition from unsustainable to more modest rates of growth, an economy is obviously at risk of untoward events. So he seems to be raising some concern that there may be a possibility that the slowdown will get out of hand.
MR. SIEWERT: I saw the Chairman also noted that we dealt with some difficult periods in 1998 and the economy was able to withstand those; in fact, grew much faster in 1999 and 2000 than anyone expected.
So the economy -- what's important for us is that we keep our eye on the fundamentals; that's what we've done throughout this administration. That is why we made a strategic decision in 1993 to begin eliminating the deficit and to target and to targeted smart investments in education and training.
That's why we've remained committed throughout this administration to an open trading system that expands opportunities around the globe. And that's why it's important that any future decision-makers here keep in mind the importance of paying off the debt, getting our balance sheet in order and leaving the private sector capital free to invest and grow the economy.
Q What is the President's view on the courts' decisions yesterday, the two courts?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know; I didn't hear him express any particular view on that. I mean, he's obviously, as I've said, following this very closely and, like everyone else, twists and turns are fascinating. But I don't think that it's useful for us here to give the President's perspective on these court decisions.
Q Why not?
MR. SIEWERT: Because there are cases that are being litigated by the two campaigns. There are critical decisions that are being made by judges, and judges are the best ones to decide what the law means, not observers, however fascinated they might be.
Q Jake, on the budget, is the President now willing to accept less funding for his education initiative than he originally was with the agreement a month ago?
MR. SIEWERT: I think it's important that all sides show flexibility as we approach the final round of negotiations on this budget. We have indicated to the members of Congress that we're flexible about how to resolve this and we want to ensure that we can resolve the differences that remain in the shortest order possible. I don't want to get into dollars and cents here, but I think we indicated that we were flexible about how to move forward.
At the same time, this talk of putting off these decisions for another three or four months and taking us halfway into the fiscal year without resolution of these issues amounts to a real cut in education, a real cut in student loans, a real cut in programs that help hire new teachers, a real cut in programs that universities and schools around the country are relying on.
And we don't think that that's an acceptable outcome. We think that will have a real-life impact on people who are trying to make decisions about where to send their kids to college and how much money to allocate for the schools. It also has impacts for people who are dealing with the heating crunch caused by cold weather. There's a significant increase in LIHEAP money in that budget. There is a significant increase in medical research in that budget. And we think that it's important to lock in some of those increases, but we're flexible about how exactly we do that.
Q Jake, you mentioned that -- Medicaid in your list of things that are on the agenda. Is it true that you've added this Kennedy-Grassley bill that would allow children with disabilities to keep their Medicaid if their parents went to work as part of the mix, on BBR?
MR. SIEWERT: We discussed a number of different options about how to move forward on the particular balanced budget bill, on the BBRA. And we're willing to discuss in more particular detail how we could work through some of the differences we had on that bill. Chris Jennings is ready to go to the Hill at a moment's notice, to discuss those. He had some technical discussions with people during the recess, and that's one of a number of options that we have looked at to helping make this easier to resolve.
Q But the administration does support that legislation, does it not?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, but I want to be careful about how we characterize what we see as being in final form. We floated a number of ideas yesterday, but we didn't make any final decisions, and we're looking to hear back from the bipartisan leadership about how we can best go forward from here. And, as I said, we want to maintain maximum flexibility, given that we have a short time frame in which to resolve these differences.
Q Are you going to get Hastert and Lott back up here tomorrow, is that what he's saying?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, we'd indicated to them yesterday that we thought after they talked to their caucus, a lot of members were just filtering back into town over the last couple days, that it would be good to sit down again, as early as tomorrow, and figure out where we go from here.
But there's important work to be done. There's no reason why we can't tackle some of that work and take it off -- take it off the books for the next administration, get some of that work locked in. And it's particularly important because we're in the third fiscal month of a year -- the third month of a new fiscal year, and a lot of these institutions that rely on government money, whether it's for low income energy assistance or for education, are in limbo now, because they don't know exactly what their bottom line is.
Q Did the President indicate to the leaders yesterday that despite the flexibility that you're talking about today, that he would not accept a long-term CR --
MR. SIEWERT: I think we clearly stated our overwhelming preference is to get this work done, and to focus on the unfinished business -- the work that could be done in relatively short order. And we didn't take anything off the table in terms of that work. We said that we'd be willing to work on taxes, on the tax cut package. We'd be willing to work on health care reimbursements. We'd be willing to work on the budget initiatives that remain left.
Q Did the leaders come with any proposals, or basically it was you that sketched out some ideas about --
MR. SIEWERT: I think the meeting was constructive all the way around, but they obviously need to consult with their caucuses before they decide how they want to proceed. But we made very clear that we want to resolve some of these differences quickly, and give everyone an opportunity to go home.
Q Jake, you said that the President was going to be giving a series of speeches, talk about where things have been over the last eight years. Is he going to do one on economics, and his economic policy?
MR. SIEWERT: Hard to imagine that we'd leave that topic undiscussed. I think particularly the speeches that the President gave at Davos and in Geneva were important in laying the groundwork for his vision of how we can proceed to make globalization work for American families, American businesses, and I expect he'll have some discussion of how to insure that the American economy benefits, as it has, continues to benefit from globalization and --
Q How many speeches, and where, and --
MR. SIEWERT: That's something we're still discussing.
Q -- any foreign travel beyond Ireland?
MR. SIEWERT: We haven't made any further decisions on foreign travel beyond Ireland. As you know, the President is still contemplating the importance and advisability of a trip to North Korea. That's something that will depend ultimately upon whether we think such a trip would be helpful in advancing some of the goals that we have to achieve working with the Koreans, both the South and the North Koreans. We have nothing further planned at this point, but he will give some more speeches. Relatively few major speeches, but we're still discussing exactly which topics and where. But the first one will be Friday.
Q Jake, should we view these speeches as an effort by the President to cast his legacy?
MR. SIEWERT: I think you should view them however you'd like to characterize them. What they are is they're an effort, as other presidents have done, to lay out what's been accomplished over the last eight years, and to look a bit in to the future and lay out the President's vision of the future challenges the country faces. But this is something, that as I pointed out, President Reagan did. He gave three or four major speeches. And presidents dating all the way back to Truman have given important speeches as they left.
Q What are these? Farewell addresses?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I think there's a farewell address that's a very distinct issue, which is typically given in January.
Q He will give one in January?
MR. SIEWERT: We haven't made a decision on that at all; but I know many of the Presidents have left by saying something.
Q Does he have to do a State of the Union at all?
MR. SIEWERT: That's another decision -- I think, technically, you have to at least deliver a State of the Union, it can be written or given in person. But that's not a decision that we've made at all. It's a long ways off.
Q It's not a long ways off. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, depending on how far January seems from today.
Q Does the White House have any reaction to the resignation of Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy?
MR. SIEWERT: I'll refer you to the State Department on that. I know that they've taken some measures to deal with security lapses there and they're giving the employees an opportunity to respond to the decisions they made. So I think that's best answered by the State Department. But, obviously, we support the efforts of Secretary Albright to deal with security lapses there. She said this is a serious problem and needs a high level of attention and she's certainly given it that.
Q Jake, has the President come close to a decision on whether he'll grant clemency or a stay or something in the Garza case?
MR. SIEWERT: We have a deadline of next week on that. The President takes that responsibility very seriously, but we don't make a habit of commenting on clemency petitions as they're being reviewed; but he promises to look at it very closely and make a judgment on the facts. But we won't comment on it until we have a final decision.
Q Is he reading all of those letters coming in from the coalition of famous people?
MR. SIEWERT: We usually take an opportunity to let him know about what views the public has expressed on any particular issue. But I think in the end, this is going to be determined based on his analysis of the facts and of the petition, and recommendations by his advisors.
Q Has he met or reached out in any way with any of those folks who were writing him about the Garza case?
MR. SIEWERT: Not that I'm aware of, no.
Q Has he received any formal recommendation from Justice on this case yet?
MR. SIEWERT: Let me check and see where that is in the process. I know that we've gone -- we consult with the Justice Department as we move forward, and I'm not sure exactly whether it's in our court here now or on its way over.
Q Has the President spoken to President Fox of Mexico?
MR. SIEWERT: He has not; Secretary of State Albright was there and Maria Echaveste. He's gotten a report from their trip there. They had good discussions with the new President and, as you know, he talked to him before the inauguration and we'll let you know if he has any personal contact with him again, shortly.
Q Jake, China has decided to abstain in the Security Council vote on the new sanctions that the United States and Russia would like to apply to Afghanistan, particularly to the Taliban. Could you react to that decision by the Chinese government and explain what the U.S. government hopes to achieve with these sanctions?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we expect that resolution will be introduced shortly and that we will press for its passage. This is an important piece of our strategy, to ensure that the Taliban complies with U.N. Resolution 1267, and we're going to keep pressing them to do that. As I told you last week, this is designed in part to ensure that the Taliban treat the citizens of Afghanistan better; in part to ensure that they close their terrorist camps; and in part to ensure that Osama bin Laden is brought to justice. But I don't have any specific comment on the decision of other Security Council members and how they voted.
Q Jake, back on the budget stuff. Are the President's proposals related to Hispanic immigration going to be subject to negotiation as well?
MR. SIEWERT: We indicated a willingness to negotiate across all fronts. We think it's very important to wrap up this budget work. And I'm not going to negotiate from this podium, but we indicated a general flexibility in our discussions yesterday with the leadership, and Maria Echaveste and others are ready to discuss how we can move forward on that issue, as other teams are ready to discuss taxes or Medicare or Medicaid and the other initiatives that are before the Congress.
Q And on the BBA give-backs, is the President willing to consider allocating a greater percentage of that money to HMOs than he had been previously?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, in any negotiation there's some give and take. We're not -- I'm not prejudging the outcome of those negotiations, but we said that we'd like to see some effort made to reimburse health care providers that are in difficult straits, and we will sit down and discuss how best we do that anytime soon. We didn't like the package that came before us earlier, but we're willing to figure out how best to make progress, and that's going to depend a lot on the overall mix on what gets done.
Q Do you have any details on this dinner the President is doing tonight for the Senate, and is this his first official outing as a Senate spouse?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. I mean, the dinner is held at the Supreme Court. I think there are about 250 members --attendees at the dinner. I know that -- I expect it, yes, it probably is his first official event as the spouse of the Senator-elect, although he obviously had a chance last night to see some of the newly elected members of Congress, some of the new senators, and he was greeting them more in his capacity as President than as a spouse of a senator-elect. But that topic certainly came up.
Q -- Mrs. Clinton be the First Lady or the senator?
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, I think she can be both. I don't see any reason why not. She served as host last night, and had a chance to also discuss with some of the new members of the Senate -- she was doing the receiving line -- the work they hope to do together there in an informal way.
Q How is he taking to his new role, Jake?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, as you know, he's very much looking forward to it. He said that on a number of occasions. He's looking forward to heading out into the private sector and earning a living and supporting, as he said, the new senator in the family.
Q Who is hosting this dinner tonight? Trent Lott?
MR. SIEWERT: Excuse me? I think Trent Lott speaks at the dinner. I don't know if he is the official host.
Q One who wants lightning to strike? (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I don't know about that, but there is a dinner tonight -- I think it's traditional for the new members of the Senate at the Supreme Court. And the President is very much looking forward to being there. You know, he was also on the Capitol last Friday for dinner, but I think that was much more informal -- a dinner that was hosted by Senator Moynihan and his wife.
Q Jake, last evening at the party, did the President take the opportunity in his conversations with any Democratic members to lobby them to stay on the Gore side as his legal battle continues?
MR. SIEWERT: I didn't get a chance to hear all his conversations, but let me tell you, he spent several hours in line with Mrs. Clinton, shaking hands with members of Congress and staff and members of the White House and the staff. And I don't think there was a lot of opportunity for private conversation there. It looked a little bit more like -- it was a group event and not conducive to those kinds of discussions. So he spent hours doing handshakes and chit-chatting with people, but I don't think it was anything that serious or momentous as that.
Q Is he going to spend hours shaking our hands and chit-chatting with us, too?
MR. SIEWERT: We'll see. Last year he was sick. We're hoping that he'll be healthy this year for the 10th. We don't want to -- go ahead.
Q There's speculation in some of the New York papers that the First Family intends to sell its residence in Chappaqua and moving to Manhattan.
MR. SIEWERT: Yes -- that's not true. That is not true at all. I've checked that out with the President. He loves the house in Chappaqua. They're still in the process of fixing it up and making it perfect. And as any homeowner knows, that's an endless process. So they have no plans to sell the place in Chappaqua.
Q Any news on their new residence in Washington?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I don't know anything about that. I'm sure that come January 20th, they'll probably need a place to stay here. But I haven't heard anything specific on that.
Q Can you tell us a little bit about the talks going on today on the Hill? Is Jack Lew over there or --
MR. SIEWERT: I'll have to check. I know that Jack was ready to go up and talk about appropriations. Gene and Larry were ready to talk about taxes. Chris was ready to talk about Medicare, health care related issues. And we had other people on stand-by if the need arose. But I don't know at this point who's up, who's not up, and frankly, everyone is going to meet with their caucuses and decide how best to move forward from there.
Q What's wrong with his Chappaqua house that it so badly needs fixing?
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, no, there's nothing wrong with it. It didn't come with furniture, I don't believe, so --
Q Is the President aware that the support for Plan Colombia and the region is falling apart, and that some countries like Ecuador is requesting $150 million to the U.S. trying to fight the trouble with the people who have been moving from Colombia to their territory because of narco-traffic fights and the civil war in Colombia?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we've always envisioned our counternarcotics plan down there to cover more than just Colombia itself, and we've always had a concerted effort working with Colombia's neighbors to ensure that there's as strong as possible network of countries in the region committed to countering the flow of narcotics. And there was money in, as you know, what's called Plan Colombia for some of the neighboring countries to continue to work with them on what we can do to stop the flow of drugs in the region.
And as you know, it's an inevitable consequence that if you have some success in one place stopping narcotics, that dealers and traffickers will look to other places in the area. But that's something that I think Director McCaffrey had a chance to discuss with some of his counterparts and some of our allies in the region, around the Fox inauguration, something we'll continue to work on.
Q But a country like Brazil and Venezuela, they say that $190 million from Plan Colombia for that region is not enough. Is there any possibility the President will ask Congress for more money for that purpose?
MR. SIEWERT: I think we're very focused now on wrapping up some work that was not done this year. I'll check and see if there's any plans to submit any additional budget requests. But that seems like it would be something that would probably be more likely to come up in the next administration.
Q Jake, is it accurate that the senior staff is scared to broach the subject with the President of where he's going to go on Inauguration Day, after the new President is inaugurated?
MR. SIEWERT: It doesn't seem to me a very -- a bunch that's afraid to do anything. They've been through a lot, and they're pretty fearless.
Q Where's he going to go?
MR. SIEWERT: I actually don't know, but I'll check on that. It may be a decision that the family is making amongst themselves. But I'll let you know if I hear.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MR. SIEWERT: Thank you.
END 12:09 P.M. EST