The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
September 20, 2005

Press Gaggle by Scott McClellan
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Gulfport, Mississippi

10:45 A.M. EDT

MR. McCLELLAN: Okay, let's get going. The President this morning spoke with President Roh. They discussed the agreement reached at the six-party talks. Both leaders agreed that verification and implementation of the agreement by North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and end its nuclear programs is critical. The two leaders also discussed bilateral issues and the President's planned trip to South Korea for the APEC summit in November. The President thanked President Roh for the generous donations of the South Korean people to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. And that was this morning.

Then the President had his usual intelligence briefing. He participated in his daily hurricane briefing. And when we land in Gulfport, the President will be participating in a meeting with local official and business leaders. This is really -- my understanding is this is the first meeting of the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal. This was established by Governor Barbour --the commission was -- to help develop a broad vision for rebuilding communities in South Mississippi, as well as making the region more prosperous. And the commission is looking at short-term solutions for restoring jobs and housing and schools and public infrastructure, while also setting the stage for the longer-term reconstruction that will be needed ahead. And so that will be pool coverage for the entire meeting. You all will be in there that whole time.

Then, following that, we'll be going to New Orleans. The President will participate in a briefing aboard the Iwo Jima on tropical storm Rita -- actually, let me correct that. The schedule had this from last night. It is now Hurricane Rita; it is a category one hurricane as of 9:00 a.m. this morning. The Department of Homeland Security-FEMA put out a release last night -- this is a storm that people need to take seriously. We urge people in the regions that could be impacted by the hurricane to follow the advice of local and state authorities. This is a hurricane that we continue to monitor. My understanding of the latest track has it eventually headed toward Texas, but it's something we continue to monitor as it moves forward.

FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security have pre-positioned ice and water and Meals Ready To Eat, and disaster relief teams in the region. I think the hurricane is expected to hit -- go by the Florida Keys area later this afternoon, late afternoon. Anyway, so he'll participate in the briefing on Hurricane Rita aboard the Iwo Jima. And we'll try to get you all in there for a little bit of that to see what he's being briefed on.

And then after that, we're going to be visiting a recovering business in New Orleans. This is a business -- and it's considered OTR for now, so we'll get you more once we get there. But this is a business that has taken steps to get employees back to work and get those employees temporary housing.

Then, following that, we'll be returning to D.C. And the President is the honorary chairman of the President's Cup, and he will be hosting dinner for the President's Cup teams that are in town for the President's Cup this weekend. The captains, as you are aware, are Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

One other thing just on the trip today, the purpose really of the trip today is for the President to highlight some of the progress that is being made on the recovery as we also work to address some of the continuing challenges that are there. There is a lot of work still ahead, but we're seeing signs of life and activity returning to the region. And I think you'll hear more about that in this first meeting in Mississippi, and see some more of that at the business in New Orleans, as well.

We updated the schedule last night. On Friday and Saturday the President will be traveling to cities and states that have taken in large numbers of people that had to be evacuated because of Hurricane Katrina, and the trip will be an opportunity for the President to personally thank those cities and states for taking in our fellow citizens during this difficult time.

I think that's all I have to begin with.

Q Did the President issue any emergency declarations for Rita? In advance?

MR. McCLELLAN: The Governor of Florida has issued an emergency declaration already. Let me double-check to see if there's any update in terms of status of any requests that have been made.

Q Can you give us any more information about the business that he's visiting? The recovering business in New Orleans?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll get it to you later. It's an OTR event for now.

Q On North Korea, North Korea says it will keep its nuclear weapons until Washington provides civilian atomic reactors. What's the reaction to that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the parties are operating off the agreement that was signed by all, and that agreement spelled out the steps that need to be taken and the sequencing that is in place. You all are very familiar with that agreement. Now, if North Korea needs some time to reflect on that agreement, we'll give it to them. But all the parties are operating off the agreement that was signed by North Korea and all the others.

Q -- think they need some time to reflect because the sequencing -- you think they got the sequencing wrong with their statements?


Q Do you feel like they got --

MR. McCLELLAN: The agreement spells out the sequencing, and it states what -- North Korea first has to abandon its nuclear weapons and eliminate its nuclear programs in a verifiable way. It has to come into compliance with the nonproliferation treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency. And once they take those steps, then we would be prepared to talk further at that time. But it was an agreement that all parties signed on to, including North Korea.

Q How much time would you give them to reflect on the agreement?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think you heard us say yesterday that I think all parties want North Korea to move ahead promptly to verifiably eliminate its nuclear weapons and programs. And this was signed just yesterday; that's why I was just saying, I think the State Department indicated as well yesterday, if they need some more time to reflect on it, the agreement, we'll give it to them, but everybody is operating off the agreement that was signed.

Q AP has a poll coming out this afternoon showing that, even since the President spoke to the nation last week that nearly six in ten Americans still disapprove of the job that he's doing. Is he concerned that he's not convincing Americans that he has a plan for Katrina recovery?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President is acting on the priorities that are most important to the American people, like meeting the needs of the people affected by Katrina, prevailing in the war on terrorism, and addressing high gas prices. Those are all priorities that the American people are concerned about. They are concerns they share with the President, and that's where our focus is.

Q Is Social Security no longer one of the priorities at all?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's an important priority, particularly when we're talking about addressing issues in terms of longer-term cost. It's a program that every year you wait to fix costs and additional $600 billion. We know it's headed on a course toward bankruptcy and it needs to be fixed, and the sooner we do it, the better and the less expensive.

Q -- about Senator McCain's call to drop the prescription drug benefit as a way to pay for Katrina?

MR. McCLELLAN: I talked about that yesterday, and seniors have waited long enough for prescription drugs, particularly low-income seniors. There are a number of low-income seniors in the region that were affected by Katrina. And it's important that we continue to move forward to provide seniors with the prescription drug benefit and other benefits provided under the Medicare reforms that were passed. And that's what we're doing.

Q Is the President confident that the federal government is reaching all the people who need hurricane relief help? We had a story in the paper yesterday talking about places in Mississippi where people are still complaining about the lack of a federal presence.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, and in fact, in the hurricane briefing he participated in, actually the Homeland Security Council meeting he participated in yesterday, he received an update on the number of people that have been registered by FEMA so that they can get assistance, and also an update on the number of people that have actually received assistance. I think they can give you the specifics of the latest numbers, I didn't bring them with me. But certainly, this is -- there are some people out here that are frustrated and in need of assistance, and we've got to continue working to get them assistance as quickly as we can. And I think that's what everybody is working to do.

But you ought to check with FEMA, because a large number of people have already been provided with the short-term assistance that they need, including the cash -- the immediate cash assistance, so that they can get back up on their feet. But this is a priority that has been at the top of our list, and Secretary -- that's why Secretary Leavitt has been moving forward with his working group to make sure that we're getting people the government benefits that they depend upon. And this was an unprecedented storm that hit and I can understand why some people who maybe have not gotten the assistance they need are frustrated and there is some level of patience that obviously is going to be required during this time, but we are urging everyone to move forward as quickly as they can to get people the help they need.

Q Is there any consideration of declaring Rita an incident of national significance and triggering the national response plan? Is that something that is being discussed?

MR. McCLELLAN: Like I said, Hurricane Rita is something we continue to monitor, and if there are any updates, we'll -- the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA would certainly keep you apprised of that. Right now it's a category one. As it crosses further into the Gulf, I think everybody expects it to strengthen, and so we'll continue to monitor and continue to act.

As you're aware, with Hurricane Katrina, we issued emergency declarations ahead of time, given the nature of the storm and the seriousness of the storm.

Q You didn't declare it an incident of national significance until the following Tuesday, right?

MR. McCLELLAN: The emergency declaration actually triggers a lot of the coordinated federal response, and there were a lot of assets that were being pre-positioned, both disaster -- well, disaster assistance teams, or disaster relief teams, to food and supplies, in the region. And so the federal government was already acting ahead of the storm and taking steps to prepare for it, and mobilizing resources. And I think that the Department of Homeland Security would tell you that formalizing that with the incident of national significance, they were just formalizing what was already underway.

Q Is the President frustrated at all with New Orleans Mayor Nagin and his move not until late yesterday to order a reevacuation of the city?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think so. We stayed -- Andy Card stayed in close contact with Mayor Nagin. The President and the Mayor have a good working relationship. The President has visited with him on a number of occasions, both on the phone and during his visits to the region, and we're all working toward the same shared goal, as the President talked about yesterday. And these are issues that we'll continue to discuss with the Mayor. The Mayor is in charge of the city of New Orleans and the one who ultimately makes decisions, but we're all working together to move ahead on a shared goal. But there are concerns that I think everybody recognizes that have to be taken into account. And that's why the Mayor talked about the concern with Rita coming into the region and the weakened state of the levees, and made the statement that he did yesterday.

Q Is Chertoff aboard?


Q Is he down there?

MR. McCLELLAN: I don't think so. I'll double-check that, but I didn't look at the full list.

Q So who else is on with you? Nicolle is on, and --

MR. McCLELLAN: Al Hubbard, Mark Knoller, Josh Deckard, Peggy --

Q Who is meeting down in those places, both planning places? Who is meeting him, any dignitaries?

MR. McCLELLAN: I expect the Governor and Mayor to be in Louisiana, and then Governor Barbour will be at this first one in, and other local officials. I'll keep you posted on those names.

Okay. Thanks.

* * * * *

MR. McCLELLAN: I just wanted to add to some of what I said in terms of Jeff's -- in response to Jeff's question about some talking about Medicare being an area to look at, or the prescription drug benefit being an area to look at in terms of savings. I want to go back to some of what I talked about yesterday, too. The President has made it very clear that we're going to meet the needs of the people in the region. It's an obligation that the federal government has on behalf of the American people to help with the short-term needs, as well as the longer-term reconstruction and rebuilding.

It's important that we have accountability in place for the taxpayer dollars that are being spent. The President made it very clear that taxpayer dollars need to be spent wisely. That's why you need to work with the state and local authorities to make sure there's a well-thought-out plan. That's what we're doing. And the President also has talked about the importance of finding spending cuts elsewhere in the budget. There are tough choices that are going to have to be made. We're going to have to cut unnecessary spending elsewhere in the budget to offset some of the cost with Katrina. And that's what we are committed to doing. That's what we are working with Congress to address. And people are expressing a lot of ideas. We believe that a good place to start is some of the savings that we have already proposed in our budget. There's billions of dollars that we have proposed in savings; we believe that's a good starting point. We also want to work with Congress to look at other unnecessary spending that can be cut to help offset some of the cost that will be needed for Katrina.

Q Is the President thinking of anywhere near $200 billion just through spending cuts?

MR. McCLELLAN: I think that's all speculative at this point. We worked with Congress to approve nearly $63 billion right now for some of the shorter-term needs; we've made it clear that we'll be coming back with an additional supplemental request to address some of the longer-term needs. At this point, I think it's premature to try to get into -- to speculate about what the longer-term cost will be. You have to assess what all those needs are going to be. There's certainly -- the infrastructure is going to be significant in terms of cost, repairing the infrastructure will be significant in terms of cost. But that's something that continues to be assessed at this point. And we will come back once we've had a better idea of what those longer-term needs are -- we will come back to Congress to ask for additional funding.

Okay, that's all. Thank you.

END 11:00 A.M. EDT

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