THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Briefing Room
MR. SIEWERT: I have no particular announcements, so I will take your questions.
Q Does the President see a purpose in the Vice President continuing his fight in the Florida courts, particularly if the Supreme Court in Florida ruled against him? Should the Vice President continue to wait for the results of the Seminole and Martin County cases?
MR. SIEWERT: I think the Vice President is capable of making those decisions on his own, with his team, and doesn't need much guidance from the President on this. The President has tried to stay out of this. He obviously has his opinions about it; he shared those with some people privately. But I think, as President, he's focused on doing his job and letting the Vice President and Governor Bush pursue their cases in court.
Q Is he taking any role at all in keeping Democratic support behind the Vice President?
MR. SIEWERT: No. I mean, this is a topic that comes up from time to time when he speaks with members of Congress. He was on the Hill last night, meeting with some of the new senators and some of the senators who have been there, so I'm sure it has come up from time to time. But he's not part of any organized effort by the Vice President's team. They have a perfectly capable team in place doing that.
Q What do you make of Congressman DeLay's comments on the budget, that the Congress should force the President to shut the government down?
MR. SIEWERT: I think that it's unfortunate; the work of the Congress could be wrapped up pretty quickly. We have important work on education, as I've said the last couple days here. There are many people out in the real world who are trying to make decisions about their lives, many people who are expecting services from the government, who are being hit pretty hard right now because we're in a state of limbo. And it's not right to just say that we can kick this problem down the road three or four months when Congress is already a couple of months late in its work.
So right now, just yesterday, the Social Security Agency pointed out that its case work is being delayed because, essentially, their budget has been flat-lined by the continuing resolution, and that many agencies -- the National Institutes of Health, the Education Department -- need the increases that are built into the budget agreement that we worked out in the fall to continue their work.
So we think that Senator Lott has indicated an interest in getting this done, the Speaker has indicated an interest in getting this done, and that we ought to work together over the next couple of days to wrap this up pretty quickly.
Q Were you surprised by these comments in light of these discussions that you've been having?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I don't think he was a part of that discussion yesterday in the Oval Office. What we heard from the members of Congress that were in the meeting was a willingness to try to finish up this work to ensure that we can secure a strong education budget and to wrap up some of the work that Congress is a couple of months late in getting done.
Q There are rumors that things were going to be settled perhaps as early as Thursday night. Any possibility?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, there's no reason why the work couldn't be done in fairly short order. We're trying to arrange -- we've invited the leadership down later today, and we're waiting to hear back from them on scheduling. But I think that -- we think that we ought to be able to sit down again and get some of this work done.
There's also important work to do to help health care providers who have been hit hard by some of the cutbacks that were envisioned in the 1997 budget accord. There is also important tax work that can be done. And we've indicated a great deal of flexibility in addressing specific issues that were the subject of some partisan division before the election. We've said we're willing to negotiate and make this easy, but we need cooperation from all sides.
Q What do you think about the language that DeLay is using? He's raising the prospect of a government shutdown and saying it would be the President's fault -- "If he wants to shut down the government, that's his problem, not ours."
MR. SIEWERT: That language is hardly unusual coming from that particular office, so I wouldn't find it at all surprising.
Q Is there any scenario, though, where you would see a possible government shutdown?
MR. SIEWERT: No. We think that there is work to be done and we are intent upon getting it done. And I might point out that there's a lot of talk about bipartisanship up on the Hill, in the wake of the election and the closeness of the House up there. And we think -- the President believes it's important that that spirit of bipartisanship pervade this new session that we're dealing with, this unusual lame duck session, and that we get some work done, especially when we have consensus on the major issues.
We have a consensus on the rough shape of an education package. We have consensus on a bill that would fund the Treasury and Postal Department. We have consensus around a U.N. funding arrangement in a bill that also funds the Commerce and Justice Department. And there's no reason why we couldn't put aside some of our differences -- and we've indicated that we'll be flexible as we confront those differences and get that budget work done and get it done in short order.
Q Does that mean the administration is willing to sign continuing resolutions all through December and into January?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we think that the two-day time frame looks about right and we'd be willing to consider another one.
Q And ones after that?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, we'll continue to work with Congress. We don't know yet how long it will take them to wrap up their work. A lot of the membership that was down here, the leadership that was down here the other day indicated an interest in getting this done quickly. The Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Ted Stevens, said there is no reason why this couldn't be done very quickly. An influential Republican voice up there, the Majority Leader of the Senate also said he wanted to get this work done. And there's no reason for a lot of divisive rhetoric. We ought to focus on getting our work done.
Q One of the more influential voices in the country, though, Alan Greenspan, yesterday indicated that he foresees a possible serious downturn in the economy, which would, of course, affect the next administration, more than likely. How is that playing? Is that playing in any of this at all?
MR. SIEWERT: We don't comment on the Fed's particular moves. I think what the Chairman said is that the economy is fundamentally strong and he is always on the lookout, as are we, for trouble spots. He said yesterday that the economy was in no -- that the dangers to the economy were actually more substantial in 1998, when we worked very closely with the Federal Reserve, with the Treasury Department, with the IMF and with the World Bank to head off what could have been a very serious financial crisis. That crisis was well-managed by this administration, well-managed by policy-makers at the Federal Reserve, and we were able to put the economy on a strong footing going into 1999 and 2000. And there's no reason why, if we're all vigilant, if we continue to pay down the debt and make the right economic policy decision-makings in the government, that the economy shouldn't continue to move along at what, in 1992, would have been considered a very strong pace.
As I pointed out here the other day, the economy has grown throughout the Clinton administration at a roughly 4 percent average, which is more than double that of the previous administration. So when we talk about moving from 4 percent down to 2.5 percent or 2 percent -- and most private economists expect the economy will continue to grow somewhere around 2.5 percent over the next year -- that's better than the economy that we inherited when we took office here.
Q Jake, I just want to clarify. You said that because of Congress' inactions some government agencies are suffering, and you specifically mentioned the Social Security Administration. But if you're willing to continue to sign continuing resolutions, you are part and parcel of that pain that's being inflicted. At what point does the administration say it's not going to sign any more CRs?
MR. SIEWERT: There's no reason why we shouldn't do the work that we should have gotten done before the election and wrap up this work and sign some of these budgets into law, so that people know what they're working with, so that they know what their bottom line is, so that they know how they can operate. But it's very hard to operate over a sustained period of time in an era of uncertainty about what your budget is, what your fiscal outlook is for the year. I mean, you wouldn't go about trying to make decisions about your own family's finances if you didn't know what you were going to earn this year. And, yet, many government agencies are in precisely that position.
So it is not our preference to have a budget that is essentially flat-lined from last year that provides no certainty to government agencies; we would like to get this work done and pass the budget. Congress has to play a role there, and we expect them to get that work done and we're willing to work with them. And so, we don't want to take a route that would lead us toward more confrontation. We want to work with members of Congress who were in here just the other day to get that budget signed into law and get it done.
Q But you're still not answering the question. At what point do you stop signing CRs and say the work has to be done now, we're into the next year --
MR. SIEWERT: Aside from the comments that were raised here in the briefing, there's been a generally cooperative tone from the Majority Leader and the Speaker's Office, and we would like to work with them to get our work done. We're looking forward to hearing from them today -- hopefully, can meet this afternoon and wrap up some of this work.
But there's generally a willingness to work in the wake of the election and the closeness of the new Congress. I think members of Congress have indicated a willingness to confront some of these problems and get some of the unfinished business done so that they can have a fresh start next year. In fact, they used that very same language.
Q So you're not concerned by these comments? I mean, he runs the floor of the House, DeLay.
MR. SIEWERT: I don't think they're particularly surprising, given his track record here. But I think Congress has a choice. They can choose bipartisanship and a businesslike atmosphere that would allow us to get this work done. But I think that choice, the choice of confrontation, will just lead to more uncertainty, deterioration in government services, and some real cuts in programs -- real cuts in education, real cuts in the administration of Social Security, real cuts in the administration of the Justice Department. And there are consequences for that. The FBI estimates now that it has a number of vacancies, several hundred, and if they continue to operate at this year's budget levels, they're going to have to make further additional cuts or not be able to fill vacancies as they arise. And that's problematic.
Q So given your concerns like that, and you're talking about the need to get everything done, does the President regret vetoing the Treasury-Postal bill, which also set things back, or publishing the ergonomics rule, which helped scuttle the Labor-H deal?
MR. SIEWERT: We've indicated a willingness on the ergonomics rule to talk to the leadership about a delay in enforcement of that. We signaled some flexibility on that. We think, by the way, that the ergonomics rule is critical to help worker safety. When it comes to some of these riders, we need to hear a little bit more clarity from Congress about what is it that they're concerned about, about this ergonomics rule, specifically. They've said they want to look at it and take a closer look at the impact it would have.
I saw in Business Week just last week -- there were a lot of business people asked about this rule -- they said that the rule, in fact, was working very effectively. Ford Motor Company said it was very much in line with what they're already doing. So we're willing to delay enforcement, give the new administration a chance to look at that; but we think that's valuable and important business.
Q There is some discussion on the Hill of trying to put through the bankruptcy reform bill in the lame duck session. Is that still something the President would veto?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes. We think that balanced bankruptcy reform is very important, that we ought to have new rules governing this, but that that bill is flawed. It creates a very high, really unlimited exemption for homesteads that would allow some of the wealthiest debtors to shield very valuable assets. So it lacks -- well, it squeezes middle and lower-income debtors very hard, and we want more balance in that. It also did not contain the work that Senator Schumer did to ensure that people who break the law, violent offenders who threaten abortion clinics are not exempt from this rule, as well. There are other problems with that bill, but we want to see a balanced bill.
Q Jake, anything new on the immigration between the White House and Congress?
MR. SIEWERT: Again, we've had some discussions. John Podesta and Maria Echaveste have been in contact with some of the key members on the Hill on that bill. We think, again, that we have signaled some flexibility. We know that time is short and that we're not going to get a perfect provision there, but we think it's important to make some progress so that we can begin to right some of the inequities of the current system.
Q Do you have a response to the Pope conviction?
MR. SIEWERT: We believe that the conviction was unjustified and wrong. We have seen no evidence that Mr. Pope is guilty of the charges that were before that court. We think now the important thing is that there is strong humanitarian grounds for releasing Mr. Pope and allowing him to come home. His widow, today, indicated that there were new concerns about his health. He's very sick. His wife, I'm sorry. Sorry. His wife was there, and indicated fresh concerns about his health. And we think that he hasn't had proper medical care there and that it's important that the Russian government recognize, on humanitarian grounds, that he should be allowed to return to the United States and receive proper medical care and the attention he deserves.
Q What are you going to do about that, though, in response to --
MR. SIEWERT: We've raised this at a number of levels. As you know, the President spoke to Prime Minister Putin about this in -- President Putin in Brunei, and it has been raised at various levels since then, both by the Secretary of State and by our Ambassador in Moscow.
Q Jake, if there's no evidence that he's guilty of these charges, why are you pressing for his release on humanitarian grounds, as opposed to that he didn't do it?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we think there's a strong humanitarian case. We think that the Russian government should recognize that he needs medical care. He's sick, and should be returned home so that he can receive that care. We think that that's vitally important.
Q Would we be willing to do something in return?
MR. SIEWERT: We think that there's a strong case on the merits for the humanitarian relief that we've requested and that we've pressed for at various levels throughout the government.
Q Do you believe that this could dramatically or in some way alter U.S.-Russian relations, specifically as Congress views continued either financial or military cooperation with the Russian Federation?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, there's no doubt this has cast a shadow over U.S.-Russian relations. The President has expressed his concern about Mr. Pope. As we've said at a number of different levels, we've seen no evidence that he's guilty of the crimes under which he's been charged. We think that we've continued to stress throughout our meetings with the Russians and the Russian government that he ought to be released.
At the same time, our overall relationship with Russia is based on our own national interests, and we have a strong national interest in promoting democracy there, in seeing fewer nuclear weapons in Russia. And we will continue to pursue multifaceted relationship with Russia, based on what we think is in America's long-term strategic interests.
Q Secretary Cheney was up on the Hill yesterday, meeting with some Senate Republicans who have urged him to aggressively pursue to overturning a number of executive orders the President has recently gone ahead and done. And they're calling it a midnight binge. Is the President trying to get some things through before he leaves office, as the Republicans claim?
MR. SIEWERT: We're working on a number of different regulations that would promote worker safety, that would protect the environment. It's no secret what those regulations are. The rule that would protect forests from new roads was something that we announced more than a year ago, and we've been working on that rule. There's been ample time for the public to weigh in, for interest groups to weigh in.
The rule on medical privacy is even a more stark example of how Congress actually delegated us the authority to act on this provision to protect medical privacy. They gave themselves three years to address that issue and they didn't do it. And they said, if we haven't done this in three years, then the administration ought to act. And so we're acting. We proposed an interim rule. We did that publicly; everyone can read where we are on this and comment on it. So that work is proceeding in the light of day and, I might point out, very differently than a lot of the same special interests that are urging him to overturn these rules, which are tucked in rider after rider in these legislative appropriations bills -- in the middle of the night, sometimes, no one has even read them before they vote on the bill -- that would undo these to help special interests on the Hill.
So we think that we're going to pursue our work, we're going to pursue it in the light of day. But it's important work. It's on pace with what another administration not too long ago did in its final year in office, the Bush administration in 1992. In fact, at this point, we've issued fewer regulations, major regulations, than the Bush administration did in 1992. But it's important work and we're going to continue it.
Q Jake, is there heightened concern here about avoiding a government shutdown, given that it would add to the uncertainty in the country that already exists because of Florida?
MR. SIEWERT: There's no need for this talk of a government shutdown.
Q But there is --
MR. SIEWERT: There's no need for it. And there's no need for us to address that. The work can be done. The Majority Leader, the Speaker have indicated an interest in getting this work done, and so we ought to avoid the divisive rhetoric and get to work.
Q But what I'm wondering is, doesn't it make it tougher for you to veto these CRs, because if there is a shutdown, there's already uncertainty that exists in the country because of Florida, makes it tough for you to veto the CRs?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't see whether that should play any role. We allowed Congress to take a couple weeks off to do -- while the election, post-election played out. But we think that there's a willingness on the part of Congress to work, and we see no reason not to get that work done now.
Q Jake, any indication that the President will meet with the Vice President today? And did they meet yesterday?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't believe they talked yesterday, but I can double-check on that. And there's nothing planned for today. The President actually has a pretty busy afternoon in the office.
Q Jake, will there be coverage at the top of the meeting with congressional leaders?
MR. SIEWERT: We're still trying to firm up that meeting, but I don't expect so. I expect it will be a working meeting.
Q What time --
MR. SIEWERT: At 4:45 p.m. is when we're looking at, but I don't think it has been locked down. Most of the members can make it at that time, but it's not clear that everyone can.
Q Same group as last time?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, we've invited the Speaker and the Majority Leader down, and the Minority Leader of the House and Minority Leader of the Senator -- or the Majority/Minority Leader of the Senate or -- the leaders of the Senate.
Q Any word on whether they'll come to the stakeout after?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I haven't heard one way or the other.
Q Jake, did you nail down whether the Justice Department has sent over its recommendation in the Juan Garza matter?
MR. SIEWERT: They have not yet, but we are continuing to consult with them on that matter. There has been some discussion back and forth. As I told some of you yesterday, this is work that the President takes very seriously. He has indicated in the past some concern about the geographic disparities in the administration of the federal death penalty. But on the whole, as a supporter of capital punishment, he believes he has a special obligation to ensure that it's administered fairly and effectively in the federal system. We're going to look at that individual case and, at the same time, we've asked the Department of Justice to take a broader look at some of the geographic disparities and what could be done to remedy that.
Q Jake, yesterday the Vice President voiced at least tacit support for these cases that are going on in Florida court right now -- Seminole and Martin Counties. Does the President see that as inconsistent with the Vice President's longstanding philosophy of counting every vote in Florida?
MR. SIEWERT: I haven't heard him express a view on that specific comment. The Vice President just made a passing comment yesterday afternoon; I haven't heard the President talk about that, at all.
All right, thank you.
END 12:25 P.M. EST