Bill Clinton photo

Press Briefing by Mike McCurry

March 21, 1996

The Briefing Room

1:30 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I don't have any prepared statements, so I'll just take your questions if you have any.

Q: Preval is over?

MR. MCCURRY: No, the President continues his working luncheon at this hour with President Preval, and I'm hoping that if we don't go on too terribly long we might have one other participant down here to do a readout. I can tell you a little bit about some of the concerns the President was going to address, but I think we will be able to have a more complete readout shortly.

Q: The President's comments about the product liability bill seem to have confused some people on the Hill.


Q: Is he still intending to veto it, and what did he mean when he said -- modest changes?

MR. MCCURRY: The President is quite clear in the statement we released on Saturday and the letter that we sent to the Hill that this is a piece of legislation that could be fixed to his satisfaction if they addressed the punitive damages issue and the joint and several liability issue. The President recognizes that it's important to proceed with reform, wants to see that done, but wants to see the right kind of bill passed by Congress. So the bill they're working on now is unacceptable to him; he will veto that bill. We are hopeful that that veto would be sustained by Congress and then we can get back to writing a satisfactory bill.

Q: So when he was talking about improvements, he was saying after he vetoes it he hopes there's improvements.

MR. MCCURRY: Absolutely. The President will veto the legislation that's working its way through Congress now in its present shape. And then we can get on with the business of writing a bill that will do what we need to do, which is protect consumers, but also bring about the right kind of reform.

Q: What is the President's position on the immigration bill that is moving through the House? And does he favor the reduction of caps on legal immigration at all?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have endorsed in a general sense the recommendations of the Jordan Commission. This bill has got two separate component parts -- in fact, now being separated -- the issues related to legal immigration and those related to illegal immigration. The President continues to believe we need reform, we've got to ensure that immigration is orderly and legal. And we have sent a variety of proposals to Congress on how you can more effectively do that.

In the area of illegal immigration, much of what Congress is considering already reflects things the administration is doing through its enforcement activity. On the legal immigration side of the bill there are a number of problems. The House took a very bad step yesterday in the wrong direction with the provision related to public education for those who are here illegally. They seem to be suggesting that if they're not in school, they would be better off out on the streets, participating in gang activities, doing who knows what or, alternatively, turning teachers and principals into adjunct offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. That's a nutty idea, and one more reflection of why that provision of the bill would need to be fixed.

But we believe we can get on with the work of the right kind of reform and produce the right kind of immigration reform measures as we work through this down the road.

Q: Does he think that lowering the current numerical limits?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, he favors their approach that was recommended in the Jordan Commission that did have some very measured, applicable standards for a reduction in immigration numbers. And there were good reasons for that and we've set those forward in our statement of administration policy that went up on the initial bill.

Q: On Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Major has made an announcement about elections. What is the administration's position on that, and do you think that it will be effective without a cease-fire?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, first of all, first and foremost, we believe that all parties must restore the cease-fire. We haven't wavered on that at all. But we've also, simultaneously, said that as they move toward the June 10th all-party talks, this type of election process could be useful. And the announcement today is in that context of moving all parties to the all-party talks, and the view of the White House is that this is a constructive step.

Now, it's obviously not the type of proposal that can please everybody because it is designed to encourage maximum participation, so not everybody got exactly what they wanted. But we applaud the efforts of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland to structure an election process and a forum to address the issue of Northern Ireland that will move the parties farther along to the path of peace.

Q: On the House measures that they want to attach to the Kennedy-Kassebaum, the medical savings accounts and limiting medical malpractice suits, is the President opposed to both of those?

MR. MCCURRY: The President is opposed to attaching to that legislation those things that will make it controversial. In its present shape, it enjoys broad, bipartisan support, and it could be passed right now if the Republican Congress did not attempt to load it up with efforts that are bound to cause controversy.

Now, malpractice is a very large issue that relates to some of the other questions of legal reform that we've been addressing and the specific issue of medical savings accounts -- you know our concern about that provision. We don't think that that's a warranted rewrite of our current system of federal support for health care.

We've acknowledged that we might want to experiment with some of those concepts that a widespread application of that approach is bound to favor the wealthiest and favor the healthiest. And that exactly puts those who are most vulnerable and at risk in our population, particularly among the elderly, at greater risk.

So we've got strong concern about that. And in any event, they don't need to do -- there are larger questions of reform of the Medicaid system that we need to address. That should be a part of the overall budget deliberations that are underway. We ought to pass the Kassebaum-Kennedy bill now to give workers protections in the two areas that are specifically covered by the bill, preexisting conditions and portability of coverage.

Q: Is there a risk, Mike, of another government shutdown Friday night?

MR. MCCURRY: We would hope not. As Mr. Panetta indicated earlier today on the Hill, the Congress knows what it needs to do to get on with the business of addressing the remaining 1996 appropriations measures that are outstanding. We're fairly confident that before tomorrow night, Congress will pass yet another one-week allowance for the federal government.

We have suggested numerous times it's not an effective way to run the federal government; it puts the entire federal management process at some risk because you have to kind of work on one week dole-outs, but -- (laughter) -- but, anyhow, the larger issues that need to be addressed as part of the FY '96 process were taken up by the President and his congressional counterpart leaders yesterday, and we have remained confident that there is at least a willingness and an understanding on the part of the Republican leadership that they gain nothing, in fact, probably lose, when they try to hold the President hostage and threaten a shutdown of government. So we don't think they're going to employ that tactic.

Q: Mike, speaking of Senator Dole, what's the President's view of the Senator's commitment to bring the assault weapons ban to a vote in the Senate?

MR. MCCURRY: The President spoke to that issue earlier. That is a dreadful decision regardless of who is pushing it. It's quite clear that this is being pushed by the Washington gun lobby, and for reasons that are not entirely clear to us, they seem to have an extraordinary hook into the Republican Leader of the House and the Republican Leader of the Senate. And as Senator Dole stated very clearly in his letter to the gun lobby last year, he's committed to them to bring this measure to a vote.

But why they would do that at this point when the Majority Leader himself yesterday identified a very ambitious agenda for the next nine days that needs to be addressed now, why they would divert and go to this measure which is going to put law enforcement officials at risk, which is going to put more American citizens at risk, which is going to turn back the progress we've seen as a result of the assault weapons ban -- we know that assault weapons are eight times more likely to be involved in the commission of a violent crime.

Q: Mike, you're not worried that it's going to become law, there isn't the slightest chance it can become law, is there?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's not the slightest chance it will become law while Bill Clinton is the President of the United States of America. He will veto this.

Q: So what's all the upset about? You know you can veto it, you know you can sustain it. What's the --

MR. MCCURRY: What we're upset about is why are they doing this at a time -- it sends exactly the wrong signal to all those law enforcement organizations that support this. Cops and law enforcement officials across this country are united in saying that we ought to keep this assault weapons ban in place. So why are they -- why is Republican Congress so determined to send an anti-law enforcement message to the law enforcement community?

Q: Why do you think? Why?

MR. MCCURRY: Because they are in the pockets of the Washington gun lobby, that's why.

Q: Mike, Senator Dole's people are saying, though, that there is no vote scheduled in the Senate. There's no indication they are going to schedule a vote, despite the commitment.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's a hopeful sign. Perhaps he's responding to the very strong encouragement from President Clinton today that he not schedule such a vote in the Senate. We'd be encouraged, in fact, if the Majority Leader made that announcement today; that would be a welcome development.

Q: He gave them their word he would in the letter that you pointed out.

Q: So you're suggesting it's a good thing when people break their pledges?

MR. MCCURRY: He gave the Washington gun lobbyists his word that they would bring it up for a vote. He, in fact, said he would do it in 1995, so in that sense he already broke that part of the word, but there's no reason to do it now. There's no reason to -- at a time when Congress has got a lot of work to do and when they are so far behind on the work that they are constitutionally charged to do, which is writing a budget, why would they divert and take time to address this measure which is unnecessary, in fact, damaging to the interests of the American people?

The longer you want to spend on this, the better -- (laughter.) I'll wail on.

Q: Has the President received this letter from House Republicans calling on him to ask for Judge Baer's resignation?

MR. MCCURRY: Not to my knowledge, it hasn't come here. But Congress is off writing letters about this; we are actually doing something about this. Our U.S. Attorney appointed by the President has been up in court and has gotten the judge to consider reversing what is obviously a wrongheaded decision. So we're actually doing something about it while they're off writing letters. But we'll look at the letter when it comes in.

Q: But in terms of the specific call for Judge Baer's resignation, does the President regret appointing him to the bench? And what --

MR. MCCURRY: The President regrets his decision. He made a bad decision. He's in the process of reexamining that decision at the urging of President Clinton's U.S. Attorney in that court.

Q: So the President told him to do that, did he?

MR. MCCURRY: Say again.

Q: The White House told the guy to do that?

MR. MCCURRY: The White House Legal Counsel asked the Justice Department what was going on and the U.S. Attorney in the area already had the matter under review because of the strong objections the Justice Department had.

Q: So this was not directed from the White House?

MR. MCCURRY: Not directed from the -- it was already in process, but it was certainly something that the President encouraged.

Q: So you're saying he won't consider asking him for his resignation?

MR. MCCURRY: The President has -- we would evaluate Judge Baer's record as anyone legitimately should on the full breadth of his cases. There are a lot of Reagan-appointed judges, Bush-appointed judges that have made wrongheaded, stupid decisions, too. And I haven't seen the Republican Congress urge their resignations.

Q: Mike, again, back to the question -- is that a no? No, he is not going to call for the resignation?

MR. MCCURRY: We are interested in seeing how he rules in this upcoming consideration of the case.

Q: Are you leaving open the possibility that in the future --

MR. MCCURRY: I think I made that pretty clear by that answer.

Q: Mike, the First Lady today has a deadline facing her in answering the Travelgate questions. Do you know if she's going to turn those answers over -- are you guys planning to release them --

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not familiar with the issue or with -- I didn't know that she had outstanding questions, but you can check with Mark Fabiani.

Q: Who do we talk to?

MR. MCCURRY: Say again?

Q: He's on leave. Who do we talk to?

MR. MCCURRY: We'll check with Jane Sherborne and see if we can get an answer.

Q: Could you give us what you have on the Preval visit with respect to political assassinations, or whatever?

MR. MCCURRY: I can tell you that that subject -- the President intended to raise that subject and intended to point to the importance of the conversation that Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott had with members of the Haitian delegation earlier today. The Deputy Secretary, at some length, raised our concerns about political violence in Haiti, suggested that as the Haitian law enforcement develops and acquires new law enforcement skills and professionalization, they must turn their attention to prosecuting those that are guilty of these heinous crimes.

Q: Mike, if the Congress passes another short-term spending thing, the President will sign it?

MR. MCCURRY: If it's another one-week extender, along the same terms as the one that is in place for this week, of course, the President would sign it. But we would strongly encourage the Congress to get down to work and start producing some serious regular appropriations measures so we don't go through this week-by-week nonsense.

Q: Did he make a plea yesterday to stop this installment plan?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, he did. He said that we've got --

Q: What did they say?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, they responded by saying -- well, that was exactly their response. Senator Dole and Speaker Gingrich said we are going to work real hard next week on the measures that we believe we need to get done prior to the Easter recess. But they shouldn't leave town until they get that work done.

Q: Mike, there was a press conference in Beirut today by the head of Hezbollah, boasting that he's got a whole slew of additional suicide bombers ready to go. Coming so soon after Sharm El-Sheikh, what does this tell the administration in terms of Syrian cooperation and Lebanon's so-called independence?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's an indicator that the enemies of peace reside in many quarters. And those who have influence over those enemies of peace ought to exercise that influence to tell them to stop. We have encouraged many of the parties to do exactly that, and we believe that there are many, including the Syrian government, in a position to be of influence. And our strongly-held view that we've communicated directly to them is that they should use that influence.

Q: Mike, just to make sure that I understood you on Judge Baer, am I correct to understand you are leaving open the possibility --

MR. MCCURRY: That was asked and answered.

Last question in the back.

Q: Mike, I'm trying to understand the answer.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I gave a good, appropriately elliptic answer.

Q: Congressman Archer, along with other congressional leaders, sent a letter to the President yesterday, urging him to address the insurance agreement at the upcoming summit in April with Prime Minister Hashimoto. Have you seen that letter, and what's the reaction to it?

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard anything about that. We'll look into that, and you can ask about that tomorrow.

Anybody want to ask some more assault weapons questions while we wait for Sandy Berger? Sandy Berger will be here momentarily, and we'll give you a readout on the Preval meeting.

Q: Has the President made any arrangements yet to videotape his testimony?

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard of any, and I asked the Counsel's Office this morning if they had any final negotiations on that, and they said no.

Q: So you're -- on the one hand, you think clearly this is such a great political issue for you; on the other hand, the President said --

MR. MCCURRY: I didn't say anything about political issue.

Q: You said you want to talk and talk about it --

MR. MCCURRY: We'll take that question back there.

Q: Is the administration considering nominating Brooksley Born as head of the CFTC?

MR. MCCURRY: She is very highly regarded and it wouldn't be a surprise if she was under consideration, but I'm not aware of any final decision that's ready to announce on that.

Come back and try it again.

Q: The President said all these Democrats lost their seats probably because of the assault weapons vote. On the other hand, this does seem to be a political winner; the President features it in his ads. Give me your assessment of what the politics of the assault weapons.

MR. MCCURRY: Look, I can't assess the politics; that's up to voters to assess, because they make decisions by the individual candidates. What I can tell you is that it is a documented fact that the gun lobby poured millions and millions of dollars into congressional races around this country to defeat those that didn't abide by its very extreme view of what we ought to do to protect the American people. They worked those issues very hard, they poured a lot of money in, and I think it's safe to say that the commitments that you see from the Republican leadership to the gun lobby might have something to do with why we are debating this very dreadful measure in the midst of a season in which there is so much other work to do.

Q: Mike, if it's fair for you to accuse the advocates of repeal of being in the pocket of the gun lobby, why isn't it fair for Republicans to accuse the President of being in the pocket of the trial lawyers lobby in opposing product liability?

MR. MCCURRY: We can respond accurately to those charges, just as I'm sure the Republicans will respond to anything we say about the gun lobby.

Q: Just to follow on something that was hit earlier, what I don't understand is, if this gun -- assault weapons repeal creates such hazards for law enforcement, for citizens, for various other groups, why isn't that a great issue for the President as you go into the election year, and why wouldn't you all be just completely satisfied that the Republicans are attempting to do this?

MR. MCCURRY: Look, the President talked about this today. It is abundantly clear that we would talk about this in the context of having voters understand what kind of choice is available. They've got a very extreme agenda coming from the hard right, compared to the common-ground agenda that the President is trying to advance. That's basically the argument that we would make. And in this specific case, we put in place a measure that is protecting law enforcement officers, protecting the American people, and has helped reduce violence in the streets of America's cities, as opposed to those in the Republican Party who apparently want to put more assault weapons out on the street, in the hands of criminals. That's a pretty good contrast.

That's not a bad issue to put before the voters and say, which one of these two choices do you want to make. So you will hear more about that, as properly you should. That's a very important issue, in the President's view.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:55 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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