|Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings|
For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 15, 2003
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
2:30 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me fill you in on the President's day and I have two announcements. The President began with an intelligence briefing, followed by an FBI briefing. Then he conveyed a meeting of the National Security Council. He also met with the Secretary of Defense today. He made remarks in the Rose Garden today about the importance of Congress passing his jobs and growth tax plan. He also today met with the Secretary of State. And then later today the President will sign a proclamation dealing with the commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act.
Today, of course, is April 15th, tax day, the day on which all Americans are accountable to pay their taxes. The nation needs somebody accountable at the IRS to run the IRS. This administration nominated Mark Everson to be the Commissioner of the IRS on January 22nd. Despite the fact that he's been unanimously confirmed by the committee in the Senate, the full Senate has not yet taken up the confirmation of Mark Everson, despite the fact he had twice previously been confirmed unanimously by the Senate for other positions.
President Bush is committed to bringing better service to the taxpayer and to strengthening enforcement efforts against those who seek to circumvent our tax laws. The IRS needs to be an important part of the corporate accountability effort to restore confidence in American business. This requires a commissioner in place to direct the activities of this agency. The President calls on the Senate to act to confirm Mark Everson as Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. It doesn't serve the taxpayers for members of the Senate to use the IRS commissionership for political horse trading. The President urges the Senate to take that action.
One other note for you on a new feature that the White House will be offering that I wanted to bring to your attention. This is part of the White House webpage, whitehouse.gov. "Ask the White House," a live online discussion between White House officials and visitors to the White House webpage will debut tomorrow night at 7:00 p.m. eastern time. The interactive forum will allow for 30 minute question and answer period between any citizen who wants to log on or anybody from around the world who wants to log on, to discuss issues with a guest from the White House. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card will host the inaugural event tomorrow. And that's, again, www.whitehouse.gov.
A final item I have for you is the President also today spoke with President Chirac of France. The two had a wide-ranging phone call. The President talked about Iraq and his confidence that conditions in Iraq will be better than they were before the war as a result of our efforts there. The two also discussed the situation in Syria, and they agreed that Syria should not harbor Iraqi leaders. They also discussed the situation in the Middle East and the road map for peace. The President said that he hoped to be able to release the road map soon. They also discussed the upcoming meeting with the -- in the G8 that is to be held in France.
Q The President is planning to go?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, the President is planning to go.
Q Who initiated the call?
MR. FLEISCHER: President Chirac did.
Q How long?
MR. FLEISCHER: Twenty minutes.
Q Would you call it a positive conversation?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it was, from the President's point of view, he would call it a business-like conversation. (Laughter.)
Q Ari, does this change anything in terms of what the President envisions of other countries doing for post-war Iraq? In the past, we haven't invited France, or Germany, or Russia to these talks. But now -- was the conversation today with Chirac, does this change anything?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm sorry, which talks have we not invited people to?
Q Some of the ones going on now in Iraq that --
MR. FLEISCHER: You mean the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the Shiites?
Q Yes. We've invited our coalition partners, but not the objectors, the ones who objected to the war.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, of course, the coalition that is on the ground is on the ground, and therefore in a position to engage in these talks.
Q My broader question, though, is does this conversation between President Bush and President Chirac suggest a thaw in the rift in the alliance?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, let me put it to you this way -- the French have said this, so I feel comfortable in quoting President Chirac's words -- President Chirac told President Bush that he wanted to play a "pragmatic role" in reconstruction events in Iraq. So I leave it at that, that was President Chirac's statement.
Q Did they discuss the U.N. role to any extent?
MR. FLEISCHER: I do not recall that they discussed the U.N. role. As you know, the President has said the U.N. will have a vital role.
Q Is the United States putting on warning all the countries that have weapons of mass destruction, or only Syria?
MR. FLEISCHER: The United States has always said that we hope nations around the world will comply with treaty obligations and will rid themselves of weapons of mass destruction. We have consistently said that, particularly in the region in the Middle East.
Q Why is the focus on Syria?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the focus is on Syria is because Syria is the nation that's harboring Iraqis.
Q Do you have proof of that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly, we would not have said it, Secretary Powell would not have said it, the President wouldn't have said it.
Q Why don't you present the proof, then?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as always, Helen, this is an old argument. We have information that comes into our hands for a variety of means. We prefer to keep getting that information. We feel confident --
Q Don't think it will enhance your credibility if you showed us?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think our credibility is rather strong.
Q Do the President's speeches on taxes and the economy today and tomorrow suggest that he feels it's time to shift his gaze a little bit in hopes of avoiding what might have happened to his father in 1991?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, let me remind you that while there's no question that for the last month or so the focus has been very strongly on events in Iraq, given the fact that we have been in the middle of war, even during this time the President had a series of meetings on the economy. You were there. You've talked to many of the people who participated in the meeting that the President had with his National Economic Council, with other leaders who came to the White House, business leaders, et cetera.
But go back to the beginning of the year and how the President began the year, which was on January 7th, when the President traveled to Chicago to announce his economic growth package. Ever since January 7th, this President has been steady and strong in working to enact the growth package. And he will continue to do that with the United States Congress. We've had various levels of success with Congress on it. The President will continue to help to persuade the Congress to pass a jobs and growth program.
So this is a continuation of something that the President began very strongly at the beginning of the year, had, oh, some dozen, 15 meetings already so far this year focused exclusively on the growth package. Clearly, there was a period of time where the war was the number one issue that was all that people could, at least, visibly see. But even in that time, I think you're familiar, the President had leaders of the Congress down at the White House: the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the Chairman of the Finance Committee, congressional leadership met with him. And he made numerous phone calls throughout this period of time, as well. But it is -- no question, it is important.
Q Is he using the capital generated by the successful prosecution of the war to advance his case here?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think no matter what the outcome of war, the President would be doing this. And so those will be judgments that other people will make about whether the President has capital, how much capital does he have, what influence it has on members of Congress. I think that's the beginning of a story. We're not even at the middle of that story yet. And the Congress is now on a two-week recess. When they return, they will begin their process of working diligently on the tax bill itself, which is really what this becomes a key issue about. And I think you'll see continued activities, and maybe even increased activities by the President as this moves along.
Q The President called today for at least $550 billion in tax relief. That's down from $760 billion, but --
MR. FLEISCHER: $726 billion.
Q $726 billion, thank you. Still a lot of money. Now that basically military operations, combat operations have ceased in Iraq, and we have a sense of the scale of the destruction and reconstruction that would be necessary, can the White House, can the President tell the American people how much more money beyond the supplement will be required for the American taxpayer to pay in Iraq? Or is the President asking the Congress and the American people to support this half-a-trillion-dollar flying fiscally blind?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, he's not asking flying fiscally blind. He's asking Congress to pass it flying fiscally responsibly knowing that the economy and growth in the economy is, in good part, dependent on what we do with the tax cut because you can give a boost to the economy, create more jobs. That's what the President has proposed. That's what he's focused on.
As for the budget, number one, I think it still is too early to make any real assessments on the ground about all reconstruction costs. But given the way the timing works with the congressional cycle, there is sufficient time for Congress, as they now have the orderly hearings and the appropriation bills for the fiscal year that won't be begin until the October of 2003 to take into consideration for the '04 budget if there are any additional costs that need to be incurred.
Q But I'm just trying to fit the pieces together. You have at least a half-a-trillion tax cut. And you're saying we have an unknown multi-billion-dollar commitment that we are going to make to Iraq. And the White House at present can't tell the Congress, the American people how much that piece is going to be before fitting in the half-trillion-dollar tax cut?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's an interesting notion that because we don't know what all the costs are of Iraq, business here in the United States for the American people should no longer go on? By that logic, it would suggest we have an unknown in Iraq, so therefore we should not proceed on any domestic issues. We should not proceed on funding schools.
Q That's not what I said. I'm asking about responsible budgeting.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, if you're calling it not responsible, I think that's subjective. The fact of the matter, as the President said today in the Rose Garden, what's important is not to have a focus on an arbitrary number, but to focus on the fact that the American people need jobs because the economy is growing slower than he otherwise would like and, therefore, we need to give a boost, an impetus to the economy. That's the definition of responsibility, is to worry about the needs of the American people first.
Q You said that the conversation with President Chirac was business-like. Is the President still annoyed at the French role in the U.N. debate? Is he willing to let bygones be bygones?
MR. FLEISCHER: Certainly. The President has not been shy about saying that we have common values with France that are always going to guide us as allies. He's also not shy of saying that we disagreed and disagreed strenuously on whether force was the appropriate way to handle the issue about how to get Iraq to disarm and to change the regime. We have differences. We still have some of those differences. But that won't stop the President from working in a business-like and professional way with an ally like France.
Q And when President Chirac says that he's looking for a pragmatic approach, how do you interpret that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it was an interesting choice of words. I don't know exactly, literally, what to make of it. I think that's something that France can explain. I think that they may be seeking to find what role they may be able to play.
Q What role would you like them to play? What ideas does this administration have in terms of bringing them in? Would it only be in the context of the United Nations? Or are there talks about specifics --
MR. FLEISCHER: The President thanked President Chirac for his statement today, for example, about Syria. The President thought it was very helpful to hear President Chirac agree that Syria should take no action to harbor any Iraqis who seek to cross the border. And that's a message that President Chirac has conveyed. And the President was grateful for that.
Inside Iraq, I think that the efforts are underway right now, as you note, with the coalition and the meeting that took place in the city of Ur today, the first of what will be many meetings. But when it comes down to the future of Iraq, what the President always keeps foremost in his mind is that the future will be decided by the Iraqi people. And he welcomes help from wherever help is appropriate. But the future will be decided by the people of Iraq.
Q Can I just follow-up on the road map. You said they talked about hoping to release the road map soon?
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct.
Q Putting together the Cabinet under the Prime Minister is not going well. There appears to be a bit of stalemate between Arafat and Abu Mazen. Is this holding up the process? Is the U.S. doing anything to intervene to try to help them negotiate?
MR. FLEISCHER: This is an important matter for the Palestinians to settle on. I think it will be a very important early indicator about how strong the chance is for a reformed Palestinian leadership, how successful Yasser Arafat will be in trying to cling to old ways that were ways that did not lead to peace or success.
So I think it's a story that is still being written. But President has high hopes -- let me put it that way -- that the Palestinian reformers will prevail.
Q Do you think that's what Arafat is trying to do now, hold on to the old ways?
MR. FLEISCHER: Certainly, Yasser Arafat's ways did not lead to peace, they led to more violence. And that's why the President gave the speech he gave on June 24th, making crystal clear that the path forward to peace in the Middle East did not go through Yasser Arafat, Yasser Arafat was a blockade to prospects for peace.
Q Ari, questions at two ends of the axis of evil, first on Syria. From this podium you told us a few months ago that Syria was being very cooperative in the battle with terrorism. Is it the White House view that Syria is still being cooperative in the battle against terrorism?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I don't have any new updates on it. Syria did indeed take some actions that were helpful in the wake of 9/11. But when you look at what Syria is doing today, that's why -- vis a vis Iraq -- the President, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State have all spoken out as they have.
Q And, second, can you just update us on where things are with North Korea?
MR. FLEISCHER: North Korea, of course, made some interesting comments last week in regard to multilateral discussions, which would be something they would be open to. We noted those reports with interest. We are, as the President said, making good progress working in a multilateral fashion with our friends and allies. We believe this is a regional issue, not a bilateral issue. And we will continue to treat it as such. We are, in the wake of the North Korean statement, consulting with our friends and allies in the region. And we will follow through with an appropriate -- through appropriate diplomatic channels.
Q But no announcements, plans, whatever?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, we're following through and through the appropriate diplomatic channels.
Q Ari, was the President essentially saying this morning that the war in Iraq is over? And do you ever expect him to actually come out and use words to that effect?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, it could be -- the President knows what you all have heard, that there are still pockets of resistance, there are still some flash points that are sources of concern. The President was expressing, frankly, his great delight and satisfaction about the manner in which the war has been waged, and the outcome of it, an outcome that he said was never in doubt. And, no, I think that if it gets to the point where he receives the good word, the good final word from his advisors in the field that the war is over, the war is done in its entirety, in completion, he'll have more to say.
Q Do you have a sense of when, if ever, the uncertainty will end? Or is it possible that this could morph into the larger war on terrorism conflict -- other conflicts in the Mideast?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think, given the fact that the military conflict with Iraq was more along the lines of a traditional war -- not the war on terrorism, which is a war without borders, a war that doesn't have nations. It's a very different type of conflict. The war with Iraq was a much more conventional, easy -- more easily recognized conflict. And I think that there will be some point down the road where the President does receive a more definitive word from his military aids.
Q Ari, on the tax cut, you're talking about political capital, Senator Breaux -- who, as you know, is very important to getting anything passed on this issue in the Senate -- made clear today in talking to reporters that he doesn't believe that the capital extends that far, that it's just not going to happen beyond $350 billion. Senator Snowe, also, had talked -- people seem to be very moved by the idea of getting more than a $350 billion tax cut. How are you going to move more than $550 billion when you've got people in your own party who don't want more than $350 billion?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think it's fair to say that there is a good fight ahead when it comes to how to provide growth for the economy, and the President's going to engage in it. The President believes very strongly that we need, as a government, to concern ourselves with the needs of the unemployed, people who are looking for work, with Americans who want economy to grow and grow faster than it is. And he's on their side.
And that's what he will continue to do as he pushes for a tax relief package of sufficient size so that the economy can get a boost, can get a stimulus that creates jobs. And make no mistake about it, while there are some who say that the size of the tax cut should be diminished, they claim, so that the deficit can be reduced, they have every intention of using that money to increase government spending.
And all you need to do is look at the amendments that were offered in the debate in the Senate about the budget resolution. It was one amendment, after another amendment, after another amendment about how to reach into the taxpayer wallets and spend more of their money. It wasn't how to save the size of the tax cut. So that, too, guides the President. It is a false debate to say that if the taxes aren't cut, the money will be saved. We all know how it works in Washington. That money will be spent on more government programs.
Q To follow-up on that, the two Republican Senators -- Voinovich and Snowe -- the reason for not supporting, they say, this larger tax cut, is expressly for the deficit -- because of the deficit. You're saying that they will, in turn, take the money and spend it?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I'm referring to many of the amendments that were offered in the budget resolution process. And many of those amendments, when you look at them, were offered by the loyal opposition. And they dealt with all kinds of -- scores of amendments on spending increases for many different causes. And the pressure is always on in the Congress to spend more, not to save it. And so that's something else that guides the President.
Q Aside from controlling the territory of Iraq, I believe last week administration officials said that the President's main objectives in prosecuting the war were finding -- capturing or killing Saddam Hussein, destroying his weapons of mass destruction, and accounting for U.S. prisoners of war. Is that a comprehensive list of the objectives the President set out before he will declare the war over?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President's objectives were the disarmament of Iraq and regime change. Those are the two most broad messages that the President cited as our mission. And as the President himself has said, that he will await the word from his military commanders, principally General Franks, General Myers, Secretary Rumsfeld about when, in their military estimation, the military conflict can, indeed, be called over.
Q So regime change having been pretty much accomplished, we're looking at disarmament now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think we're also looking for the sign from the military planners that the military phase is over. There will be other phases where there still is military on the ground. But if you're looking for, what is the President waiting for, that's what he's waiting for.
Q Ari, a couple questions on taxes. The President said, and you have said, that you want a package that's at least $550 billion.
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct.
Q All right. What strategies does the White House think would work to get above $550 billion?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I appreciate the opportunity to reveal our strategy in public.
Q Well, you don't have to tell me. What are your options? You don't have to tell me which one you'll choose, but what do you think are your legislative options out there to get a above --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, keep in mind that the House of Representatives passed a tax cut of the size of $726 billion. So right away you start with an equal body saying the tax cuts should be far higher than what the Senate has indicated that it would support, or that a small majority of senators have said that it would support. There's almost as equal majority -- just under a majority in the Senate -- who supports a tax cut that is closer to the House number. And so there's a lot of room here for different conversations with different senators.
And there's also room to talk to the country about whether or not the American people believe that the child credit should be accelerated to $1,000; and the American people whether families want marriage-penalty relief; whether families want child-tax-credit relief. So there's a variety of people to be talked to.
And, again, what I urge you to keep in mind here when you look at the Congress is, it's not uncommon for strong positions to be staked at the beginning at the beginning of the debate by members of Congress. And then the debate unfolds, and then communication is enhanced directly with the country, directly in conversations, and we'll see what the ultimate outcome of that is.
Q But what do you see as your options? Could there be two separate tax packages? That that would be one way to carry the number higher. Would there be floor amendments? I mean, ow do you actually --
MR. FLEISCHER: Sure, from a legislative point of view, there are any different number of ways to accomplish it.
Q Like what?
MR. FLEISCHER: See, you do want me to start doing that in public.
Q Yes. What do you think your options are?
MR. FLEISCHER: You said you didn't want me to. Now you say you do.
Q I would prefer that you do. If you choose not to, that's all right. But what are your broad options?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that's what we're going to work with members of Congress about. Keep in mind that there is one body already that is on record as supporting a way to have additional tax relief to help give a boost the economy and also to make certain that the child credit does, indeed, get doubled to $1,000; that the marriage penalty is, indeed, reduced -- things of nature. So we'll be continuing to work with those who support it. And as I indicated, the numbers in the Senate are close.
Q Does the fact that several Shiite leaders did not attend the meeting in Ur today raise any concerns about the viability of that enterprise?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think what you're going to see -- number one, this is first of many meetings to come, preliminary meetings on the formulation of a future interim government. There are many Shia leaders who did attend. And so you're seeing people who have different opinions in Iraq. And today should be always remembered as a day where Iraqis expressed different opinions and weren't shot for it. They were able to speak about it.
Q The ones who did not attend, why didn't they attend?
MR. FLEISCHER: Ken, I cannot give you their reasons. I'm not their spokesman.
Q Unrelated question, did the White House encourage Senator Fitzgerald to take himself out of the senator race?
MR. FLEISCHER: I have no additional information beyond the announcement.
Q Ari, last week from this podium, you made some pretty unequivocal statements about the belief that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A week later, we still have got any definitive proof that we've found some. Are you beginning to become concerned about those statements you made last week?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, absolutely not. In fact, if you saw General Brooks' briefing this morning, I think his word was unwavering in our confidence that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and they will be found. And then he did, actually, a very detailed walk-through of the process operationally that DOD is using in the pursuit of them.
Q Do you expect any announcements soon on some of those tests?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think that when we have something to report, it will duly get reported, of course.
Q Ari, a few questions on the road map, is the U.S. giving serious consideration to Israel's point of view in their request for some revisions in the road map?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. There was a meeting yesterday in which Secretary Powell, Dr. Rice, and other U.S. officials met with an Israeli delegation and received preliminary comments from Israel about the road map. The President has always said that we would contributions from Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In addition, when the road map is formally presented, we anticipate receiving contributions and comments at that time. And they will, of course, get serious consideration.
Q On the settlements, is it the Bush administration's viewpoint that the settlements should be dismantled, or may they stay even if they're in areas that might be under Palestinian control?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, what the President has said is that as progress is made toward security, that the settlement need to end. And the exact specifics of which settlements where is part of the dialogue that is essential between Israelis and Palestinians, with the help of the United States.
Q Does that mean dismantle, like --
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, it will be as we can work it through the system as the Israelis and the Palestinians agree is through the process.
Q Ari, a couple things on the tax cut package. The President said this morning a couple of times, a couple different ways, that a lot of the benefits would be felt before -- within the next two years, which obviously takes us through the next election. You've made clear here that for the last month or so his focus -- his primary focus has been on Iraq. As he moves forward, pivots to a domestic agenda, is it fair to say that the economy is the number one concern of the President going forward over these next few months?
And, secondly, if we end up in the situation where we have a figure much closer to the Senate number than the $550 billion he talked about today or the $726 billion passed by the House, can that be considered a victory for him?
MR. FLEISCHER: One, if you go back to what the President said in the State of the Union, he outlined two broad goals for the year; they remain his broad goals for the year. One was economic security at home and the other was national security, because of events abroad. And the President makes no delineation of one over the other. They are both essential to the American people, so they are essential to him.
On the numbers. As the President said today, this is not about an arbitrary number. This is about analyzing the economy and what the economy needs to get it growing faster. And that's his focus.
Q He's made clear what he thinks it needs, and he's made clear a range of numbers that he wants to see. So the question is, if it's less than that, will he consider that a victory?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President will consider getting growth for the American people a victory -- and he's not focused on an artificial number or arbitrary number, he's focused on providing the biggest impetus we can for an economy that needs to grow more. That's what this all comes down to. The economy is growing, it's recovered from the recession of 2001. It needs to grow faster, in the President's judgment, to create more jobs. There are still mixed signals in the economy. On some day you see some signs of some mild growth. On other days you see some signs like today, industrial production is down .5. You see signs of failure for the economy to grow.
Given the reality of the economy today, of course this President is going to fight for the greatest growth package, jobs package possible.
Q Can I follow on that? There are, as you say, mixed signals. In fact, there was a report last week, a survey of corporate leaders, big companies, guys who have a position that make an impact on the economy. And they're pretty gloomy about it. Is the President -- most of them expect their payrolls to shrink, most of them expect not to be buying new equipment, building new factories, whatever. Is the President -- does he agree with their perception, and is he getting frustrated that there continues to be this sense in the business community --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, they're mixed. He's getting mixed signals when he has conversations with the business community. I'll take on the macro and micro level. There are also reports out now suggesting that consumer sentiment is way up. A portion of this is now the after effect of war in Iraq. Consumer sentiment was way down, in part in anticipation of a potential war. Now it's flipped. That's a good sign, on a macro point of view on the economy. Sector by sector, you're going to find strengths, you're going to find weaknesses. State by state, you'll find unemployment is higher or lower in different states.
But today in the roundtable the President had with a group of small business leaders, there was one woman who owns a milling machine that makes a metal product. And she told the President that there's a product that she wanted to buy that costs some $240,000. And she said, that's a big chunk 'o change for my company, we're a small company -- but if I can buy it, and as a result of one of the changes that you proposed, she told the President, for a small business expensing, she said she would now be able to buy it, because she could afford it. She would have higher productivity, and could hire more workers, and sell more goods.
That's exactly what you want federal policy to impact. That's the exact type of micro message you want people to take from a change in federal taxation policy, because it does what she said. It would encourage growth, encourage job creation.
Q The President has a very fervent and passion for democracy in Iraq. But he seems to have an opposite opinion about democracy in D.C.
MR. FLEISCHER: Oh, that was you yesterday?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. And, in fact, when he was one -- the only time he's ever talked about it, he said, I'm against the senators. And then, when he was further pushed about it, and he said, what about a single voting representative in the House? President Bush said, and this is in the Washington Post: I guess it's logical if I'm against U.S. senators, I'm against the full voting rights.
This is a day where residents of the District of Columbia pay taxes, and are not represented in the national legislature, where a Republican Party platform has come out for, in the past, full voting rights for the District of Columbia. Isn't it the height of hypocrisy? And how can you make a defensible argument for the President to be for democracy in Iraq, but not democracy right here in the nation's capital?
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you for your neutral question. I refer you to the Constitution, which is what started the definition of the District of Columbia as an entity unlike the states, where the President has been very direct on his position about whether or not the District of Columbia should have full voting rights in the Congress, as opposed to the delegate rights that members currently have. That is the President's position. It's well-known. And it finds its original roots in the Constitution. There's an argument about it, and the President has come down on his side of it.
Q As you're aware, in 1978 there was a Constitutional amendment. Two-thirds of both the House and the Senate voted for this. Is it your feeling that the President would be for it if it went by Constitutional amendment? Sixteen Republican senators voted for it, including such liberals as Barry Goldwater, Strom Thurmond, Howard Baker --
MR. FLEISCHER: I get your speech.
Q No, it's not a speech.
MR. FLEISCHER: Your list.
Q You're denying the residents of this place, the only capital of the world who's residents don't have voting rights.
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay. You're aware of the President's position; it has not changed.
Q And it will not change? Is that right; it will not change?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's position is consistent.
Q For his full term?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President's position is consistent.
Q Ari, why wasn't there a greater effort to protect Iraq's antiquities during the war? And, is the U.S. going to help in finding and restoring those antiquities?
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, this also is a question that General Brooks discussed this morning, and the word has gone out inside Iraq. We do hope that people will return any of the antiquities that were taken. We have hopes that they will. We're already seeing signs -- various mosques, different belongings being brought into central places. Clearly, that is a hope. It is important. It is architectural treasure. And we hope that that will happen.
Q Last week, the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste released its annual Pig Book that details over $20 billion of pork in the 2003 budget. When might the President speak out against Congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi, who bitterly complains about the cost of the war, Tom Daschle, who says we can't afford to give Americans a tax cut, yet will waste billions of tax dollars for projects like the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, the National --
MR. FLEISCHER: Okay, I think I get it. There must be a trend here in the room today.
This President has worked very hard, and Mitch Daniels has worked probably harder than anybody, to fight the earmarks in the Congressional budgeting process. Earmarks are increasingly a problem from both parties. And it is a point of difference between the White House and the Congress. We will continue to work to eliminate and reduce the earmarks wherever possible. This is a prerogative that the Congress obviously holds precious.
Q Ari, two things from your announcement. One, on the phone call with Jacques Chirac. The President, you say he -- you said the President was encouraged by some of the words about Syria with Jacques Chirac. Does that mean that this fractured business-like relationship is repairable?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, keep in mind I also said that the President knows that despite what was a very overt difference with France about how to deal with military issues in Iraq, that we are still allies who share common values. That is what links the people of the United States to the people of France, that more than anything else. And so the President always is mindful of that. So the President, as I indicated, was heartened to hear what President Chirac said about Syria.
Q And lastly, this "Ask the White House" situation. A lot of persons in this country are saying that they are frustrated because they feel that they are not able to have their voices heard. Is this part of the reason -- part of the response to those many Americans who are saying that they are not getting their voice heard, they don't have any voice?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, with all due respect, April, I think it's more of letting the voices of the American people be heard. It's important that the voices of the American people are heard, and the President works hard to listen to them through a variety of means. This is one more means.
Q But wait a minute.
MR. FLEISCHER: Bob. We're going to keep moving. We're loosing our audience. People are walking out. (Laughter.)
Q Well, that's not my problem. I have a question I want answered.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, they walked out in the middle of your question. (Laughter.)
Q They wanted some other stuff. (Laughter.) Anyway, what was the impetus of this "Ask the White House"? What was the impetus; why?
MR. FLEISCHER: As you've noticed, the White House web page has been rather innovative in a lot of the things it does. It's had huge surge in the number of people who view it. Some of it is rather lighthearted, like the Barney Cam, as you know; others are rather very serious, where people, interestingly on September 11th, logged on to the White House in massive numbers.
And so what we see is a country that is increasingly online, that looks to web pages -- not only for the White House, but across the government -- for sources of information. This is another way to convey that information to a country, to people that are thirsty for info.
Q Ari, is Syria part of the axis of evil?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President was explicit in his State of the Union in 2002 about North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Syria is indeed a terrorist nation, but to be precise, that is how the President has approached it.
Q If Arafat prevails in this tussle over the Cabinet, is it possible we'll never see this road map any time soon?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I'm not going to engage in any hypotheticals. I said the President had high hopes that the reformers would win, and he does. It's important that peace be given a chance, that the Palestinians have leadership that represent the Palestinian people's hopes and aspirations of having a state, not their nightmares of having more violence and no prospect of a state. So the President is working this very hard. As you know, he's had conversations with other leaders in the region this week. It's important that the reformers are successful.
Q -- a precondition for a Prime Minister with real authority, I think is the way he put it, that's still in effect, right?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's what the President said.
Q Ari, the White House has surrogates that are going out in the field this week to promote the tax cut plan. Any concern that as you put pressure on Republicans -- specifically in places like Maine and Ohio -- that if you push too hard you will do long-term damage to members of your own party?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the President has a principled case to make and he will make it and he will make it respectfully. We're a nation of 50 states and no one state is a no-fly zone. The administration looks forward to carrying a principled message to all states.
Q On Syria, Ari. Did the Syrians build up political capital during the initial phases of the war on terror, specifically helping out with identifying members of al Qaeda? And if so, has that capital now evaporated?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think -- I would just refer you to what the President said, what the Secretary of Defense said and the Secretary of State said. They've been explicit and explicit for good reason. And I leave it at that.
Q Ari, what's the significance of the President not using the $726 billion figure today and saying at least $550 billion? Are you conceding that you're not going to get everything that you had originally set out?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly there is a process here. And the process began with the President's proposal and the budget he submitted, which was $726 billion. The House then passed $550 billion, the Senate passed $350 billion. So the President is acknowledging the evolution of the process. The President is also saying that this is about more than an arbitrary number, this is about how to get an economy growing.
Q Ari, a 21-year-old British peace activist, Thomas Hurndall, was shot by an Israeli sharp shooter and killed on Friday. That brings to four the foreign peace makers who -- peace activists who have been shot or killed or wounded in the last couple weeks. I'm wondering if the President is concerned that the Israelis are targeting peace activists?
MR. FLEISCHER: Russell, the President is concerned about all loss of life in the Middle East, and that's why he believes it's so important to make progress on the road map, so that we won't have to deal with situations like this of any type. That's why there are important events that are literally underway on the ground now that will allow us to see whether the road map can soon be released. That's the way to deal with all of these issues, and that's where the President is focused.
Q The President has said that he wants a tax cut bill of at least $550 billion. Well, as he said, the House has limited itself to $550 billion in the budget reconciliation process and the Senate to $350 billion. Have you ever known of any time historically where one chamber would agree to one tax cut number and another -- and the other chamber to a different tax cut number, and instead of splitting the difference, they would agree to a higher number than both?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I can cite for you numerous examples. For example, in the late -- mid- to late-1990s, where the Congress agreed on different spending figures, and the President of the United States thought it was important to have a higher spending figure, and despite a budget resolution that had a lower spending figure, the President prevailed. So, clearly, there is a precedent for budget resolution numbers to be adjusted per the discussions underway between the executive and the legislature. The bottom line is, this President will fight for what he believes is necessary to create growth in the economy. So procedurally, yes, indeed, there is precedent.
Q But not with tax cuts?
MR. FLEISCHER: The point remains the same. The procedures guiding spending and taxes are similar. So, procedurally, the precedent shows it can, indeed, be done, it has been done, it was done on spending in the '90s. Now we have a President who is not interested in big spending, but he is interested in tax relief for growth. The President believes it should be done, and procedurally, it can be done.
Q Ari, a two-parter. Syria has the Bekka Valley terrorist training camps, Damascus is the headquarters of Hamas Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. Syria is now harboring escaped Iraqi leaders, and they have chemical WMD's, with the President having assured us that we are at war with terrorists and with those countries that harbor terrorists. And my question, with so many of our troops along Syria's border with Iraq, why is Syria any less deserving of a regime change than Iraq, because a regime change would also liberate Lebanon?
MR. FLEISCHER: I'm going to leave it just as I've left it. I'm not going to go beyond what the President has said.
Q How does the President believe that his road map to Palestinian state can possibly succeed as long as Arafat and his handpicked Prime Minister are on the scene where so many thousands of Palestinians cheered in the street last week in support of Saddam Hussein, just as they did earlier when they heard about 9/11?
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, the President does believe that it's important for Israel and a newly created Palestinian state to live side by side. And this is a President who is willing to work very hard with the parties and with the neighbors in the region to create that as a reality. Much of it is dependent, as the President said on June 24th, on reforming the Palestinian institutions. And the President is looking forward to seeing what the Palestinians are able to do here as they deal with the confirmation of Abu Mazen. The President also continues to believe that the Israelis have responsibilities, the Arab nations have responsibilities, and he will work with all three parties to achieve his goals.
Q Last Thursday the President nominated Attorney General Bill Pryor of Alabama to the U.S. Court of Appeals. And within less than 24 hours, the Washington Post had a highly critical editorial. Does the administration expect the kind of opposition to General Pryor's nomination that there has been to Mr. Estrada and Judge Owens? And is the administration really serious about going all the way with General Pryor's nomination?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think you have to address questions about obstruction to people who would engage in them. I can't predict what the Senate opponents would do. But clearly, we continue to be a nation with a judicial vacancy crisis, and the President is working hard, and will continue to work hard for his nominees.
Q Did Senator Fitzgerald's decision come as a surprise for the White House?
MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I was asked about it earlier. I really don't have any more information other than the public statement. That's all I know about.
Q Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.
END 3:10 P.M. EDT