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Press Briefing by Mike McCurry

December 28, 1995

The Briefing Room

5:20 P.M. EST

MR. MCCURRY: Several people said they needed more than the paper that you now have available, so have at me.

Q: I need something on the budget.

MR. MCCURRY: You need something on the budget? Well, we need a budget, period, so we can put the government back to work --

Q: Gingrich said a little while ago that he thought that maybe you should negotiate every day until they got an agreement. Is the President willing to do that?

MR. MCCURRY: I thought the idea was that they were going to lock everyone in a room and --

Q: That was the freshmen --

Q: What's your reaction to all that?

MR. MCCURRY: Whether we would be willing?

Q: -- marathon talks?

MR. MCCURRY: We would be willing to lock the President and the Speaker, the Majority Leader and the Democratic leaders in a room until they get a deal so long as we could lock the House Republican freshmen out.

Q: I may need Q-tips, Mike, but I can't hear what you're saying.

Q: Can you talk up, Mike?

MR. MCCURRY: Their approach has not been constructive, because they had been insisting on no compromises. For a negotiation of that nature to work there has to be a give-and-take attitude and a good-faith negotiation. We keep getting -- we've got a particularly interesting idea here from Senator Dole and from Speaker Gingrich that we just go ahead and accept unacceptable appropriations bills and we can talk about it later. That's putting the cart before the horse and allowing them the opportunity if they so choose to get up and walk away and leave us stuck with bills that are not in the interest of the American people. So there's a lot of -- the President is concerned that we're getting back into a cycle of shenanigans here rather than serious, good-faith negotiations that will move us forward.

The President has been working hard today, as you know. He's withheld comment on some of these more boisterous remarks. And he just wants to work tomorrow, see if we can make progress on budget issues, achieve the goal of a balanced budget, and above all else, get our government open so the American people get their government back. The President was disappointed today to hear that the Republican leadership assessment is that they will force the American people to go at least six more days with a lack of full government services as we negotiate these budget issues. The President has consistently demonstrated that he is conducting these discussions in good faith. And he believes that that's reason enough for the Republicans in the House of Representatives to lift this shutdown of government services.

Q: Mike, have you heard back from your officials who are at the budget talks today?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't -- I believe they're still working. At last report, they were still working. And the only thing we've heard is that they continued to work in a productive environment. And they continue to focus on how they can help the decision-makers narrow differences tomorrow.

Q: What time is the budget advisers meeting set for tomorrow, and where will it be held?

MR. MCCURRY: We believe it's going to be around 10:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and on the Hill, we think.

The Congress is hosting tomorrow, so it will up to them to announce. But we're planning for 10:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. on the budget advisers meeting. Then we intend to host the Democratic leaders here at roughly 2:30 p.m. tomorrow; and the full principals group, including Representative Armey, the Speaker, the Majority Leader, who will then be joined by the Democratic leaders at approximately 3:15 p.m., 3:30 p.m., in that neighborhood.

Q: And do you have an agenda for those talks? Is it going to be on narrow items or broad-ranging policy?

MR. MCCURRY: What the team of staff people from the Congress and the White House have been doing are really shaping those discussions by looking at what the different proposals are. Remember, this is about more than dollar figures. It's also about the policies that underscore those numbers. When you pick a number and put it in a budget outline, it's not a number picked out of thin air. There are policy assumptions that underpin those numbers. And what the -- what we believe the staff people have been doing is looking at where those policy differences are and sharpening up that discussion so the budget advisers and the principals can have a more enlightened conversation.

Q: Are you saying he's going to meet Dole and Gingrich at 2:30 p.m. and then broaden the meeting?

MR. MCCURRY: No, I'm sorry, he's going to meet with Senator Daschle and Congressman Gephardt at approximately 2:30 p.m., and then they'll be joined by the rest of the group later.

Q: And, excuse me, is there a session with the President and Panetta here before Panetta goes to the Hill?

MR. MCCURRY: They will be talking at some point. We're not certain when that will happen, but we expect Mr. Panetta back in town sometime later tonight.

Q: Mike, both Gingrich and Dole seem to be talking about tomorrow's principals talks carrying over until Saturday and maybe even beyond that. Is that an expectation the White House has?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, we -- we hope they're right, because that would reflect and be some sense of optimism, and that would indicate that they are hard at work and moving towards the goal of a balanced budget, which is what the President desires.

Q: Is it incorrect to say that the President's team, having reviewed kind of what ought to go on the table, has some new markers to lay down or has some new ideas?

MR. MCCURRY: I believe that we are prepared to have good-faith discussions. And, you know, we're willing to bridge differences that exist as long as there's a willingness on the other side to reciprocate.

Q: Has the President done anything himself today to personally move the process along -- like has he talked to any of the Republican leaders on the phone?

MR. MCCURRY: He's continued to work on this extensively. And he would prefer that we keep any conversations that he may have had private.

Q: So what's he done?


Q: So what's he done if he's been working so hard?

MR. MCCURRY: He's been working with Director Rivlin. He's been having some conversations. He's been working hard.

Q: Are you denying he -- I mean, how do you say it --I mean, you prefer not to -- I mean, you're saying he's had some, but you just won't say who?

MR. MCCURRY: I said I would prefer to keep any conversations that he may have had private, at his request.

Q: Well, we're not asking you for the -- what the conversation is; who did he talk to?

MR. MCCURRY: Well, he didn't --

Q: Did he talk to Dole and Gingrich?

MR. MCCURRY: He would prefer that I not say.

Q: Did he protest the fact that they don't meet again -- the House doesn't meet again until Wednesday?

MR. MCCURRY: He's very concerned --

Q: -- to them?

MR. MCCURRY: -- very concerned by the statements from the Republican leaders today that made it clear that they don't really have any intention of moving forward to open the government before next Wednesday. The President believes the government ought to be reopened now. And he believes the fact that they are involved in good-faith negotiations to balance the budget should be reason enough for Congress to pass the necessary continuing resolution that would reopen the government.

Q: Gingrich says it won't pass the House -- just the intention.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Speaker -- probably a very candid assessment of the Speaker's read of the sentiment of some his members. But he also pointed out that 79 members apparently can hold hostage the majority of the House, which is unfortunate.

Q: What was the read here on the freshmen press conference today where they said -- they sort of took the stance of we just want to stay and get this done; everything's on the table and so forth? Is that a shift in your opinion?

MR. MCCURRY: It was a shift from the position they took after we met with the Speaker and the Majority Leader and worked through a way that we could both reopen the government and have good-faith negotiations and developed a formula to have the President -- remember, the President agreed with the Speaker and the Majority Leader to have exactly those around-the-clock discussions. And that agreement fell apart when those same House Republican freshmen objected. So it sounds like it's a change of tune on their part --

Q: But what's going on?

MR. MCCURRY: -- and if it's a more constructive attitude on their part, we welcome it.

Q: Mike, is the President willing or unwilling to compromise on funding levels for Medicare, Medicaid and the size of a tax cut?

MR. MCCURRY: The President has always indicated that he's willing to have good-faith negotiations. And he understands that he can't rule out compromises. On the other hand, he has repeatedly and consistently made clear his fundamental priorities in this discussion. They are now a matter of law because they're in the continuing resolution. They have been adopted by the Congress presumably. And they include providing and continuing necessary funding for Medicare and Medicaid.

Q: What is the White House expectation tomorrow afternoon that with Gingrich and Dole saying, you know, if we can meet for two or three days we get this hammered out, that tomorrow afternoon will be the beginning of long negotiations over the weekend? I mean, what's the White House expectation?

MR. MCCURRY: We share their abundant hope that they can reach that --

Q: Dole also said he was going to New Hampshire Sunday, so --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, I noticed that the Speaker of the House seemed to criticize him for that, but we certainly wouldn't.

Q: Mike, Senator Dole also talked about bringing the welfare --

MR. MCCURRY: Harold, how am I doing? (Laughter.)

Q: Terrible. (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: All right, let's wrap this up -- our intent is to give you a full lid when we're done here, right? Have we checked on a full lid?

Q: Mike, Dole also said that he was thinking about bringing the welfare bill here tomorrow in the hope that the President might sign --

MR. MCCURRY: Look, welfare reform is now a subject we've had enormous volumes of discussion about with this Congress. They know very clearly what the President considers welfare reform. And they know very manifestly that this ain't it.

Q: Mike, why did the President not go ahead and sign the executive order on the military pay raise today? Is there's some technical issues he's waiting --

MR. MCCURRY: No, he did.

MS. TERZANO: -- it may have been signed already. It wasn't signed immediately because we were changing the --

MR. MCCURRY: We were conforming the text and doing some other things necessary to make sure they had an accurate submission. But as our statement earlier indicated, he intends to put that forward. We should have the -- we do have the text out now.

Q: Dole started talking about sending the appropriations back and changing them a little bit. Is that a -- I mean, he said it before, but he's never said about changing them.

MR. MCCURRY: I took that idea on a little bit earlier, Kevin. I just said that that's not -- that's not a constructive approach here. They're asking the President to put the cart before the horse, to accept unacceptable appropriations bills as a condition for having discussions -- it seems. And that's not the environment of good faith discussions that we've had up to this point.

Q: But if they were willing to take out some of the provisions in some of these bills that the White House has objected to --

MR. MCCURRY: Well, that -- they need to do a lot to fix these appropriation bills, and they know that. And most of what they need to fix are very essential to the budget discussions that are being held; that's why the President vetoed these appropriations bills in the first place.

Look, they are feeling -- and rightfully so -- feeling a great deal of heat now for keeping this government shut for 14 days. And they're trying to indicate that they're doing something about that and they're suggesting that, you know, if Clinton had just signed these appropriations bills -- and I think the American people know the President cast these vetoes because he can't accept what he thinks are not in the best interests of the American people.

Q: Didn't he take the defense appropriation and veto the authorization?

MR. MCCURRY: He vetoed an authorization bill for the specific reasons that he cited.

Q: Right, but he took the appropriation bill, even though it was $7 billion more than he wanted.

MR. MCCURRY: Well, he took a defense appropriations bill and accepted it and signed it for the reasons that he set forth. A defense authorization bill establishes long term national security policy; and, in this case, very clearly would commit the President to an unrealistic and unnecessary Star Wars program. And also, simultaneously, various elements that infringe on his constitutional responsibilities -- unlike an appropriations bill that provides mirror funding for programs that have already in many cases been authorized in law.

Q: My understanding of the budget negotiation process was that they were going to deal with technical, easier to resolve issues first, and then sort of center in on the big core issues. Is that still the case? Or are they now going to try to deal with -- because, I guess Dole said the opposite, we need to get these core issues resolved now, then the rest of the stuff will fall into place fairly easily.

What's the expectation of the order?

MR. MCCURRY: I don't want to dispute the Majority Leader's interpretation. I mean, there are fundamental core issues that everybody understands and they are -- there are differences that exist there and that's where the bulk of the hard work will have to occur -- as when they get to the principals level.

In a sense, they are working through these issues that we hope the staff has made progress on that today. We hope the budget advisors can make further progress to codify some of that work tomorrow. And then that will have to be considered by the principals because one agreement that they do have, based on their prior conversations, is that none of this package can be agreed to until all the elements are agreed to.

But I think what the Majority Leader was suggesting -- look, we've got to resolve these other issues and the other parts of the puzzle fit into the final agreement.

Q: What is this business on good faith? Every time either side opens his mouth they start -- if the other would only operate or negotiate in good faith. Is there no good faith at this table?

MR. MCCURRY: No, we believe there is. We don't like some of the things that happened today publicly, but the President chose to withhold his fire and didn't answer back some of these more boisterous remarks.

Q: He sent you out --

MR. MCCURRY: I've been very temperate.

Q: Has the President expressed to the White House staff his strong and irrevocable preference -- everything else being equal -- to go to Hilton Head for at least New Year's Eve, if he can so do without being irresponsible in deserting -- ending negotiations?

MR. MCCURRY: No. He said -- you know, he said on balance he'd like to go and have a party with his friends on New Year's Eve. But he'll only do that if it seems like the right thing to do and it makes sense at the time.

Q: Does he have --

MR. MCCURRY: But he doesn't sound like it's irrevocable and he has a lust for Hilton Head that is insatiable and incurable. (Laughter.) I wouldn't be surprised if he goes, I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't go.

Q: Saturday is he clearing the decks to stay here and work on budget?

MR. MCCURRY: He plans to be here on Saturday, at this point. He would like -- I mean, his original -- as I told some of you, his original desire was to try to go down to South Carolina Saturday night. But he's willing to delay that or cancel that if it's conducive to getting a budget agreement.

Q: But does he expect to spend much of Saturday working with --

MR. MCCURRY: You know, we have no way of knowing. I don't -- ask me tomorrow, this time tomorrow night and we might have a better idea.

Q: Mike, one last one. When you said that the President chose to withhold his fire, that makes it sound like he was at least angry at what Dole and Gingrich were saying?

MR. MCCURRY: No, he just -- you know, look, they sent welfare reform down with great fanfare today, but the world knows where President Clinton is on reforming welfare. He wants to do it, but he wants to do it the right way. He doesn't want to do it in a way that takes it out on kids and makes it harder to get people back onto work. And everyone knows that the President's view of welfare reform, as he clearly stated it to the Congress, does not make it possible for him to embrace this type of measure.

So they passed this with great fanfare, as if it was actually going to mean something. And, you know, they know it doesn't.

Q: Will he continue to exercise this kind of discipline about holding his fire by keeping the pool outside the doors to cover --

MR. MCCURRY: When he feels it's the appropriate thing to do, yes. If you prefer not to have the picture we can, you know, cancel that kind of opportunity.

Q: Well, it was humiliating.

MR. MCCURRY: We try to make sure everyone doesn't have to stay cold.

Q: If there was this goodwill that you talked about on both sides, is it really a two or three day process to work this stuff up?

MR. MCCURRY: No, no. I mean, he -- let's not misinterpret what the Majority Leader said. He said we could -- he said we could get an outline by two or three days. No, there -- because of all the work, we hope that some of the work the staff is doing will make it possible to get a final agreement in a form that can be passed by Congress quicker. But that's a lot of hard work that goes into just doing that.

And even if the principals agree to the framework of a budget, there will be -- take some time to draft a final measure.

Q: How long -- what's a more realistic assessment of how long it would take?

MR. MCCURRY: I've heard Dr. Rivlin say it would take, you know, maybe a week. I don't think anyone has ever pinned it down. But our hope is that some of the work that this -- that, you know, what the staff has been doing in the last day is looking at exactly those types of questions: What are the policy differences that exist in that type of measure.

Q: I'm sorry, when you say a week, do you mean from the time they have an outline we can expect some sort of --

MR. MCCURRY: Yes, that's a rough -- I mean, that's not -- that was just a rough estimate at one point, and she -- you know, it would depend on the complexity of any agreement they reached or -- you know, getting a --

Q: But a week to do what? I didn't quite follow you.

MR. MCCURRY: To actually draft the bill that would have to be passed. They just have to be put in legislative form and -- an outline is not the same thing as specs they can write a bill off of. But that's apparently what we think the other folks have been making some progress on.

Q: But it's your understanding that once there's a plan in hand that they'll be willing to go ahead and do a CR, correct?

MR. MCCURRY: We -- based on the Speaker's comments today, it seemed to me that -- he said that if it was clear to members of the House that there was an agreement, that he would be able to proceed on unanimous consent to get a CR.

You know, our view is that they know that when it's working towards this end then they ought to decouple the question in keeping the government open. But that's been our view all along and it's been ignored by the House of Representatives.

Q: Do you think their feeling the heat more than you are?

MR. MCCURRY: I think everyone is feeling the heat because this is an outrageous situation. It's been two weeks worth of government services lost to Americans who need them. I calculated today, there are 32,000 American families that have got their --

Q: Oh, here he goes.

MR. MCCURRY: I'll do the whole list for you.

Q: No, no, no. You can post it. (Laughter.)

MR. MCCURRY: But just one example: 32,000 American families who went -- you know, the end of this year, looking forward to next year -- in many cases probably giving up leases on apartments because they're moving into their first homes, don't have anywhere to go because they can't get their FHA mortgages closed. That's not a good situation. I think people in this room have probably been up against, you know, a mortgage closing before -- and these people are losing those opportunities.

And that's -- you know, that's one more small slice of life in this shutdown, not to mention all the federal workers and their families who aren't getting paid -- all the contractors now who are losing services, and they'll never regain -- there's no legislation pending in Congress that restores contracts or restores economic livelihood to people who provide services to the government.

So it's a bad situation and it's -- you know, one thing that the Speaker said today which is manifestly true, it was all unnecessary.

END 5:40 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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