Press Briefing by Mike McCurry
The Briefing Room
9:00 A.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Let me do the President's day for you, because he will be working here most of the day looking ahead to the coming week, which I think is going to be filled with several opportunities for the President to begin in a more careful way to draw some lines and distinctions with the Republican majority in Congress on several matters in which I think we are inclined to feel differently than the Republican majority on emerging legislation on the Hill. But let me stay focused for a minute on today because I think today welfare reform is likely to be a major focus.
Minority Leader Gephardt later on today is going to be outlining the Democratic position on welfare reform and the strategy to address some of the things emerging in the Republican approach to welfare reform. I think, in general, it is emerging as a consensus view of both the administration and Democrats on the Hill that some of the things the Republicans are doing in their proposed legislation would be a little too soft on work. Our view is that the focus of this effort to reform welfare ought to be about moving people off of welfare and into work situations. And the flexibility that is given to states ought to be designed to both protect children, but also make it possible for people to have the kinds of opportunities for employment that will make welfare reform truly meaningful.
In short, welfare reform ought to be about moving people to work, while protecting the children who ought not to be punished. And I think you're going to hear both the President and Democrats on the Hill stress that as we begin to look very closely at the welfare reform proposals that are now emerging from the Republican majority.
There are some problems within the Republican ranks on their approach. We do not detect within the Republican majority unanimity on questions like cutting off all aid to legal immigrants or denying aid to unwed mothers. And so I think they are going to have to address some of the more controversial aspects of their legislation. Meanwhile, we're going to be working to fix a broken welfare system to end welfare as we now know it and to press ahead with the type of objectives and goals that the President has outlined.
Q: Mike, when you said we'll be hearing from the President, do you mean will there be anything today that the President will say?
MR. MCCURRY: No, he won't be -- he has no public events on his calendar today. Let me just say what he will be doing today. He is going to have lunch today with a group of Democratic senators. We expect to see Senator Dodd, Senator Moynihan, Senator Leahy, Senator Hollings, Senator Inoye, and Senator Bumpers. This continues a series of luncheons and private meetings the President has been having with members of the Congress, occasionally Republicans, but mostly Democrats, as we go through a range of issues and prepare for what will likely be some tough legislative fights with the Republican majority coming up.
We've got the crime bill now on the Hill. I expect tomorrow in the President's radio address you're going to hear him lay down some pretty firm markers on questions like getting 100,000 more cops out into the country. Welfare reform, as I've just said, is an area in which there are some serious and substantial differences with the Republican majority. I also believe next week you're going to hear when the President speaks in San Francisco some real differences in our approach on education and investments in education. And lastly, next week you'll also probably begin to hear some differences that we have on national security issues, particularly the role that the Commander in Chief has to play both in protecting America's vital national interests abroad and also in his role as this nation's chief foreign policymaker.
So all of these are beginning to emerge. There's cooperation when cooperation is possible, but there's also, when there is markedly different approaches between what Republicans want to do and what this Democratic President wants to do -- some areas in which we have to outline those differences very clearly. So I think that is going to dominate the week next week.
We will be doing some further briefings here later today on welfare reform to comment specifically on some of the things that Minority Leader Gephardt will raise. And tomorrow there's a possibility we'll also do some briefing around the issue of the crime bill and specifically our cops proposal, putting 100,000 more law enforcement officers out into the country.
Q: Mike, on welfare, does the President actually plan to resubmit his welfare bill this year?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'll leave that to -- Congressman Gephardt is going to be talking a little bit about that, I believe at 11:00 a.m. today, so leave it to him.
Q: How did you wind up selecting G.W.? You told us yesterday morning that Howard was under consideration. Did you just call the local universities?
MR. MCCURRY: I believe so. I think they were just looking for a proper venue. They started calling places to see where it would be good and appropriate to have an audience that Dr. Foster could address.
Q: Mike, on other issues that are up on the Hill, the balanced budget amendment -- the President's seems to be taking a very low profile approach, and I would ask why is that? And then also, that proposal the Democrats have on adding a caveat into the amendment that no Social Security funds be used to balance the budget -- what does he think about that?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I think he's very supportive of the effort the Democratic senators are making to protect Social Security. One of our chief concerns, and one of the reasons why the administration has expressed opposition to the constitutional amendment to balance the budget is that there is no plan from the Republicans on how they would protect those social insurance programs that are so vital to the welfare of many American citizens.
We've taken the federal budget, put it on the table and said, all right, here's our plan, now where's your plan? And they consistently refuse to come back and explain how they would meet a very ambitious goal of balancing the federal budget by the year 2002, and specifically how, under a constitutional mandate, they would protect those citizens who rely upon Social Security benefits.
So we are fully supportive; the President has been very outspoken on the need to protect Social Security, and I think in the coming days he will be working with members of the Senate -- my guess is he might actually have some conversations with members of the Senate encouraging them to look very long and hard at issues related to the balanced budget amendment as it goes before the Senate.
Q: Mike, it's still not clear to me how this administration explains the inconsistency in its approach between welfare reform and the crime bill. In welfare reform you advocate flexibility, you want the localities and the states to try something new. But if a locality says it needs a police car rather than an additional cop you won't let them use the money for that. Why the inconsistency there?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, because masquerading as flexibility in the case of the crime bill is an assault on the funding and the provisions of the 1994 crime bill, hard-fought over, that would get more cops on the street and combat the type of violence that Americans are sick and tired of. That is not -- in the case of welfare reform, there is flexibility designed to move people from welfare into work situations, but there's a real concern with some of the provisions of the emerging crime bill in the Republican-dominated Congress that they would take back some of the very hard-fought provisions that were contained in the 1994 bill.
Q: As long as you're drawing distinctions between the President's position and that of the Congress, what is his view on the Republican refusal to endorse the 4th Amendment the other day?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President has concerns about that issue, but he also is very supportive of tougher law enforcement measures that allow law enforcement officers, when there's been reasonable efforts made to guarantee the constitutional rights of potential defendants, he believes that law enforcement officials need some types of measures that have been talked about in the past so that they can make correct searches and seizures and --
Q: Does he endorse the Republican proposal that as long as the cop thinks it's okay, it's okay?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't believe that's an accurate characterization entirely of the Republican provision. But he has not taken a position specifically on all of the different amendments. There have been a host of amendments that were considered in the course of the crime bill. I don't think he's addressed each and every one of them specifically.
Q: You're fighting a two-front war on Foster, and you make an eloquent case on the abortion issue that it is a legal procedure, et cetera. But on the credibility issue, what are you telling members of Congress? Are you saying to them just, we're sorry, we goofed, or that the range of numbers presented to them doesn't matter, that he doesn't have a credibility problem? A lot of senators are seizing on that issue as a reason to vote against him. Whether it's a cover or not, it's given them an opportunity.
MR. MCCURRY: On that issue, Dr. Foster addressed it effectively in his television interview the other night.
Q: Apparently it wasn't effective because a lot more senators came out yesterday and said on the credibility issue they're now against him.
MR. MCCURRY: I believe you'll see today a host of groups coming out in support of Dr. Foster. I believe you'll see senators stepping up and being very publicly supportive of him, and that reflects, I think, confidence that they have in him and in the presentation that he has made.
Q: But I'm asking, Mike, if I can follow, what the argument is you're making to counter the credibility question.
MR. MCCURRY: The argument is that -- exactly the one that Dr. Foster made on television the other night. He was very candid in addressing that himself, and we are supporting the nominee fully and pointing towards his own public explanation as the best evidence available that he was honestly, truthfully trying to deal with a question thrown at him very, very quickly, as he indicated the other night.
Q: Mike, beyond the speech today, what is Foster doing, what is the President doing to salvage this thing?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, Dr. Foster, I think you all know what he's doing today. He'll be speaking publicly. And there will be a variety of groups today announcing publicly their support for the nominee. There will be a very extensive effort by the administration to make sure that people on the Hill have information they need to be fully supportive of the nominee. And in the coming days, Dr. Foster will be meeting with members of Congress, making courtesy calls on senators as we go through today and the weekend and into next week -- also meeting with friends and acquaintances of his on Capitol Hill who want to be supportive.
Q: Is the President going to be involved?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has had discussions about Dr. Foster with, I'd say, several members of the Congress, both on the House side and the Senate side. And, as I indicated earlier, he'll be having lunch with Democratic senators today. He's got a very broad agenda for that lunch, but I can't imagine that the Foster nomination won't be at least one element of the discussion today.
Q: Are you going to keep him out there over the weekend, more public appearances?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, Dr. Foster's got a lot of preparation work to do for his coming confirmation, so he will be working himself this weekend. He's had a very week. I think he deserves a little bit of the weekend off. But, as I said, he'll be preparing for a round of discussions with members of the Senate and members of the House going into next week.
Q: When do you submit the nomination?
MR. MCCURRY: The nomination cannot be submitted until the FBI has completed its background check, and that's really up to the Bureau to do that deliberately.
Q: Mike, this morning in his Speaker's conference, Newt Gingrich, after lambasting the White House for what he called "shoddy staff work" on Foster, made it sound as if he had the best interest of the President or the White House at heart when he said he didn't understand why the White House would go through what he predicted would be two weeks of very contentious debate over the Foster nomination. Could you answer that question? Why has the President chosen to go to the mat on the Foster nomination, which is clearly in big trouble?
THE PRESIDENT: The President yesterday could not have been clearer on that point. He said that Dr. Foster is an enormously impressive nominee for this very important post; and that, ultimately, this fight is not about all the extraneous issues that are being cited, it is fundamentally about a woman's right to choose. And nobody is -- should be under the illusion that those groups that are working with the Republican majority in the Congress are fighting this nomination for any reason but they would like to make criminal those things with which Dr. Foster has done legally in the past.
That's what this nomination fight is about, as the President indicated yesterday. And that is one reason among many -- it should not be the sole reason why people are supportive of Dr. Foster, but it is a very important and substantial reason. It is about a different view of what role women have in our society. And there is an extreme view emerging within the Republican majority in the Congress that suggests that right to life out to be a litmus test for appointees to this very important federal positions. And that is an unfortunate dynamic in this current debate. But it is the one that is the most important; it is the one that the President finds very, very compelling, as he stated yesterday.
Q: Mike, what do you perceive as the political impact on the Foster nomination now that Quayle has pulled out, how do you see that, or what kind of impact would you perceive on Republican opposition?
MR. MCCURRY: As I just said, it is -- there is an extreme right to life view that seems to be taking hold in the Republican majority on Congress, and I suspect that view now will dominate presidential politics on the Republican side, too. I'm no expert on Republican presidential politics, but you can easily see the emergence now of a dynamic in which these groups, having a taste for the blood of this fight, will now work to make this a dominant issue in the Republican political agenda as they prepare for their nomination fight in 1996. That will be, frankly, not something that the White House will participate in, but it's something I know that all of you will follow.
Q: Two questions; one just technical. Did you say Foster is going to make courtesy calls today?
MR. MCCURRY: They were still working on that, Mike. There's I think a chance he will go up to the Hill today to see some friends of his. He's not -- courtesy calls normally are used in connection with the senators that he will visit as part of the advice and consent procedure up there, and that may begin next week, but it will begin shortly one way or another.
Q: With people like Frist --
MR. MCCURRY: He will visit -- I think his first visit -- he wants to see Congressman Clement and visit with his own home congressmen.
Q: He'll be here?
MR. MCCURRY: Will he be here? Dr. Foster? I believe he was here earlier today before going out to his speech. I think he has now left to go to his speech.
Q: The other question I have is on the litmus test issue. Hasn't the President made it a litmus test issue on choosing Supreme Court justices?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry, say again?
Q: Hasn't the President made abortion a litmus test issue in choosing Supreme Court justices?
MR. MCCURRY: The role that choice plays in those nominations I think has been fully discussed in the course of those nominations.
Q: But why is it wrong for Republicans to do the -- to apply the same test?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know that I suggested -- it's wrong for the nomination fight in our view to be solely about that issue. It ought to focus on the work that Dr. Foster has done to prevent abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies. But it is a fact of life I think that this is now becoming a litmus test issue for the Republican majority.
Q: We've seen two themes develop out of the White House since the election -- cooperation and confrontation. You seem to be going to some lengths today to -- (laughter) --
MR. MCCURRY: My loyal staff is trying to get me out of the room. Go ahead.
Q: You seem to be going to some lengths today to emphasize that the President is now going to confront Congress on issues that he feels very strongly about. Has something happened to prompt this reemphasis on confrontation?
MR. MCCURRY: No --
Q: or this kind of an evolution of a strategy that's been in place some time, or what's going on?
MR. MCCURRY: I did not mean to sound belligerent earlier, but I did mean to suggest that there are areas emerging now, as we watch the Republican majority function in its first 100 days, where we can see some clear differences between the administration and the Congress.
We also see areas of cooperation. Welfare reform is one in which there are many areas of agreement. I pointed out this morning some areas of disagreement that are important; that there are large areas of agreement on welfare reform where we hope we can work together. There are other examples, most recently the President's very strong leadership on the Mexico economic crisis, supported by the Republican leadership, where clearly the President and the Republican majority will work together. By and large, our view is that we would prefer to work in an area of cooperation and address so many of the problems on the nation's agenda.
But there will be specific areas, and they are now emerging as Congress continues its work, where we think it's important to draw some distinctions. And I think it will be increasingly -- you'll see this increasingly next week. And it will probably continue as we go through the balance of this first term in the 104th Congress.
Q: Well, Mike, did the way the GOP left him out on a limb on the Mexico deal sort of sour his views on cooperation?
MR. MCCURRY: No, the President -- we've anticipated even the President even in the State of the Union speech addressed this -- cooperation when it's possible, but drawing some sharp distinctions when, inevitably, we have a different view of what the country should be about, compared to what the Republicans suggest.
Q: What are these foreign policy differences that he's going to be highlighting?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there are some embedded in the Contract With America, and they are now reflected in legislation beginning to emerge that really challenge many of the President's constitutional authorities. But I will leave that for next week.
Q: What will the forum for that be?
MR. MCCURRY: I've got Ginny and Mary Ellen who will tell you a little bit more. That's not clear yet where that will be, but there's been testimony -- we've already been up on the Hill. Secretary Perry, Secretary Christopher, Ambassador Albright, others have been on the Hill testifying on specifically those points. They relate not only to peacekeeping, but also to some structure, some of the decision-making that should be within the province of the presidency.
Q: Housekeeping before your staff drags you off -- do you brief later today? And you were saying something about briefings here on welfare.
MR. MCCURRY: No, I've got to -- in fact, that's why I'm doing this now, because I've got to go out of town on a short trip. But I'll be back late today. We're going to have a welfare reform briefing we're trying to get organized now by some other folks who can talk a little more about some of the things I've outlined here.
Q: Do you know yet when?
MR. MCCURRY: No, these guys will take care of that.
Q: Is the President in favor of Senator Helms' initiative on Cuba?
MR. MCCURRY: The President -- we are aware that legislation was introduced yesterday. We will review it. We have not taken a position on that legislation at this time. We remain fully supportive of the Cuban Democracy Act and the elements of the Cuban Democracy Act that currently guide administration policy towards Cuba.
Q: On payments to immigrants, Representative Shaw purports to cite a study showing that the SSI payments are drawing in immigrants, legal immigrants, from other countries simply to retire. Do you have any comment on that? Is there any backing for that? Do requirements for SSI need to be tightened in any way?
MR. MCCURRY: I know that Congressman suggests that some of the SSI provisions and the immigrant provisions could save, I think he estimates, $23 billion over five years, but I'll have to leave that question to some of the experts later on today. I don't know the answer to that right off hand.
Last question in the back.
Q: As late as yesterday, some Democrats in the Senate were saying that the Foster nomination was 50-50 at best. What were your percentages on it?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, if that's the judgment of the members of the Senate, our view is that as we begin a successful and tough fight for his confirmation, those odds will shift in favor of Dr. Foster as the nomination fight proceeds.
Q: Were you surprised at The New York Times editorial today, basically suggesting that you withdraw the nomination?
MR. MCCURRY: Newspapers take editorial points of view all the time. We disagree with it. I don't know that we were surprised by it, but we certainly disagree with it.
Q: One more on that. Yesterday you acknowledged the vetting process was less than perfect, and you made extensive comments --
MR. MCCURRY: Wednesday.
Q: The other day, I'm sorry. But a moment ago, you made extensive comments on the process and the litmus test.
MR. MCCURRY: No, I didn't -- oh, the Hill process, the confirmation process.
Q: Are you telling us that, in a way, you did underestimate the impact of the antiabortion forces?
MR. MCCURRY: It was difficult to imagine that the Republican majority would become seized of the very confrontational tactics of the Right to Life group and then allow that to dominate their consideration of the nomination. We thought, given Dr. Foster's impressive record, the work that he has committed his life to, to avert teenage pregnancies, the acknowledgement of that work by former President George Bush by naming Dr. Foster one of his 1,000 Points of Light. That all suggested to us that the issue of abortion in connection with Dr. Foster's nomination would be seen in the broad context of a very impressive career devoted to thwarting the need for abortion. So it is difficult to imagine that the Right to Live movement would have gotten a hook into the Republican majority that fully.
Q: But, Mike, some Republicans think the White House handed them a hook into Foster by the shoddy staff work. And some of these critics on the Hill are not even bringing up the word, "abortion," they're talking credibility here.
MR. MCCURRY: I talked about that pretty candidly on Wednesday. I've got to go.
END 9:30 A.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Mike McCurry Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269880