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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 21, 2000
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY
                              JAKE SIEWERT

                 The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

12:08 P.M. EST

MR. SIEWERT: For those of you who missed it, PJ Crowley's CSPAN appearance will be replayed over and over and over again through the Christmas holidays. (Laughter.) We'll try to get this wrapped up, so those of you who want to follow the MSNBC's live proceedings of the Madonna christening-arrival and wedding can get back to that. (Laughter.)

Q All news.

MR. SIEWERT: All news, all the time. I don't know what tomorrow's briefing plans are, but we'll try to arrange it so we don't interfere with that coverage. (Laughter.)

Reading the papers, as you know, is pretty critical on most days, and we don't hesitate to point out things that we find wrong, misguided, misleading. But once in a while we stumble upon something that's just so accurate and so true that we cut it out of our own paper, post it on the wall and sometimes even commend people from the podium -- today we had such an event. One of the regulars here in the White House press corps, Richard Breed, from Annapolis, offered some helpful hints in the Washington Post today, for those of you who missed it, on how to clean your microwave.

So we'll be conducting some tests in the back room later today and we'll put Richard Breed's suggestions up against anyone's. But for those of you who missed it, it's page C-11 in the Washington Post today -- hints from Heloise. (Laughter.) Thanks to the Reuters' crew for pointing that out. Richard, congratulations. You're in print. We'll expect a Martha Stewart appearance any minute.

On a more serious note, the President will sign the omnibus budget legislation today. And that includes, as you know, a significant increase in education spending, which will be the focus of his remarks. But he'll also use that opportunity to comment on the new rules that were put out today by the EPA to clean the air. Those rules have been a long time in the making, and he will commend Carol Browner and her team for coming up with a reasonable balanced solution to help implement the Clean Air Act amendments that were signed during the Bush administration.

He'll do that at the top, and then go on to comment on all the good that this budget bill does from the New Markets legislation to the education budget in Presidential Hall after that.

Also this morning, the President spoke briefly to President Mubarak for about 10 minutes to assess the state of play in the Mideast peace discussions that are going on here at Bolling Air Base. President Mubarak had recently met with Chairman Arafat and the President wanted to bring him up to date on what was going on here and to share their assessment on how to move the process forward.

We'll let you know if there are any further calls on that front. And that's it. I'll take your questions.

Q Mandela?

MR. SIEWERT: He also spoke briefly to President Mandela, but that was essentially a private call to chat, friend to friend.

Q Will the President, in his remarks, have anything to say about the sagging economy and the comments made about the economy by the President-elect?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't expect that he will do that in the statement. As you know, our national economic team has been out a little bit on that topic recently. And I think it's important that a new administration, however different their own economic policy may be, to learn some of the lessons that we've learned here over the last seven or eight years, and we've had a pretty good track record, I think, not one that we're the least bit ashamed about or worried about.

But it is important to be guarded and measured in what we say about the economy. That's something that Secretary Rubin believed very forcefully, Secretary Bentsen before him, and Secretary Summers after that. And we've always tried to be very careful and measured in what we say about the state of the economy. And particularly when there is a rough spot we talk about how to deal with it, how to move forward, how to address the problem and how to ensure that Americans can succeed in the economy and not to worry and fret and pine about the dangers that are out there.

There are always dangers lurking in any -- in a world economy that's moving more quickly than it ever has. But what an administration should do is focus on what the facts are and what you can do about them to address those challenges. That's something we've been saying for a long time now.

And even today, there's new economic numbers that show that the economy grew 2.2 percent over the summer quarter. That's lower than 5 percent, which it had been growing, but most people thought that 5 percent rate of growth was not sustainable over the long run. The 2.2 percent is higher than the average rate of growth during the last Bush administration, one in which Secretary Chaney spoke, and most private sector economists are projecting growth of about 2.5 percent over the next year.

If the new Vice President and the President were still in the private sector, they would turn to a private economist, and say -- or their investment bankers, and say, what are you expecting next year? And their Wall Street economists would tell them 2.5 percent growth, roughly. And that's how they'd plan about the future. And they wouldn't turn to a more political prognosis, they'd look at what the facts are, and make their judgments based on that.

Q You talked about Rubin and Summers and even the President being guarded. Why is it important to be guarded in those kind of public comments?

MR. SIEWERT: Well, there's a huge difference in what you say as a private sector commentator on the economy, where with rare exceptions your views don't have much influence over the way in which people think about the market and the economy itself. But it's important for the people who are in leadership in the -- an economic team that's part of the government to be very careful about what they say, and to make sure that their prescriptions for the economy are in line with the facts. Because people take those views very seriously, they take those comments very seriously, and it's important to try to instill a degree of confidence wherever it's appropriate in the way in which people assess the state of the American economy and what the future holds.

The reality is that most private sector economists, 49 out of 50, project the economy to grow about 2.5 percent next year. As I said, that's stronger than the average growth rate of the previous administration, and it's a solid rate of growth. That's what you should be looking at.

Obviously, everyone wants to be vigilant and wants to be careful, and we always have here. The reality is, the new administration will have a lot of new tools to deal with any problems that might arise. I mean, there's a federal budget surplus, the debt is a much smaller percentage, the federal national debt is a much smaller percentage of the economy now, so they have a lot more flexibility in dealing with problems as they arise. That's something that this administration didn't have when it came in. There was a huge federal deficit, there was very high unemployment. Unemployment's much lower now, the federal budget is in balance, and so they have an array of options and abilities to deal with problems as they crop up. And that's something that we expect they will do to the best of their ability.

Q But is it right for the outgoing administration to be trying to muzzle the next administration?

MR. SIEWERT: No, I just think that there are some -- we're not trying to muzzle anyone. I think we're just urging a measured tone, one that is in line with the facts.

Q Are you suggesting that in tamping down the political expectations, there is a real danger that you actually create the problem in your warning?

MR. SIEWERT: Your words, as someone who is in the government, have a greater significance and are taken seriously, and so it's important to keep those words and those pronouncements in line with what's actually going on in the real world out there.

The President has always tried to look at the economy as a place of opportunity, a place where people can build better lives, better futures for themselves, and that businesses could make good judgments about the future and plan for the future in such a way. It's always talked about in a way that takes some recognition of dangers that are out there, but tries to provide solutions and not just blame and finger-pointing.

Q Jake, there are reports that at yesterday's meeting, President Clinton laid out parameters for Middle East peace, set sort of a wish date of January 10th for some progress to be made, and may or may not have scheduled or tried -- sought a meeting here tomorrow. Do you have any comments about any of that?

MR. SIEWERT: I'm not going to discuss the specific issues involved in the peace process from this podium. The President did have a good 45-minute discussion with both of the teams yesterday. The Secretary of State's meeting with him this evening around 6:30 p.m., I believe. But he reviewed with them what's at stake, how important it was to reach an agreement and how important it is to proceed. But while we covered the full range of the issues that are on the table there within the peace process, I'm not going to provide a running commentary on those.

As to future meetings, we'll take this day by day, but there's nothing scheduled at the moment. But the President is willing and ready to help, if it's necessary. Ultimately, these decisions are in the hands of the negotiators from both sides.

Q I've been asking this for a few days. I still don't understand what their incentive is to reach an agreement now, with this administration leaving and with the Israelis up for election.

MR. SIEWERT: Well, I'm not going to assess what their motivations are. I just don't think that's very productive. We think, obviously, that both sides have a long-term interest in addressing the problems that divide them, in trying to find a way to live together in peace. And long-term problems have to be dealt with some day, and we're hopeful that they can deal with them in the shorter-term rather than the longer-term.

Q What's the President's involvement in the EPA regulations that are being put out today? Did he really approve the regulations yesterday, or what's been his involvement?

MR. SIEWERT: He certainly approves of those regulations and thinks that they're important. There's a process here that's run through OMB that involved meetings with the President's Chief of Staff and others who are involved in the process. I'll refer you to OMB for the specifics of how that process works, but ultimately this is something that the President thinks is important to implement the Clean Air Act amendments that were passed early in the last decade.

He was kept apprised and reviewed these regulations through his Chief of Staff, John Podesta, who is very intimately involved in the final rules that were put out today by Carol Browner.

Q Did the President take some action on this yesterday, as far as you know?

MR. SIEWERT: I'll have to check on that and see whether there was any specific paper or briefing that went to him yesterday.

Q Jake, are we likely to get some presidential action on the pardons today or tomorrow, before Christmas?

MR. SIEWERT: I would not expect anything today, but I certainly wouldn't rule it out for tomorrow. That's not a definite, but I think it's -- nothing will come today, but it's very possible there will be something tomorrow.

Q Will they all be in one group, or this maybe as a partial, and there would be another announcement later?

Q They will all be in one group, or would this maybe is a partial and there would be another announcement later?

MR. SIEWERT: The President has offered to review as many of these cases as he can in his last days in office, and he will take the opportunity tomorrow or sometime before the Christmas holiday probably to take some of them out of the in-box. But I don't think that would be the end of it. I think he's going to try to do as many -- review as many of these as he can. And I expect that they will be, in some sense, a rolling process that continues right up through the end of his term.

Q Are they going to be issued by Justice, or will we get them here, as well?

MR. SIEWERT: I'm working with our Counsel's Office here, and I'll let you know as we get closer. Typically, the actual piece of paper comes from Justice, but we'll try to find some way of letting people know here.

Q Do you know if Jonathan Pollard is on the list?

MR. SIEWERT: I wouldn't expect anything new on that. I don't think there is anything new on that.

Q Did he ever get a report from -- it was former White House Counsel Charles Ruff, who was coordinating the process for getting a recommendation on Pollard. Did the President ever get a report on that?

MR. SIEWERT: I believe there's a report here --

MR. CROWLEY: The review has been completed.

MR. SIEWERT: The review has been completed, but I wouldn't -- there's nothing new on that today.

Q Did it recommend against any kind of clemency for him?

MR. SIEWERT: Would don't discuss typically the recommendations that his Counsel's Office prepares for him, just because it constitutes a waive of the attorney-client privilege.

Q Has there been any discussion at the White House recently about what to do, if anything, about the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge before the President leaves?

MR. SIEWERT: I think that our focus on Alaska has been on the impact that the roadless rule might have on Tongass National Forest and how we can best protect the wildlife in Southeastern Alaska and the national resources there. I know that that's an idea that's been floated by some in the environmental community and elsewhere.

The President actually did address this in an interview not too long that he did with the Discovery Channel in which he said he was looking at the issue, but that he was uncertain at this point whether a monument status would protect it any further than it already is protected and might actually be counterproductive in some way, and that it might create some political controversy. It could be counterproductive.

So our focus has been on what we can do to protect the Tongass under the roadless rule. But he has looked at this issue, he's had something to say about it publicly, and if there's anything new I'll let you know. I know that any effort to drill in the ANWR would require legislative action. We've always opposed such legislation and will continue to do so.

Q Do you have anything to release about the President's consideration of a possible visit to North Korea?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't have anything new on that to share with you today, and I don't expect we will. The President obviously is going to make a judgment based on whether he thinks such a trip would be helpful in advancing the process of curtailing the missile program that North Korea has.

Q When is he going to make that judgment, Jake?

MR. SIEWERT: When is he likely to make the trip or the decision? As soon as we can. As soon as we can.

Q He wouldn't travel through the holiday period.

MR. SIEWERT: No, that's extraordinarily unlikely, if not -- let's just say, no. (Laughter.) That's safe, yes.

Q Just one more on the Middle East. The parties aren't asking the President to provide any guarantees or anything, are they, at this stage?

MR. SIEWERT: We're not dictating the terms of this agreement and we're not going to discuss them here from the podium. The parties, themselves, have to reach this agreement and we are ready to do whatever it is, though, that we can to be helpful in --

Q And after he leaves office, would Bill Clinton be willing to help out with those Middle East and Northern Ireland?

MR. SIEWERT: He's addressed that himself a number of times. He obviously cares very deeply about the peace process in the Middle East and about the peace process in Northern Ireland. But he also wants to make sure that the next president, President Bush, has a chance to address these matters himself and make his own judgments about how best they can move the process forward in both those areas. The President's willing to help, but he understands that it's a new administration here, one that will have its own ideas about how to proceed.

Q Is the President done with his Christmas shopping?

MR. SIEWERT: Unfortunately, no.

Q Today?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. I'll check. But I expect between now and Christmas that he will probably be out and about a little bit to do some more shopping. I did check and I'll try to get you finality tomorrow on the holiday plans. But I do think he will be here at the White House for the better part of the next week, and that we'll do everything we can to get a full lid on Christmas Day, as is traditional.

Q Will he give us any Hanukkah gifts?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't know if he's in the habit of giving the press gifts.

Q Is that open to coverage today, Jake, the menorah lighting?

MR. SIEWERT: I think it's stills only.

Q Is that traditional for it to be stills?

MR. SIEWERT: It's varied a bit, year to year, but it's more often than not --

Q Usually, the President toasts Mr. Knoller at that event. (Laughter.)

MR. SIEWERT: Oh, really? Excellent. We would enjoy that.

Q And that will be lost to history if it's stills only.

Q Why is it closed?

MR. SIEWERT: I think we've actually done stills a number of years. Some years we've done -- but I think stills is a pretty good way to deal with that this year. Give you all a break.

Q First Lady going to be there?

MR. SIEWERT: I think so, yes.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

MR. SIEWERT: Thank you.

END 12:25 P.M. EST