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Press Briefing by Mike McCurry

December 18, 1995

The Briefing Room

1:18 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It's a pleasure to be with you. I have absolutely no news to impart to you. So we can make this brief.

Q: Any phone calls?

Q: Did the President speak to Senator Dole or any Republican leaders?

MR. MCCURRY: The President has not made any phone calls to Republican leaders in Congress. He's awaiting the return from Capitol Hill of his Chief of Staff who's had very productive meetings this morning with the Democratic task force on budget issues, following a meeting with the Democratic leadership. The Chief of Staff will be back here later on in the afternoon to brief the President. And as the President indicated, he may at that time make some phone calls.

Q: What was productive about the meeting on the Hill?

Q: -- he expected a phone call within the hour. Was he basing that on any conversation with the White House?

MR. MCCURRY: He may have heard from the folks who are up on Capitol Hill with Leon.

Q: What did the productive meeting produce exactly?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President has been working since the very good meeting on Saturday with a cross-section of Democratic members of the House and the Senate to see if we can't frame some of these budget issues in a way that will break this impasse and move the balanced budget discussions forward. We've had good conversations. There are some different approaches within the Democratic caucus, but the President is working with all points of view within the Democratic caucus to see if we can't have a more unified approach. And we're encouraged by the discussions that we've been having.

Q: The President seemed to indicate that he had some new ideas that he was going to put forth. He wouldn't tell us about them. Were we, or was I perhaps misreading him? Does he have something that he wants to say in terms of offering some new approaches, or does he need to hear back from Panetta to formulate those approaches?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, he's been doing a lot of work on this personally. He had a long meeting on Saturday, as you know, with Democratic members. And we believe it's important and vital to move forward with the balance budget discussions and achieve the result that the American people want, which is a balanced budget.

Q: That's not an answer to the question. The question is, does the President have a new approach --

MR. MCCURRY: Sure, he's got specific ideas that he will be willing to entertain. But this has got to be a negotiation in which both sides show flexibility. And certainly, there's no one who would dispute the notion that the President has been flexible, has been willing to address the concerns of the Republican majority in Congress, has been willing to adopt their timetable for consideration of a balanced budget.

What we've failed to see thus far is any sign of flexibility on their part that would acknowledge the importance of the President's priorities, that would acknowledge the importance of protecting our environment, investing in education and technology so that we can have a growing economy in the 21st century that will eschew tax increases on working poor and that will put sufficient sums back into Medicare and Medicaid to prevent them from being eroded as forms of assistance for the nation's elderly and the indigent. Those things have not happened yet, and we keep getting sent to us measures that the Congress already knows and has known for weeks are unacceptable.

Q: Mike, just to follow up, they sent back a measure with, I think, $75 billion worth of discretionary spending on Friday. That wasn't enough?

MR. MCCURRY: That was $75 billion spread in different areas, and the President continues to believe those types of savings on top of that -- I mean, that solves only a small part of a problem in a budget that had $270 billion worth of Medicare and Medicaid savings -- Medicare savings, and an additional $140 billion in Medicaid savings. That was insufficient in addressing the President's concerns and in meeting the tests that the Congress and the President have already agreed to in the terms of the continuing resolution --

Q: But, Mike, is it not worthy of a counteroffer?

MR. MCCURRY: -- so the President's view -- the President had made an offer on Friday and had attempted to engage the Republican negotiators in good-faith discussions, but the Republican negotiators got up and left the table.

Q: You keep talking about the Republicans not meeting your conditions. It's easy to see whether or not you laid out a budget that adopts CBO numbers, but meeting your conditions seems to be something that you define. How would we know, how would they know when they are meeting your conditions for taking care of Medicare or Medicaid and other spending?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, when they know that -- they know when they have prevented the type of decreases in funding that will leave elderly without the health care that they need, that will leave them short when it comes to paying for anticipated health care needs as we go into the next century. And they know that their current budget approach is insufficient in that respect. The question is --

Q: I know, but when would it be sufficient? That's just some vague standard you're outlining here.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, part of that is the assumption of what our health care cost is going to do between now and the year 2002. We think it's overly optimistic to assume that those costs are going to be held below seven percent. They need to be more realistic in calculating what is going to happen to the elderly people as they face health care bills going into the next century, and there needs to be sufficient funding to make sure they don't lose access to doctors and medicine. That's pretty simple. And the best way to do that, of course, is to not have to take over $240 billion and put it into a tax cut most of which goes to the wealthiest Americans.

Q: Does the President have any flexibility on the tax cut?

MR. MCCURRY: The President's got flexibility across the board on the issues that are related to this debate. What we haven't seen is corresponding flexibility on behalf of some of the Republican negotiators representing the Republican Congress.

Q: Would he forego it -- tax cuts?

MR. MCCURRY: He's willing to have good-faith negotiations that will break the impasse.

Q: Mike, the President said it was conceivable he could come up with a budget of his own that used CBO forecasts, and I think he has the most favorable comment any administration official has said about doing that. Do you now believe you can do that? And number two, he said it would depend on what kind of control mechanisms we had -- what was he talking about?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, part of that is depending on whether or not there is an agreement that we could look, for example, at the issue of tax cuts in the sixth and seventh year of a tax cut. If there's insufficient progress on the deficit track, would you have any type of mechanism that would hold in obeyance tax relief in the sixth and seventh year.

That's the kind of idea, just as one example, a serious idea that the White House negotiators were prepared to offer and pursue on Friday when the Republican negotiators got up and walked.

Q: So you now do think it is possible to come up with a seven-year budget plan using CBO forecasts that protects the President's priorities?

MR. MCCURRY: It is difficult, but there are ways to do that. The President believes it is far more likely you can protect those priorities if there's a better agreement on what the condition of the U.S. economy will be as we get into the year 2001, 2002. Among other things, the President believes that balancing the budget is good for the economy and will have a favorable impact, macroeconomically, on things like unemployment and interest rates. And he takes a far less pessimistic view that do congressional economists.

Q: But you've agreed to the CBO numbers and they're now into law. So wouldn't it behoove the President to come forward with a plan that does balance the budget by CBO estimates in seven years?

MR. MCCURRY: The premise of the question is wrong. The CBO numbers are not in the law.

Q: CBO estimates are in the law as scored by CBO --

MR. MCCURRY: No, as any final agreement between the Congress and the President on a balanced budget approach must be scored by the CBO after consultations with White House economists and outside experts. Consultations which have not occurred.

Q: But, Mike, is he willing to come up with a budget that would include holding the tax cut at abeyance in the sixth and seventh year using CBO assumptions?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to -- that's as far as I'm going to go on substance. Obviously, the President wants to advance these ideas as he deals with Republican leaders. And just as he refrained from sharing those ideas with you, so shall I.

Q: Is there any concern today, given the reaction of the markets, that people are running out of patience with you guys?

MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to comment on short-term fluctuations in the market. I will say that in the long-term, in the long-term the President is strongly committed to the kinds of investments in education and technology that will keep this economy growing, keep it strong, and he's simultaneously committed to a balanced budget which will keep long-term interest rates low.

Q: In pushing for a new CR to get the government going again would the President accept exactly the same language, same conditions as were in the November CR?

MR. MCCURRY: It would depend entirely on the duration of such a CR. The President has real concerns, as do most in our government, about operating for a long duration of time under a 75 percent threshold.

Q: If it were a CR that simply goes over Christmas and New Year, in other words --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President believes it is absolutely unnecessary to have this government shut down at this moment. And the President is anxious to see it reopened. The President would be willing to consider any continuing resolution that would reopen government, but one that met the terms that were reached last time would be sufficient in the President's view to keep the government open.

Q: Mike, two questions. First, you said before that the law says CBO -- as scored by CBO with consultation with outside experts, and you said that hasn't occurred. But the outside experts, the administration people did go to CBO; CBO simply didn't accept their arguments. Is it your position that the law means CBO must accept administration arguments?

MR. MCCURRY: No. It's my argument that there needs to be consultations on an -- the word "agreement" is vital in the language of the continuing resolution. What they've agreed to is in the final deal, or in the final compromise that will be scored under assumptions that the CBO develops. But we don't believe there's been sufficient consultation. We acknowledge that they have had some discussions with administration economists. Frankly, that was mostly by way of presenting their revised estimates; there wasn't much discussion of it. But we've got contrary views on that and they are aware of that. And the differences, again, are within the margin of error as -- I guess defining a margin of error for an economist is a difficult exercise, but they are not substantial differences. They just happen to have billions of dollars of impact on budgeting.

Q: Mike, are you suggesting that what's supposed to happen here the process will be one in which an agreement is reached and then you'll find out whether it meets the standard in law?

MR. MCCURRY: No. As Mr. Panetta suggested --

Q: What do you mean when you say an agreement is vital?

MR. MCCURRY: Mr. Panetta suggested on ABC yesterday, Brit, it would be wise for that type of consultation to occur in advance of a final agreement because then there would be a common approach on what the numbers are.

Q: As she just pointed out in her question, some consultation has already occurred. Who judges which consultation is sufficient?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the agreement -- first of all, what the continuing resolution says in black and white is that an agreement will be scored by the CBO. Now, obviously, there's no agreement because there are no negotiations, because there's no Republican plan because the Republican negotiators got up and walked from the table.

Q: Mike, didn't I just ask you --

MR. MCCURRY: So the language is not applicable.

Q: -- if you're saying the agreement has to come first before they can figure out whether it meets the standard, or not?

MR. MCCURRY: No, there has to be good faith negotiations and there have to be the type of agreement between economists on what your baseline is in order to reach that agreement. And we're stuck on that point yet now because there's inflexibility across the board.

Q: Is what you're saying that your definition of sufficient negotiation is when CBO accepts your numbers?

MR. MCCURRY: No, of course not.

Q: Well, what is your definition of sufficient?

MR. MCCURRY: Look, there are economic projections for this economy about which reasonable economists can disagree. Reasonable economists need to sit down and come up with a set of numbers that all can use as they write an agreement. That hasn't happened.

Q: But you said the agreement had to come first.

Q: But that's not what the legislation says. The legislation said the CBO would come up with numbers after consultation. It didn't suggest some consortium.

MR. MCCURRY: The language of the CR is quite clear -- that it says the agreement between the President and the Congress will be scored by the CBO after consultations. We believe those consultations need to occur. They need to occur now so there can be a common baseline as they attempt to resolve the issues. That has not happened.

Q: When is the President going to cast that third veto -- this afternoon?

MR. MCCURRY: Tomorrow. I expect it tomorrow.

Q: Tomorrow?


Q: That's Commerce?

MR. MCCURRY: State, Commerce, Justice, yes.

Q: And which victims will he have with him tomorrow? Will he have another photo op and --

MR. MCCURRY: He'll probably do some type of event tomorrow, and we'll know what that will look like later.

Q: If there's no agreement by Thursday, veterans' checks could be delayed. Is there any contingency plan for dealing with that? Have you taken that at all outside this dispute?

MR. MCCURRY: No. We have pointed out to all that we can on the Hill that 3.3 million veterans and their survivors won't receive in a timely way their January 1st benefit check if there's not a regular appropriation or some other continuing resolution appropriation by Thursday. That's the necessary time for VA to process the benefit checks that would be due to arrive at the first of the year. That's another consequence of this shutdown.

By the way, the latest estimate from the Office of Management and Budget is on just the payroll costs alone, foregone payroll costs which the President has pledged to and the Congress has pledged to restoring, they will amount during the period of this shutdown to roughly $40 million a day.

The non-payroll costs associated with the shutdown are more difficult to calculate. Last time around, we had certain enforcement activities that Treasury conducted that represented lost revenue. Obviously, the Treasury Department is now fully funded with an appropriations bill, so much of that activity is restored and there won't be a loss there. We don't have a full calculation yet of the non-payroll costs.

Q: Last shutdown, Republicans were putting together legislation that was obviated by the agreement, but to go ahead and authorize at least payment of the veterans' checks on some kind of a timely basis. Has there been any conversation with them about that this time?

MR. MCCURRY: Not that I'm aware of, but I would check over with OMB to see if anyone's raised that point with Dr. Rivlin. Several people have asked me what are the differences this time between this shutdown and the last one. A principal one is in the area of human services. During the course of the last shutdown, we found an enormous backlog developing with Medicare applications and Social Security applications. After several days, the OMB determined, and the President concurred, that that represented a situation that could affect the life and the health of the American people involved, and we restored some furloughed workers so that they could process applications.

This time around, it's the view of the OMB that because of the backlog that they are still working on, that any further deepening of that backlog as a result of a shutdown would pose an emergency situation affecting life and health. So they, this time around, have kept enough workers at HHS to process applications.

Q: Will the furloughed workers get reimbursed?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, both leaders and Congress and the President have all suggested that they should . But there's no guarantee of that.

Q: Wait a minute. Didn't -- a minute ago you said they were committed to that, didn't you?

MR. MCCURRY: They're committed to doing that, but there's no guarantee of that. That would have to be adopted by Congress.

Q: Senator Dole said yesterday that he was going to be returning his paycheck to the government during the shutdown. Is the President going to do the same thing?

MR. MCCURRY: He is considering what implications there are for his own pay status. He feels he should be in the same situation as any federal worker that's furloughed. We're looking into the legalities of --

Q: Is the President going to pay for the lights on the Christmas tree?

MR. MCCURRY: If necessary, out of his pocket, although the Park Service has also been soliciting donations from people who --

Q: Are you suggesting the President is about to declare himself non-essential?

MR. MCCURRY: No, I'm suggesting that he -- by the word, Brit, it is a faux pas to use the word "non-essential." Every federal worker is essential. They are either emergency workers involved --

Q: What are you, the Amy Vanderbilt of the press corps now? (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: -- in emergency activity, or they're not. And we would encourage news organizations not to use the term "essential" or "nonessential" in your reporting on this shutdown because our view is, having cut the size of the federal government by over a quarter of a million, those federal workers remaining who are not going to be serving the American people are just as essential as those who are. The question is, are they involved in emergency activity necessary to protect the life and health of Americans? That's the statutory claim.

Q: So he's thinking of not taking his pay during this shutdown?

Q: When did this start -- this new terminology?

MR. MCCURRY: That terminology was in effect in the last shutdown, and we weren't vigilant enough in driving it home.

Q: No, there was something else --

Q: Excepted and nonexcepted.

MR. MCCURRY: I believe that's actually the right phrase -- excepted and nonexcepted.

Q: Could you just explain that, actually?

Q: Is the President in a holding pattern now until Panetta returns?

MR. MCCURRY: Excepted and nonexcepted was a little too difficult to get. The question was, excepted from the statutory requirement, but since the statutory requirement relates largely to emergency services, it's a lot easier to say emergency workers versus nonemergency workers.

Q: When did you decide that "nonessential" was a bad thing to say?

MR. MCCURRY: We felt it was bad last time around, but that point was drawn out in the congressional testimony that was offered by John Koskinen of the OMB following the effects of the last shutdown, and a good point raised by -- particularly by members of Congress from local jurisdictions here with large concentrations of federal employees. And we concur in the wise point that they've taken.

Q: In the next stage now of the negotiations, do expect the President to be personally negotiating, getting personally involved? Is this what the next --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President has been personally involved in these discussions from the beginning.

Q: But I mean, in person, in person.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, he answered that question for you earlier.

Q: No, all he said was he's going to talk to them. Is he going to have them over here? Is he going there?

MR. MCCURRY: The question, is he going to be personally involved -- it's a little hard to be personally involved and --

Q: Come on, Mike, you know what she meant. She meant is he physically going to meet with them.

MR. MCCURRY: It remains to see how the discussions go. I wouldn't rule that out.

Q: So what's the problem with the President not turning his pay back into the government or not -- or refusing to accept it?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's a constitutional requirement you can't reduce your own salary while you're in office, or something like that. I have to consult my lawyers.

Q: So when will you tell us? When will you know --

MR. MCCURRY: As soon as --

Q: Do you think you'll know today?

Q: He can voluntarily donate today's pay to the --

MR. MCCURRY: It's not clear that he can. That's one of the questions they're looking at.

Q: He could donate it to charity.

Q: He could write a check.

MR. MCCURRY: We'll look into it.

Q: He could write a check and contribute to the deficit reduction fund.

MR. MCCURRY: -- might not be able to get you your Christmas gift. (Laughter.)

Q: Do you have anything you can tell us about this bomb, apparent bomb that was found outside the IRS building in Reno, Nevada?

MR. MCCURRY: No, I have nothing on that.

Q: The deadline for acting on the securities litigation bill is tomorrow. Has he decided to sign that?

MR. MCCURRY: No, he has not made a final decision on that legislation. There are statements circulating in the White House that assume either decision, and the President indicated to me as recently as 20 minutes ago that he has not made a final decision.

Q: What's the latest on the NAFTA trucking issue?

MR. MCCURRY: Say again?

Q: NAFTA trucking issue -- what's the latest on that?

MR. MCCURRY: Just as Secretary Pena announced at 11:30 a.m.

Anything else?

Q: Which was?

MR. MCCURRY: He -- I mean, I'd refer you over to DOT, but they have a -- made a lengthy announcement. They announced that they were going to ensure that all carriers, drivers and brokers are aware of the safety, hazardous materials, weight, insurance, other requirements while operating in the United States. Any Mexican truck will be subject to those regulations.

They're going to maintain a full-time enforcement presence at the major boarder crossings to ensure safety of the commercial vehicles and drivers operating in these areas. And they're going to conduct an ongoing evaluation of the data on the results and impacts of these activities, and revise any applicable federal, state or local enforcement strategies as necessary to make sure that they protect the American people, particularly those Americans who are on the road.

This announcement today by Secretary Pena was the result of very fruitful discussions that Ambassador Kantor and Secretary Pena had with their Mexican counterparts over the weekend. And the President takes satisfaction in the announcement made today.

Q: Any update on the Whitewater document that D'Amato wants?

MR. MCCURRY: No, still there, and we're still anxious to give it away if we can get them to acknowledge the importance of the President's privilege.

Q: Has the White House received the RTC report?

MR. MCCURRY: Not to my knowledge, but were quite encouraged to read about it in the Wall Street Journal today. That's, to my -- I don't know how much knowledge the President's legal counsel had of the report, but the findings of the report and the summary of the report is significant in the White House's view. It largely corroborates exactly what the President has said on this matter for quite some time. I'd be a little surprised if that doesn't receive the same type of magnificent coverage that all the other issues related to Whitewater has received.

Q: So what exactly, Mike, do you think it corroborates?

MR. MCCURRY: It largely corroborates, in fact, if not explicitly corroborates, exactly the version of events as the President has provided them consistently and as numerous documents, testimony and discussion of this matter has also tended to confirm.

Q: A question about the Democratic budget position that's been talked about. Is that more or less a sort of collection of generalized budget goals, or is that going to be more a specific, hard and fast negotiating position?

MR. MCCURRY: I think it depends on what tone there is in negotiations. But we have bent and bent and bent, and offered proposal after proposal to try to break this impasse and we're getting very close to what we would just have to consider our bottom line at this point.

Q: What's the basis of tomorrow's State-Commerce-Justice veto?

MR. MCCURRY: Numerous things, but chief among them, the fact that a very important program for community policing would hereby be eliminated in this budget. And you only need look at the most recent FBI statistics on murder to understand that there has been some impact as a result of community policing. But we also need to do more. We need to deal with the issue of violent juvenile crime, and I suspect the President will have more to say on that, too, as he simultaneously vetoes a bill that would do away with the pledge to put 100,000 cops on the streets.

Q: You just said you're getting close to your bottom line. For years we were told in this town for the budget deficit to be dealt with entitlements would have to be dealt with. There was nothing in that document, in that proposal offered Friday that would have cut entitlements. In fact, there wasn't much in the President's third budget of the year that would have gone past June. Are you saying that on entitlements, basically, your budget in June was your bottom line?

MR. MCCURRY: No, the premise of your question happens to be wrong because the President proved in 1993 when he enacted deficit reduction that it's possible to achieve three important years of deficit reduction consistent with the obligations we have to our nation's elderly. And that was significant. It's made it more possible now to be in the environment where we can reach for the goal of a balanced budget. And as to the aspects of Medicare funding, you all know how they are all treated, you know how the President would propose adjusting those, and you know how he would do that in the context of overall health care reform, all of which are significant adjustments to those very important programs.

Q: A follow-up. In the current debate, the Republicans have their entitlement cuts suggested. Are you saying that your bottom line was really your original plan to trim $54 billion off Medicaid and whatever it was off Medicare, that your original proposal in this round was your bottom line?

MR. MCCURRY: No. The President advanced ideas very recently that would meet a seven-year path. Look, the President has put three times as much policy-oriented savings on the table as have the Republicans in terms of dollars, and has been more willing to adjust spending features in a balanced budget track than have the Republicans. The Republicans got, as a result of a CBO reestimate, $135 billion, some of which -- in fact, just barely half of which they were willing to use some of the President's priorities. They need to do better than that.

Q: What do you mean three times as much policy-oriented savings in terms of dollars?

MR. MCCURRY: If you go through all -- if you go through the $141 billion plus some of the features, policy changes, suggested by the President's negotiators on Friday, we have put almost exactly three times as much in billions of dollars on the table as have Republican negotiators.

Q: Since when? Starting from which starting point?

MR. MCCURRY: Starting with the adjustment to the President's 10-year plan, I believe. But Gene Sperling has got those numbers if you want to --

Q: -- including in that such --

Q: Three times as many since you started the whole process.

MR. MCCURRY: No, since we adjusted the 10-year proposal, is my understanding, but please check with Gene Sperling on that.

Q: You're including in that the rejection of CBO numbers as -- policy change?

MR. MCCURRY: No, these are not -- these are the policy-related changes that the President's negotiators offered up on Friday, not the ones that are related to economic assumptions.

Q: Most of those were --

Q: From your position, what's left to negotiate? A possible size of the tax cut?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's not rocket science. They've got a huge $240-billion tax cut; because they've got that tax cut, they need what the President considers unnecessary cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs that will protect the American people's health and safety, not to mention their interest in a strong economy in the 21st century. It isn't hard to figure out how you'd make a deal. But they've, so far, have been adamant in rejecting a notion that they should come off that giant tax cut in order to restore funding to some of those priorities. I mean, it's not -- you know, we all know what we're talking about here and it's not hard to figure it out.

Q: Is the administration concerned about the strong communist showing in the Russian elections?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we believe that we're, first of all, satisfied that there has been another step towards a consolidation of democracy in Russia with free and fair elections that met international standards for the Duma. Ex-communists didn't have a strong showing, but not all the voting results are final. They are perhaps somewhere about 20 percent, and if you look at the slate of candidates that ran as party-affiliated candidates, but they're still processing results for individual districts in which members of the Duma ran unaffiliated. And we believe there will be some overall adjustment in the numbers.

What remains clear after the election is that the political culture of Russia is still multifaceted and quite dynamic with a lot of different participants, a lot of different factions, a lot of different points of view of what Russia's political future should hold. And it is true that just as in any election, voters tend to express concern when they don't see overall economic performance that is satisfactory. And there has been an element of that in this election result to be certain.

But we also believe that there is a strong presence in the newly-elected Duma of reformers and those committed to democracy and market economics, and as always, the United States government will continue to work with the Russian Federation as we advance our interests in democracy and market reforms.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

MR. MCCURRY: You're very welcome.

END 1:46 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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