Press Briefing by Mike McCurry
The Briefing Room
1:40 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Let's get started. Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to the White House. First of all, I would say on behalf of the President and on behalf of the White House staff, a hearty thank-you to the White House Correspondents Association and those of you who hosted us at your splendid dinner on Saturday, and say a special word of thanks especially from the Press Office and especially on behalf of those who had an especially good time. So thank you once again.
Q: Does that mean you got to meet Tony Curtis, or what?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I went home early. I was a stick in the mud.
I don't have any -- we're sort of wedging this briefing in between the President's speech just concluded and the President's remarks, along with Dr. Foster, coming up shortly. So I won't hold forth at any great length here and just take whatever questions you've got.
Q: What can you tell us about North Korea?
MR. MCCURRY: What can I tell you? There's not much new to tell you about that. We continue to hope that there will be a way through dialogue that has been proposed now by the United States to resolve the differences that we do have, and to proceed with full implementation of the agreed framework. But they'll be talking more about that at State later.
Q: Does the President have an answer to Newt Gingrich's call for Medicare proposals and to be responsible and step forward and --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President is -- to answer the question directly, the President is working with the Chief of Staff and I expect the Chief of Staff will probably answer by letter some of the Speaker's points later today. We'll keep you posted if and when that happens, if and when the letter is posted. But I would --
Q: Would this also be a response to Senator Dole as well?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I'm not sure that Senator Dole advanced the debate much beyond where the Speaker had left it in his remarks. The President will point out, as we've been pointing out all along, that we have stepped forward. We have been leading on the issue of deficit reduction and sensible budget policies for two years now. Our problem has been that while we lead, we don't have a partner. So, continuing now, we believe the Republican majority in Congress needs to come forward with a specific budget plan.
As we've said all along -- they've tried every gimmick, every bit of smoke and mirrors available to them, and they've got to get down to the serious business of writing a budget. It's pretty simple. Are they for the tax cuts that they've talked about in the Contract, or not? Are they for a balanced budget by the year 2002, or not? If so, if they want both of those what would seem to be mutually exclusive bills, how do they make their arithmetic work? There are some simple laws of addition and subtraction that apply here, and they need to face those issues very, very directly, because, frankly, they've kind of run out of places to hide on this.
Q: Mike, setting that moment aside and going back to the question of Medicare and its problems which members of your administration have been deeply involved in pointing out, is it the White House's position that what should happen is that the Congress should advance a proposal which the White House will then react to, or is it the White House's view that the President should lead on the issue?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has lead on the issue on Medicare solvency. Twenty-seven days into his administration, he proposed a budget deficit proposal that pushed back the date of insolvency at least three years. He has consistently said on Medicare that the rising costs of health care are part -- a component part of what we need to do to address the issue of solvency, and there is no one in this room that does not know that the President took the lead on the subject of health care reform last year.
We do believe that Medicare reform in the context of health care reform makes sense, but that is not the issue here. The issue here is the Republican majority is now overdue in producing a federal budget for the American people. And if Medicare is not to be a part of that, if it's to be set aside somehow, then it is even more incumbent upon the Republicans in Congress to come forward with a budget plan that says how they are going to achieve their goals of tax cuts for the wealthy, plus a balanced budget and do it in a way that somehow or other doesn't wreck every other aspect of the federal government.
Q: Well, what about Medicare?
MR. MCCURRY: Medicare has a solvency problem that's going to have to be addressed carefully in a bipartisan way. The President has suggested over and over again that he's willing to work with Congress to do that. But that's not the issue. The issue is the budget. Where is their budget?
Q: Specifically on Medicare, how do you feel about Mr. Gingrich's assertion that Medicare should be treated totally separately as an issue from balancing the budget? And also, his --
MR. MCCURRY: That's what I just said. I just said that's an interesting proposition. They need, you know, $300 -- what is the number? I think it's $350 -- they got at least $300 billion in Medicare cuts that they've talked about. They have need of $350 billion from somewhere to pay for their tax cuts that go disproportionately for the wealthy. So it doesn't become hard to imagine what they're talking about here is using those Medicare cuts in order to pay for the tax cuts that are going to go to the wealthy. And that's something the President has been very clear on. That's not something that he is going to accept.
Q: But why would the President want to talk about that? Why wouldn't the President say, well, very well, if you want to do this in Medicare -- why wouldn't he leap to work with them on that if takes Medicare off the table as a way to pay for their tax cuts?
MR. MCCURRY: Because they still somehow or other are going to come back to the question of having to pay for those tax cuts, and how do they pay for those tax cuts, what programs they take it out of? Are they going to take it out of Social Security, if not out of Medicare? I mean, all of those questions are central to the issue of, where is the budget that they have promised the American people?
Q: I know, but based on what the President has proposed so far, according to you, he will go down in history as the guy that pushed Medicare insolvency back three years.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's -- I mean, Brit, he recognizes and has said that he will work with this Congress. They will need to work with this Congress to take care of the out-year insolvency problem that the Medicare trust fund faces.
Q: Isn't that what Gingrich is proposing?
MR. MCCURRY: No. What they're proposing is to take Medicare out of the discussion of the federal budget, which leaves them with a very real problem on how they're going to get their budget together --
Q: How does that differ from what he's done on his budget?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has proposed in his own FY '96 budget certain measure that do affect Medicare, and they have got a long-term problem that they're going to have to deal with.
Look, don't be diverted here. That's not the issue -- this is not the issue that the Republican majority is dealing with. They're dealing with the problem that they've got nowhere left to hide on the question of the federal budget, so they keep trying to change the tune. They trying to get us to talk about Medicare, Medicare insolvency at the time that they need to be coming forward with a FY '96 budget proposal and with a plan to reach their promised goal of a balanced budget by the year 2002. If that's not their goal any longer, then they need to step forward and say so. And how are they going to do that if they don't --
Q: But this is -- but you're saying, we don't like their tactics, therefore, we're not going to deal with this problem, even though we know --
MR. MCCURRY: No, I didn't say that. I said we will deal -- we will work with the Congress patiently, you know, constructively, deal with the question of Medicare solvency. The President has said numerous times that should be done in the context of health care reform. He suggested to the Congress in the State of the Union address there are ways to proceed on health care reform. He suggested we can work, if not with -- certainly not with the health care reform proposal that he's made, he said to them he's willing to consider a step-by-step process. But that all would take you in the direction of solutions to problems such as Medicare will face in the out years.
But that's -- you're missing the point. That's not what this is about. This is about their inability to face the music when it comes to adding up the promises that they've made to the American people.
Q: Is that what Mr. Panetta is going to say in his letter?
MR. MCCURRY: Pretty close to it, yes.
Q: Could you talk about the $118 billion in Medicare savings you proposed last year and what happened to them this year?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't, but we can get some people who will talk about that.
Q: Just explain why you -- since you proposed Medicare savings last year and didn't this year, why the switch?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, they were proposed in the context of an overall approach to health care reform. I mean, they were connected to a health care reform measure that stood before the Congress last year.
Q: Yes, but last year you recognized the need to get Medicare savings. This year, your budget does not.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we still recognize the need to address the question of solvency in the out years of Medicare and have acknowledged that we will work with Congress to do that. But we've also accepted the results of the 1994 election, and the Republicans have indicated to the American people that they are going to attempt to cut taxes for the wealthy, and simultaneously, balance the budget. So we're saying, that's fine. Let's see specifically how you propose to do that.
Q: Irrespective of the Republican problem in putting out a balanced budget proposal, wouldn't it be the responsible thing to do for the President to put forward his proposals on the solvency of Medicare even though it's four years down the road or even though it's six years down the road. Why not say, this debate is right; let's do it now?
MR. MCCURRY: This President spent two years -- spent two years being responsible, putting forward measures to cut the federal budget deficit and received how many votes -- just someone refresh my memory -- how many votes from the Republican majority did this President receive as he was responsible and put forward responsible proposals for deficit reduction? Anyone recall just how many?
MR. MCCURRY: Zero. Thank you, Wolf. (Laughter.) So, you know, the question is -- the question is the President now will work with Congress as we move forward in constructing a rational budget. But, you know, in order to play, you've got to ante up. The problem is they don't want to come to the table without anteing up. And to do that, they've got to put forward some specifics about where they would propose to lead.
Q: Well, what happened to the President proposes and Congress disposes?
MR. MCCURRY: The President proposed an FY '96 budget. We'd be perfectly happy for the Congress to take that up right today.
Q: I know, but you know it doesn't get there on Medicare.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's a starting point. It at least is a starting point and can frame a debate. If they want to take up the President's budget proposal tomorrow, that's a good place to begin. And then we can begin to work through some of these issues, and the President is willing to work with Congress. The problem is there's a vacuum there on Capitol Hill, and there is nothing from the Republican majority about where they would go with the very tough choices that exist when you get serious about writing a federal budget. They just haven't gotten serious yet. That's all we're saying.
Q: Mike, with all due respect, I still haven't heard the answer to Ann's first question or Brit's question. Is it your position the President will propose nothing on Medicare until he sees both the Republican Medicare plan and the Republican budget?
MR. MCCURRY: I think the President is willing to move forward and work with Congress, and even, in fact, perhaps to propose -- in fact he might in fact propose certain measures. But it has to be done in an environment and a context in which we know what direction the Republicans are going to go as they write a budget.
Q: comprehensible, what does that mean?
MR. MCCURRY: What it means is, you can't work your way down the road of dealing with Medicare, think about serious transformations in the Medicare program without looking at how it might affect the rest of the federal budget. This is a unified federal budget. It's not like you can go take care of one problem over here and ignore all the issues that then are related over on the other hand because it's all one pot of money.
Q: So are you then saying you will propose nothing n Medicare until after the Republicans propose Medicare in the budget? And if not, when will you do it?
MR. MCCURRY: The urgent issue facing this Congress is to begin meeting their deadlines on the federal budget. And they need to do that so there will be clarity on a range of issues, not only health care, not only Medicare, not only Social Security, but a range of issues in which you need to have specifics from the Congress so you can see how it all fits together.
And so far, what they're sort of saying to us, why don't you come down, take all the hits, while we sit back and kind of wait and see which direction we want to go on certain fundamental choices. They have advanced the proposition that you can cut taxes and you can balance the budget, but those promises are not mutually exclusive. And they need to tell the American people how they propose doing that. That's all -- that's pretty straightforward.
Q: Mike, when are you prepared -- give us a timetable -- when will we see a proposal from the President on Medicare?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, Deborah, it depends. If the Congress decides, look, we're in a box and we can't get out of it, we admit it so we'll take up the President's budget proposal tomorrow, we'll go to work with them tomorrow. That's fair enough it seems.
Q: If they, in their first budget resolution, put in an amount of Medicare savings, let's say, $200 billion over seven years, would the White House then be prepared to begin negotiations over what and how?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. If they started coming forward with something that was that specific and how they were going to write a budget, of course, we would engage and begin to do that serious work. But you can't start from nowhere. There has to be a starting point, and the Republican majority has not put anything that represents a starting point on the table.
Q: You're not going to start the serious work, in other words?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have. We wrote a budget. You guys keep forgetting. Remember all those documents -- there were like four big stacks of documents --
Q: We're talking about Medicare.
MR. MCCURRY: Medicare is right in there. You can go and look and see what we said --
Q: There's nothing on Medicare in there --
MR. MCCURRY: If you go look in the federal budget there's a whole section on Medicare -- trust me.
Q: What about Senator Dole's idea of special commission on Medicare -- and solvency for Social Security?
MR. MCCURRY: That is not an attractive idea in an environment where there's no engagement on their part on where they want to go with such a commission. What are the ideas that such a commission would look at? What are the parameters for the debate that would be underway? Those commissions, blue ribbon commissions to tackle tough issues relating to the federal budget work when there is a political dynamic that is going to bring people together. That was the experience that Senator Dole cited over the weekend with the Greenspan Commission on Social Security. There can't that type of political dynamic if one party won't play. And that's the problem. The problem is that they won't come forward with something that says, here's the direction that we would suggest going.
Q: The President has this White House Conference on Aging convening this week. Is he going to talk to these people? Is he going to say anything about the Medicare issue?
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, sure. Absolutely.
Q: What will he tell them about it?
MR. MCCURRY: He'll talk a lot about the concern that this administration has and he has as President that fiscal policies designed to reward the wealthy with fairly large tax cuts might happen at the expense of those who rely on programs like Medicare. That's it purely and simply. It's hard to imagine any other way of looking at it when, on the one hand, you want to take a huge tax cut and give it disproportionately to the wealthy. On the other hand, you're talking about almost an equal size amount of cuts in Medicare.
Q: For whom was the President speaking in his remarks earlier when he talked about people who claim to be political prisoners who murder children? Did he have anybody particular in mind?
MR. MCCURRY: I'll have to ask him when he returns.
Q: What was the question?
MR. MCCURRY: About a reference in the speech, but I'll have to ask him.
Q: On Foster, two questions. One is, do you know who is paying to bring the kids from Nashville here for this event?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. I can check on that.
Q: And secondly, the President said he thinks it's a shame that it has become a political football. Is he suggesting that the Foster nomination -- on the other side is making it into politics and the President is not at all?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not aware of the President having done anything to make this into a political issue. I'm aware of the President having fought -- and I guess some would suggest politically fought -- on behalf of his nominee, and he's willing to do that.
We would have preferred an environment in which the nominee would have gone to the Hill, the hearings would have been held and senators would have dispassionately considered the worthiness of the nomination. We were not afforded that opportunity because there are a number of senators who, from the beginning, indicated that they were going to filibuster or that they weren't going to call things up for a vote, or that they were going to somehow or other block the nomination before the hearings even began. So we didn't have the luxury of saying that we couldn't go out and fight for the nominee. We were faced with that fight from the very beginning.
Q: How confident are you that he will be confirmed --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, if he has a reasonable opportunity to make his presentation to the committee, and if the committee will grant him the opportunity to make that case and to send it forward to the floor for a vote, we think, over time, as Dr. Foster becomes better known to members of the Senate, as he answers the questions they no doubt are going to have on a number of issues, that he will prevail and that the nomination will be successfully confirmed by the Senate.
We acknowledge that it's an uphill fight, but the value of Dr. Foster's presentation to the Senate is it will make that uphill fight far less steep because he's enormously impressive as he argues his case.
Q: Mike, when is the President going to do his walk-up to the summit?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm sorry?
Q: When is the President going to do his walk-up speech to the summit?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not certain that he will do that. He'll be talking about the relationship and the importance of the summit several times in coming days, but we don't have anything scheduled by way of a Russia speech at this point.
Q: Where will he be talking about it in these next several days?
MR. MCCURRY: Venues that I will tell you about as we go through the next coming days -- which is a way of saying I'm not even sure what the schedule is at this point. (Laughter.)
Q: U.S. News had a story in the current issue that you have a birth certificate related to the Tuskeegee study. Is that accurate?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't know. That will be presented in the course of the testimony about to begin tomorrow.
Q: Do you know who would know?
MR. MCCURRY: Who would know that? There may be some people around these parts that would know that. But I think it would be proper for that presentation to be made in response to questions that senators may or may not have as they get into the hearing.
Q: Does the administration have information that North Korea has sold Scud launchers to Iran?
MR. MCCURRY: Let me look into that and see what I can provide to you on that. It may not be much.
Q: Do you have anything on three Americans being arrested in Russia for espionage?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I haven't seen that. Is there a report on that? Have you seen anything on that?
MR. MITCHELL: I've seen something on that --
MR. MCCURRY: Okay. NSC will check into that, or you might want to check at State on that.
Q: The President spoke to a pro-choice group today. I wonder if the White House has decided to wage the Foster nomination battle on the basis of pro-choice -- that that position is politically stronger and you'll benefit from arguing it on that basis.
MR. MCCURRY: No, the President chose from the beginning to wage this nomination fight on the merits of Dr. Foster's 38-year record as a practicing physician and someone who has been deeply involved in programs related to teen pregnancy, and has been rewarded by his predecessor for his work in that area. From the beginning, this nomination fight was turned into a fight about abortion by those who I think it's fair to say take a determinedly anti-choice view. And that's why the issue surfaced. It's one that Dr. Foster is willing and ready to address, and one that certainly the President will be supportive of as the nomination is considered by the Senate.
Q: Do you have anything on 115 U.N. peacekeepers picked up by Croatian --
MR. MCCURRY: No -- try breaking news over here with Dr. Mitchell. Don't have anything on that.
Okay. Thank you.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:05 P.M. EDT
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/269995