Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:45 P.M. EST
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon, and a happy Friday.
The President this morning spoke to President Arroyo of the Philippines. He expressed his appreciation for President Arroyo's continued leadership in support of the war against terrorism. And he specifically noted how President Arroyo has made every effort to secure the safe release of two Americans who have been held hostage in the southern Philippines. The President also emphasized his determination to see our current training mission to a successful conclusion.
Following that, the President had his usual intelligence briefings, convened a meeting of the National Security Council, and he also taped his radio address, which will play tomorrow, about his upcoming trip to Asia.
And earlier this morning, the White House opened it to tours. Mrs. Bush was on hand to greet a group of schoolchildren who are now coming to the White House. The President and Mrs. Bush are delighted that a limited reopening has taken place for schoolchildren. And on behalf of the President and Mrs. Bush, I would simply like to urge school groups across America to come visit Washington this spring, make the White House one of the stops along the way. And they can contact their congressional offices to come get tickets to see the White House.
And following that, the President had a meeting with the President of Uruguay, Jorge Batlle, where they discussed the war on terror and other regional issues. And later this afternoon, the President will swear in the new Director of the Peace Corps, Gaddi Vasquez. And the President will then make remarks about the importance of the Peace Corps to America's role in the world, and harken back to the message that he gave in the State of the Union address about the USA Freedom Corps and a goal of doubling the number of Americans who serve in the Peace Corps.
A couple of other announcements I'd like to make, and then I'll be happy to take questions. The Senate will be heading off into recess, and as they do, there are currently 95 judicial vacancies, which is over 11 percent of the federal judiciary. The 12 regional circuit courts of appeals have 30 vacancies, an extraordinary 18-percent vacancy rate. The Chief Justice, speaking on behalf of the judiciary, recently called on the Senate to act promptly on judicial nominations, in light of what he called "alarming numbers of judicial vacancies."
The President has submitted 90 judicial nominations, but the Senate has voted on only 37. The Senate has thus far failed to vote on 53 of the President's 90 nominees, including the very distinguished jurist, Charles Pickering, to the Circuit Court. And the President believes in and will fight for the nomination of Mr. Pickering.
Despite the very high vacancy rate in the Circuit Court of Appeals, the Senate has voted on only seven of the President's 29 Circuit Court nominees. There appears to be a Circuit Court stall underway, and that does not serve the cause of justice. The Senate Judiciary Committee still has not afforded a hearing to eight of the President's first 11 nominees, who were nominated back in May, over nine months ago.
There is no justification for the Senate's delay of these highly qualified and widely respected nominees. The Senate should not be a roadblock to justice; the Senate needs to take action. They lag far behind the pace of previous Senates, and it is not in keeping with a court system that is well functioning and efficient.
A couple other announcements: One, the Vice President is, as we speak, giving a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is releasing a white paper which is a study about the effect the President's tax cut has had on the economy. And the white paper shows that the results of the tax cut are that the recession will be shorter and less severe, thanks to the tax cut.
In fact, the study concludes that growth, which declined by 1.3 percent in the third quarter, would have declined 2.5 percent; and growth in the fourth quarter, which was a very modest 0.2 percent increase, would have actually been a 1.0 percent decline without the tax cut. So the study clearly shows that the recession will be shorter and less difficult as a result of the tax cut. And the President is very gratified at the bipartisan members of Congress who helped make the tax cut possible.
With that, I'm happy to take your questions.
Q: Ari, does the President believe that the science on Yucca Mountain is complete enough to make an informed decision on its future?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, on January 10th the Secretary of Energy informed Nevada officials that he was going to recommend to the President that the facility at Yucca be opened on a permanent basis. That recommendation then has been pending for some 30 days, a little bit more. And since that time, the President's team has taken a very careful look at it.
The Chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality has analyzed it. The President's Science Advisor has analyzed it. The report was formally presented to the President last night.
The President will be having something to say about that. And when he does, we will inform you. It's under review, and then the President will inform people of what decision he has made. But it has received extensive review along the way. The President has also met with officials from Nevada from the government -- Governor of Nevada, the Senators of Nevada, as well as met with the Secretary of Energy to discuss it fully.
Q: Correct me if I'm wrong, and I'm sure you will, didn't the President say during the campaign that he would not make a decision on Yucca Mountain until all the science was in? Does he believe the science is all in now?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President said he would make the decision based on sound science. And what the Department of Energy has done, in preparation for the review that has been received here, they have reviewed more than 17,000 documents, had more than 100 public hearings. This has been over a 20-year period, that was based on a scientific and technological investigation.
Q: The point of my question at the beginning, does he believe the science is in now? Does he believe the science is sound enough to make an informed decision?
MR. FLEISCHER: As a result of what the President has received, the President does have sufficient scientific basis to make a decision.
Q: Are the American troops in the Philippines under Philippine command?
MR. FLEISCHER: They are under American command, if I recall. And they are working with Philippines as a host government.
Q: So the reports that they might be under Philippine command are wrong?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I'm not aware of those reports, Helen. If there's any clarification to that, I will advise you. But my understanding is they are under American command, and they are working side-by-side, in close collaboration with the Philippine government.
Q: Ari, can I just follow up on Secretary Powell's comments yesterday, because some conservative groups, hearing what you told us earlier today at the gaggle, saying that there's no daylight between the President and the Secretary on this, are saying that you're -- they still view it as a contradiction. They say you're undermining the President's promotion of abstinence. The Secretary did not mention abstinence. He was talking about encouraging condom use. What's your response to that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the Secretary made it perfectly plain, and so did the questioner. The question was in the context of for people who practice sex. It was not a question about everybody in our society; it was a question of just those who are sexually active. And so, obviously, if someone is sexually active, they have already made a decision not to practice abstinence.
But let me say this -- Colon Powell takes a backseat to no one when it comes to abstinence and abstinence education. Colon Powell has -- through his wife -- as a founder of a group called Best Friends, along with Bill Bennett and Alma Powell, and that is a group that focuses on abstinence education as a way of reaching out to young people around the world.
Q: Well, conservatives feel like they're sending, by comments you said today and here, that you're sending a mixed message. And they're upset. They feel like this is a shift in some way by this White House. Should it not be viewed in --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, during the campaign, the President pledged that he would, if elected, increase the amount of funding in the budget so that abstinence education and other forms of health and sex education received equal funding. And that is the commitment the President made, and that's the commitment that's been honored in his budget.
Q: Can I follow up on that? When Secretary Powell says that the world should be very candid about this kind of education, forget the taboos, forget the conservative idea of what is right and wrong -- is that sense the same thing that President Bush can embrace?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know, Ann, after the gaggle this morning, I saw the Secretary and I asked him about that, and what he said is he is also referring to the fact that in Africa, particularly, there are tens of millions of children who are orphaned as a result of AIDS. And one of the reasons is because the nations there are so conservative in terms of their approach to teaching sex education -- that is a topic that is taboo, that it cannot even be discussed. And that's part of the barriers that the Secretary is seeking to break down when it comes both to abstinence and to health and sex education. And it's a way to prevent sexual diseases, it's a way to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Q: What do you say to groups then that are very avid supporters of President Bush -- what does President Bush tell them to calm their concern and those who say that they want the President to repudiate what Secretary said?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President and the Secretary are shoulder to shoulder on abstinence education, as well as health education and sex education, as a way to prevent unwanted pregnancies and as a way to prevent ** sexually transmitted diseases. What the President has done, and Secretary Powell has long been involved in, is highlight for the first time the importance of abstinence education.
Q: He supports sex education for international groups who are trying to spread the word?
MR. FLEISCHER: Clearly, it is part of the President's budget, Helen.
Q: On hostages, you mentioned the two American missionary hostages in the Philippines. Do you have any update on their status, whether there's any chance of getting them released? And also on Daniel Pearl? And what does the President's trip say to the whole issue of terrorism of this kind?
MR. FLEISCHER: There are no updates or anything new on the status of Mr. Pearl or the hostages in the Philippines. And one of the purposes of the trip is to discuss our combined efforts to fight terrorism. That's one of the reasons he's going.
But it's also a reflection of a trip -- this was a trip that was originally scheduled to take place in October last year, just a little over one month after the attack. The President went as part of the APEC Summit in Shanghai. He was going to, at that time, visit Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing, but he had to cancel that portion of it because he did not want to spend that much time out of the country. So this is also a question of a trip that's a reflection of promises made and promises kept. The President did assure our allies that he wanted to visit, and he's keeping his word.
Q: Is he concerned about terrorism --
MR. FLEISCHER: The President is always concerned about terrorism. But if the question is terrorism vis-a-vis the safety of the President traveling, the President has no concerns about that. The Secret Service always does a superb job.
Q: Ari, the House passed yet another stimulus bill. Nobody really thinks that the Senate is going to take that up. Is the President at all concerned that maybe that's just really a political move, and it might be delaying unemployment benefits for people who have suffered, and -- basically delaying that and putting a political issue on the table?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think that's perfectly consistent with what the President said when the Senate passed the 13-week extension of unemployment. The President made it clear that that was the least that the Congress could do. And obviously it's important not only to help people to get an unemployment check, it's important to let people keep their paychecks, so they don't have to rely on unemployment. So the President continues to look at this as a matter of importance to both stimulate the economy and get help to displaced workers.
Q: Well, does he support a stand-alone bill for unemployment benefits? Would he like the House to do that on its own?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as I said, the President thought it was the least that the Congress should do. And now you have a chance where the House has passed something, the Senate has passed something. The President thinks it's important for the Congress to get together and come out with a final product.
Q: Ari, Egypt has announced that CIA Director Tenet would meet Cairo on Saturday. Can you give us the context of that visit, and tell us whether or not --
MR. FLEISCHER: I would refer you to CIA. I don't speak for his travels.
Q: Ari, if the President does make a decision today on Yucca Mountain, would you expect him to make that announcement, or would you expect it to come in a written statement?
MR. FLEISCHER: Whenever the President has something to say, one way or another, it will be communicated to the press.
Q: You're still not ruling out today, right?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have not ruled that out.
Q: On another matter, you have -- does the White House have any standing objections to the state of play on campaign finance reform, including among other things, the fact that some outside groups were involved in writing parts of the legislation?
MR. FLEISCHER: On the first part of your question, no, there are no updates from what I said yesterday on campaign finance. On the second, I think you are referring to a story that we have now all read and seen, was confirmed true, that Common Cause wrote a section of the campaign finance bill.
I think if you reverse the roles, and if Common Cause ever heard that the National Rifle Association or the Right to Life or any other outside groups wrote a piece of legislation, they would be the first to complain, and complain loudly, that Congress should not allow people who are not congressmen and senators to write legislation. They'd be the first to decry the practice of lobbyists writing legislation. Yet they themselves have engaged in the very act that they decry. That does seem to me to be the height of hypocrisy for Common Cause to have written a section of a bill that obviously was so controversial it was pulled at the last minute, if they decry that practice for others.
Q: Is your objection to the fact that they were involved? I mean, obviously a lot of groups who have an interest in campaign finance reform would be involved in the process.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, my point is that it's the hypocrisy. I think it's a time-honored part of Congress for them to reach out to people who share their views, or who are expert in certain fields, to ask what they think about pieces of legislation or to be involved in the drafting. But I think it's very notable that Common Cause, which decries that practice when others do it, engages in it themselves. I just think it's a reflection of Common Cause, not a broader reflection about Washington.
Q: Does that change the President's interest in signing this bill?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, that's, I think, a side issue, involving the consistency of Common Cause's message.
Q: Is this the section that was pulled, though, that you talked about the other day?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. What this is, this is a section that would have allowed hard money debts to be paid for with soft money. It became instantly controversial when it was brought to the attention of the sponsors of Shays-Meehan. And to their credit, and after the President highlighted it, the sponsors of Shays-Meehan removed it at 2:45 a.m. I think it's fair to say that there were many sponsors who weren't even aware that that was in there. And I think they weren't even aware that the provision was in there because it wasn't written by any member of Congress, it was written by Common Cause.
My only point is, it's important to be consistent in a message. And if Common Cause thinks that it's appropriate for them to write legislation, are they being consistent when they criticize others for doing the same thing?
Q: Would the President be upset with, or would he condone if an outside group wanted to contribute to the drafting of legislation coming out of --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I already addressed that. I said that is part of the legislative drafting process. My point is the consistency of the message. It's not the fact that somebody may or may not have written legislation who is not a member of Congress. As I said, Congress often does reach out to experts, reach out to people who share a point of view. My message is focused uniquely on and isolated on consistency of a group that decries the practice engaging in it themselves.
Q: On a related point, do you have any further information to share on how the President feels about Senator McConnell's efforts to potentially filibuster this bill when it gets to the Senate?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, I was asked that yesterday, and there's no change in what I said.
Q: Several people, such as Chairman Bob Ney of Ohio, have written to the President about steel imports and about tariffs. What is the President's position? Has he illuminated a position, and is he going to?
MR. FLEISCHER: Under what's called Section 201, the President has until March 6th to make a decision about ITC and the International Trade Commission ruling regarding steel. And that process is underway. The President is listening to varying points of views, but he has until March 6th to make a decision. He has not made one.
Q: Ari, does the President support free elections in Pakistan, democratic elections in Pakistan?
MR. FLEISCHER: During the meeting with President Musharraf, that had been a topic of important discussion between the United States and Pakistan. And President Musharraf has committed Pakistan to holding elections at a definable date. I don't remember the date off the top of my head, but the answer is, of course, yes.
Q: How about having former Prime Minister Bhutto --
Q: You mentioned the delay again in judicial nominees. You have brought this up every few weeks before Congress goes on a recess. Has the White House learned, or been told at all by Senator Leahy's committee, any reason for the delay?
MR. FLEISCHER: Not really. The Senate makes -- has appointed some people, but clearly, they're lagging behind the pace of previous Senates. And again, in the words of the Supreme Court Chief Justice, there is a problem in the judiciary in terms of the number of vacancies. And it's the Senate's responsibility to make sure that justice does not get bogged down. Especially, it's the Senate's responsibility to make sure that justice does not get bogged down for partisan reasons. And Senator Leahy chairs the committee that is responsible for the pace of nominations, and the President simply hopes that Senator Leahy will not take any actions that bog down justice.
Q: Is there any concern here that political reasons are at play, here?
MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated, there seems to be an enhanced lag when it comes to the Circuit Court. And the President just, again, urges the Senate to take action, so that justice is not delayed and, therefore, denied to many people who depend on our federal courts for speedy and prompt justice.
Q: Just one more on that. Has there been any personal contact between the President and Senator Leahy?
MR. FLEISCHER: There's regular contact between the Congressional Affairs Office, the Legal Counsel's Office, and Senator Leahy. The President and Senator Leahy may have spoken to each other or seen each other at various events. I couldn't speak more specifically than that.
Q: A recent study shows that after 9/11, Hispanics in America are really suffering economically. As the President tries to get the U.S. economy going again, is he going to address this problem?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that, as a result of September 11th, that all Americans in our entire economy, which effects one and all, has been hit hard. And that's another reason why the President has called on the Congress to pass an economic stimulus bill which makes no distinctions among Americans; it helps one and all Americans.
Q: Ari, I recall -- and I know you'll correct me if I'm incorrect -- but I recall a report that Tom Coburn, the new Chairman of the President's Advisory Committee on AIDS, reportedly said that condoms can break or slip off. Now, how does that relate to the Secretary of State urging condoms? What is the specific Bush administration condom position? I mean, what about this?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think I addressed that, Lester. In the President's budget, the President when he ran, ran on a platform for the first time as a candidate -- the President, as the first time as a candidate, said that abstinence education should receive its proper role in helping to obtain a goal that I think everybody in society agrees with, which is to reduce out-of-wedlock births and to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
Q: But he does not say that no one should use condoms, or does he agree with Coburn who says that they break or slip off?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President has never said that.
Q: Second, as a proud citizen of Texas and a national role model, is the President proud of Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee using a taxpayer-supplied car and one of her staff to be chauffeured every morning for the one block between her apartment and her office in Cannon Office Building?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that's a matter between the Congresswoman and the taxpayers, and she shall explain it.
Q: What does the President think? It's Texas. He knows her, does he not?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have not talked to him directly about that topic. But I think any issue involving taxpayer money and its proper use by government officials is a matter that those officials will deal with before their taxpayers.
Q: Ari, I believe Sunday is the time when airline security shifts to the federal government. So the question is, will the traveling public notice any difference beginning Sunday with the federal government now controlling airline security, especially because most of the jobs will be by the same workers?
MR. FLEISCHER: Many of the changes are management changes, behind-the-scenes changes that are continuing to meet the congressionally-mandated 30-, 60-, and 90-day standards about enhancing and then having a federal role take over security at the airports. And those changes remain underway. The President received a briefing about that this week and Department of Transportation is on track to meet the congressionally-mandated standards. And those changes will result in baggage screeners, security screeners at the airports who are better paid, better trained and, therefore, more stable in terms of the turnover, and that will enhance security for all travelers.
Q: But right now many of the same jobs will be by the same workers right now. So will the traveling public notice any difference at all?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's why I indicated that in the 90-day period, it's essentially a series of management changes. The reason Congress made it a one-year period of change is they did not want to disrupt the traveling public by forcing such a precipitous, immediate change in the takeover by the federal government of safety at the airports that would harm the traveling public.
Q: On these judicial nominees, are any of those vacancies in areas that have been designated as judicial emergencies, Ari?
MR. FLEISCHER: There are. Let me post the answer on the judicial emergencies; I don't have that on the documentation in front of me. But there have been a number of courts that have been declared as judicial emergencies that the President has named justices -- or judges to fill those emergencies.
Q: Ari, the Washington Times is reporting today that President Bush is putting pressure on the Congress in order to reactivate the possible -- of Mexican workers. Can you tell us something about it? He's really working with the Congress to get something in regards with immigration and maybe bring it to Monterrey when he meets with President Fox?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President, as you know, has committed to President Fox and to the United States Congress that his support for the extension of what's called the 245I program involving workers. And he remains committed to that, and Congress did not in the end send him legislation on it. He still calls for Congress to do that, so that remains an important priority for the President.
Q: On the issue that has captivated the nation, does the First Sports Fan have an opinion on the awarding of a second gold medal in the pairs figure skating?
MR. FLEISCHER: I was asked that yesterday and I have not discussed it with the President, so I really can't --
Q: But, apparently, they're going to get a second gold medal.
MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't talked to him about it, so I can't shed any light on that topic for you.
Q: That was a Canadian question. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: John is now an American citizen. He has taken the oath.
Q: Has he been watching this?
MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't asked him specifically. Knowing him, I can't imagine he hasn't.
Q: Ari, back on the Pakistani issue, is the President supportive of former Prime Minister Bhutto going back there without being arrested, for the elections in Pakistan?
MR. FLEISCHER: Let me take that and see -- I'll try to get back to you.
Q: Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.
END 1:07 P.M. EST
George W. Bush, Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/272502