THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Briefing Room
2:42 P.M. EST
MR. SIEWERT: I'm told that while Sandy's briefing -- since Sandy's briefing began, the last CR expired. (Laughter.)
On other humorous notes, it was pointed out in our staff meeting today that, yesterday, the Senate passed a bill that should be coming to the President by unanimous consent which provides chimpanzees with new rights -- some sort of patients' -- chimpanzees' bill of rights.
Q For the retired chimpanzees?
MR. SIEWERT: Retired chimpanzees -- so, interesting that Congress could do that and not find time to work on the patients' bill of rights that would have provided some of those same protections for Americans. But then again, it's been an unusual year all the way around. But the President is looking forward to signing that bill into law, and Elliot made me promise that I would say that it was a laudable public policy to protect chimpanzees when they retire.
Having done that, I am free to answer your questions.
Q Is there a budget update?
MR. SIEWERT: They're still meeting. I just checked. It's been going on for close to an hour. And we are focused on trying to get some little good out of -- something, some little good out of this session, particularly on education. We think that it's critical that we move into the next year with a strong education budget.
Many school districts are trying to make budget decisions. Students are trying to make decisions about college and about how they're going to pay for their education and they need some clarity about what we're going to provide. We had an agreement earlier this year that provided a substantial increase in the education budget.
We understand that Congress may want to cut that back a little bit. We are serious about trying to ensure that we have a substantial increase in education funding because we think it's warranted and necessary.
Q How much of a cut-back on that education funding would you be --
MR. SIEWERT: Well, they are still discussing the entire array of budget issues in the Oval Office now. I'm not going to prejudge the outcome of those discussions, or conduct negotiations on a parallel process here.
Q Does it cost them?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. We have heard various reports about what Republicans were prepared to offer, but the actual negotiation in the room is still ongoing. But we think -- obviously Tom DeLay said the other day that he was prepared to flat-line education spending this year, which amounts to a real cut. That's just not an acceptable solution. Cutting education is not the way this Congress will get off to a fresh start.
Q How does the President feel about the demise of the tax package until the next president?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we think that there is still some room for a tax cut this year. There is some legislation that had very broad bipartisan support; pieces of that tax package, including the pension piece that we had worked with Congress on, and also the piece that would help New Markets and community development, that was the outgrowth of work we did with Speaker Hastert and some of his staff, and with some Republican senators in the Senate.
So, the President will make the point today, is making the point in the Oval Office, that tax relief of some sort should never be ruled out, particularly when there is broad bipartisan consensus around it. I know the House had very much wanted to move forward on a tax cut package. And the President will make the point that there may be a piece or two, particularly the pension reform and pension savings that were envisioned by Portman-Cardin and also the New Markets piece. On the minimum wage, it's unfortunate that Congress found time to raise its own pay, and didn't make an effort, has not made an effort to take that piece of the bill and pass that separately. We think that is well worth doing.
Q Is there still some help for that?
MR. SIEWERT: Minimum wage? We think there's no reason. It's not complicated legislation. It can literally be written on a page or two. And there's no reason why we couldn't pass that bill as we continue the work that's going on there. But that's something the President will make in the meeting there. Ultimately, Congress will have to make a decision about how they want to end the -- end this year and start the new one. Do they want to end this year by cutting education and not raising the minimum wage, at a time that they've found time to raise their own pay, or do they want to go home with some achievements under their belt?
Q Did they bring a deal down here Jake?
MR. SIEWERT: You'll have to ask them. My understanding was they were coming down with a set of ideas about how to build on some of the ideas the President had raised with them in the meeting earlier this week.
We had talked on Monday about some flexibility in terms of some of the more controversial riders on immigration, on ergonomics, about finding some way to resolve some of those differences, and we were willing even to talk about funding levels, about decreasing -- cutting back a little bit on some of the agreements that have been made earlier in the year. But you'll have to ask them specifically what they put on the table.
Q Any plans for a stakeout after the meeting?
MR. SIEWERT: That's up to the members. We were uncertain when they went into the meeting how they felt, and we hope it's a cooperative meeting. The reality is that the people in the Oval Office, the Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader, did indicate to us -- an interest to us on Monday in working together, and trying to resolve these differences. And I think there are a lot of members on the Hill, on both sides of the isle, who would like to get some work done, and allow the next administration and the next Congress to get off to a fresh start next year. And I think the people in that room have indicated an interest in trying to wrap up this work and get the budget done and not kick these problems down the road.
Q What's the longest CR that you would sign? Would you sign a week-long CR?
MR. SIEWERT: We've thought that the shorter-term Crs, one and two days, tend to focus the mind and get -- produce a little bit more work, a little bit more energy on the Hill, so that's what we've tended to state a preference for. I'm sure that's the preference that's being stated in the Oval Office today.
Frankly, these week-long Crs have usually led to five-day weekends, and so there hasn't been as much of an impetus towards getting the work done, but that's something I'm not going to prejudge.
If there is a cooperative sense that we can wrap up some of these problems and begin to finish up the education budget, finish up the appropriations bill, then there's obviously -- we can be a little more flexible on this.
Q Democratic leaders in there as well?
Q Joe, it looks like the Senate is going to pass the bankruptcy reform bill this afternoon. Do you have any indication whether there would be changes to make it acceptable to the White House?
MR. SIEWERT: We haven't -- we believe that bill is still deeply flawed and the President has no choice but to veto it. It includes some special interest provisions that we had objected to a long time ago, and it fundamentally lacks the balance that's necessary in a bill that would reform the system.
We think that there is a lot -- it's unfortunate, because there is a lot of good work done on a bill, but in the end this bill includes these vast homestead exemptions, allows vast homestead exemptions that create very wide room for the most well off to hide their assets, and then punishes people in the lower end of the income scale who are caught up in some sort of credit trap.
Q Are Daschle and Gephardt in there as well?
MR. SIEWERT: Yes, they are.
Q Jake, in The Rolling Stone interview, the President found fault of two elements of the criminal justice system in this country -- one dealing with marijuana and one dealing with the disparity and punishment of crack cocaine and powder cocaine. My question is, did he just come upon these particular opinions? And if not, why didn't he do more during his presidency to change the way the American criminal justice system deals with these two issues?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think his overall point was that we need to look at ways to treat particularly nonviolent drug offenders. There are a lot of them in prison, oftentimes getting very little treatment, and oftentimes getting very little help as they exit prison and reenter the work force.
And I think that that's something that we tried to work with Congress on, and there is some funding for drug courts and drug treatment in the 1994 Crime Bill that was passed, and some of that work has actually proved very fruitful.
On the disparity issue, that is something that the President's mentioned from time to time before, but as he indicated, Congress was not willing to go along with the more substantive changes that some had envisioned.
We had -- there is an honest debate about that disparity. Some people say that, as the President said, that people using hard cocaine, crack cocaine are more likely to be violent. So we have an honest disagreement with that, but that's something that the President's noted before.
Q Jake, earlier, Mr. Berger said that Osama bin Laden will be tried in a U.S. court. I'm asking you --
MR. CROWLEY: He said he was indicted.
Q Right. But there will be a trial. Now, the trial means without him or do they have plans to bring him here, or --
MR. SIEWERT: That's not the way our justice system works. But we've said for some time that we are working with countries in the region to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.
Q Do you have any guidance on when we're going to get a Garza announcement?
MR. SIEWERT: It's very possible that we will wrap that work up on that before Tuesday and I'll let you know. The Justice Department has been working on a recommendation, should get that here at the White House today, I would expect.
I don't think we'll discuss that. We typically don't discuss the recommendation that's forwarded by the Justice Department in any detail. But at the same time, I can say that the President has conferred with his advisors on this. He's met with Mr. Podesta, his Chief of Staff, he's spoken with his counsel, Beth Nolan, and he's spoken to the Attorney General about this.
So, he is well aware of the parameters of the case. He's spoken publicly about some of his concerns about racial and geographic disparities. And as I said yesterday, he thinks he has a special obligation as a supporter of the death penalty to ensure that it's administered fairly. But he's spent some time thinking about this, thinking about the issues that were raised in the clemency petition, thinking about the broader issue of geographic and racial disparities. And so he may -- his thinking is pretty far along on this. We're awaiting the final recommendation, and we'll let you know when we have something to say on that.
Q Not as early as tomorrow, you wouldn't think?
MR. SIEWERT: I'm not going to try to predict the time line right here, but as I expect -- I say that we'll get that recommendation probably today from the Justice Department. That was my understanding this morning. And we'll certainly let you know when we get it. But I'm not going to discuss the actual recommendation; we don't typically do that. But the President has spent some time thinking about this, and may confer with his advisors shortly after receiving their recommendation.
Q Jake, what did the President plan to say today on Medicare give-backs?
MR. SIEWERT: We still -- again, we think that there's ample room to work on this legislation, and that we ought to wrap the work up pretty quickly. There should be some way to increase coverage for the most vulnerable citizens in the context of doing something for the health care providers, and we're willing to be flexible about how we do that. But we thought that there would be some way to work within the context of the discussion here to increase coverage for people who were at the lowest end of the income spectrum.
Q Based on conversations so far, is the President optimistic this will be wrapped up before he leaves for Ireland?
MR. SIEWERT: On the budget? We would have no way of knowing. I mean, the work is not substantial. There are relatively narrow differences. There is a broad commitment by the leadership to finish the work up. But there are obviously some elements in Congress that would rather drag this thing out and maybe slow down the progress that we've made.
Q Jake, on gays in the military, when did the President decide that don't ask don't tell was a dumb ass thing to do?
MR. SIEWERT: Actually -- did Sandy take a question on this? No, okay. We're having -- well, it's my privilege then. I was in that interview, and I actually read the transcript again. And that phrase, which I won't repeat here, doesn't appear in our transcript, which we released to you I think this morning. And it doesn't appear -- I don't remember him uttering that word, per se. But we'll check -- we don't have a tape of it, honestly. The tape was taped over. But I am told --
Q Oh. (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: -- scandal. But I am told by the stenographers --
Q That was a dumb ass thing -- (laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: There you go.
Q -- dumb ass did that?
MR. SIEWERT: This is a lot of -- (laughter) -- we're going to have to edit this transcript. But I checked with our talented stenographers, who think that the phrase, "don't ask" may have been misunderstood as that phrase. (Laughter.)
Q That was a "don't ask" thing to do?
MR. SIEWERT: I'm willing to consider more evidence in this and decide what the -- reassess. But I don't remember hearing it, it's not in our transcript, and I have not reason to think that the stenographers would have made a mistake of such monstrous proportions.
Q Back to the substance, though, when did he --
MR. SIEWERT: I'm sorry, I got a little carried away in the lexicon. I think the President expressed -- was just speaking very honestly about what he felt was a very unfortunate situation at the beginning of his term over an issue that no one had really had a lot time to think about and reflect upon and sort through; a very difficult issue, one that he thought needed some time to gel and some time to really be thought over. It kind of got rushed through the public process machine here in Washington.
I think he says he never meant to bring this up so early in his term and his hand was forced by people in Congress who wanted to do it. And as a result, he got a policy that he think is far from perfect. I think he's said that before.
He appreciates the efforts that Secretary Cohen has made to do a better job creating a more conducive atmosphere for enforcing the policy. There have been some abuses of that. Secretary Cohen has taken very seriously how to ensure that there aren't unintended consequences from a policy that is well intentioned but flawed in some of its details.
Q Is your position on the education package, just to be clear, all or nothing?
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, no. In fact, the President said on Monday he was willing to negotiate. He was willing to be flexible about how we did this funding and the exact levels. But I don't think that a flat-lining education -- which amounts to a real cut when you factor in inflation is the right way to go.
There are just too many universities, too many students, too many schools, too many institutions, from the NIH to universities all across the country, that are relying on some sort of increase for education.
So, I'm not going to figure out exactly here, while there is a discussion in the Oval Office, what the exact funding levels would be. But I don't think cutting education is the way to get off to fresh start in this new Congress.
Q On Medicare give-backs, are you saying that as long as there is some way to find room for funding for vulnerable populations that you wouldn't object to the amount that's in there for HMOs?
MR. SIEWERT: I think it's a lot more detailed negotiation that's going on, on that. Chris Jennings has been discussing this on a technical level with a lot folks on the Hill. But I don't want to -- I'm just trying to give a general sense that as we're increasing payments to some of the larger health organizations that we ought to do a little bit of something to help the people most vulnerable, the people that lack coverage today.
Q Is that a shift? Because before you used to say -- emphasize how there was just too much, just way too much in there.
MR. SIEWERT: No, no, we never thought that the actual level of funding in the Balanced Budget Reimbursement Act itself was a problem. What we felt was that it was disproportionately allocated to managed care providers. And at particularly a time when Congress was failing to move forward on ways to make managed care outfits more responsible and more responsive to the needs of the populations they serve.
At a time when Congress wasn't moving forward on a patients' bill of rights and was essentially giving the managed care industry a free ride, it seems odd to reward them and not take care of teaching hospitals, not take care of some of the more vulnerable populations. So, still hashing out a lot of those details now . But we're flexible about getting that done. We understand a lot of members want to see something wrapped up this year.
Q Is the Kennedy-Grassley proposal on disability, is that one of the essential elements of BBRA?
MR. SIEWERT: That's something that's on the table and I don't want to try to sort out those negotiations here. But that's something that has been raised and has bipartisan support. Something we think is valuable.
Q What does the President hope to accomplish in this trip to Nebraska tomorrow, other than just setting foot in the last of 50 states?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, he's giving an important speech there on an important topic. Sandy talked a little bit about it, I assume. But he wants to not only complete the cycle and finish -- not finish up his domestic travel, but touch base in the 50th state, but to use the opportunity to speak in the heartland about a topic that is near and dear to his heart, which is America's engagement in the world and the importance of engaging beyond our borders.
And particularly in the last six or seven years, I think there is a renewed sense in the agricultural community and in the manufacturing community, the importance of expanding trade and looking beyond our borders. I mean, some of the strongest support we had for the IMF package, which was very controversial, actually came from farmers and people in the Midwest.
But he is also looking forward just to seeing another state and being there. I think Nebraskans need not fear that being 50th will mean they go unnoticed. In fact, I dare you -- is Knoller in the room? No -- I dare you to name the 49th state the President visited. I don't think --
MR. SIEWERT: That's right. (Laughter.) You studied, obviously, on this. But I don't think there's any doubt that being 50th doesn't mean that you're last in public notice.
Q Have you assigned the dates and venues for the other exit speeches the President is going to make?
MR. SIEWERT: I think one of those speeches will be in England, when we're there, the speech on globalization. I don't know if Sandy talked to any length about that.
Okay. And then the other ones we are still looking at. We'll probably do something that harkens back to the themes that the President laid out in his New Covenant speeches in 1991, which were given at Georgetown. But we haven't set a location for those. But I think the President very much wants to harken back to the discussion he had in '91 with the American people about the new direction he wanted to take the country in, in a series of speeches he delivered at Georgetown that fall.
Q Jake, the First Lady was on the Hill the other day and she got a warm welcome. Now, she's already famous there, as a Senator. What role do you think she will play at the foreign policy, and how different she will be as a Senator?
MR. SIEWERT: Oh, I don't know. I mean, she's been deeply engaged in her Vital Voices project, and has traveled a great deal around the world, particularly engaged in issues about empowering women and providing younger women with educational opportunity. But I don't know. I mean, that's really for her to decide, her to address.
Q Has the White House invited Senator Kerrey to join the President on his Nebraska journey?
MR. SIEWERT: I'll check, I believe so. He'll be there, right?
Q He'll be there?
MR. SIEWERT: I think we invited the entire congressional delegation to join us at one point or another. So I assume we invited Senator Kerrey and Senator Hagel.
Q I'm working for French television. People outside the United States don't -- almost don't know what's happening in this country at this moment and the image of democracy you're giving. How does the President feel about that?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think the President thinks that there's an orderly process under way. It may not always seem that way to the outside world, but we have a Constitutional process. We have legal processes that are under way, and the work of the United States is ongoing.
The President is still President until January. He's very focused on his business and on ensuring that the American ship of state is steered correctly through these somewhat uncharted waters. But we are still hard at work. We have until January 20th to sort this out, and no one, I think -- Major looks shocked.
I don't think anyone expects that it will take quite that long, but I think that the President told the rest of the -- would like to tell the rest of the world what he's told Americans, that they ought to relax, take a deep breath, let the process play itself out, and let's make sure we get a full accounting of what's going on down in Florida. And we'll await the decision of the courts here.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
MR. SIEWERT: Thank you.
END 3:02 P.M. EST