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Press Briefing by Mike McCurry

March 25, 1996

The Briefing Room

1:13 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to our White House for today's daily briefing. I start today with two travel-related announcements. The first: No coincidence that this is April Fool's Day. The President of the United States, on April 1, will journey to Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland, to deliver -- what shall we call it, a fast pitch?

Q: Slow.

MR. MCCURRY: Slow pitch? Knuckleball? Screwball? (Laughter.)

Q: The opening pitch.

Q: How about another pitch?

MR. MCCURRY: He'll hum one in there and throw out the first pitch as the nation begins its national pastime. I don't even know -- who are the Orioles playing? Anybody know?

Q: Kansas City, I think.

MR. MCCURRY: Kansas City? I think that's right.

So he'll do that on Monday. And then on Friday, April 5th, certainly a more somber occasion, the President will go to Oklahoma City for the day. He will be out of the country on the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing and did want to have an opportunity to visit with that community as it continues the spiritual healing that is taking place there as it rebuilds from the aftermath of the terrible bombing. The community itself has made enormous progress in reconciling itself in the aftermath of that terrible tragedy, and the President would like to go share a moment with the victims, the families and the community itself.

And with that --

Q: Do you think, Mike, the sort of crisis atmosphere with China and Taiwan is now over in the aftermath of the election?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that there was a crisis atmosphere to begin with. There were some tensions related to the Taiwan Straits, related to military exercises underway, that there will remain differences between the United States and the People's Republic as we work through a very difficult, important agenda in what is, arguably, one of the most important relations we have in the world.

We still have significant differences with the People's Republic, and we know that. The important thing is how effectively can we manage them and manage them peacefully so that the large importance of this relationship is not lost. And we'll continue that type of dialogue ourselves with the People's Republic. I believe the State Department will announce today that, very graciously, Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister Qian Qichen has agreed to a one- or two-day adjustment in his scheduled meeting with Secretary Christopher in the Hague, accommodating the Secretary's need to be in Moscow with the President when he has a bilateral summit with President Yeltsin.

But that, I think, reflects the fact that we want to work at this relationship. It's desperately important that we work at it and we try to get it right, despite the differences that do exist.

Q: What about the trade differences, the commercial issues? Isn't there something on the agenda now -- Ex-Im Bank?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have a series of trade and economic issues in which there are some differences. There is a specific question involving the Ex-Im Bank and consideration of new applications there that are affected by our review, under our own arms export law and non-proliferation law, as to the nature of a transaction that we're trying to learn more about in direct dialogue with the Chinese.

We also have, of course, human rights concerns. We have a host of new concerns that are normally on the agenda of any two great countries, as they deliberate matters of importance to each of them. And we will have to just continue to work through these issues and maintain a very disciplined approach to how we nurture a relationship that in its broad sense and in the long-term will be enormously important to the people of the United States and, indeed, to the people of the People's Republic.

Q: Are you all sure "nurturing" is the right term for a relationship with a police state --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, this is a regime with which we have differences because its form of government is not that of a democratic capitalist state. But that's why we work through the differences that do exist, recognizing the importance of the transformation the Chinese economy is making, as it reaches for market economics in the structure of its own political economy. That is a very important transformation that is taking place, and it is encouraging to us that they continue on that path of economic reform. We hope that the other issues in which there are differences, that relate more to the nature of their political system, can also be addressed and addressed effectively.

Q: Mike, China has said that it will disband the legislative body in Hong Kong after it takes over Hong Kong in 1997 and replace it with an appointed body.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we're concerned by the Chinese government's decision to disband the elected legislature in Hong Kong and establish an appointed body. We believe that stable governing structures are going to be critical to Hong Kong's long-term future and the transition that Hong Kong will make, and we hope that the Chinese government will seek ways to demonstrate its commitment to Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy as we approach the date of July 1st, 1997, which is critical to the nature of the transition that will take place in Hong Kong.

Q: Are you going to raise this issue with China?

MR. MCCURRY: Hong Kong has been on our bilateral relationship in the past. We confer very often with the government of the United Kingdom of that subject, and we do continue our contact with the parties as we watch that transformation.

Q: Where precisely does the Ex-Im Bank matter stand right now? Also, there was a report over the weekend that China has sort of rebuffed our efforts to get them to make some more pledges -- or no more transfers to Pakistan. Is that true?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'll take the second question first, because it relates to the answer to the first half of the question. Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Einhorn's delegation has returned from its consultations in the People's Republic related to proliferation concern that we have. That delegation will report back to senior policy makers in our government in the course of the coming week, and we will continue to assess the nature of the transaction that has been of concern to us.

As you recall, the Secretary of State had made a request of the Ex-Im Bank that they independently judge the merits of accepting new applications related to China during the period of our review. Our understanding is that the Ex-Im Bank does not have any plans in the immediate future to consider new applications which, of course, we consider appropriate as we continue our review.

Q: What is the President doing today, Mike?

MR. MCCURRY: The President has met with, I believe. 40 of the nation's attorneys general to discuss a range of issues, specifically the efforts by state governments to implement the so-called Synar regulations date back to a measure that was offered and adopted by Congress in 1992 by the late Congressman Michael Synar. Individual states -- this is, in a sense, a federal incentive for states to enforce their own state laws that prohibit or restrict the sale of tobacco products to minors, a subject that's very much been on the President's mind.

They discussed that, the antiterrorism bill, a range of other issues that are on the minds of the attorneys general, many of whom I believe you talked to after the meeting.

Q: Does the President have a position on the states suing to recover -- suing tobacco companies to recover Medicaid costs since it does involve federal money?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the state -- the United States is now a party in those suits, to my knowledge. The President understands, as a former state official himself, the desire of many states to recoup some of the costs that they bear for the payment of funds that are related to illnesses and diseases that are -- may or may not be tobacco-related, as established by litigation.

Q: Do you support such lawsuits?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe the federal government is a party in those state suits, so I don't think we should comment beyond that.

Mary, welcome to the White House.

Q: Thank you. What about the ban on assault weapons? Does the President believe -- well, everybody knows it's not going anywhere, but does he think it should just be allowed to die, or would he like to see it taken to the Senate floor and Mr. Dole required to vote yes or no on it?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President, as you know, at the beginning of his meeting with the attorneys general today expressed himself on that subject and how dreadful it would be at this point to take a measure that has reduced crime and reduced the commission of crimes involving the weapons that are made illegal, particularly when they're used against law enforcement officers. And he addressed the need to keep that ban in place.

Now, the Senate schedule will be up to Senator Dole and others to decide, but we'd make a helpful suggestion: Why don't they affirm the importance of the existing ban rather than consider a repeal measure which is very much unwarranted. Perhaps a majority of the Senate would like to go record saying that this ban has been useful; it has curbed the commission of crimes with these types of deadly weapons; and in the interest of America's people and especially our law enforcement officers, it ought properly to remain in place.

Q: Well, of course, the Majority Leader does decide the calendar and everything, but on this bill it's possible for any member to bring it up as an amendment to any bill. And I wondered if the President would encourage some of his fellow Democrats to do that.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we try not to enter into their -- the deliberative process of the world's greatest deliberative body unnecessarily, but it might, as I suggest, be useful for them to affirm the value of the existing assault weapons ban. I think that is a course that we would prefer to consideration of a repeal measure, which is, as you suggested, not likely to go anywhere and in any event is not a good idea.

Q: But, Mike, wouldn't that take up a lot of precious time?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we are concerned about that --

Q: And the President this morning is suggesting that the Senate should devote its energies to more productive issues.

MR. MCCURRY: We are concerned with that. But if properly structured, a limited debate affirming the importance of the assault weapons ban might not be a bad idea. But you're right. The President believes first and foremost there are a number of issues that have to be resolved this week that need attention: the debt ceiling, the issue of the continuing resolution, how we're going to pay for that part of government that hasn't been funded yet, and there are other items on the congressional calendar. But given that this has been voted upon in the House now, perhaps it would be useful if the Senate just said, look, we're 180 degrees in the other direction; we think this ban is useful and it should stay in place -- and get it over and done with quickly.

Q: But you're again leaving us with the impression that you think this is a politically good issue for the President, and he wouldn't mind letting the Senate squirm over it for --

MR. MCCURRY: I didn't address the political merits whatsoever.

Q: Mike, speaking of those issues, can you your report any program on the 1996 budget talks?

MR. MCCURRY: There have been some discussions late Friday between Mr. Panetta and others on the Hill. Those will continue this week. We hope that they will continue to address some of the priorities the President has put forward on these funding measures. There's a lot of work left to do, and we hope during the course of this week, as they wrestle these measures down, they can make some add-backs in that recognize some of what the President has been talking about in terms of the importance of investments in technologies in education and environment protection. There are still way too many measures attached to some of the proposed drafts of these bills that just don't cut it with the President, and we hope they will consider dropping those measures -- specifically ones related to some environment issues.

Q: Is it still the White House's position that there shouldn't be any more continuing resolutions passed if the one that runs out -- it looks like -- some people are suggesting it's going to go on until next week, even the normal course of negotiations.

MR. MCCURRY: I mean, it's our view that this maintenance of government by weekly continuing resolutions is a lousy way to do business. And since the funding level is at 75 percent, what you are in effect doing for these parts of the government that have these continuings is engaging in a de facto slow-motion shutdown. And the President feels that's not a good way to do business. We need to have regular appropriations bills where we can get them for these departments and Cabinet agencies that are affected, and get on with business. And we would much prefer to see resolution of these issues so we can put in place something that structures the financing of the remainder of the federal government for the balance of this fiscal year.

Q: Mike, The New York Times had a major story on Guatemala this weekend. When is the Intelligence Oversight Committee issuing a final report?

MR. MCCURRY: They have -- as you know, the Intelligence Oversight Board has made two interim reports to the President. They expect to complete their review in the first half of this year. I don't think it's possible to predict now how soon that will be, but they are very much in their final stages. The work of the board is substantially completed at this point; there are only a few discreet matters that remain outstanding. There are some efforts underway to get some remaining facts on particular cases and we do expect the Intelligence Oversight Board to meet that target of completing its report by the first half of this year.

Q: Mike, Imus this morning called his critics "morons," "gutless," and "weasels." Do you have a response to that?

MR. MCCURRY: We would prefer that that otherwise memorable performance become as forgettable as quickly as possible.

Q: I think that Senator Dole's visit to San Quentin was aimed at the President in some way. How did you interpret it? What message did you get out of it?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't try to discern the wisdom or the merits behind his travel schedule. I do sense that the Republican majority in Congress is conscious of the fact that this President has established an exemplary record when it comes to protecting America's law enforcement officials who overwhelmingly support the ban on assault weapons. And I think they know, and perhaps Senator Dole himself knows, how much heat they are taking at this moment because of their effort to repeal that ban. So perhaps they're looking for ways to try to demonstrate some concern about crime. They are running right up against the President who's demonstrated his concern in the measures that he has fought for. And, perhaps, that suggests itself a motive behind some of their scheduling.

Q: I have a question about the White House art collection, if I might. Legal Times reported today that the White House has quietly added a new painting to its collection, and it's not just any art work, it's the first art work by an African American artist to ever have been entered into the White House's permanent collection. So it's taken 200 years to break the color line. The President, the First Lady deserve credit. The artist's name, Henry Ossawa Tanner, is essentially the Jackie Robinson of the White House. The question is why have you been so silent about it? Is it a secret? How much did it cost? And why didn't you announce it during Black History Month in February?

MR. MCCURRY: The answer is because I didn't know a thing about it. If I had known about it, I probably would have been happy to announce it here because it does sound like it is an important recognition of the achievements that African American artists have made in our culture.

Did you have one last one?

Q: Yes. Senator Muskie is in critical condition.


Q: Has the President sent over any wish --

MR. MCCURRY: He's very concerned about that. Secretary Christopher, I think, may have told him about it earlier today. The President was very concerned to hear about former Senator Muskie's condition, and our thoughts and prayers will be with him and with his family.

Q: Do you have a date for the corporate responsibility conference?

MR. MCCURRY: We don't have a date at this point, but as you can imagine, we will address that with great fanfare and hooplah as we get closer to the date, perhaps even providing a little glimpse at what this conference might do. But it is scheduled tentatively for some time in the coming months.

Q: Is it going to be in Washington?

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't -- did you all get that question over the weekend? It hasn't been decided, but my understanding was they were thinking of doing it here in Washington.

Q: So it could be here? Or it could be somewhere else?

MR. MCCURRY: Enjoy the rest of this beautiful spring afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, because I don't see any more news around this place.

Q: Is the President going to golfing?

MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't be surprised, it's so nice out.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:30 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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