Bill Clinton photo

Press Briefing by Mike McCurry

January 03, 1996

The Briefing Room

1:22 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Have at me. I know about the vote; it looks like it's going in a fairly predictable party-line fashion.

Q: Really?

MR. MCCURRY: Apparently, yes. So far. But it's not over yet. Hello. Any questions?

Q: So what's happening? What's new on the budget and the shutdown?

MR. MCCURRY: Nothing new. We expect -- the time has been changed on the President's meeting with his other budget negotiators. They'll be meeting here at 3:00 p.m. now, not at 1:30 p.m. That's for reasons that have to do with the members' schedules. And they expect to go -- we've budgeted three hours again, just based on how it's gone in the last couple of days. But I obviously can't predict at this point how long we'll be there.

Q: And when does the Cabinet meeting --

MR. MCCURRY: The Cabinet meeting is underway now and we expect the President to drop by at some point. They're getting an update on the budget discussions from Mr. Panetta with Secretary Rubin and Director Rivlin participating in that discussion. They'll also hear from John Koskinen, the Deputy Director of OMB, on some of the consequences of the shutdown, what OMB has been doing to manage the shutdown. And then individual Cabinet Secretaries will report in on some of the effects that they're feeling as a result of the shutdown.

Q: Same question as yesterday: Is there any imminent action by the President to recall any workers in any category?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of any, but there are some that are being very carefully evaluated. Just one example: We've heard today from Dr. Mark B. Norton, who is the Director of Health for the state of Nebraska. Nebraska is one of 10 states that currently has been designated as having a widespread influenza outbreak, and he's writing and saying they've already had three non-elderly deaths there. They desperately need the assistance of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta as they track through the disease and see what they can do to try to prevent the spread, and they, of course, don't have federal health officials in Atlanta at CDC available to them to help. So he's writing to urgently request that we do something on an emergency basis to reopen the CDC, and we will evaluate that to see if there's legal authority to do so.

Q: Alan Blinder is quoted as saying this economic data that's missing is becoming a crucial issue for the policymakers at the Fed. Is there any chance that could become an emergency issue?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I can't comment on Fed policymaking, but just about every day here at the White House we have folks from the CEA who provide us with routine updates of economic data that is important in giving the President, his senior advisers, a picture of how the economy is performing. And now for the last three-plus weeks they have had no data to report. So it does have some -- it makes your picture of what's happening in the economy less clear.

Q: Does the President have any leverage at all except to publicly appeal? Does he have -- is there any other resources that he can get these things --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we can attempt through our own executive authority to manage the consequences of this shutdown and to fulfill the President's legal obligation, statutory obligation to manage the life, health and property implications of the shutdown. We can continue to strongly and publicly urge the Congress to relent, specifically the House Republicans, which is now obviously the roadblock to reopening the government since the Senate and the Senate Republicans have agreed to pass a continuing resolution. And the President will continue to admonish them in person when he sees them to do something to reopen the government.

Q: Mike, earlier you were reported as describing the House leadership as a gruesome group --

MR. MCCURRY: I did. I said they were gruesome because it is having gruesome consequences for the American people when federal workers are away from their jobs this long, and as the toll rises for the American people of not having their government performing. And it's fairly gruesome, not just those that I referenced, but other Republicans indicating, well, there's no problem here, the government is shut down, so what. I just gave you one critical example and there are more, and I hope you all have taken the time to go through the sheet on examples of shutdown.

Q: Really the question was in this context, then, it almost suggests that you don't seem to think that the White House is making any real progress with these leaders because, otherwise, I would imagine you would be somewhat reluctant to use language like that.

MR. MCCURRY: On the question of getting the services of the American government restored to the American people we are not making progress because of the House Republican leadership. That is correct. That is a separate question from the issue of the budget discussion. The President wants to balance the budget; the Speaker of the House does; the Majority Leader does; so do the Democratic leaders of Congress, and they're meeting towards that end. But that is a separate question now form the issue of reopening our government.

The discussions on balancing the budget are making constructive progress. The Speaker said so last night. The Senate Majority Leader said last night that that was so. And that should seem sufficient enough reason, you would think, for a portion of House Republicans to agree to pass some measure that will allow the government to open its doors once again, even for a short period, up until January 12th, as the Senate passed in its measure.

Q: A number of those House Republicans, including a number of the leaders, have said that the problem here goes back to what happened during the period when the CR was passed in November-December, when they say nothing happened. And they argue that the only time that there's been any serious movement or any seriousness on the part of the White House has been when the government has been closed down.

Is there anything the President can do to assure them that he is, indeed, serious and that passing a CR would not result in what happened the last time?

MR. MCCURRY: The President had three hours of very serious discussions with the Republican leadership of Congress last night aimed at achieving the goal of a balanced budget in a time certain, just as the Republicans in Congress have asked. The President would hope that the Speaker of the House would convey to the House Republican Congress his seriousness of purpose so there would be absolutely no question that there has been constructive progress, as the leaders indicated last night.

If there's a failure here, it's a failure of the Speaker to convince the House Republican Caucus that there has been sufficient progress.

Q: Well, what would you say to the Speaker, or what would the Speaker say to them, since this progress was made with the government closed, to convince them that any progress that would occur if the government were reopened?

MR. MCCURRY: He should go through this list of consequences of this shutdown and tell his members that they are now bearing the burden of responsibility for what's happening to the American people.

Q: I understand you feel that way, but that doesn't answer the question.

MR. MCCURRY: And that should be a very persuasive comment.

Q: That doesn't answer the question.

MR. MCCURRY: I don't understand the question then.

Q: The question is how would you convince these Republicans who believe that progress occurs only with the White House, with the government closed, that that is not the case; that reopening the government will indeed lead not to what happened in their view last time, which was nothing, but further progress?

MR. MCCURRY: I can't describe for you the persuasive powers that one needs to be an effective leader of the House of Representatives. But, clearly, they're not -- they're not available at the moment.

Q: How serious is this threat to the Meals on Wheels program for the elderly?

MR. MCCURRY: The funding that goes to Title XX contractors around the government -- around the country from the Department of Health and Human Services, which allows the federal government to provide Meals on Wheels services to approximately 600,000 elderly people expires, I believe, at the end of this week. So that those -- there may be some funding in the pipeline because these are usually social service agencies that operate at the local level, they get funding through local agencies. But those funds are now beginning to expire, meaning that the delivery of some hot meals to indigent elderly and other elderly is now going to be suspended as the funding expires.

Q: Some people are suggesting this isn't a realistic threat, that there are ways to keep this going, that this is only a scare tactic on the part of the administration.

MR. MCCURRY: I can report to you only the factual information I have from the Office of Management and Budget. If there's any question of that, they should be directed to the Department of Health and Human Services. But we rely in good faith on the information that we've got here, and I haven't seen any reason to question any of the data that we've been getting out of OMB.

Q: Mike, to follow up on Brit's question, why is it that when the President vetoes appropriations bills it's a stand on principle, but if the congressional leaders block the reopening of the government, it's a gruesome act?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, what exactly is -- I don't understand the question. What's the principle that is being stood upon here?

Q: Well, their principle --

MR. MCCURRY: Describe that for me, and maybe I can understand the question.

Q: They say it's a balanced budget.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the balanced -- an agreement to balance the budget is going to depend on good-faith negotiations between the White House and the Congress, which are in progress. And they have been in progress for 16 hours over the last four days. So what is it that they are looking for beyond that? Are they saying that "we can only have an agreement that meets our specifications" before we will lift this shutdown on the American people?

Q: They're saying you only get progress with the government closed.

MR. MCCURRY: That has now had -- it's now had with each growing day a devastating toll on the American people. And I just hope that members of the House, and specifically the Republican Caucus, better understand that toll. There has been some public comments that indicate perhaps they don't.

Q: Could you just talk about where they're going to pick up at 3:00 p.m., how today's meeting is different from yesterday? Is there any structure to it? Is it just --

MR. MCCURRY: Substantively, I can't report to you on what they did last night or how that might differ from today. I'll tell you that they will continue their discussions, which made some constructive progress last night. They will continue to work through issues that have been identified as being central to the ability to reach a final agreement. And they've been getting to some specific discussions of how you arrange the funding levels in each specific elements that might make it possible to reach an agreement.

Q: As a result of yesterday's talks, are they closer to a deal?


Q: So just to be clear, they're going item by item through the so-called tier three issue and talking about --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the tier one, tier two, tier three designations really more were for the presentation and discussion of issues that occurred over the last several days. They've gotten down to more fundamental questions related to trade-offs in the central elements of difference that exists between the two sides as they continue the discussions now.

Q: You had said before last night's meeting -- or indicated that you're sort of going from phase one type meetings where you're laying out positions to maybe a phase two type meeting where -- dynamic last night different from what had happened in the previous 13 hours?

MR. MCCURRY: I think it was. They got far less into the policy nuances, having covered those policy areas in, I think they felt, sufficient detail and the discussions they've had up to date. They now are into the more central questions of what political trade-offs and what budget trade-offs exist as they look at the overall elements of a final package. And they will continue those discussions today.

Q: Having heard the comment the Republican Conference Chairman, John Boehner, after the meeting this morning, I wonder if there is anything the Speaker could have said to them that, frankly, would have changed their minds. Do you think there's something he can say?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. But I know that we're at a moment in both the shutdown and in the balanced budget discussions where leaders need to lead. And sometimes you just have to find a way.

Q: If, as you say, the crisis is taking on such gruesome and disastrous dimensions, why isn't the President going directly to the people? Why doesn't he have a broadcast from the Oval Office or a prime-time news conference? Ronald Reagan, when he had a crisis with Congress, used to say if they can't see the light, he would make them feel the heat by going over the heads -- people would take care of it.

MR. MCCURRY: And as you know, over the course of the past several days the President has taken some public opportunities to draw attention to the effects of the shutdown and to admonish the leadership of Congress to make progress to reopen the government, and I wouldn't rule out that he would do some of the types of things you're suggesting.

Q: When?

MR. MCCURRY: Whenever he feels it's appropriate.

Q: How do you think the impasse reflects on the President's own leadership?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't think the American people fail to understand what the impasse is about here at this point. Your questions make quite clear that the House Republican Caucus believes that to get the balanced budget deal that they want, they need to shut down the government and use that as a form of leverage on the President.

Now, the President can't accept the unacceptable. The American people understand that. We believe we've been quite articulate in explaining that to the American people. And I think that they understand that the President sees the question of reopening the government and providing services to the American people as a separate question from getting a good deal that honors our values to balance the budget; that the President sees those as two separate questions. And I believe that message has been received by the American people.

Q: But what does the President think about Dick Durbin's decision to forego his pay? Does he encourage other Democrats to do it? And what is he doing with his paycheck?

MR. MCCURRY: He's thinking of doing the same himself. And I don't know that he -- I don't know that he was aware of Mr. Durbin's decision.

Q: He's thinking of doing what himself?

MR. MCCURRY: Putting his pay in some type of abeyance.

Q: He's been thinking about that for quite some time. I'm just wondering, has he come to a decision?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know whether he has, or not. I'll have to ask him.

Q: A couple of questions about the SEC nominees. You've got a Republican, Johnson, who has cleared the Senate; and Hunt, the Democrat, who has not. This was part of a bipartisan deal. We're wondering whether Johnson can be sworn in.

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know the answer to that. We'll have to look that up for you. Can we try to get something on that?

Q: Mike, anything further on the President's trip to Bosnia?

MR. MCCURRY: Nothing further.

Q: A related question. Is the administration satisfied with the performance of Carl Bildt in setting up and getting the civilian side of this peace operation moving?

MR. MCCURRY: The President and the administration thinks it's absolutely imperative to move forward with those civilian arrangements and the reconstruction of Bosnia that is foreseen in the Dayton Accord. We believe the international community's efforts to do so is critical. And we are encouraged that Mr. Bildt has apparently indicated in the last several days that that -- there would be some renewed vigor attached to that mission.

Q: There are some reports in Greece that the United States is offering some medical assistance to Mr. Papandreou. Can you tell us what the United States has offered?

MR. MCCURRY: We have not offered any; we have not received any requests. Obviously, we would respond in a humanitarian way if we received a request from the Papandreou family, but I'm not aware of any such request.

Q: Has the President got anything else on his agenda, on his schedule this week, other than the points of negotiations?

MR. MCCURRY: He's got some -- a couple of small, private dinners and some things like that. He's been starting to do some long-range planning to work on the State of the Union address, but he's mostly cleared the calendar this week for the budget negotiations and to deal with the consequences of the shutdown.

Q: When is he going to announce a reelection plan?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that he's given that matter any thought in recent days.

Q: But you don't know of a time or a venue where he would express publicly his frustration over this? Specifically, how are the mail and phone calls running? What's the accounting of that?

MR. MCCURRY: America, the federal workers are quite angry at the situation they're in; that goes without saying. We're hearing from them in great numbers. The American people who have been directly affected by the consequences of the shutdown have been making their opinions felt. And by large measure, they don't care who in particular is responsible for the shutdown, they would just wish everyone here in Washington would get it sorted out and get it sorted out quickly.

And there is some growing indication that even those who are not directly affected, those who have got elderly parents or others who might be facing some consequences, are beginning to be concerned. People have now got relatives who are in family businesses that depend on federal contracts, and that's becoming a source of concern, too. So we are hearing from them, and people's sense of frustration and exasperation with what's going on here in Washington is abundantly clear.

Q: How would you describe the President's frustration?

MR. MCCURRY: A high degree of frustration over the shutdown itself to the point that he was just raising with some others about things that he should do or additional steps that we could take here to address the consequences of the shutdown.

Q: Like what?

Q: What did he come up with?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, he anticipated some of your questions. But we'll let you know when we have something to say.

Anything else? Okay. See you.

I don't, by the way, don't know what kind of readout situation we'll be in. But it will either be as abbreviated as last night or more if the situation seems to warrant. So we'll let you know.

Q: Is there going to be a photo op as there was last night?

MR. MCCURRY: No, no photo op.

Q: No photo op?


Q: Will we see the President at all today?


Q: He doesn't want to see us?

Q: Is that because the Republicans didn't want one --

MR. MCCURRY: No. It's partly because of my concern that we had a House Majority Leader who almost was knocked unconscious last night, among other things. And there's not much new to say today.

Q: How?

Q: Really?

MR. MCCURRY: We had not a very happy incident yesterday.

END 1:40 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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