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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 28, 2004

Press Briefing by Scott McClellan
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

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1:20 P.M. EDT

MR. McCLELLAN: I want to begin with one brief statement. The United Nations Security Council just recently voted on the proliferation security resolution. Today's unanimous United Nations Security Council vote is clear affirmation for the initiative the President launched to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. This is a high priority and is important to winning the war on terrorism. And today's vote was an important step to move forward on these international efforts. This will help make the world safer and better, and make America more secure, as we move forward on this important initiative.

And with that, I'll be glad to go straight to your questions.

Q If the Vice President is complaining about the cuts to the military that John Kerry proposed over his years in the Senate and his first run for the Senate, why is the Vice President not equally as critical of the President's father, who proposed similar cuts in his final year of the presidency?

MR. McCLELLAN: John, this election is a clear choice between two different visions when it comes to strengthening our efforts to win the war on terrorism and strengthening the economy. And that's what we will continue to talk about in this election. If you've got specific questions, the campaign will be glad to address some of those matters further.

Q Also, Senator Kerry, in the last couple of days, has brought up the issue of the President's Guard record again, suggesting that the President is not standing on any kind of firm ground in criticizing Senator Kerry because of unresolved questions about his Guard duty. Your response?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, this question came up yesterday in the briefing, and I addressed it. I said you might want to refer that question to the campaign. It's just another political attack and, therefore, you might want to address that question to the campaign.

Q No, but he's bringing it back --

MR. McCLELLAN: If you want to talk about some of these campaign and political attacks, I think you can best address those -- it would be better to address those questions to the campaign.

Q He's bringing up an issue that was bounced around this room at length --

MR. McCLELLAN: And it's been fully addressed, and all the records have been released, and the President fulfilled his duty and was proud to serve and be honorably discharged from the National Guard.

Q You never did answer my question on whether the President ever did community service when he was in the National Guard. I wonder --

MR. McCLELLAN: Helen, I'm not going to engage in political -- in responding to the latest political attack by Senator Kerry --

Q It's not political, it's a very simple question.

MR. McCLELLAN: And if you want to address -- this is relating to the most recent political attack by Senator Kerry. I'm happy for you to address that question to the campaign.

Q Can you answer that question, yes or no?

MR. McCLELLAN: The campaign responded to this yesterday. They addressed it.

Q Why don't you answer it?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's been addressed. I addressed it previously.

Q What did you say?

MR. McCLELLAN: And if you want to keep bringing up these questions, you're welcome to. But I'm not going to dignify them.

Q What did you say?

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead.

Q What's undignified about community service?

MR. McCLELLAN: We've already been through this. We've already addressed all these issues. This is trying to get me to engage in the most recent political attack by Senator Kerry. I'm not going to do it from this podium.

Q That is not true.

MR. McCLELLAN: If you want to talk about those questions, you can direct those questions to the campaign.

Q Do you think it's legitimate to bring up your service in the past?

MR. McCLELLAN: We've already been through this, Helen. Thank you.

Q Two quick questions. One, the President must be enjoying high ratings still although the war is going on in Afghanistan and Iraq. And also thousands of demonstrators were in front of IMF and World Bank this past weekend. And they were demonstrating against the policies of the World Bank that that is hurting the developing countries, not helping them as far as the economy is concerned. What does the President -- how he feels about this economy -- the global economy and the U.S. economy?

MR. McCLELLAN: Goyal, I think the United States, first of all, is leading the way when it comes to economic growth and job creation. And the President talked earlier this week about the importance of America staying on the leading edge of economic growth and technological innovation, and how that's important to creating jobs here at home in America, and continuing to sustain economic growth. We're seeing strong economic growth, and we must continue to take steps that build upon that by creating as strong an environment as possible for job creation. And one of those steps is obviously moving forward on expanding trade, because expanding trade and opening up markets to American products and workers and producers and farmers is important to creating jobs here at home.

And so we are continuing to move forward aggressively on expanding free trade. That's one of the key parts of the President's plan for strengthening our economy even more.

Q And second one, as far as U.N. contributions, or the U.N. is concerned, how do you think President now going to give the wartime role to the United Nations to play in Iraq now after the new administration --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the United Nations is playing a very important and vital role right now in Iraq. They're doing that in two ways. Mr. Brahimi's efforts are certainly very helpful to moving forward on the timetable that was set for transferring sovereignty back to the Iraqi people. We are moving forward to meet that timetable of June 30th. That's an important date that the Iraqi people expect sovereignty to be transferred, and it will be on that date. So we welcome the -- we'll welcome the efforts by Mr. Brahimi. He is moving in the right direction, and we strongly support the steps that he has taken.

Q You think more countries will join --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we're also moving forward, and there are discussions going on right now with countries about a new United Nations Security Council resolution, so we can encourage even more countries to participate in the future of Iraq. A free and peaceful Iraq is what we're working to achieve, because that is critical to transforming the Middle East and making the world safer and better and America more secure. And so we're continuing to move forward on those efforts and we look forward to working toward this new United Nations Security Council resolution.

The other way the United Nations is helping right now is they have a mission there to help move forward on the timetable set for the elections under the transitional administrative law, beginning next January, and the timetable set for drafting a constitution. So they very much should be playing a vital role in these efforts and we welcome those efforts.

Q What's the latest on the President's preparations for the talk with the September 11th Commission tomorrow? And how long would you anticipate that session would last?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we'll let you know tomorrow. You all will be here and we'll let the meeting take place and then we'll be able to tell you how long it lasted at that point.

But the President looks forward to the meeting tomorrow. The commission is doing some very important work that is critical to helping us better understand the lessons from September 11th and critical to helping us look at additional steps we might take to win the war on terrorism. So he looks forward to sitting down with the commission and answering their questions and helping them piece together all the information that they've already been provided access to. We want the commission to be able to provide as complete a picture as possible to the American people.

And the President has been looking over some materials and documents from the time period leading up to September 11th and right around September 11th, that was provided to him by his Counsel's Office. This is an opportunity for him to refresh his memory and make sure that he can provide the commission with as complete account of events as possible. And he has also been visiting with staff members, including the Chief of Staff, Andy Card; including his National Security Advisor, Condi Rice; and his Counsel, Judge Gonzales.

Q Does the President have any time constraints at all on his schedule tomorrow?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, look, I think, one, keep in mind we're talking about a sitting President of the United States, and I expect the commission is going to be fully respectful of that. And they've already been provided a whole lot of information. We've provided them unprecedented access to information. We've provided them volumes of documents, more than 2 million pages of documents. We've provided the commission hundreds of briefings with administration officials, briefings and interviews with administration officials. So this is coming toward the end of their process, and the President wants to do his part to help them piece together all this information they have so that they can provide the American people with as complete a report as possible, and provide the American people with recommendations that might help us do better in winning the war on terrorism.

Q One other thing if I could. What about discussion this morning about the Swedish prisoner? The President indicated the U.S. wanted to work with them. Does that mean that we're in the process of releasing that person, or --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, he said that what we're going to do is have discussions with Swedish officials. I believe there will be a delegation coming next week. This was the first issue raised in their meeting. They had a very good discussion about it and the President pointed out that we had worked with other countries on these issues to address some of their concerns. And so we will be glad to sit down and visit with Swedish officials on that very matter.

Q Scott, just on the 9/11 -- I'm trying to -- I'm still trying to understand the argument behind insisting that the Vice President and the President appear together, and why a transcript -- why you all feel a transcript should not be provided. And I guess I just don't understand why the President wouldn't answer that directly, when it was asked of him today. He completely dodged the question.

MR. McCLELLAN: The President is focused on helping the commission complete its important work. That's where the President's focus is. And I think I've been through --

Q I didn't ask where his focus was. I mean, that's fine, wherever his focus is. I'm asking a specific question. I'm just wondering why nobody will answer it. I mean, we may just want to understand the thinking here --

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, I think I have addressed it. I addressed it yesterday, David, when the question came up, and I addressed it a few weeks ago when it came up in the briefing room, as well, and I talked about that very issue. This is a good opportunity for the President and Vice President to sit down together with the commission and help them piece together all the information that they have been provided. This is not an adversarial process. We're all working together to learn the lessons of September 11th and look at what else we might do, in addition to the steps we've already taken, to win the war on terrorism. That's where our focus is.

The President is firmly committed to doing everything it takes to win the war on terrorism, and taking all steps to try to prevent attacks from happening in the first place.

Q I understand that. But what I'm getting at is, at its core, is this more of a separation of powers argument? In other words, the White House --

MR. McCLELLAN: Which argument?

Q Well, that you don't want to do anything to give the appearance that, a, you're bowing to Congress in any way, or that you are allowing witnesses to be separated. I'm just wondering --

MR. McCLELLAN: You're talking about a transcript?

Q Well, I'm talking about transcripts and also them appearing together. Is the argument that, look, this is -- we're going to make this an informal meeting and we're going to put them together, you're not going to be able to treat them like witnesses, they're not under oath --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, let's be -- let's be very clear here. This isn't -- this isn't something where it's a game of gotcha. This is very important work that the commission is doing. And the President and the Vice President want to do everything they can to help the commission piece together all the information we've provided them access to. This is -- this is not an adversarial process. We're all working together to learn the lessons of September 11th. I can't reiterate that enough. And that's very important work.

And now, in terms of -- this is a private meeting. This is -- this is not public testimony. The two are sitting down to answer the -- any questions and whatever questions that they may have.

Q What I'm saying is, does the White House Counsel believe it's important that, even in the mechanics of this private meeting, to do everything that can be done to not create any kind of precedent for a sitting President and Vice President to meet with a body like --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it is important to keep those concerns in mind. And certainly, we look at those issues. But it is extraordinary for a sitting President of the United States to sit down and visit with a legislatively created body. I talked a little bit about that yesterday.

Nevertheless, the circumstances here are very unique, and the President believes it's very important to make sure the commission has all the information they need to complete their work, and to provide the American people with a thorough and comprehensive report about these threats that have been building for quite some time, that have been building over a period of more than a decade.

Q Just one final thing on this. Does the President believe that up until now that the commission has conducted itself in such a way that it is a game of gotcha? Is that how he perceives --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, you were bringing up the question and saying something about it being on the witness stand. That's not the way to look at this. The way to look at this is the work of the September 11th Commission will benefit of all Americans in the war on terrorism. And the President's highest priority is the war on terrorism. The President's most solemn obligation is to protect the American people. He takes that responsibility very seriously. That's why we have taken such extraordinary steps since September 11th to make sure we are doing everything we can to win the war on terrorism -- and the best way to do that is to stay on the offensive, and that's what this President will continue to do.

But we want to know what the commission uncovers. The President made it very clear when he signed the legislation creating the commission that he wants them to uncover all the facts that they can, so that we can fully learn the lessons. But the most important lesson was that we need to go on the offensive, that we are at war, that we've got to take the fight to the enemy. And the President has learned that lesson.

Q Yes, Scott, two questions, please. Since the President and Vice President are appearing jointly, are we to assume the President will take the lead in answering the questions?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I fully expect that most of the questions are going to be directed to the President, so I expect he will be answering most of the questions. Obviously, it's up to the commission who they want to ask questions of, so I expect they may have some questions for the Vice President, as well.

Q Yesterday you said the President's Counsel, Al Gonzales, will be present, and you mentioned the possibility of somebody else from the legal office.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's right.

Q How many people are going to --

MR. McCLELLAN: I expect at least one other additional member of the Counsel's staff to be present. And I'll keep you posted on other people that will be present tomorrow. All those details I think are still being finalized. But Judge Gonzales will be present.

Q Will the President or the Vice President make an opening statement before answering questions from the commission?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't expect that. This is a private meeting, and it's an opportunity to visit with the commission and answer the questions that they have. They've already been provided much of this information. They've sat down with numerous administration officials and asked a lot of questions. And now this is an opportunity to talk to the President and Vice President and ask them questions, to help piece together all that information.

Q So there won't be an opening statement?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't expect that.

Q Scott, how much time is the President spending today preparing? And how much time has he spent in previous --

MR. McCLELLAN: Elisabeth, he's spent some time yesterday and today visiting with the staff members that I mentioned -- Andy Card, Judge Gonzales and Condi Rice. And I'm not going to get into -- obviously, you've been covering some of the other things he's been doing today. He's had to continue to stay focused on his presidential duties. He had the meeting this morning with Prime Minister Persson of Sweden. And he had other activities he's participating in, an event he's going to this afternoon. But he'll be spending some more time, I expect, this afternoon visiting --

Q Can you tell me how much each day, how many hours?

MR. McCLELLAN: -- visiting with those staff members.

Q Can you tell me how much --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to try to quantify it in terms of the exact time, but he's visiting with those staff members that I mentioned and looking back over documents.

Q And how many -- how long ago did he start preparing, like in the past week?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know the exact time when he was provided some of the materials from Counsel's Office to look over. But he's been focusing on this some in the recent past.

Q And one last question. Is he preparing today with the Vice President? Are they meeting about this?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, they talk on a regular basis, so I'm sure they've discussed it. But, like I said, he's probably going to spend some more time visiting with staff members, the staff members that I mentioned.

Q But again, is there any preparation -- are the President and Vice President preparing together at any point today, in the last few days?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll try to keep you posted if there's any more information. I think I've given you a general description of what he's doing, and I think I would just leave it at that.

Q Scott, a couple more logistical questions.

MR. McCLELLAN: Sure.

Q What room is this taking place in?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's still being finalized, but we'll let you know. I'll try to let you know later this afternoon. I think it's down to a couple of choices.

Q Okay, is there anything else on the President's schedule --

Q Briefing room?

MR. McCLELLAN: Briefing room? One for the briefing room. (Laughter.)

Q Is there anything else on the President's --

MR. McCLELLAN: As long as we can keep it a private meeting.

Q Yes. (Laughter.)

Q Trust us.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, it's not in my office. (Laughter.)

Q Is there anything else at all on the President's schedule tomorrow?

MR. McCLELLAN: Anything else? Actually, I'll have to look back at tomorrow's schedule. I've been so focused on today, I haven't looked at his full schedule. But, yes, he's got things that he's attending to in the afternoon. We set aside time in the morning -- the meeting begins around 9:30 a.m., in the morning.

Q Okay. Recordings; I understand what you're saying about a transcript. Are you assuring us that there will be no recordings whatsoever? Judge Gonzales --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, this has been -- no, this has been discussed with the commission previously. There have been some 30 members of the Executive Office of the President's staff that have met privately with the commission. None of those have been recorded. So this is similar to other meetings. It's similar to the private meeting that the commission had with Dr. Rice where there were note-takers. So I'm sure there will be detailed notes taken.

Q There will be no recording where, if there's a dispute over what was said or asked --

MR. McCLELLAN: I really don't expect that. Again, we're all working toward the same object, and we're all working to the same end -- toward the same end here.

Q Can I -- can I do Iraq for a moment here?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes. Did you already have a question?

Q What's that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Did you already have questions?

Q No, no, no.

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay. This is your first.

Q -- follow up earlier today on whether or not the administration supports Brahimi's plan to get the members in place of that caretaker government by the end of May so they could have more time to work with the U.S. security forces in defining their role -- is that something the administration supports?

MR. McCLELLAN: We are strongly supportive of his efforts, as I responded to Goyal. We're strongly supportive of efforts -- of his efforts. We believe he is moving in the right direction. And any steps that help us move forward to meet the June 30th timetable for transferring sovereignty are welcome and positive. So we welcome those efforts.

Again, he's looking at all these details. He's going to be coming back, talking more with Iraqi leaders and coalition -- the Coalition Provisional Authority about some of these steps. But we very much support those efforts.

Q Do you believe it's realistic to accelerate the timetable?

MR. McCLELLAN: To accelerate the timetable? Well, sovereignty will be transferred on June 30th; that's when sovereignty will be transferred. Obviously, you want to make sure you're taking steps to get everything in place so that it can be transferred on June 30th, and that's what Mr. Brahimi is doing and we appreciate those efforts.

Q Scott, back on Mark's question, isn't the White House at all concerned about the fact that you'll essentially have no ability to refute differing accounts --

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't expect there is going to be any reason to --

Q -- of what the President --

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't expect there's going to be any reason to.

Q So you don't think there will be any information whatsoever coming out of this that might be, you know, giving it a partisan spin at all?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we certainly hope not. We appreciate the work that the commission is doing. The members have been working hard to accomplish their objective, which is to provide the American people with a thorough and complete report of the events leading up to September 11th, and to look at ways that we might better protect the American people and win the war on terrorism. So I just don't see any reason for that to happen.

Q I have a second question about Iran. The National Council of Resistance of Iran is saying that the Iranian regime is instigating much of the riots and the insurgency in Iraq. What does the President think of Iran's --

MR. McCLELLAN: You're saying that -- who was saying this?

Q The Iranian regime --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we expect all countries in the neighborhood to play a helpful role and take steps that would be helpful to the Iraqi people, and that's what we expect. I don't know about what reports you're referring to or who's calling for what. But we express our concerns to the countries in the region and encourage them to take steps that are helpful to moving the process forward and helpful to the Iraqi people.

Q Does the President think that Iran, in particular, though, is at least partly responsible for this instigation?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've made some concerns known that we think that any efforts by Iran in the country should not be harmful to what we're working -- what the coalition is working to achieve on behalf of the Iraqi people.

Q Scott, can you say who's going to be responsible for taking the notes for the White House in tomorrow's meeting?

MR. McCLELLAN: It will be a member of the White House Counsel's staff. I'm not going to get into names at this point.

Q And will any portion of those notes be shared --

MR. McCLELLAN: And there will be a member of the commission staff that will be there, as well.

Q And will any of those -- a portion of those notes be shared publicly, after the meeting?

MR. McCLELLAN: From the White House?

Q Yes.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I don't expect that to happen. Again, a lot of what they are talking about I expect will be highly-classified information. We provided the commission access to our most sensitive national security documents, and I'm sure they have some questions relating to that of the President and Vice President. I'm sure they have a lot of questions relating to the actual day of September 11th, when the President and Vice President were in separate locations, but in close contact with one another throughout that day. So it will be helpful to have both of them sitting in there, responding to the questions that they may have regarding that specific day.

Q Two more quick ones. Apart from classified information, can the public expect to hear from the White House tomorrow in any fashion, the nature, the tone -- just a general characterization of what the President says?

MR. McCLELLAN: We'll keep you posted of things, so stay tuned for tomorrow.

Q Okay. And, finally, in terms of preparation --

MR. McCLELLAN: Keeping all that in mind.

Q Okay. In terms of preparation, is the President sitting down and getting specific questions from members of his staff --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I wouldn't look at it that way. I would look at it as he's visiting with some of his staff, going back over some of the things that occurred two-and-a-half, three years ago -- this was quite some time ago. We've been through a lot since then. He wants to refresh his memory, and make sure that he can provide the commission with a good, complete account of everything prior to September 11th.

Q Can I follow up, Scott, on the note-taker?

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead. Richard keeps trying to get a question in here.

Q Is the note-taker for the White House a lawyer in the Counsel's Office? Is that person --

MR. McCLELLAN: It will be a member of the Counsel's Office that is a lawyer.

Q So is it because of his knowledge --

MR. McCLELLAN: This is very similar to the way it's been with other members of the White House staff that have met privately with the commission.

Q My question is, was this person chosen because of his or her knowledge of the specific issues at hand, or because this person knows shorthand?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't want to get into naming names, but this person has been very involved in coordinating efforts with the September 11th Commission.

Q Scott, about the actual physical set-up of the --

Q Does the person take shorthand?

MR. McCLELLAN: You want to know if he takes shorthand?

Q It's not a stupid question.

Q -- completely good question. Can you answer that?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's very similar to other meetings. They will be taking detailed notes, I'm sure.

Go ahead.

Q Anything about the physical set-up of the meeting?

MR. McCLELLAN: Let's keep it focused. I know you all are very interested in some of these process question and I've given you the logistical aspects of this. But let's keep our focus on what's most important there, and that's the work that the 9/11 Commission is doing to help better protect the American people. They got very important work to do. That's where our focus is. We want to do everything we can to support their efforts. That's exactly what we have been doing and will continue to do. And you can look the other way, but this is very important work that they're doing.

Q Yes, but, Scott, we have our focus, as well. You have your focus; we have our focus. And sometimes they don't always meet, but we're going to keep trying.

MR. McCLELLAN: I know. And that's why I'm trying to provide you with this information.

Q Well, but you're not answering certain questions. So you don't need to tell us where our focus needs to be.

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, I didn't -- I didn't try to tell you where your focus should be. I'm trying to tell you that they got very important work to do, and that's where our focus is. That's where our focus will remain. But we also want to make sure that you all have information you need to do your job. I always try to do that, David.

Go ahead.

Q Is the commission barred from recording --

Q About the physical set-up of the meeting -- are they going to be around a conference table?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, see, that depends on everything is being finalized up right now and where it takes place. So I'll keep you posted on that once those details are final. And depending on which room it is in, I think it kind of affects that.

Go ahead.

Q Thank you. Scott, the United States embassy in Damascus is closed today following yesterday's terrorist attack. There is a new terrorist threat -- from Saudi Arabia ordering all Americans out of that country. Does the President, through the State Department, plan to order U.S. citizens out of Syria and Saudi Arabia?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the State Department always keeps American citizens posted on if there are any developments that would require them to take a step like that and urge American citizens to leave.

In terms of Syria, we just don't know many of the details of what occurred, or what happened. We've seen the media reports, and that's essentially what we know at this point.

Q The Pentagon plans to place five anti-missile interceptors in Alaska by this summer and 20 on the West Coast by the end of next year. Does the President believe this untried and multibillion dollar missile defense system will really protect the United States against incoming --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, it's an important priority. And I think that the individual overseeing those efforts spoke to that yesterday. And it's important that we continue moving forward on it, particularly when we're talking about some of the threats that we face in the 21st century. Missile defense has been a high priority for this President throughout his administration.

Q Is there any agreement between the White House and the 9/11 Commission regarding the President's and the Vice President's remarks tomorrow -- that is not revealing them to the public, and only including them in the report? Or should we expect to see commissioners on television tomorrow afternoon characterizing those remarks?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know what the commission's plans are following the meeting. I know that when they met with President Clinton and Vice President Gore, that they put out a statement afterwards and pretty much let that speak for the meeting. But I don't know -- I don't know what their plans are for tomorrow.

Q Is Commissioner Gorelick going to participate in this tomorrow? Or is she going to recuse herself?

MR. McCLELLAN: We've been told that all ten commission members will be present tomorrow.

Q About tomorrow, the Republican leaders say they plan to come over here at some time to talk to the President about the highway bill, to try to hammer out a number. Is that still going to happen tomorrow?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know of anything that's been finalized with the President on that. Obviously, that's an important piece of legislation. The President laid out some very clear principles and provided a responsible level of funding, an increase of 21 percent for the -- over the previous six years to meet these important needs. And we're continuing to work closely with Congress on those matters. I don't know if that's, maybe, a meeting with legislative staff that you're referring to. But I'll try to check on that and get you more details.

Q The Speaker expects to have to hammer this out with the President because he didn't feel that --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, they've talked about it and we appreciate the efforts by the Speaker and other leaders in Congress to move forward on this legislation. The President believes it's important to get this legislation passed this year. Congress has been providing some temporary extensions. But we want to see the legislation passed that provides for a significant increase in funding to meet our highway transportation needs over the previous six years.

Thank you.

END 1:47 P.M. EDT