Press Briefing by Mike McCurry
The Briefing Room
1:57 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Let me start with an announcement about the Endangered Species Act. The President will have a statement very shortly in which the President says that he's announcing significant reforms to the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act Wetlands Program which will benefit homeowners in America. Under the reforms, a vast majority of American homeowners won't ever have to worry about endangered species implications or wetlands requirements if they're doing things like building properties or looking to modify their own structures on property that are wetlands implicated.
Specifically, the Endangered Species Act programs will, as administered by the Department of the Interior, essentially eliminate restrictions on single-family homeowners with five or fewer acres of land. Similarly, for wetlands programs, the Army Corps of Engineers will issue a new nationwide permit to allow homeowners to construct or expand residences without an individual permit. That is an additional step that is consistent with a lot of things the administration has been doing to enhance homeownership opportunities for individual Americans.
There will be a briefing over at the Department of Interior at 3:15 p.m. today by Interior folks and Army Corps of Engineers folks. So they'll be able to answer any questions you might have.
Q: Is this a proposal or is this the regulation that he's issuing?
MR. MCCURRY: These are -- my understanding is it's reforms, changes in the regulations as administered now. So this is an executive action. It doesn't require any congressional action or approval.
Q: Is this an announcement, a piece of paper, or what?
MR. MCCURRY: A piece of paper that we're doing here, and that they will brief on at greater length over at Interior.
Q: How do you think this will affect the debate on the Hill in terms of environmental issues?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we hope that given so many unfortunate things happening on the Hill as they relate to environmental protection, that this common-sense application of law is what we need to do to protect our environment, in the interest of homeowners and individual citizens who shouldn't have to go through cumbersome bureaucratic procedures to do what they want to do on their private property.
We'd indicate to Congress that this administration and this White House take a common sense approach to environmental regulation, and thus make it unnecessary to eviscerate those environmental protection laws that the President believes are important to safeguarding the natural resources of America and enhance the quality of the environment for all Americans.
Q: Did the Republican proposals help spur the administration to come out with this?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I would say, when it comes to wetlands, as you know, since 1993, we have done a series of things to really improve the administration of wetlands regulation. And this is consistent with those things. It's also consistent with a variety of measures that we've taken not only in the natural resources area, but also through HUD and other agencies to expand and enhance home ownership opportunities.
Q: The wetlands position had been no net loss of wetlands. Will this result in a loss of wetlands?
MR. MCCURRY: No, this doesn't change that. No net loss was announced in 1993. My understanding, it will remain in place. Interior will have more on it at 3:15 p.m., if you want to pass it on.
Q: On Bosnia --
MR. MCCURRY: Let me just, before that, I know a lot of people are asking about where we are on base closings. The President is having lunch with the Vice President at this hour, and then he does intend to do some work on this later on this afternoon. He has -- for those of you who have been following this -- had a series of questions that he's posed both to the commission itself and to the Pentagon on what the prospects are for privatization in place at some of the facilities that have been recommended for closure.
And the President has been insisting that he get from staff very accurate and credible estimates of what the prospects for privatization are. And he's had a series of very precise questions that he's posed to the Pentagon and to his own staff here and we've been assembling those answers for him. That's the material that he intends to review later today. And I think it's entirely possible he might conclude that later today. If he does, we would issue some written materials relevant to that. And then I believe the Pentagon is prepared to brief at that time.
So just to keep you advised, keep checking. I think it's going to be mid to late afternoon.
Q: He has not made a decision yet?
MR. MCCURRY: He is getting ready to review these materials with some of the staff here, and some of the precise questions that he asked for they're going to share with the President later on in the afternoon.
Q: With the fall of Srebrenica and the threat now to Zepa and Gorazda and Eastern enclaves, is the Clinton administration rethinking its opposition to a unilateral U.S. lifting of the arms embargo?
MR. MCCURRY: Absolutely not. The one thing that we know would guarantee that the situation in Bosnia is worsened would be a unilateral lifting of the arms embargo. I think there are many, unfortunately, in our United States Congress who believe somehow that lifting the arms embargo is an easy way out of what is a very difficult foreign policy problem. They are badly mistaken. Lifting the arms embargo unilaterally on Bosnia would further enflame the conflict that's already gone on for far too long.
It would also have the effect of Americanizing this war. There is no question that unilaterally lifting the arms embargo, if the United States took that action, would lead U.N. troop-contributing nations to quickly withdraw their troops. That would then trigger, as you all know, a commitment we have to our allies to help extract them. So it is almost a dead-certain bet that lifting the arms embargo would mean U.S. ground troops would have to be present in Bosnia very shortly. And that question needs to be posed to those in the United States Congress who are proposing a course that we think is not only dangerous, but would further jeopardize lives in Bosnia.
Q: Would the President -- I'm not sure how this works -- would the President have veto power over anything Congress might do along these lines? And would he then veto?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's not clear. I think the Congress -- we're not certain of what authority the Congress would have to instruct the United States to unilaterally abrogate a U.N. Security Council resolution. There have been various suggestions this might come in the form of a sense of the Senate resolution, but, in any event, the President is adamantly opposed to that course of action because it entails not only risk for the civilian population of Bosnia as the war would worsen very quickly but it also would put in jeopardy U.N. peacekeeping troops. It would put in jeopardy U.S. troops which would most likely have to be dispatched to extract U.N. personnel from Bosnia, and it would lead to significant cost to U.S. taxpayers because -- as we took on the burden of arming the Bosnian Muslims.
Q: If it's in a sense a Senate resolution it carries no weight of law, so, therefore, the President can just ignore it. So what is the concern then?
MR. MCCURRY: The concern then is that at this time in Bosnia it is just not a wise idea to make meaningless gestures. And I don't believe that anyone in the Congress who's proposing this course of action thinks of it as a meaningless gesture. But what it happens to be is a very bad alternative in a situation that doesn't have many good alternatives available.
Q: What is the President's position now on multilateral lifting of the embargo? Does he still favor that, and has he made any effort in recent times to push that?
MR. MCCURRY: We have consistently said and continue to believe that it may become possible as a last resort that a multilateral lifting of the arms embargo would be unavoidable. That has consistently been the view of those nations that participate in the Contact Group with whom we cooperate. It's not clear that any of the nations that we cooperate with in the Contact Group have taken the view that that unavoidable last resort is now at hand.
Now, I will point out, there's a big difference between working within the international community to multilaterally lift the arms embargo. That is basically a conclusion that that is the preferred option that then comes from a judgment that would be made not only within those member nations at the United Nations, but also within those groups that are working diplomatically on the problem of Bosnia.
There's a big difference between that and unilaterally lifting the arms embargo. Unilaterally lifting the arms embargo means that the problem in Bosnia is unilaterally the responsibility of the United States. There are no doubt some nations that wouldn't mind transferring that responsibility to the United States. But that's why we've said consistently that a unilateral lift of the arms embargo is a certain formula for Americanizing the war in Bosnia and putting U.S. troops and U.S. personnel and resources significantly at risk.
Q: Do you then see the multilateral lifting is tied to an end to UNPROFOR if the UNPROFOR nations decide to leave, does it then follow as far as you're concerned that you have to pursue a multilateral lift?
MR. MCCURRY: I think it would depend on the judgments we'd reach with our allies and others if that was the course of action suggested. I would say, based on the diplomatic discussions that we've had in the last 24 hours, there's some determination on the part of other UNPROFOR countries -- troop-contributing countries -- to stay in place in Bosnia. There is some sense that the UNPROFOR presence there is vital to helping relieve the humanitarian situation there, which is now surely worsening as refugees stream out of the Srebrenica area and go to some of the adjacent enclaves, or outside, at least, the Srebrenica enclave.
And so our work, at the moment, has been focused on discussions with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. And UNHCR, I believe, is also having discussions today with the Bosnian Serbs about steps that could be taken to help the civilian population, which is now at risk.
There's no question that removing the U.N. mission from Bosnia would seriously worsen the humanitarian situation that exists for those civilians. They are -- at the moment, many hundreds of thousands of Bosnian civilians are kept alive by the provision of foodstuffs, water and supplies that they're getting through the U.N. effort.
Q: Mike, in the last 24 hours, can you just tell us what those discussions have yielded in terms of what the peacekeepers may need in terms of help and what the allies have to do about Zepa?
MR. MCCURRY: There's not much that I can shed -- not much light I can shed on that. There have been discussions both that are getting ready to occur now in London through the Contract Group, and Assistant Secretary Dick Holbrooke is there representing the United States. I think that will be a venue for discussions of what some of our key allies see as the situation, military situation.
I think, as you know, there's a debate underway at the U.N. Security Council on a resolution that I'll expect will -- the last I heard -- will probably pass sometime this afternoon, that deals with the question of what authority the Secretary General will have to use additional resources to return Srebrenica to its status quo prior to the recent Bosnian Serb offensive. So I think a lot of that is being judged now by the allies and we are in consultation with our allies on that.
Q: But wouldn't that take manpower?
MR. MCCURRY: Maura had a follow-up.
Q: One of the accusations that's been made this week is that the U.N. presence kind of facilitates Serb aggression. In other words, it does keep these people alive, but because, in effect, it stops NATO from making air strikes, from taking tougher measures, in effect, you're helping the Serbs pick off these enclaves one by one.
MR. MCCURRY: That's not a correct analysis of how NATO has been prepared to assist the U.N. in its effort. It has always been the case that under the decisions of the North Atlantic Council that NATO military powers available to the United Nations upon request to the United Nations. So the United Nations has been in the position of calling upon NATO to take additional action. It has never been a case that NATO could, on its own, go and conduct military activity that might be outside the parameters suggested by U.N. Commanders on the ground and by United Nations civilian personnel.
Q: Does that set-up help Serb --
MR. MCCURRY: There have been good questions asked about the utility of the dual key arrangement.
Q: What's the U.S. position on retaking the enclave, or the safe zone? And do you actually think -- does the President actually think that his policy is working, or the U.N. policy is working there when -- you say when the situation worsens -- how can it get any worse?
MR. MCCURRY: How can it get worse?
Q: -- when a few more cities they haven't taken, which they are free to take with no resistance?
MR. MCCURRY: Sarajevo could be strangled further by the Serbs -- overrun by the Serbs. You could see Gorazda, Tuzla and others fall. You could see millions of refugees put at significant risk because there are no provisions at all for humanitarian aid upon departure of the United Nations. You could see thing get seriously worse there upon departure of the United Nations. It is not a pretty picture. Nobody would say otherwise.
Q: But the policy has created all of these refugees.
MR. MCCURRY: I believe it's the Bosnian Serbs that have created all these refugees.
Q: But you give them no resistance. They can go anywhere and do anything.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, you are correct that the United Nations is not at war with the Bosnian Serbs. It has not been.
Q: What is the U.S. position on retaking?
MR. MCCURRY: As we said yesterday, we believe Srebrenica should be returned to it's status as a safe area and I believe the United Nations Security Council is getting ready to act to insist upon that.
Q: But how's that backed up, Mike?
Q: Those are two different things. You're saying it should be returned, but should it be retaken?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there was an agreement dating back to April, which was clearly abrogated by the Bosnian Serbs in recent days that establish Srebrenica as a -- was to have established Srebrenica as a demilitarized area in that the Bosnian Serbs would respect the territorial integrity of the enclave in exchange for the Bosnian government removing any weaponry from the area. Now, that fell apart as the Bosnian Serbs made clear some offensive intentions with regard to the enclave and as the Bosnian government moved to defend the civilian population of Srebrenica. Our United Nations will likely insist upon a return to the April arrangement.
Q: What in there would compel the Bosnian Serbs to do anything that you're suggesting?
MR. MCCURRY: What would compel them to do it? The prospect of living for some time in the future within the community of nations. Now, if that's a thin reed it's a thin reed. But long after -- at some point in the future the conflict in Bosnia will be over but the memories of what the Bosnian Serbs have done in recent days will never end. And that likely they will pay a price for that one way or another long into the future.
Q: Well you have attempted to extract a price of one sort or another for a number of years now.
MR. MCCURRY: Right.
Q: On Serbia itself, on the Bosnian Serbs both militarily and economically. They've had no effect and in essence the Serbs -- impunity.
MR. MCCURRY: It's not accurate to say that they've had no effect because you're assuming that in the absence of the policy that had been pursued by the United States and by its allies that the situation would somehow have been better. And I think it's very clear the evidence would suggest the contrary. There would have been much deeper loss of life. The likelihood of the Bosnian Serbs contesting or conquering additional parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina is quite clear. And it's quite clear that they never -- you know, we have kept alive at least some possibility that we would get a settlement that would reverse some of the gains that the Bosnian Serbs made during the war against the Bosnia Muslims. None of that would have been possible absent a presence by the United Nations and by the diplomatic effort that's been underway.
Now, is this situation satisfactory now? Of course, it is not but the problem is everyone who thinks they've got a better idea happened to be dead wrong.
Q: Saying the U.N. insists on a return to the status quo is essentially meaningless without enforcement. In what way would the U.N. enforce it and in what way would the United States participate in any enforcement of the resolutions so it could pass this afternoon?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't speak to that. That discussion is underway at the Security Council. But the latest draft of resolutions suggests that the Secretary General should use the resources available to the Secretary General, most likely through UNPROFOR, to return that. Now, is that going to be a military effort. I can't imagine that there's much military resource available to achieve that result so it most likely will have to be diplomatic.
Q: The Bosnian government seems to be rethinking its position on keeping UNPROFOR in Bosnia. So far they've not asked that UNPROFOR leave. I assume, correct me if I'm wrong, if the Bosnian government were to ask that the UNPROFOR troops leave in exchange for a multilateral lifting of the arms embargo, the U.S. position would be to support whatever the Bosnian government asks for?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, let's wait and see if the Bosnian government makes that judgment.
Q: Do you agree with Chirac that the enclaves should be retaken with French military resources?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, as I said to some of you earlier today, we are in contact with the French to determine what precisely the French President has in mind --
Q: You haven't determined that yet?
MR. MCCURRY: That has not been determined yet and there will be further discussions most likely in London on that.
Q: One more question. Does the President have any confidence at all in Mr. Akashi?
MR. MCCURRY: The President respects the work that Mr. Akashi has done in Bosnia. It is a very difficult situation and he has a difficult job preserving a neutral peacekeeping force amidst two parties in conflict when much of the world, of course, sees one of those parties clearly as an aggressor. But the U.N. peacekeeping mission that is there is there in a capacity, a neutral capacity. It is not there to make war on the Bosnian Serbs. It never has been.
That has made the role that he plays as a civilian representative of the Secretary General there a difficult one. And we acknowledge that.
Q: Well, the Bosnian government has asked that he be replaced. Do you think it's time to do that?
MR. MCCURRY: That's a matter for the United Nations and for the Secretary General.
Q: Can I change topics?
MR. MCCURRY: You sure can. I'd be happy if you would.
Q: On religious expression stuff, Mr. Dellinger said he thought it was long overdue that the President made this kind of statement. And he said that in the past, public figures, he didn't name them, had contributed to the confusion by making statements like God has been kicked out of the classroom. If I'm not mistaken, among people who used to make that kind of statement was President Reagan with some regularity. Is what the President said today an effort to essentially say that God is everywhere and so can't be kicked out of anyplace? (Laughter.) And persons of faith can -- I mean, the President took some pains to say he was a person of faith and is private about it.
MR. MCCURRY: I would say that is a question that would have been proper to address to Mr. Dellinger. I'll see if we can get an answer.
Q: Why now -- it seems to me the Justice Department was ordered to sit down and look at existing Supreme Court case law and put together a compendium of dos and don'ts for classroom level education and -- if you believe Secretary Riley's assertion -- that this somehow this Xerox copy is going to make it from Washington to a third grade teacher. Why now on the timing of this?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the timing on this, there's a debate in Congress underway on alterations to the First Amendment, as you know, It's also true that there is an informed public debate about what freedom of religious expression means in America. Now, this is a subject of enormous importance to millions of Americans who believe that their right to freely exercise their rights under the First Amendment are somehow in jeopardy.
And the President felt strongly about addressing this. He's been addressing a series -- in a series of speeches, he's addressed subjects that are important to the moral life of this nation, and I think it is consistent with several opportunities the President has taken recently to address questions that are related to the moral values that are inherent in American society.
Q: Are there going to be any more such speeches on values and --
MR. MCCURRY: I would argue in many ways that the speech next week on affirmative action is going to be very much that kind of speech because it goes to the heart of what social justice is about, what equal opportunity is about in our society, and is consistent with the President speaking out very vigorously in recent days on the moral life and moral values of this country?
Q: Are others contemplated after that?
MR. MCCURRY: I wouldn't rule out -- I think the President will reinforce many of the themes he's struck in some of his recent speeches in future appearances. I don't know that I would target any particular speech as a major new area that he's going to address. But as you've seen him don in Nashville earlier this week, he will be reinforcing some of these themes that he's struck in recent days.
Q: But this is the gamut of topics. In other words, violence in the media, civility, affirmative action, and religion? That's it?
MR. MCCURRY: At the moment, yes, but, you know, there are probably many opportunities the President will see in future weeks and months to address questions of this nature. So there may be new topics as well.
Q: Have you gotten a letter from Gingrich yet on the political reform commission?
MR. MCCURRY: No. I heard -- the last I heard this morning is that the Speaker was still working within the Republican side to discuss some of his ideas with others in the Republican leadership, and it would be proper for him to do that before he'd share his thinking with the President. We are anxious to get that letter because we'd like to move forward on the New Hampshire handshake agreement obviously.
Q: Does the White House believe that the House Republicans who are so drastically cutting national service, Goals 2000, and technology investment are specifically targeting the Clinton political legacy in trying to prevent him from having or boasting about a legacy?
MR. MCCURRY: They may very well be. You could ask them, find out the answer yourself. I would suggest that, at least, what they are definitely targeting is the capacity that the administration would have using the resources of government to help grow the economy over the long term. The type of investments that they are now specifically attacking would make the U.S. economy stronger in the 21st century would give people opportunities for better and higher paying jobs. And it seems, certainly, to be case of, you know, eating your seed corn when you make that type of assault on the investments that are going to be critical to the economic security of the American family in the future.
Q: Would it be fair to say the administration isn't really willing to deal on Medicare and Medicaid with the Republicans until they show some serious effort at scaling back the tax cuts?
MR. MCCURRY: I think and probably can say that I know for a fact that the Republicans would be more than happy to have some type of compromise on Medicare because then they would be free to do things in other parts of the budget on tax cuts. But I think that's one reason why many Democrats on the Hill, and I think why the President as well, feels like you have to put these things together, and you have to consider what the total budget picture is going to look like.
Q: Mike, earlier today you mentioned something about a welfare reform speech tomorrow.
MR. MCCURRY: No, he's going to, I believe, will have a welfare reform event here tomorrow. And we'll tell you more about it as we know more later on today. I don't think we have the details yet. The President, I imagine will have some representatives and governors and local officials and some members of the Senate who have been working hard on an alternative to the Republican welfare reform bill here at the White House at some part tomorrow.
Q: Is there something to unveil an alternative?
MR. MCCURRY: No, no. The alternative is there. There is a good Democratic alternative that's been crafted in the Senate, and has the support of the President. It is there, we believe, as a strong and sensible alternative to the Republican proposal. And it's much tougher on work and getting Americans off welfare and back to work than is the Republican proposal.
Q: Since this morning, has there been any requests from anyone in the Bosnia region or anyone involved for U.S. participation in any humanitarian or extraction efforts?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, those are two separate -- extraction is a military question.
Q: I'm asking two separate questions.
MR. MCCURRY: Not extraction. There have been ongoing discussions about how we could relieve the humanitarian situation there, and what steps individual contributing countries that participate in UNPROFOR could take to relieve the situation around Srebrenica. There's clearly going to be a humanitarian need now, north of Srebrenica, to deal with the civilian population that has moved out of the enclave.
And there are a lot of discussions underway now about what is available; what additional resources are going to be made available; and how will they be made available to those populations. We've had discussions about movement of convoys to those populations -- will they be able to get through; how can we best get them through? So a lot of work of that nature.
But the specific question of extraction at the moment would seem to involve mostly the Dutch contingent that had been in Srebrenica. And to my knowledge, as of about an hour ago, there had been no requests, official requests from the Dutch for extraction.
Q: As far as the humanitarian, are you talking about things that would be extra UNPROFOR, outside of that? Some special action put together by various countries for these particular refugees?
MR. MCCURRY: No. My understanding is they would be done under the mandate of the existing U.N. mission.
Q: Mike, what's your reaction to the House Appropriations Subcommittee vote last night to eliminate the Surgeon General's office?
MR. MCCURRY: I caught up with that late. I mean, the President feels very strongly, as he said several times during the fight for Dr. Foster's nomination, that the Surgeon General plays a very important role in the public life of America; in a sense, serving as America's doctor. It is a position in which Americans are educated about their own personal health. We learn more about health trends that are important. And it is then a critical element of our whole national effort to protect the nation's health.
In that sense, it's a valuable position within government. But it's not the only position within the U.S. government that the Republicans on the Hill are attempting to eliminate. As you know, they would like to get rid of several Cabinet agencies and others. But the President continues to believe that the surgeon general's post can be very important in protecting the health and welfare of American citizens.
Q: Is that issue so strong that if the President would get that appropriations bill and everything else in that bill was fine except that the surgeon general's office was --
MR. MCCURRY: As you' heard from Mr. Panetta yesterday, the likelihood of that that would be the only objectionable feature of that bill is highly remote.
Q: But is it -- I mean, is that issue so strong along the lines of some of the other issues that Panetta raised yesterday?
MR. MCCURRY: As I've just said, it's not likely to be the only veto-prompting provision of that --
Q: Does the President have a candidate for that job?
MR. MCCURRY: No. But we are continuing to look for a well-qualified job, but we are constrained now by what is clearly some very strong litmus test-like views of the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.
Q: Has the President decided or is he leaning toward establishing a post that would take over the teen pregnancy program he has in mind and maybe --
MR. MCCURRY: They continue to work on that, and the question is how best to accomplish that objective without spending a lot or additional taxpayer money.
Q: Would it be possible that a nonprofit foundation could be headed up by --
MR. MCCURRY: Certainly.
Q: Are you expecting the First Lady to go to Beijing in September?
MR. MCCURRY: That has not been decided, and I would say it had not been decided even prior to some of the more rocky developments in the bilateral relationship between the United States and the People's Republic. There will be many factors weighed by the First Lady's staff and by others here at the White House before any decision is made on that, and the delegation itself is still in the process of being composed.
Q: What extent will Mrs. Wu's comments earlier today be weighed as --
MR. MCCURRY: They will be weighed as a factor.
Q: Since this conference is not really under the auspices of China, is it possible that she could go to this U.N. conference and not make any contact with the government of China?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we would hope not because we would expect the government of People's Republic to play its proper role as host to such an important international gathering.
Q: Was the House Speaker barking up the wrong tree yesterday when he made the suggestion that they're willing to bargain with the White House on Medicare and Medicaid cuts in exchange for resolving the appropriations differences when, in fact, they really should be trying to work out a bargain between tax cuts and --
MR. MCCURRY: That came close to being a woof-woof, yes. (Laughter.)
Q: What's a woof-woof?
MR. MCCURRY: As in barking.
Q: Okay, so you're saying that any resolution of Medicare and Medicaid differences really -- how much you pay for them and they should be scaling back their tax cuts for the wealthy?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, no, as you know there are additional features to how you would restructure Medicare and Medicaid that are in the line with some of our thinking on how you would do overall reforms, incremental reforms on health care reform. So it's not only a question of funding.
Who's going to relieve me of my misery here? All right. Thank you.
END 2:28 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/269941