Bill Clinton photo

Press Briefing by Mike McCurry

March 12, 1996

The Briefing Room

12:17 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today's daily White House news briefing. We've got a lot of our Middle East folks wrapping up lose details at the end, so I will, in a minute, give you my passable imitation of the briefing I promised you and the trip the President is about to take. But a couple of other items first.

First, at 1:20 when the President departs, I expect him to make a departure statement on the South Lawn that will address both the trip that he is taking to the Summit of the Peacemakers and his journey onward to Israel. And then he will also have some things to say about the necessity of Congress taking urgent action to balance the budget and provide a clearer picture for appropriations for the fiscal year 1996.

He'll call for passage of the Kennedy-Kassebaum Health Reform Measure, and also for passage of reform legislation that would end welfare as we know it.

The President will also make reference to the fact that he has now signed H.R. 3021, which is the temporary extension of the debt limit. It actually exempts certain payments and obligations of the Federal Government from the debt limit. That will provide a window or a short cushion in which the debt limit itself will not impact on federal obligations -- not, by any means the necessary long-term extension of the debt ceiling, and that the President continues to hope that Congress will take action on.

Q: When does it go to? What's the date, deadline?

MR. MCCURRY: The Treasury will estimate the date. It is expected to run, roughly, to the end of the month. But the Administration in the White House would note that there are critical benefit payments that will be due for payment beginning in early April and the necessity of the passage of a longer debt extension is quite clear.

Q: Has he already signed it, Mike? It's not clear from what you said.

MR. MCCURRY: It is not clear to me that he has signed it yet, but he intends to sign it. We'll put out the statement when he does so. He'll probably make some reference to it when he departs.

Q: Mike, just out of curiosity, at what point does Treasury begin to undo all the extraordinary measures that they took to extend the debt limit while all of this was going on?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I guess the question is: When would they begin to restitute funds that they have taken from some of the trust funds? That happens, I think, on a time table that Treasury can be clearer about. But once they begin to reshuffle obligations with a longer term extension of the debt limit they can manage accounts in a way that begins to restore some of those funds.

Q: On the longer term measure, the Republicans are saying they want to have the time to work out the welfare reform, which you mentioned that he was going to touch on. How close are the Administration and the Republicans on those issues?

MR. McCURRY: Well, the President has long felt that there is broad bipartisan agreement on the fundamentals of welfare reform, measures that would move people off of welfare dependency into work situations without penalizing children. Those fundamental agreements have been in place for some time but there are some critical differences in the approach the President would take versus the Republican majority in Congress on some key questions like funding for child care, like making sure that there are federal standards that apply so that there is some consistency of benefits that are available across state lines.

The President is confident that those issues can be addressed if there is a spirit of bipartisanship that prevails in the welfare reform discussion. He has consistently called on Congress to try to put aside any partisan political differences so we can get this very necessary piece of legislation passed.

Q: Will he be moving the budget discussions forward or will he just be again putting out on the table how important it is to get a budget?

MR. McCURRY: Well, he will be again calling on Congress to get the work done and not put the American people and the federal workforce through another threatened shutdown, which is the situation we will be in at the end of this week if Congress has not taken necessary legislation. He is just going to say, once again, that's a very bad idea and you would think that Congress would have learned its lesson by now.

Q: What is the reading on it? Is that highly likely?

MR. McCURRY: Well, it is the President's strong desire to see these measures passed in a way that preserves his fundamental priorities. We've got to maintain our commitments to the elderly and the Medicare program. We've got to make sure that we keep necessary funds available for protecting this nation's environment. The President wants to see investments in education and technology that will, in the long term, spur economic growth. And he doesn't want to see roll backs in so many of these categories that are necessary to maintaining a consistent quality of life for Americans.

The issue here is that the Republican Congress, in essence, wants to cut $32 billion off of the President's stated priorities. We are asking only that they add back some $8 billion for FY 1996, not an unreasonable request in the President's viewpoint. But Congress does not seem to want to move forward to address the priorities that the President has consistently articulated. And based on our experience in two previous government shutdowns, the American people seem to recognize the President has a point when he stands up firmly for those priorities that he articulates.

Q: Is Leon going to be negotiating over the next two days? What are you hoping, that on Friday he'll be able to come back?

MR. McCURRY: We have had a regular pattern of contact at the staff level, Mr. Panetta himself has met with Chairman Livingston, Chairman Hatfield and talked to them on many occasions. The President's concerns and views are very well known to them and there doesn't seem to be any reason why they wouldn't be able to go ahead and address the President's priorities in the fashion that we've suggested -- not any new spending required here; shift from other areas of the budget, change some of the budget priorities to acknowledge that the President's priorities count for something. Congress needs to do that work. They need to do it expeditiously.

And we will continue to press for some kind of discussion on this and the President will suggest that he remains available with the door open and is willing to do so immediately upon his return here to the United States.

Q: Where are we on the '97 budget, the details?

MR. McCURRY: The '97 budget planning continues to move forward. There will be, by sometime later in the month, a fuller presentation on the details. I'm not sure what OMB is planning by way of making that publicly available but they'll let you know.

Q: It was supposed to be produced or published on March 18th.

MR. McCURRY: Sometime next week, that's correct.

Q: That hasn't been moved back?

MR. McCURRY: Not that I'm aware of. But the OMB staff can let you know more.

Q: Back on the budget, the Republicans would argue that they think that the President would not want to veto a bill that would be put in the position of causing the government to shut down because he wants to spend more than what --

MR. McCURRY: Well, spending more is not the issue here. The President wants to change the priorities in the spending. We want to shift, basically, $8 billion away from some categories that the Republicans are insisting upon and shift them into some of the President's priority areas. Specifically, make sure we maintain adequate levels of funding for Medicare for the nation's elderly and that we put some of the money back into programs that are relevant to education and technology that the President thinks are a good long-term investment in the future of the American economy and make sure that we don't cut environmental protection.

We saw a very vivid example in New Jersey yesterday of what happens when you don't have that type of necessary investment. There are other areas related to job training and skills that Secretary Reich can tell you about, where they've taken really deep cuts in our ability to take a workforce that's anxious about its economic future and move them into skills and training, and they will insure that they are higher wage earners as the economy goes through the profound changes the President often tells you about.

It doesn't seem to be asking so much from this Congress. But as usual, this Congress wants to play it right up to the deadline in order to try to hold the President hostage. And the President has made it abundantly clear that he will not be held hostage to that type of tactic.

Q: Has there been any discussion with Congress about another short-term CR that would kick this down the road a couple of weeks so you can resolve the 4 billion --

MR. MCCURRY: There has been discussion, and it is our understanding that some members of Congress have suggested that if they can't resolve these issues, they might adopt that approach.

That is really a haphazard way of running the Federal Government, to kind of put us on one-week, two-week allowances. And its not good for the American people when there's that type of uncertanity. The uncertainity that exists now is having a profound ripple effect throughout the United States. If you can't tell local school districts, for example, what their level of funding is going to be for federal education assistance programs, they can't write budgets. They're trying to prepare for school years where they have no idea where they are going to be in terms of their own budgets. So they're causing damaging effects at the local level as they play all these budetary games up on the Hill.

Let me go -- can I do a little bit on the Middle East trip? Because some of you had asked for that. As you all know, in a short while, the President will depart to co-host the meeting of the Summit of the Americas, with President Mubarak of Egypt in Sharm-El Sheikh, a very appropriate location given the residents of Sharm-El Sheikh and the history of Israel's place in that region.

It was from that location that that the Egyption navy blocaded the Straits of Tiran in the 1967 War. Now that location will stand as a symbol of support within the region for the Middle East Peace process and for Israel's effort to combat the terror it now feels and mourns within its own borders -- so an appropriate location.

The President, upon arrival, will meet with President Mubarak. They'll have an opportunity to review the agenda of the summit, discuss some bilateral issues, but, more imporantly, the conference itself, the summit itself. The Preident will then have, depending on the arragements and the timing, brief bilateral meetings with President Yeltsin and with Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

They will then go into the formal session of the summit of the peacemakers. They will hear from President Clinton, President Yeltsin, Prime Minister Peres, and Chairman Arafat, I belive in that order. And then other heads of state will be recognized for individual presentations.

They will then go into a private session where they will discuss in more detail a support for the peace processs, the necesssity of the region coming together and getting support from the international community as they combat terror, and the steps that together these heads of state and high level representatives of governments can take as they both nurture the peace process and nuture an international effort to combat terrorism.

Over 30 nations are going to be represented, along with the European union and the United Nations. This is perhaps the most significant gathering ever of those who are dedicated to the Middle East peace process. In the past, many of these leaders have come together to celebrate true milestones on the pathway to peace when there have been major agreements, major events to be acknowledged and celebrated.

This is a different type of moment. This is a moment in which the peace process itself is at its most fragile state. But it's at a time when together, shoulder-to-shoulder, these leaders can demonstrate their support for the peace process, their concerns about the region, and demonstrate their willingness to accept Israel into the future of that region as a partner.

Q: What is the reaction to Syria's request for reconvening in Madrid?

MR. McCURRY: That is not an idea under active consideration at this time.

Let me tell you a little bit more. After the formal meeting, President Clinton and President Mubarak will have a brief session with the press where they will read a chairman's statement summarizing the results of the summit. The President will then meet with King Hassan of Morocco, Prime Minister Major, Chairman Arafat. He will then fly to Israel with Prime Mister Peres and upon arrival will have an arrival statement at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.

On Thursday, President Clinton will meet Prime Minster Peres's security cabinet, then have a bilateral meeting. He will also visit the grave of Prime Minster Rabin and Mount Herzl in Tel Aviv. He will then go back -- I'm sorry, in Jerusalem -- he will then go back to Tel Aviv. He will address about 1,200 students at the performing arts center in Tel Aviv and then depart for the United States. Helen?

Q: Is there going to be a communique or a joint statement actually listing some concrete results?

MR. McCURRY: We expect there will be some significant, tangible byproducts of the summit of the peacemakers. The discussion of how to best present those is currently under way. There is a lot of diplomatic activity that sets the stage for a meeting of this nature.

When leaders come together at a moment like this a lot of advance work can assure that their deliberations produce a productive outcome. We believe that the presence of these leaders, especially those from Arab nations, in the presence of the Israeli Prime Minister is, in itself, a very significant statement about the change in that region as a result of the peace process. It is, in fact, a direct rebuke to the terrorists who believe that they could somehow or other throttle the desires of the people of the territories and the Palestinians and the Jews of Israel as they search for a lasting peace in the region.

Q: What is your reaction to Syria's decision not to attend?

MR. McCURRY: Well, we believe that was an unfortunate decision because Syria is very much a part of a peace process that will lead to a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in that region. The deliberations between Syria and Israel are critical to building that type of long-term support for peace. But they made their decision in response to the invitation of President Mubarak and President Clinton and we accept it.

Q: Terrorist organizations have been rebuked before, criticized, vilified -- pick your verb -- and it has had no particular effect. Is anything likely to result from this conference that would accomplish something concrete, either shutting down Hamas offices that are in various countries or anything along those lines?

MR. McCURRY: Well, they are already underway, particularly because of Chairman Arafat's decisions of the last several days -- a significant effort to combat Hamas. And there is significant effort underway within the international community to combat organizations that sponsor terror. The importance of this issue is underscored by the dramatic presence of these high-level representatives of these nations.

I would suggest that for those who believe that they are somehow martyring themselves in the name of stopping the peace process, the vivid demonstration that this process goes forward with renewed strength is, in itself, a very important statement that this summit will make.

Q: And what about Israel? He'll be meeting with Peres about an upcoming anti-terrorism intelligence agreement. Tell us about that.

MR. McCURRY: Well, let me tell you a little bit about the delegation we have and then a little bit about the follow-up we expect in Israel. In addition to the President, the delegation traveling with the President will include the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, the Director of Central Intelligence, John Deutch, Ambassador Dennis Ross, who is our special Middle East coordinator, Mark Parris, who is the key member of our Middle East Peace Team from the National Security Council staff and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Robert Pelletreau.

That delegation sets the stage for not only the bilateral meetings the President will have but I imagine in the course of the day, Wednesday, a fair number of pull-asides that will involve some of the other high level representatives of other governments that are present. That delegation will then journey to Jerusalem and I expect that you will see, after the deliberatinos on Thursday, that Secretary Christopher and CIA director John Deutch will remain behind to address exactly the question that you pose: How can we better cooperate with the government of Israel as we work together to combat terrorism and as the government of Israel develops new capacities working with the Palestinian authority to combat terrorism, both within Israel and within the region? But some of that I will save, obviously, for Thursday.

Q: Will there be any shared U.S. intelligence then? Is that the plan?

MR. McCURRY: Well, we already do have cooperation between our government and their government, and they will examine the question of how we can make our cooperation that exists more effective.

Q: What kind of precautions are you taking for the President's safety in this?

MR. McCURRY: Exactly the ones that you would imagine, and beyond that I won't comment.

Q: Can I ask a Cuban question when that's wrapped up?

MR. McCURRY: Sure.

Q: Cuba reacted to the President signing of Helms-Burton by -- I don't have the exact words in front of me -- but calling it another effort by the United States to meddle in the affairs in Cuba, something it's been doing for years and years, and said they would work to negate the effects of the bill. And we need reaction to that.

MR. McCURRY: Well, in some sense, Fidel Castro is right. We do want to see changes within Cuba. We want to see Cuba commit itself to human rights, to a better quality of standard of life for the citizens of Cuba. And we want to see them make the commitment that every other nation in this hemisphere has made towards democracy and towards market economics. Fidel Castro is an outlyer in history now and is a relic of the past. And he needs to understand that the force of history in this century and into the next century lies with those democractic nations that, through peaceful means, advance commerce, advance market economics. In short, he needs to get with it. And that is the message of the Helms-Burton Act.

And so if he is reacting strongly against that, it not only confirms the pattern that he has pursued now for well over three decades of being stuck in the past, but it also indicates that he in no time soon will enjoy the benefits of more fruitful dialog with the international community.

Q: You all worked hard to negotiate this waiver process in the Helms-Burton bill. But as soon as Congressmen started coming out into the driveway out here, they were all warning you against ever using it. Senator Helms said specifically that if the President did that, he would regret it. He didn't specify why. Do you all have any reaction to that?

MR. McCURRY: Well, under Title III of the legislation, the President has no ability to consider any waiver of the provisions of the Helms-Burton Act until much later this year, mid-summer at the earliest. So we will look at that question when the appropriate time comes. I don't want to speculate on what the President will assess as the environment for deliberation under Title III at this time.

Q: Sort of following up on that, as you know, Canada and Mexico were both saying that they hope that they will be granted a waiver because it violates NAFTA. Would you have any reaction what you're telling Canada or Mexico right now?

MR. McCURRY: Well, that specific legal question on what are the implications of NAFTA, to my knowledge, have not been examined within our government yet. What we would suggest kindly to our trading partners, both in the Americas and also in Europe, is that the devastating tragic violation of international law by the Cuban government when it shot down these two unarmed planes is testimony to how preposterous is the suggestion that you can somehow or other moderate the behavior of Fidel Castro's regime through economic commerce. The facts very clearly now demonstrate exactly the reverse, and that is the reason why we are toughening our own economic sanctions against Cuba and it is why we will continue to press vigorously for change in Cuba that leads Cuba towards democracy and market economics.

Q: Just to folloow then, exporters from other countries that are not NAFTA, are they directly penalized? Obviously, there are psychological penalties -- legal penalties against them?

MR. McCURRY: Well, under the extraterritoriality provision of the Helms-Burton Act, a right of action could arise against some of those entities if they are invested in property that has been expropriated as a result of Fidel Castro's regime. Now, there is a very specific legal right of action that is outlined in the bill. It's not a blanket one. It has to be a result of a legal action taken in a U.S. court, but it is one that is significant and one that obviously is going to be of some concern to those nations that have invested in Fidel Castro's regime.

Q: It's only expropriated costs concerned?

MR. McCURRY: I belive that's correct, but the exact wording of that provision of the bill I think you can get from the bill.

Q: You talk about relics of the past, but we have a policy that is rooted in the past and that has been bereft for nearly 50 years, 40 years, to get us the sanctions against Cuba and so forth. You want market economics. Maybe they don't want it. I mean, the point is it's up to the people of Cuba.

MR. McCURRY: I don't know that that is a correct historic judgment. You are entitled to make that judgment if you wish. But the pattern of change in Cuba, the demonstrable desire of the Cuban people to move away from the very rigid formulations of totalitarian communism seems pretty clear. It may, in our own analysis, have something to do with the fact that Fidel Castro has taken these reprehensible actions. In short, within the framework of our own policy --

Q: Maybe they do want change, but I'm saying our policy has not changed.

MR. McCURRY: Within the framework of the Cuban Democracy Act, which enjoys bipartisan support that you saw here at the White House today, there are provisions designed to encourage the people of Cuba to think about the benefits of a more prosperous form of economics and a more sensible form of politics. It is the nature of our policy and I think there is some concrete evidence that the people of Cuba understand that and that they would like to move on with history and be on the right side of history for a change.

Q: Let me just ask one follow-up. They mentioned that the Cubans said they worked to try to negate the effect of this. I understand idealistically what you want in the long term, but in the near term what will be the effect of Helms-Burton? What do you seek to accomplish with this right now?

MR. McCURRY: What we seek to accomplish right now is what the purpose of our entire approach to Cuba has been for some time.

We want to increase the pressure on that regime to understand that its future lies with democracy and with more market economics and that those changes are within its grasp, if it only does what every other totalitarian country has done: shed the vestages of a brutal form of dictatorship and enjoy the benefits and fruits that come from more democratic relations with other peaceful nations and more appropriate economic ties with countries that enjoy markets and the benefits of democratic capitalism.

Q: Mike, to change the subject, China and live-fire exercises. Can you bring us up to date? There have been conflicting reports.

MR. McCURRY: I have not had anything that can bring anyone up to date. We are still monitoring the situation very carefully and we've got a very active presence of the Seventh Fleet in the vicinty of Taiwan, and they continue to monitor very carefully the tests that have been announced by the People's Republic.

I am not aware that there is any information that suggests that there have been any live-fire aspects of that, those exercises, as of this moment, but they are anticipating, given the announcement of the People's Republic.

Q: What is your understanding of the American commitment to Taiwan if China should mount aggression of some sort against Taiwan?

MR. McCURRY: My understanding is that the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 apply, that the United States asserts a strong interest in peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue and that use of force, threat of force, or use of means that are non-peaceful to attempt to coerce behavior related to that issue are unwelcome and a source of grave concern.

Obviously any military action that produces results contrary to the stipulations of the Taiwan Relations Act would be a source of grave concern and grave consequences.

Q: But you think the United States would be bound by the 1979 Act to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression?

MR. McCURRY: The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act does not answer that question specifically and, indeed, there is merit we believe in keeping somewhat ambiguous about the answer.

Q: Do you think our show of force will convince China to stop or interrupt the military exercises?

MR. McCURRY: That is not likely. That is not the purpose of our presence there. The purpose of our presence there is to make clear that we have interest in the Western Pacific. We assert them both through our diplomacy and through the presence of our military assets.

Q: Are you suggesting to Taiwan that they act with restraint also?

MR. McCURRY: We have always urged both Taiwan and the People's Republic as they address the difficult issue of Taiwan to avoid provocative and belligerent steps. But the issue here in this instance are the military exercises that the People's Republic has conducted in an attempt, we believe, to affect the outcome of the March 23rd election on Taiwan.

Q: On another peacemaking matter, the Prime Minister of Ireland on Friday -- what is supposed to come of that? Are they going to simply review where this process stands or what?

MR. McCURRY: Well, the President was encouraged by the announcement that Prime Minister Major and Prime Minister Bruton made recently -- for all party talks June 10th this will be an excellent opportunity with Prime Minister Bruton to review the preparation for those all-party talks to review the status of the peace process itself, to celebrate the fact that even admits the recent set back with the resumption of terror activity in the United Kingdom. The strongly expressed desire of the people of Northern Ireland is for peace, Protestant and Catholic alike.

And as the President suggested in his remarks last night, it's at difficult moments in the peace process that you have to remain most constantly faithful to the process itself because that's the way you overcome adversity and set backs.

Q: One final question on China, any reaction to the Amnesty International report condemning China's human rights record.

MR. McCURRY: We have no specific reaction. We will certainly, as we always do with Amnesty International's contributions to the debate, study their analysis.

I would suggest, though, that last week the United States government rendered its own, very extensive commentary on that same body of material when it released its own human rights evaluations of the Peoples Republic during the calendar year. We stand by that -- those judgments in that report and believe that much of the same criticism raised was addressed effectively in our own human rights report.

Thank you. We'll see you all back here on Friday.


EST 1:45 P.M. EST

William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Mike McCurry Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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