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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
January 4, 2005

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

Play Video  Video (Real)

12:53 P.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everybody.

Q You're late.

MR. McCLELLAN: I am sorry. (Laughter.) Sometimes that happens. Do you want to cancel it?

Let me give you an update on the relief efforts underway in the Indian Ocean region. The President spoke with Secretary Powell, and his brother, Governor Bush, this morning to receive an update on the delegation's assessment of the humanitarian relief efforts in the Indian Ocean region and the needs on the ground. Secretary Powell gave a positive report on the coordination going on between our government agencies, like USAID and the military, to make sure aid is flowing to those who are in need. The Secretary also praised the work of our men and women in uniform, and the military operation in the region that is being overseen by General Blackman. The two delegation heads also spoke about how every leader that they have met with has expressed their great appreciation for the outpouring of support from the United States government.

The Secretary also spoke about the upcoming ASEAN summit, and the President and Secretary Powell discussed the importance of developing a long-term strategy for reconstruction and recovery. The two delegation heads also reported about the strong capabilities the governments of India , Sri Lanka and Thailand have in place to effectively manage the response and relief in those countries.

They discussed the challenges and difficulties facing Aceh in Indonesia . The level of destruction there is beyond comprehension. And the President expressed his appreciation to Secretary Powell and Governor Bush for their work, and he reiterated to them to be sure and express his personal condolences on behalf of the United States to leaders in the region and the people in the region. The President looks forward to receiving further updates and reports later this week from these two leaders.

And I also want to update you on the effort underway by former Presidents Clinton and Bush to reach out to the American people to encourage even more charitable giving to international organizations in the region who are helping provide relief to those who are suffering. Since -- well, yesterday's numbers from our usafreedomcorps.gov website report that there were a total number of visitors of 100,210 to the website. Now, this compares to a daily average for 2004 of 5,755 visitors a day. So already the announcement that was made yesterday and the outreach efforts by these two leaders on the airwaves has shown that the American people are responding in overwhelming numbers to continue to show their compassion and generosity for those in the region.

From Saturday through yesterday, we have had 147,265 visitors. If you'll recall, the President, on Saturday in his radio address, encouraged Americans to donate cash to international organizations and directed him to the usafreedomcorps.gov website to look at the list of international organizations who are on the ground in the region, that they could direct those funds to.

And that is all I have to begin with. I will be glad to go to your questions.

Q Scott, after this briefing, does the President have any idea whether there's going to be a need for more than $350 million to be dedicated to this effort? President Clinton yesterday indicated that he thought that number would, indeed, go up.

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think we've indicated that. And President Clinton was saying what we've already said previously. Secretary Powell, you heard a report from him yesterday saying that he believes the level we're at right now, which is an initial funding level, is the right level for right now. But they're continuing to assess conditions on the ground and what may be needed going forward, not only in the immediate-term, but the longer-term, as well, because this is going to a be long-term project. As I pointed out yesterday, the United States will be in this for the long haul, long after the media stops focusing on this at the top of the newscast or stops putting it on the front page of the papers. We are going to be there to continue to provide help. And as we assess what is needed, we will be there to make sure that needs are met.

Q What about U.S. military assets? Is there any estimate for how long and how much more may be needed?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know if there's any new update beyond what you've heard from our military leaders, as well as USAID, in terms of the immediate response efforts that are underway. We're still in this immediate response phase. We'll be moving toward a longer-term reconstruction phase at some point because the devastation is just beyond comprehension and there is a lot of work that will be required on the road ahead. But I would leave it to the latest updates you've receive from USAID, as well as our military leaders, in terms of where that is. But we have a number of ships in the area; we have helicopters flying around the clock to provide relief to those who need it; we have trucks moving supplies. So we're getting food, water, medical supplies, hygiene kits to those who are in need, and we're working to make sure that we can get it to those remote areas where it's more difficult to transport those supplies to.

Q Can you tell us more about the Allawi phone call ? Can you clarify what -- has any action been pursued as a result of the phone call?

MR. McCLELLAN: Any action pursued as a result of the phone call? Well, they stay in touch from time-to-time. And as I pointed out earlier today, they talked about some of the ongoing challenges as Iraq moves forward on elections and moves forward to improve the security situation on the ground. And so that was the discussion on the phone call. And they will continue to stay in touch as Iraq moves forward on holding elections and putting in place a transitional government, and putting in place a constitution and then a permanent representative, elected government later in the year.

Q Is there any concern here that the Allawi government may be preparing to move to delay the Iraqi election?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, in fact, in their phone call, they talked about the importance of moving forward on the timetable that was set out by the Independent Iraqi Election Commission. So I haven't heard anything of that nature. We fully support the Independent Iraqi Election Commission timetable of January 30th for holding those elections. It's important that we continue to move forward on all fronts to help the Iraqi people realize a better future; a future that stands in stark contrast to the one of the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. There is a clear choice facing the Iraqi people, facing the region and facing the international community. We can stand on the side of democracy and freedom and peace, or we can stand on the side of terrorists and tyranny and oppression.

I think that the international community is joining with the Iraqi people to help them move forward toward a free and democratic and peaceful future. The Iraqi people want to vote for their government. They are expressing that in surveys that we've seen; they're expressing that by going to register and make sure that they are able to vote. And what we are focused on right now is doing everything we can to support the situation on the ground by improving the security situation and making sure that we can see as full a participation as possible in those elections on January 30th. And remember, this is a transitional government that they will be electing, and they will put in place the leadership. And then they will come back after they have adopted a constitution to adopt a permanent representative government.

Q There are reports that some people in Iraq are getting a little wobbly about that election date.

MR. McCLELLAN: I've seen some of those reports, just like you have. We remain firmly supportive of the Independent Iraqi Election Commission and their timetable of January 30th. They are moving forward on registering Iraqis. They're moving forward on reaching out to areas where there's a heavy population of Sunnis to encourage as broad a participation in that segment of society, as well. We want to see all parts of Iraq participate to the fullest extent possible in these elections.

Q But it's not our country, is it, and if they want to delay the election, that would be -- how would the United States respond --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that the Iraqi people have shown that they want to move forward on elections, that they believe that's important to moving forward toward a free and peaceful future. This is part of the transition to democracy. And as they move forward on elections, it will help defeat the ambitions of those terrorists and Saddam loyalists who seek to derail that transition.

Q So, first, are you saying that in this conversation yesterday -- which you did not read out yesterday -- between the President and President Allawi, Allawi committed yesterday to holding elections at the end of the month, as scheduled?

MR. McCLELLAN: They talked about the importance of making sure that there is as broad a participation as possible in the elections and moving forward on the date that had been set.

Q So Allawi said he still is committed to that date?

MR. McCLELLAN: There was no discussion of delay in the election. I said that earlier today, and I repeat that again today.

Q So what is the President's response to the voices of Adnan Pachachi, a leading politician in Iraq , to the Defense Minister in Mr. Allawi's government -- who are saying, you cannot hold elections in this environment?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the response is what I said a minute ago. First of all, this is a decision by the interim government and the Independent Iraqi Election Commission to move forward on elections. We support them fully in those efforts to move ahead with these elections for a transitional government. And we also support the efforts of Prime Minister Allawi to reach out to all segments of Iraqi society and encourage the fullest possible participation in these elections.

Most of the country is in a secure enough environment to proceed with these elections. There are some areas where there are serious security challenges that remain. We're working to address those security challenges, partnering with the Iraqi security forces and partnering with the interim government, to make sure that in those areas, that as many people as possible can participate in the elections.

Q Scott, is the United States concerned that Egypt , as recently as a year ago, took some steps toward a nuclear weapons program?

MR. McCLELLAN: You're talking about the IAEA reports? We've seen the reports. I don't think we have anything to offer at this point, except what we've said all along, that we expect all nations to cooperate with the Independent Atomic Energy Agency. We're sure that they will look into this matter, these reports, and I would just point out that Egypt is a signatory to the Nonproliferation Treaty.

Q Would that be a matter of concern, though, if --

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, we don't have anymore on it at this point. That's something the IAEA will look into, and we'll see what else we can find out.

Q As far as the donations from individuals in the private sector, are you keeping track of those in some broad way?

MR. McCLELLAN: No -- the short answer is, no. I don't know that we really can, because we're asking people to donate directly to these non-governmental international organizations who are on the ground in the Indian Ocean region. We're asking them to contribute directly to groups like the Red Cross, or the Red Crescent Society, or CARE, or Habitat for Humanity International, to help the people on the ground there recover and reconstruct their societies.

Q How will the two former Presidents know if they're being successful or if they need --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think one indication is the usafreedomcorps.gov website, and the numbers that I pointed out to you at the beginning of this briefing. That's one indication that the American people are continuing to respond and even increase their response to the relief efforts already underway in the region.

We've seen a tremendous outpouring of support from the American people over the last week. The President talked about that in his announcement yesterday of this nationwide fund-raising effort. And he also expressed his gratitude to these two distinguished leaders. I think you're seeing already that the American people are responding very strongly to the outreach by these two distinguished leaders and former Presidents.

Q Do you have a sense of how long you want them to maintain this effort? And how would you decide at which point they seem to have done all they can do?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think, first of all, the effort is just getting underway; it's only been underway for the last 24 hours and they are already working very hard at reaching out to the American people. And they will be reaching out to foundations, they will be reaching out to corporations, they will be asking people to contribute as they are able to do so. Whether it's small contributions or larger contributions, everything helps. And everybody is focused on doing what they can to help the people in the region recover from this grave disaster.

Q Has the President given?

MR. McCLELLAN: He's in the process of doing that. I, hopefully, we'll have more to report on that tomorrow, if not later today. But he is in the process of doing that and looking at organizations that he will be sending money to in the region.

Q He's just trying to figure out who he's going to give to and what --

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I think you can expect he will make a significant contribution, himself.

Q Scott, on the USA Freedom Corps support for Presidents Clinton and Bush, how much resources are being devoted to this? Are we talking about one person, 10 people?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the USA Freedom Corps staff is not a large staff, but they will do whatever is needed to support these efforts from a logistical and staffing standpoint, and help to coordinate any travel that these two leaders do.

Q -- but if all the money that is collected is not spent on this disaster, are there going to be any sort of preparations made to give the money to other disasters or other needs in this country or overseas?

MR. McCLELLAN: If all the money from --

Q -- this effort. There are a lot of --

MR. McCLELLAN: You're talking about from the government, or through these international organizations? I mean, I think you'd have to direct questions to the international organizations themselves. But the President talked about, in his announcement yesterday, how he wanted to make sure that this money was sent directly to reliable organizations who have a proven record on the ground in the region of helping people respond to disasters.

Q I want to make sure I understand your answer to Terry's question on Iraq . You said, the President fully supports the deadline set by the Iraq Independent Election Commission and the government. But since this is a sovereign election, if either the commission or the Allawi government comes back and says, we want to change to some other date, a month, two months, three months down the line, in order to get more Sunni participation, is the President going to support that, as well?

MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, we haven't heard that happen, and second of all, you're asking me to speculate about what-ifs, and I don't do that. The President made it very clear that he believes it's important to move forward on the timetable that was set out by the Iraqi Election Commission. He talked about that in his end-of-year press conference before the holidays.

And so we remain firmly -- we believe that they should move forward on the timetable that was set out by the Independent Iraqi Election Commission. It's important to move forward on elections, because that helps us move forward toward a free, democratic, and peaceful country for the Iraqi people. This is an important step in the process, it's not the end. And those who are opposed to democracy and freedom are desperately trying to stop this transition. We are seeing their tactics of killing innocent civilians. They have no regard for innocent civilians. And they have no regard for the rule of law. They want to return to the past. They recognize -- the terrorists and Saddam loyalists recognize how high the stakes are. We recognize how high the stakes are. Iraq recognizes how high the stakes. The international community recognizes how high the stakes are. And it's important we continue to do everything we can to support the Iraqi people in their desire for a free, democratic, and peaceful future.

Q So it's clear that he sees no benefit at all, even if you took the argument of those in Iraq who say you get Sunni participation, he sees no benefit in a delay --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are efforts underway to reach out to the Sunnis and to encourage even broader participation in that segment. And those efforts are continuing. And there are efforts to address some of the security situations in some of the areas where the violence is at a higher level than other areas.

Q Scott, you're saying the decision is the commission's to make?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Iraq Election Commission is the one that set the timetable. We said we support that. That is the decision that they made, and that is what the Iraqi -- or the interim Iraqi government is moving forward to meet. We fully support that. The President believes it is important to move forward on the timetable that was set out by the Election Commission, the timetables that were set out in the transitional administrative law.

Q There was a series of flag-grade Fofficers, over a dozen of them today, who issued a statement calling on the White House to release documents regarding the decisions that Mr. Gonzales has made in his role as legal counsel of the President, especially with regard to the detainees and to the period going into the Iraq war. Is the White House willing to release these documents to give the Senate the ability to judge Mr. Gonzales' attitude towards the law, toward a constitution, and towards --

MR. McCLELLAN: First of all, I saw a number of these individuals are people that supported the campaign of the President's opponent. So let's keep that in mind when we're talking about these individuals. Secondly, a number of the documents that I think you might be referring to have been made available publicly. In fact, Judge Gonzales participated in a briefing with Department of Defense officials to talk about some of those very documents I think you're referring to. And we've also responded to some inquiries from the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well. And Judge Gonzales looks forward to going before the committee later this week and participating in his hearing. And we hope Congress -- we hope the Senate will move forward quickly on his nomination. He is someone who has done an outstanding job for the President here as White House Counsel, and we know he will make a great Attorney General. And so we hope Congress will move forward quickly on that nomination.

Q Why aren't all the documents being released --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not sure what you're specifically referring to. We can talk about it more later. But as I said, a number of the documents that I think you're referring to have been released. And in terms of the policy by the President, the policy that the President set, which Judge Gonzales is responsible for making sure is followed, was very clear. We adhere to our laws and our treaty obligations. That's the policy of the United States government, and that's what we expect to be followed.

Q Scott, the President had said he was going to appoint this bipartisan tax panel , panel to look at tax reform, before the end of 2004. (Laughter.) I'm wondering what happened with that.

MR. McCLELLAN: Didn't it get announced before the end of 2004? We are moving forward on that panel. We are close to announcing the panel. I expect that will happen soon. I don't want to put more of a time frame on it than that, but we will be moving forward on announcing this bipartisan advisory panel very soon.

Tax reform is a high priority for the President. The tax code is outdated, it is a complicated mess, as you heard the President talk about throughout the last year. He wants to make it simpler, fairer, and also to make sure it is a code that encourages economic growth and job creation. And this advisory panel will play an important role by making recommendations to the Secretary of Treasury, who will then report back to the President. And we want to move forward on this priority as quickly as we can. But, obviously, they'll need some time to look at the tax code and make some recommendations.

Q What's the reason for the delay?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's just a matter of getting everything in place. We'll be announcing it very soon. I think you're talking about a matter of days that it's off from what our original target was.

Q Scott, has the President, or have the officials at the White House been telling top Republicans, as has been reported, that the President wants to change the basis upon which Social Security benefits are calculated?

MR. McCLELLAN: We've been telling members of Congress what the President has already said, that the Social Security system, as it is now, is unsustainable. It is in a crisis, we need to fix it. And he believes it's important for all of us to have a common understanding of the problem facing Social Security. He's made it very clear the principles upon which he is moving forward and that he wants to move forward with Congress.

But he also believes it's important to move forward in a bipartisan way. The President hasn't made any decisions about a specific proposal at this point, and I think that goes to your question. What the President has said is that this is a big priority, because this is a serious problem that we should not pass on to future generations. We need to work together in a bipartisan way to solve this problem now.

The reason why is because over time, it only gets worse. And younger workers right now are promised certain benefits that they will not see. It's an empty promise because they're facing either massive tax increases or massive benefit cuts. And the benefits going out in 2018, we will not be able to sustain that with the taxes coming in. So over the course of time, the system will become insolvent and it won't be there for younger workers.

Now, the President made it very clear that those at or near retirement will receive -- will have no changes in their Social Security system. But we want to strengthen it for younger workers and provide them with a new -- with a new benefit that would help them realize an even greater rate of return, similar to what the bipartisan Social Security Commission pointed out, with the Thrift Savings Plan and the benefits people have received from that.

Q -- a published report today that the President or his people have been telling top Republicans that this change in benefit calculations will be made as part of the President's proposal are flat wrong?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he hasn't made any decision, and the story pointed that out today -- on a specific proposal. Now, what we are talking to them about is ideas for how we can work together to get this problem solved. There are a number of ideas presented in the form of legislation, a number of ideas presented by members of Congress on how we can move forward on it. We're talking to them about all those ideas. The President made it very clear, here are my principles which will guide me: no changes at or near retirement; wants to make sure younger workers can invest, on a voluntary basis, if they so choose, a small portion of their retirement benefits in personal retirement accounts; and he said no increases in payroll taxes to fix this. And so those are the principles.

Now, we're talking with members of Congress about the ideas. He also pointed to the bipartisan Social Security Commission, led by the late Senator Moynihan, and said that that would be -- their work would be something that should be a guide for us, moving forward. They presented some ideas. We haven't endorsed any of those specific ideas, but we have said that they are consistent with our principles.

Q -- the principle that you just spoke of, at or near retirement, would seem to rule out the change in benefit calculations that applies right away. That's not, apparently, what was the subject of the report --

MR. McCLELLAN: You're talking about people at or near retirement. Let me talk about a couple of things for those at or near retirement, because the longer we wait to solve this problem, the more limited our options become. Right now we have a wider array of options available to us to solve this problem. And there are a number of ideas that have been presented, and there are a number of ideas that members of Congress have. We want to listen to those ideas, we want to talk to them about those ideas, and talk about how we can move forward in a bipartisan way to get this done this year, so that we don't come to a point where our options are very limited and that at or near retirement option might be much more limited.

It also depends on what you're talking about, in terms of personal retirement accounts, the funding level you're talking about there, what level you're allowing people to invest in personal retirement accounts. That can affect all those issues. And so there's a lot of issues you have to look at to --

Q -- the specific question was about changing the retirement initial payment calculations, and whether changing it for someone who retires tomorrow --

MR. McCLELLAN: No changes for those at or near retirement -- made that very clear. He's made that very clear.

Q But you can still change to a price indexing scheme for those who are not at or near retirement, no?

MR. McCLELLAN: I appreciate the ideas that you're putting forward. (Laughter.)

Q -- commission, itself, in one of its options recommends indexing benefits to price inflation, rather than wage inflation. And if you were to do that, that is not an increase in payroll taxes, nor is it -- nor is it a benefits cut, per se, because you would still allow benefits to increase, you just wouldn't have them increasing at the same rate.

MR. McCLELLAN: We'll take that into consideration, too.

Q But that's not -- I mean, you're --

MR. McCLELLAN: I know what you're asking --

Q -- has made a decision on a specific proposal, but you were talking about ideas. One of the ideas is this proposal --

MR. McCLELLAN: I said there are lot of ideas being discussed.

Q So he's open to that idea?

MR. McCLELLAN: There are a lot of ideas being discussed. We're not going to get into negotiating from this podium. As the President clearly outlined in his press conference at the end of the year, he said these are our principles, and then he said, I want to work with members of Congress who are committed to solving this problem and getting it done now. That's what we were elected to do, to come to Washington and solve problems, not pass them on to future generations; and to make sure we address them before they worsen.

Q This isn't asking you to negotiate. It's just asking you to clarify whether the ideas that are --

MR. McCLELLAN: I beg to differ with you.

Q Scott, as the President gets ready to revisit this tort reform issue, where -- on the malpractice section of that debate, where do insurance companies fall? There are a number of people who are watching this debate and say that the insurance companies, especially on malpractice, have been left out of the equation, that their higher malpractice insurance rates are not part of the debate being put forth by the administration.

MR. McCLELLAN: The President has made a priority of pushing for medical liability reform. We have a broken medical liability system. This is about addressing some of the high costs of health care in America and reducing those costs, and also improving the quality of care and making sure health care is available to as many people as possible. And the President looks forward to going to Illinois tomorrow where he will meet with some doctors, as well as at least one patient, a pregnant woman who has changed doctors a number of times because doctors are being forced out of business because of skyrocketing insurance premiums and because of the frivolous lawsuits that are being filed by trial lawyers. And so he's going to be talking about this problem tomorrow.

And the part of Illinois -- the region of Illinois that he's traveling to, the Collinsville area, is an area that has been particularly hard hit by lawsuits. In fact, it was the -- there's a recent report that ranked Madison County the single best place in the country for trial lawyers to sue. There are doctors that are having to leave that area because they can't afford to practice medicine and help patients -- help their patients. There are doctors who are being forced to scale back their services. He'll be talking to a neurosurgeon and be talking to an OB/GYN doctor about this issue.

Q But this is one of those issues --

MR. McCLELLAN: This is about -- this is about addressing a very real problem for the American people. Americans -- let me mention, let me mention -- Americans --

Q -- I'm asking about the insurance companies --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, this is about solving a problem for the American people. This isn't about any one particular segment. This is a real crisis, as well. It's a national problem that requires a national solution. Americans spend more per person on the cost of litigation than any other country in the world. And unlimited and unpredictable liability awards raise the cost of health care for all Americans through higher premiums for their health insurance. And so, as a result, as I was pointing out, good doctors close up shop and people can't get the care from the doctors that they want to go to and get it when they need it. And so when health care costs rise, fewer Americans can afford health insurance, and the ranks of the uninsured increase.

So medical liability reform is a key part of expanding health insurance coverage to more Americans, and it's also a key part of reducing the cost of health care. And the President tomorrow will be, once again, urging this Congress, which has just come back into town, to move forward and protect America's doctors and patients and hospitals from the staggering out-of-control costs we face from these frivolous lawsuits, or these junk lawsuits, by passing medical liability reform this year.

Q Would the President be open to investigating, having hearings on Capitol Hill or having a commission, whatever, look into why the insurance carriers are raising their malpractice rates?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think he's talked about why those insurance rates are going up. He'll talk about that in his remarks tomorrow. He laid out some very clear principles over the course of the last couple years for moving forward on medical liability reform and making -- and fixing this broken system. We want patients getting the care they need from the doctor who they want to go to. We don't want to have to see pregnant mothers having their OB/GYN doctor go out of business or move to another area because they can't afford to practice their medicine -- then they have to switch doctors, and then they have to switch doctors again. We want them to be able to get the care they need when they need it. And you've heard the President talk about this, and he'll continue to talk about this in his remarks tomorrow in Collinsville.

Q I have an immigration question. Experts say the President's proposal to give guest cards to people who are now illegal immigrants would have -- cause astronomical costs at the local and federal level in terms of new benefit plans. I'm wondering if the President has done any kind of a cost analysis in what he thinks the actual cost of his proposal would be.

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not aware. Again, that's something that we're working with Congress to address. The President in his press conference at the end of the year said it's something he's firmly committed to moving forward on as quickly as possible. And he stated the reasons why. I think you need to go back and look at what he said in his press conference. He stated very clearly the importance of moving forward on this temporary worker program, and the way it would address the current problem in this country and make it better.

Thank you.

END 1:24 P.M. EST