Bill Clinton photo

Press Briefing by Mike McCurry

December 08, 1995

The Briefing Room

1:25 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon and happy Friday. Let me start. The President is midway through his very important meeting with President Dos Santos at the moment. I'll give you just a partial sense of the conversation so far, and if there's anything further that David Johnson wants to add, at the conclusion of the lunch later on, he'll swing by and be available.

As we had anticipated, the main thrust of this morning's conversation was the Angolan peace process, the Lusaka protocol and then also a thorough and comprehensive review of the U.S.-Angola bilateral relationship. I expect during the luncheon meeting that the President and President Dos Santos will discussion economic and trade issues and bilateral economic issues, probably also human rights issues.

President Dos Santos thanked President Clinton for America's engagement in this peace process. I'd make the point that this is another place in this world in this post-Cold War era where U.S. leadership has made a difference. The Lusaka protocol and the participation and encouragement of our special envoy, Paul Hare, made a real difference in the achievements of November 1994. And that peace process, though fragile and certainly though at the moment, in a sense, brittle because of some of the cease-fire violations, it remains a real opportunity and moment of hope for the people of Angola; indeed, for most of those on the African continent who seek peace in this new era.

So the President -- both Presidents spent time on the peace process this morning. President Clinton reaffirmed U.S. support for and engagement in that peace process. He made some comments this morning at the photo opportunity related to the cease-fire violations. You're aware of those, I think. They also talked a lot about President Dos Santos's personal commitment to take necessary steps to ensure that the peace process moves forward at this point. And President Clinton was very encouraged by that.

I'll save a lot -- the President -- President Clinton does expect to talk at some length about bilateral economic issues, especially the oil sector during lunch. That's important to us because oil exports from Angola account for -- the processing of that oil accounts for nearly 5,000 jobs here in the United States. So it's a point of concern to us, and it's also seven percent of our annual volume of oil imports.

A good meeting. The President was very encouraged by the tone, very encouraged by the status of U.S.-Angolan relations and the prospect for U.S.-Angolan relations as a result of this very important visit.

Yes, did you have a question?

Q: There's a rumor that the peace signing may move to Geneva because of the strikes in Paris. Have anything on that?

MR. MCCURRY: I haven't heard anything about that. We've had advance teams in Paris working closely with the French government and proceeding with the plans as the French have announced for next Thursday.

Q: Is there any possible change of venue within France? Has that been discussed?

MR. MCCURRY: Not that I am aware of, but you should pose that question to the French government.

Q: Do you have any reaction to the job report today?

MR. MCCURRY: We do. Dr. Stiglitz did put out a comment on the payroll unemployment numbers noting that the U.S. economy has now added 7.7 million new payroll jobs in the course of this administration. The unemployment rate itself was largely unchanged, reflecting the sound economic conditions that arise from the President's economic policies, from the commitment to deficit reduction, and to the types of investments in technology and education that we have made in the first years of this administration -- investments that, of course, now are somewhat in jeopardy because of the approach that the Republican Congress would take on budget issues.

A reflection of the sound course of the economy is in a sense a validation of some of those things that we have been doing to manage economic policy over the last three years and some of that now is in jeopardy, we believe, because of the attitude of this Congress on budget-related issues.

Q: I'm glad I asked.

Q: What is the status of the budget negotiations right now and how does this bode for the December 15 deadline?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the status right now is uncertain. The President has in good faith, consistent with the agreement between the President and the Congress, come forward with a seven-year balanced budget proposal to get these discussions moving forward. By no means would we suggest this is the last word, but we certainly hoped that this would stimulate dialogue with the Republican negotiators so we could get the budget discussions moving forward, live up to the commitment to a balanced budget.

Last night during the course of presenting this, the reaction from the Republican side to the President's proposal is that there is no budget agreement that is acceptable if it continues the current federal guarantee for health care to indigent elderly, to children, to those with disabilities. Those are 36 million Americans who depend on the Medicaid program.

And the Republican negotiators made clear to us on behalf of their side last night that unless we ended the current federal guarantee for health care coverage, there could be no deal. The President feels equally strongly in the other direction that that commitment, that federal guarantee must be a part of a budget agreement, must be a part of federal policy so we can protect those who need health care. So that does not bode well for the future of the discussions.

Q: When this issue arose earlier, didn't the President talk about -- I forgot the phrase -- it was something like good-faith efforts or maintenance efforts or something like that on the part of the states being required to -- and his being encouraged by the fact that that was included and giving at least some indication that something short of the full entitlement would be acceptable to him. Has he changed his view of that?

MR. MCCURRY: No, Brit. No, you're thinking of our view that continuation of effort as part of AFDC in the context of welfare reform would be acceptable, and that's a different case. That's a case where we have programs that, frankly, need reform. That's why we're into that discussion to begin with and why we have been transferring to states the ability to conduct reforms at the local level. But Medicaid is a different program. It is a program that has worked exceedingly well.

Contrary to the Speaker's comments the other day, it is one of the achievements of the Great Society most Americans are proud of. They rely upon Medicare, they rely upon Medicaid, and the program, despite Medicaid ad Medicare, they rely upon and they have come to depend on those types of programs to be there when they're needed.

In fact, in a sense, there are 36 million beneficiaries, but if you think of it in terms of the federal guarantee, every American benefits one way or another because everyone's got a mother or a sister or a cousin or somebody in a family who might otherwise face poverty if they didn't have available health care benefits to take care of their health care needs in retirement. So that is for the President a fundamental point and we hope the Republican negotiators will change that attitude. If they are frozen in on that attitude, it's going to not be a very merry Christmas.

Q: You're not suggesting, are you, that Medicaid enjoys anything like the level of popular support that Medicare does, are you?

MR. MCCURRY: No. Medicare and Medicaid together enjoy enormous popularity with the American people. But of the 36 million Medicaid beneficiaries in this country, half of them are children. And I think most people in this country believe it's right to take care of poor children who otherwise wouldn't have access to doctors and medicine.

And the Republican budget as passed by the Congress would end those types of health care benefits by the year 2002 for up to 8 million elderly people who are in nursing homes, or children, or pregnant mothers who otherwise wouldn't have access to health care. And the President, as he said today, just thinks that's wrong. And right now we are stuck on that point. It's hard to see how these discussions proceed if the Republicans don't erase the line in the sand they drew last night which was there had to be an end to that guarantee.

Q: The Republicans are talking about passing new budget reconciliation bill reflecting new CBO numbers plus continuing resolution that would run for a year and reflect their appropriation levels and all of their appropriations bills. Presumably, the President would veto the reconciliation bill because it would still contain Medicaid and those things. And you're now talking more about -- less about money and more about government philosophy. But the CR is strictly about money, or would be almost entirely about money. Would the President accept for a year those spending levels, their lower spending levels, just keep the government going and to push the argument over things like Medicaid into the election year?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President hopes that Congress will have an attitude in the course of the coming week that aims at a compromise and that aims at a resolution of this impasse. That's why he offered his seven-year balanced budget plan yesterday. He didn't have to do that. Everyone here knows that he was doing just fine in this debate as it's currently structured, but he wants to get on with business.

He made clear to his negotiators he wants to end this back-and-forth and this silliness and not put us in a spot at the end of next week where we are worried about whether or not the American people are going to lose the benefits and services of part of its government. So that's why he came forward in good faith and offered this. We hope that the Republicans, as they reflect on their new budget numbers next week and reflect on where we are in this discussion, will come forward with a different kind of proposal and one that meets the commitment that the President and Congress made to balance the budget.

Now, if they offer up the exact same clean continuing resolution we're currently operating under and extend that for some period of time, we'll have to look at it. It would be preferable in the President's view, though, to get on with passing a balanced budget plan.

Q: Mike, did the President, having offered this gesture of good faith yesterday, come out with that flack on Medicaid this morning because he felt they got the cold shoulder last night on the Hill?

MR. MCCURRY: He came out for that very specifically because of what Republican negotiators told our negotiators last night during the meeting.

Q: He hadn't been planning this all along? He did that in response --

MR. MCCURRY: He had not been planning to do this. Although Medicaid is obviously a subject of very real concern to the governors, I imagine he would have addressed it in one shape or another. But they threw down the gauntlet last night and said, we have to end the federal entitlement for Medicaid as a precondition to an agreement. And that's unacceptable to the President.

Q: Well, why didn't you throw down the gauntlet by saying, you have to keep it?

MR. MCCURRY: We thought we had done that when we put -- we'd been talking -- oh, how many times have I stood here and told you that the President's priorities are adequate funding for Medicare and Medicaid, environmental protection, education, not putting additional tax burdens on working Americans. What did you think that meant?

Q: You never said keep any entitlement.

Q: Well, it doesn't mean --

MR. MCCURRY: The President, all along -- it has been inconceivable to us that the Republican negotiators would suddenly insist -- and this was new to us -- suddenly insist to us that the block-granting of Medicaid and ending the guarantee was a pre-condition to a final agreement. That's the first time we had heard that. It had not been -- among all the issues we were dealing with, we thought in the case of Medicare and Medicaid we were dealing principally with a funding issue. But now it turns out to be something else, that's it's the form of the funding, which they are insisting must be a block grant. which is something new.

Q: New? New? What's new about it? It's not new, it's in the legislation.

Q: Michael, they've been -- block grants for Medicaid for months.

MR. MCCURRY: No, insisting -- no, they've had that in their proposal for months, but insisting that this had to be part of a final agreement, that it was not negotiable -- that's the first we had heard that block granting Medicaid was non-negotiable.

Q: Well, you're saying your position is non-negotiable, too, aren't you?

Q: You've never said that the entire --

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, on that it is. That is absolutely non-negotiable. That's not -- for us, we never thought --

Q: So it's keep the entitlement or no deal, is that what you're saying?

MR. MCCURRY: It's keep a federal guarantee for health care for elderly Americans and disabled people and children or there's no deal, that is correct.

Q: -- lawmakers this morning? Because Domenici was reported to have said that everything is on the table and Kasich had said the only thing they're asking for is CBO assumptions and a seven-year plan.

MR. MCCURRY: Senator Domenici told Mr. Panetta three times last night it was a deal breaker.

Q: This morning he said everything was on the table.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, then he should call Mr. Panetta up and reconvene the negotiations and they can get on with business.

Q: On the CBO assumptions, we were looking at a Tuesday release. Have you gotten any better number on that? Better date than that?

MR. MCCURRY: No. We've heard the same, as far as I know. I haven't heard anything new today.

Q: Michael, this Medicaid thing sound like what a briefer was describing yesterday as the policy differences that are still -- that are the next step to be resolved after you get past the numbers. Have you been given any other suggestions as to other policy problems that are sitting there waiting, that are also going to be non-negotiable on either side?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, not that we've heard of. But there has been, in the course of this debate, a lot of rhetoric about things. They've said from time to time that their $245 billion tax cut, which largely goes to the wealthiest Americans, is inviolable too. Now, maybe they're now saying that that's non-negotiable.

Q: Well, do you all have anything on your agenda, beyond the Medicaid, where you are at this point, that you regard as non-negotiable?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President's priorities, as he has consistently stated them -- making investments in education so the economy can grow, protecting Medicare and Medicaid, protecting the -- environmental protection, and making sure we don't raise taxes on working Americans. We have over and over stressed those and those are pretty clear that those are the things that the President is willing to live and die for in this budget.

Q: But you're speaking in general terms. You're not really saying that there's anything in terms of specifics?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we don't know. We heard a new one last night and we'll have to see if there's any more that we hear.

Q: Is the President willing to rescore his proposal as the CBO's new figures come out on the 12th?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, they'll have to be -- when there's a final agreement, it will have to be scored according to the CBO estimates once there's been the necessary consultation with OMB and outside experts to resolve economic issues as to the baseline. That's required by the continuing resolution agreement.

Q: But if the CBO numbers are going to be closer to OMB numbers anyway, which is what most people think, wouldn't it behoove the President to just use the CBO numbers and prove to the Republicans that he's actually balancing the budget?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we might -- look, we want to -- it's not -- we want to use accurate, good numbers so we can get to the bottom line of what the baseline is going to be. Then the disagreement between the academic economists on what those numbers should be is not great.

Q: Why not use the numbers that are going to govern in the end anyway? Why not start using the numbers that you're going to have to abide by in the end --

MR. MCCURRY: Because right now they're not available.

Q: I know, but that's what her question is about.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, her question is, are you going to use them in the long run, and the answer is, yes . It's already clear.

Q: No, her question is not that. Her question is whether, when those numbers are available, which is estimated to be in about 10 days, whether the President would then rescore his budget --

MR. MCCURRY: Two days. Tuesday.

Q: Well, all right -- rescore his budget and determine if it cuts the mustard or not --

MR. MCCURRY: Yes. I mean, if they --

Q: -- and make appropriate adjustments if necessary.

MR. MCCURRY: If they -- we can't give directions to the Congressional Budget Office, but if the congressional Republican negotiators on the Hill indicate to the CBO that they want the President's proposal of yesterday scored according to the new estimates, that would be encouraging to us. It means that they're taking it seriously.

Q: And if that occurs and the CBO comes forth and says, well, this doesn't get to balance, will you be prepared to make revisions to get to balance under what is the legally agreed upon final test?

MR. MCCURRY: We're prepared to have a good-faith negotiation. That's what we've been prepared to do all along.

Q: Mike, does the President feel that he is only able to stand in support of these inviolate principles that he's now standing in support of because he's made so many other accommodations this year to the Republicans, first by saying he agreed in principle you could balance the budget, and then by saying he agreed as a general matter you could probably find a way to do it in seven years? I mean, does he feel that it's those accommodations that have made this moment of --

MR. MCCURRY: I think the President feels he has gone the extra mile to attempt to be reasonable and attempt to allow common sense to prevail in this discussion. He had plenty of -- could have had plenty of opportunities in the last several weeks to accept advice from people who would say -- not necessarily here in the White House, but people advising him around Washington -- who said just make them stew in their own juices and don't budge at all.

The President wants to get the job done. He wants to balance the budget. He wants to protect Medicare, Medicaid. He wants to make sure we can clean up our environment, and he wants to protect average working Americans from tax increases. He's said that over and over again. And he doesn't want to see a lot of silliness and a lot of nonsense in this debate. But we're headed right down that path as we go into next week unless something changes. And that's discouraging to the President.

Q: Have the White House advisors given the President any further word as to whether it's getting any closer to time that he should intervene directly in these talks, show up on the Hill, or have people --

MR. MCCURRY: We will have to see how negotiations go, if and when they reconvene. I haven't heard anything in the last couple of hours to indicate when they might talk again. At some point I think the President fully expects that he will have to participate in discussions, but he has given instructions to his negotiators to get on with business, to take his proposal, to try to meet with the Republicans and see if they can accommodate his concerns, and to see where the dialogue goes from there. But what we heard last night was discouraging, if not depressing.

Q: Mike, when you say headed right down that path toward silliness and nonsense, does that mean you think there's going to be a shutdown next Friday? Should 350,000 people --

MR. MCCURRY: The President came forward -- you recall, the President came forward yesterday and said as part of his balanced budget proposal, recognizing that there would be some controversial elements in it, recognizing the Republicans weren't going to be able to take it all, he said let's buy ourselves some time into January so we don't go through this threat of a shutdown. And it was summarily rejected by Chairman Kasich, presumably speaking for the rest of the Republican leadership. They said no way, no how. Non-starter. Let's go right up to the brink. Let's play this brinkmanship game some more. I think they like that up there now. Why? I think they don't like government. There are a lot of them that say that point-blank up there.

Q: On the Irish peace process, is the President discouraged by last night's statement by the IRA that there seems be no hand-over of weapons by the front door or by the back door in prospect?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President believes in a difficult peace negotiation you have to keep a sunny disposition. And when he had his discussions with the parties in Ireland, he encouraged them to use the twin-track peace process, to use that to vent their frustrations. And as with many peace negotiations, the parties sometimes have dialogue in public. But there is a process that has been designed and on the specific issue of arms, the international body that Senator Mitchell will chair on decommissioning, is available for the parties to raise their concern. And he hopes that they will.

Now, one thing that is important to note is that Gerry Adams has indicated that he will speak authoritatively on the subject of arms. And it is important to note also that the IRA is an illegal organization. So Mr. Adams, who did meet with President Clinton, has been evaluating the twin-track process. And President Clinton was encouraged by his meeting with Mr. Adams. We hope the parties will use the process that's been designed. It is the place where all their points of view can be heard and differences that exist as to decommissioning of arms can be raised and thoroughly aired.

Q: Does the IRA seem to be rejecting a direct appeal made by the President outside Downing Street last Wednesday?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the important thing is that the parties themselves still have available this process and still have indicated a willingness to evaluate the process and to see if it can be used to reconcile their issues. Now, Senator Mitchell has announced that the international body will be meeting in Belfast and in Dublin from December 15th to December 19th. The President is encouraged by that news, and we hope that becomes a venue for the parties to raise these types of concerns.

Q: Mike, why was the -- and what reason did Adams give the President to be encouraged?

MR. MCCURRY: Because of the discussion they had and the commitment that he has to try to bring peace for his people and for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Q: Well, did Adams make any specific commission on the two track?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to get into the substance of private discussion, because they ultimately go into the issue of how the parties themselves are going to negotiate. We hope when they get to the type of dialogue that can bring peace to Northern Ireland.

Q: When did Gerry Adams say he was encouraged? When was the last discussion they had?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the one they had recently in Belfast.

Q: Is the President meeting with Muslim leaders on Bosnia today -- Roosevelt Room?

MR. MCCURRY: I didn't know anything about it. You can ask Mary Ellen.

Q: But he is going to meet with them?

Q: What's the event he's going to tonight?

MR. MCCURRY: Tonight he's got a reception for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. They're doing some work on the upcoming special election in Oregon.

Q: What's the President's stand on the Senate version of the partial birth abortion?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, he's disappointed that there was not adoption of language last night that would make it clear that the life and health of the mother must be protected. That language was offered was --

Q: It doesn't protect the life of the mother.

MR. MCCURRY: But it does not specifically reference consist with Roe v. Wade the type of protection that has protected the privacy right of a woman to make her own choice in consultation with her doctors, her advisers and others. And because that language was not adopted, I think the President shares the view of many that it would represent an erosion of a woman's right to choose and, therefore, the bill as it was passed by the Senate is unacceptable.

Q: Will he veto it?

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, he will.

Q: For those many Americans who aren't fully familiar with the details of these budget debates, could you just outline why is the administration opposed to shifting health care commitments that the federal government at present provides to the states? Is it afraid that the states -- of what will the states will do with --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, reason one, this is a program that has worked. Medicare-Medicaid do work. Medicaid specifically has been effective in protecting the elderly in nursing homes, poor children, poor mothers and the disabled from extraordinary health expenses. So we're talking about a federal government that by and large has worked well in getting health care to those who need it who otherwise don't have access to doctors and medicine.

The President believes states -- the President used to be a governor. So he's in favor of giving states flexibility, and, indeed, our health care proposals do give states a considerable amount of flexibility. That's not the concern here. The concern here is that if you transfer the authority to the states by giving them what's called a block grant, you're simultaneously reducing the funding. See, this is a back door way to we say cut spending; they say slow the rate of increase in spending. But, ultimately, it results in fewer people getting the health care they need or more people paying more for the health care they deserve to get.

So that is, in essence, the President's concern. We've got to protect a current federal commitment to provide that type of health care to people who need it. And the Republican budget, in the President's view, does not do that, and he thinks it's important to preserve the commitment in federal law to get that job done.

Q: If we were on the verge of shutting down the government this week, would the President still go to Paris to witness the signing of the treaty --

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, the President will go to Paris. We've got -- the deadline, if we're up into this crisis atmosphere, there will be at least a day upon the President's return to negotiate.

But in Paris we are concluding a peace process that is very important to the people of the United States, important to the people of Europe, and, ultimately, most important to the people of Bosnia who have now made a commitment through their leaders to search for peace. We now have also young American lives that will shortly be on the line to protect that peace, and the importance of ratifying finally that document which has guarantees in it that will minimize the risks to our troops when they go into Bosnia is very important.

And the President is going to be there to witness and sign that document and to see the Presidents who have given them their personal assurances that they will live up to these commitments and to the steps they will take that will help minimize the risks to our troops and help allow our troops to bring some prospect for peace to the people of Bosnia.

Q: What will he achieve by being there that can't be achieved by him staying here?

MR. MCCURRY: Signing the document that is the final peace accord and also looking at the Presidents, seeing them eye to eye as they make their commitments to honor the security guarantees that they have given him related to the presence of our U.S. troops in Bosnia.

Q: Are you saying that the document has to be signed by him or else it's not valid?

MR. MCCURRY: No, it has to be signed and witnessed by the parties. But, believe me, the U.S. role here and the U.S. participation is an indispensable part of this element. You go ask President Izetbegovic.

Q: Well, nobody is disputing that. You're about to put 20,000 troops in there; that speaks louder than his ceremonial presence at some event in Paris, doesn't it?

MR. MCCURRY: This is the conclusion of a peace process that now has the United States engaged and has U.S. military forces engaged and has young American lives on the line. And the President is determined to be right there so he can make sure that every last element of that peace accord is agreed to by the parties and that the commitments that they have made that offer the prospects of peace for the people of Bosnia are honored.

Q: Mike, back to this welfare-Medicare comparison. Is the President concerned about the spending cuts or the principle that there be an individual entitlement? In other words, is he open to some other way of keeping spending increasing for the population but still --

MR. MCCURRY: He's concerned about both. He thinks the federal guarantee is a fundamental principle that philosophically has to be honored and then he also is concerned about the funding level to make sure that that commitment is made good as the states administer the Medicaid program.

Q: He obviously was comfortable with the way that welfare was worked out. He doesn't believe that there is another way to do that with Medicaid.

MR. MCCURRY: No, because he thinks the experience in the Medicaid program and in general the experience in the health care sector is different; we're talking about different than income maintenance programs and the type of child support programs that AFDC represents. AFDC has a different history, too. Medicaid was specifically designed to provide health care to the indigent elderly and to others. AFDC is a program that began largely as an income support program for the widows of coal miners in West Virginia, among other things, and then grew into what we now call welfare.

Q: Is there anything more the administration could do on the waiver end to make it more appealing to certain state governors who want the flexibility and at the moment don't like --

MR. MCCURRY: There are some -- if you look through the health care materials we had, there is some technical aspects of flexibility in state administration we do believe are consistent with the President's view, and indeed we've offered up some of that flexibility in our health care proposals. It's in some of the material that we released related to Medicare and Medicaid over the last several days.

Q: Mike, were the tax proposals aimed at Wall Street, since there's a compensating effort to counter the fact that the Republicans have cut back the EITC and other programs for the working poor?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, as the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury made clear yesterday, they represent good tax policy. The President thinks that they are not only good tax policy, it's good economic policy. And because they provide the right type of incentives instead of the wrong type of incentives in the economy itself, and they also contribute to the overall budget picture. Those are measures which help raise revenue, which help them protect priorities like health care for the elderly, like environmental protection, like education, and the types of things that will make our economy grow in the future. It also, by going in that direction, prevents unnecessary tax increases on working people, like the cutbacks in the EITC.

Q: Do you think Panetta will try to see them today, and does he just flatly turn down --

MR. MCCURRY: No, there was a conversation back and forth to just agree that there would be no meeting today. And I'm not -- we don't read more into that and nobody here should either. They clearly are awaiting now, we believe, the new economic estimates from the CBO.

Q: Are these the same people Rivlin worked with?

Q: Are there no meetings until that happens?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. I haven't heard of any today. I'll have to check again and see on Monday.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:56 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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